Photo courtesy Consultation Task Force

Thank you very for hosting us this evening at this consultation on reconciliation mechanisms.  Meaningfully consulting young people is imperative to ensure the legitimacy of any transitional justice process adopted. Therefore, we are extremely pleased that you recognized youth and youth-led organizations as a demographic that should be covered though your sectoral consultations.

Hashtag Generation is a movement of young Sri Lankans from different backgrounds who have come together to volunteer their time to steer projects that promote and advocate for the meaningful civic and political engagement of young women and men.  While this may be understood, allow us make it clear that the following is a submission that was drafted in consultation of the members of Hashtag Generation and it does reflect the views of various other organizations our members are employed at or are a part of.

Youth played a key role in the conflict that unfolded in Sri Lanka. While, age disaggregated data is not available, we are all aware that a substantial number of those who fought in both sides of the battle lines- that is, a large portion of the soldiers from the government forces and well as the LTTE happened to be young people. However, as often happens in the aftermath of conflicts, we saw older people assuming key decision making roles in ‘post conflict’ Sri Lanka and young people being pushed to the sidelines. Often young people were engaged only as a show of tokenism- to wear stereotypical national consumes and pose for photographs that supposedly exhibit national unity or to give the betel leaves or hang garlands around necks of older decision-makers.

This paternalistic and attitude towards young people is nothing new in Sri Lanka. Even policies and institutions that are in place perpetuate this kind of thinking. This is partly because a lot of the policies that are in place as well as institutions such as the National Youth Services Council are ones that were developed following the youth insurrections in the 1970s and ’80s that tried to topple the existing system of government. As such, young people are often seen as angry, radical and too idealistic and as a group that should be pacified by giving carrots. Phrases being used to describe young people such as ‘tharuna asahanaya’ which loosely translates into English as ‘the restlessness of youth’ mirror this kind of thinking.

While we commend you for your decision to consult young people, we cannot stress enough that young women and men should also be represented at all levels of decision-making in transitional justice processes including design, implementation as well as monitoring and evaluation. Young people often bring fresh perspectives which could deepen our understanding of the causes and the potential solutions to a problem. Youth will only feel a sense of ownership to a process in which their needs were meaningfully represented and only such a process is likely to achieve a just and lasting peace.

The United Nations Security Council’s historic resolution on youth, peace and security on the role of young men and women in peacebuilding and acknowledged the urgent need to engage young people in promoting peace and countering extremism. It echoes that it’s important that young people are engaged in not just informal channels but through formal, institutionalized processes as well.

While it’s important to ensure that young people active in civil society and other peace-building efforts are represented in these processes, it is even more important to ensure that those young people who were most marginalized by the conflict such as young refugees and internally displaced persons, former child soldiers and young single mothers who have become the heads of their households represented in these processes. To this end, it is imperative to create safe, supportive and inclusive environments in which young people will feel comfortable sharing their stories and opinions.

We call ourselves the Hashtag Generation because we understood that young people are increasingly using technology and social media and this is not only changing our personal and social landscapes but also transforming our civic and political spaces in more ways than one. For instance, while we exercise our freedom of expression offline, we also exercise it online. While we exercise our freedom of assembly at the Galle Face Green or the Lipton Circus we also exercise it on Whatsapp or Facebook groups. With now over 25.8% of the Sri Lankan population having access to the internet, it is more important than ever to examine the impacts of these developments. Of course, this also means that 74.2 percent of Sri Lankans do not have access to the internet. However, it is important to note that 25.8% is a substantial demographic of the population- a much bigger population that one could cover from any consultation.

Social media is a great tool for two way communication; to consult key populations for example.  During the May 2018 Presidential Elections politicians often spoke about how social media played a key role in the ‘revolution’. However since then, not much has been done to understand how social media could be an important tool to obtain citizen input.  On this note, we would like to emphasize the importance of well resourced and reasonably staffed communications departments for each of the institutions that have been proposed for the transitional justice project.

Last month, Hashtag Generation held two communications trainings in Sinhala and Tamil for two groups of women aspiring to run for public office from parties across the political divide. The Sinhala language training was in Colombo and the Tamil language training was held in Jaffna. All women who attended the two trainings were leaders in their communities and were already holding various positions of leadership. Meeting these two groups within the time span of two weeks showed us the stark polarity that exists between the communities in terms of the narratives they held on the conflict, inequality and transitional justice.

It’s important to recognize that Sri Lankans in the North and the South have largely been fed different narratives through their preceding generations, systems of education, the media, politicians and so on. As such, when they’re now exposed to a different narrative to what they’ve heard all their life, there’s a natural sense of resistance to accept it. This is only exacerbated by various conspiracy theories and hate propagated by racist politicians who thrive on our differences.

While the higher levels of the political establishment appears to hold relatively progressive views on reconciliation and accountability it’s questionable if these views have trickled down to their electorate.  Much of the public remains to be in the dark about these developments and there is also a lot of misinformation that is being spread. This is why a good communications strategy is extremely imperative to get the buy in from the general public. The previous government understood the need for strategic communications extremely well. It was their well crafted campaigns that mobilized the support that was required for the war project among the masses.

The recent clash at the University of Jaffna and the uninformed reactions that followed, have showed the need to ensure that universities and educational institutions are inclusive, multicultural and multi-religious spaces.  Sri Lankan universities, especially those faculties that teach liberal arts disciplines should rise as institutions that conduct research and foster an intellectual space where students are encouraged to not accept certain realities such as majoritarianism, patriarchy and heteronormativity at face value but to question all forms of injustice and inequality. Furthermore, peace studies and conflict resolution should be formally integrated to curricula from school, if not kindergarten levels. Carefully reexamining the ‘version’ of history told through our textbooks is also extremely imperative.

While policies and institutions can help address injustices and structural inequalities; art and sport have proven time and again that they have the power to bring people together. The gift of modern technology could also be used for storytelling which could help people see ‘the other’ not as an abstract concept, but as people, like themselves and their loved ones — while it’s easy to hate the idea of a person, once you know circumstances that led that individual to act in the ways they did, it’s harder to judge or hate any longer.

We thank you for giving us this opportunity. As young people we are looking forward to seeing how we can continue to stay engaged in this important process the outcome of which will hopefully outline the inalienable truth that Sri Lanka belongs to all those who lives in it.