Peace And Reconciliation

Ethnic tensions on the rise

Sri Lanka has a population of 22 million. Of this, 75% are Sinhalese (mainly Buddhist but also Christian) 11% are Sri Lankan Tamils (majority Hindu, but also Christian) 9.5% are Muslim and 4.5% are Indian Tamils (mainly Hindu).

Ethnic tensions and violence are well documented and have grown, particularly in recent years. Disenfranchisement among minority Hindu Tamil groups led to a civil war in the 1980s, which dragged on for three decades, finally ending in 2009. The past decade saw an acceleration in Buddhist nationalism, resulting in violent incidents particularly against the Muslim community and in 2019, home-grown terrorists affiliated to ISIS, detonated eight bombs targeting Christians in churches and tourists in luxury hotels.

The seeds for the ethnic and religious divisions are experienced early on in Sri Lankan life. The most obvious example of this is through the schooling system. The language medium used in schools differ across the island; so, government schools either teach in Sinhala or Tamil. This means that the majority of Sri Lankans can’t communicate with each other outside of their ethnic group. As a result, 70% of Sri Lankan young people don’t have friends outside their ethnic and/or religious circle.

People living in poverty are vulnerable to radicalisation by religious and nationalist groups and so a lack of economic stability coupled with the lack of understanding of different groups can lead to extremism and violence.

What we hadn’t anticipated was that this would changes our lives.

Ethnic cohesion – a key objective of Tea Leaf Trust

One of Tea Leaf Trust’s aims and objectives is to promote ethnic cohesion. Although our centre programmes have a majority of young people from the tea estates, there are many poor young people from Sinhalese and Muslim families in the areas we work in, who we’ve actively encouraged to enrol on our diploma programmes. For many, our centres have been the first opportunity to communicate and make friends with people from different ethnic groups. By bringing together different ethnic groups together for a common purpose of vocational education, we have enabled understanding, collaboration and friendships to flourish.

In August 2018, we extended our focus of ethnic cohesion by signing a partnership agreement with a national peacebuilding and reconciliation NGO called Sri Lanka Unites. Sri Lanka Unites aims to promote ethnic cohesion and provide a counter-narrative to extremism in two main ways:

Through conferences, training and ‘peace tours’ to bring together young people from 500 schools from every single community, ethnicity and religion
Through educational programmes for young people in disadvantaged, remote areas where young people are living without hope and therefore vulnerable to radicalisation by religious or nationalist groups

It is this second of these approaches that Tea Leaf Trust is supporting, using our educational programmes and graduates to teach much needed skills and provide professional development to young people in some of the country’s most vulnerable areas.

The young people on and off of the tea estates of Sri Lanka are saying enough is enough. They want a different life and a different future for themselves and their families. Through our partnership with Sri Lanka Unites and our programmes, we are helping to equip the most vulnerable groups in Sri Lanka with the skills and resources they need to lead their country in rejecting fear and hatred and embracing hope and peace.

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