Our Perspective

What Divides Us? What Keeps Us Together?


What does being born Sri Lankan mean to you? That is a question that is so simple yet at the same time, very complex. Having grown up in a multi-cultural family and graduating from a school where children from all races and religions studied and played together, helped expose me to languages and cultures that would have been foreign to me if my circumstances were different. But it has not been the same story for others.

Lets Rewind History

Our civil war has often been described as an ethnic conflict based on the questions of identity and belonging, especially amongst youth. Although the war ended in 2009, the seeds which started the conflict still exist and are visible to see. In a 2013 survey carried out among youth, the Sri Lanka National Human Development Report (NHDR) 2014 on Youth and Development indicates that 36.2% of youth identify “Ethnicity” as the major dividing factor among Sri Lankan society. In addition to this, the NHDR mentions how the defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in 2009 saw a resurgence of Sinhalese nationalism and heightened sensitivities among minorities regarding their position in society.

We experienced this with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna insurrection in 1971, where the demands started out for the idealistic cause of social justice based on meritocracy. Yet, by the 1980s, mobilization of youth was geared toward patriotism and policy was driven by Sinhalese nationalism.

This occurred again when Tamil youth, experiencing discrimination due to Government language policy at that time, initially started out idealizing the cause of social justice, which included caste discrimination. Once the LTTE became influential in the Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka, Tamil nationalist ideology took precedence. The rest they say, is history.

Is Language Dividing Us?

Language has always been a contentious issue for Sri Lanka since independence and 8.3% of youth still regard it as a dividing factor (as per the National Youth Survey carried out in 2013) amongst people in society. The Sinhala Only Act of 1956 was meant to give the Sinhala language its due place, by minimizing the importance of English. The politicization of language and the resulting link to ethnic identity, gave the majority its due place, with discrimination to the minorities whose mother tongues were Tamil and English, as a consequence.

It also discriminated against many Sri Lankans on the socially integrated childhood that I was blessed to have because I went to a multi-cultural and multi-lingual school. You see, by passing The Sinhala Only Act, the majority of youth in this country were linguistically and culturally separated, starting from school right through to society.

This has been redressed to a great extent by The Official Languages Policy, which recognizes both Sinhala and Tamil as the national languages, whilst having English as the link language. Yet, even in 2016, the majority of Sri Lankan youth still identify themselves as mono-lingual.

What Do Young People Think?

Data from the National Youth Survey of 2013 shows that 79% of Sri Lankan Tamil respondents said their Sinhalese speaking skills are poor. 97% of Sinhalese respondents said their Tamil speaking skills are poor. 52% of Indian Tamils and 42% of Muslims said that their Sinhalese speaking skills were good.  In addition, according to the last school census in 2008, only 5% of schools offer mixed medium instruction.

What the data shows is that despite the Official Languages Policy and efforts to teach the national languages as well as English at the school level, Sri Lankan youth are still separated by language, culture and policy.

What does it mean to be Sri Lankan?

If the majority of us grow up in an environment where schools are mono cultural and mono lingual, at what point can multi-culturalism and social integration occur?

No matter what our ethnicity is and what faith we believe, we all want a country that espouses the pluralistic values of equality, freedom and most importantly, a sense of belonging. Among the National Youth Survey (2013) respondents, 68.5% stated that young people were more aware now about the right to be treated equally and without discrimination. As per the NHDR 2014, this is evidently a positive sign as it shows that youth see equality as key to social integration and it’s promotion.

Where do we start? By ensuring that all Sri Lankan’s as Government policy and civic initiative have the opportunity to experience cultural diversity. Also a simple thing that we can individually do is to make an effort to learn all three languages.

 After all, the one thing that divides us is also the very thing that can keep us together.

blog series Youth Peacebuilding Blog post Sri Lanka

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