Photo courtesy of EWN

Today is World Youth Day

Over the past four months, the young people of Sri Lanka have proved to be more courageous and innovative than preceding generations. In the past, the youth have expressed their frustrations and anger with the established status quo through violent insurrections that resulted in the tragic loss of lives of the brightest and the best, both young and old.

But 2022 saw the birth of unprecedented peaceful and nonviolent protests led by young people who gave up their normal lives to push for a change in the corrupt and leadership who had taken the country to bankruptcy and lawlessness, persevering through sun and rain, physical attacks and vilification, determined to see justice done.

A recent survey by the Centre of Policy Alternatives showed that 84.3 percent of Sri Lankans believe that the aragalaya is led by civic minded youth with the aim of reforming the country to a better democracy.

Now the main protest site at Galle Face has been vacated and people have gone back to their homes and their former lives. Although the aragalaya succeeded in getting rid of an incompetent and corrupt president and the prime minister, the Rajapaksas are far from gone from Sri Lankan politics. The same old faces who supported them hold ministerial posts while the new president has no legitimacy to govern and has no mandate from the people. The battle of the aragalaya is far from over.

As the country fights through its worst ever economic crisis, what hope is there for its youth? Long queues at the passport office attest to the fact that many are leaving, causing yet another brain drain that the country can ill afford.

The youth of the aragalaya have expressed their determination to carry on the struggle until there is a clean sweep of the Augean stables, which will entail being in it for the long haul.

The Centenary Movement is an organisation that mentors and assists young people to meet their goals. It pledges to “Transform the grim and spiralling political, economic and social realities of our nation by identifying, mentoring, investing in, pioneering and platforming a new generation of young political leaders.”

Its founder, Prashan de Visser, speaks to Groundviews on the aspirations of the youth of the country and how they can make a lasting difference to the political culture.

Since you work closely with young people, what is their mood now?

During my recent month long trip across the 25 districts in the country, I felt a sense of fear about the future, a sense of hopelessness and frustration with those in power and the political establishment. The majority are saying that the only hope for them is to leave the country, which is a dangerous reality; gifted kids who could be transform the country are heading out. But at the same time, others feel that, as a generation, they were not given a chance and they still believe they could do something and they want the opportunity for that. They are no longer dependent on their parent’s generation to deliver knowing they failed once before, so they see they will have to be the solution; that’s the positive side.

The current crisis has demoralised many skilled young people who want to leave. What can be done to prevent this?

Some people who want to leave may not have the chance to leave. We need to reassure young people that they, as a generation, have a chance to put things right. Can you learn from the mistakes of the past? Can you bring innovative solutions to the problems that have haunted this country for decades be it the economy, education, healthcare and ethnic and religious unrest and respond to the incredible opportunity to stay and fight?

The aragalaya was propelled mainly by young people but now it is losing momentum. How can it be revitalised?

For generations before young people in the country embraced violence as a means to express themselves but this generation, when they were pushed to the corner, suffered through the economic crisis and Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy but they decided to be nonviolent and to respond through peaceful means; we have to celebrate them for that. They didn’t embrace violence, they did not try to destroy or take life; they were intelligent and engaging. We haven’t seen such struggles go on for more than 100 days before but it takes a toll on the stamina of people who engage in this and it’s not realistic. The politicians have managed to rally again and use the majority they have in parliament to go back to ignoring the demands of structural change and ignoring the demands for accountability and justice and are trying to buy more time for themselves, hoping that people will forget. Young people have to now play the long game. How do we ensure that people do not forget how badly our country has suffered, that justice has not been served and how those who committed these atrocities continue to live without any consequences to their actions? The youth need to make sure Sri Lanka’s span of memory is expanded when citizens go to the polls. Whether the current leaders try to drag on for two years doesn’t matter but we must make sure we protect parliament from all these corrupt individuals and teach them a lesson at the polls. The youth have to learn long term activism because if you want structural change, you need to change leadership and you need to bring in a new batch of people outside the establishment and hold them accountable with vigour. That is what young people need to do now.



What can the ordinary person do to ensure real change takes place?

As long we are a democracy we still have hope because we can go to the polls. But we have allowed politicians to manipulate us artfully and use black money to run fantastic campaigns to brainwash people into voting for the wrong people. They have used divide and rule, fear and racism and all sorts of tactics to hide their own incompetence, their corruption and criminal track record and make us believe they were our only option. We have to make sure we don’t fall for that again; more and more people are saying that now so that’s a good step. Citizens must make sure they don’t vote for personal gain such as a government job or to get their child into the school or even for alcohol or food. As long as you vote for corrupt reasons like that we will have corrupt leaders and you will be their slaves. You are a citizen too so you can persuade people not to make the same mistakes or to run for office yourself saying you want to be an alternative. All of us have to put our hands up and say we have failed as a nation. We tolerated them as long we were okay in our comfortable bubbles and our lives were not too bad. The economic downturn caused everyone to question this but we need to move beyond that to do what is good for our nation, for all our citizens and for our children’s future. Principles and values should drive us not just our discomfort due to an economic crisis. Hopefully we have been moved to change this and we would be all want to be part of the solution.