For close on two years the National Peace Council brought together students from the Eastern, Jaffna, Ruhuna and Sabaragamuwa universities to study and discuss themes of national reconciliation. This past weekend a conference was organized on the theme of Plural Sri Lanka: Paths to Reconciliation, at which 30 research papers were presented, written mostly by undergraduate students and a few by faculty members. They provided testimony to the peace formation that takes place at the local level by civic actors who are engaged in pluralist and grounded actions even at a time when macro political actors may still be unprepared for the compromises necessary for reconciliation.
At the conference, Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, who was invited to deliver the closing address, answered questions from the floor on the concept of pluralism, including one country, one law. He stated that the purpose was not to eliminate personal laws but to ensure that rights were protected in a universal manner applicable to all citizens. He also added that the government was committed to a process of reconciliation and did not consider NGOs to be enemies but as organisations that had a wealth of experience in working with people and possessing wide networks of influence.
More than 160 undergraduates from the four universities obtained awareness and organised their own debate competitions and artistic events on themes that centered around the concept of pluralism in the context of national reconciliation. The training modules were prepared with a view to foster the exchange on issues of peacebuilding in societies that face religious and ethnic tension. Thematic areas covered in these sessions included Pluralism and Intercommunity relations, Drama, Debate, Research, and Videography.
Due to the restrictions imposed by the COVID situation, debating competitions of the Eastern, Jaffna and Ruhuna universities were conducted on virtual platforms with the participation of over 250 participants online. According to the students who were trained in debating and subsequently completed, most of them were new to the subject of pluralism as well as debating. Their keen interest in the subject was evident in the amount of effort they had invested in research on the subject as well as in improving their debating skills throughout the process.
The collection of 30 research papers on pluralism produced by university students was launched at this event. In his message of felicitation for the collection of research papers Nicolas Lamade, who heads the GIZ-Strengthening Reconciliation Processes (SRP) programme, complimented the students on the research they had done and said, “This is courageous work and a bold mindset to have. It is this kind of moral courage and open minded spirit of inquiry that a country seeks from its academic community.”
EU Charge d’Affaires, Thorsten Bargfrede, who spoke at the closing session of the conference said that the EU was formed as a peacebuilding project after Europe had experienced centuries of warfare and resolved that it should end for all time after the Second World War. He said the EU was committed to working closely with civil society and the government, to support greater understanding of each other within the country, and by understanding to build a future together. The initiative was supported by Strengthening Reconciliation Processes in Sri Lanka (SRP). SRP is jointly funded by the European Union and the German Federal Foreign Office and implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft Für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and the British Council, in partnership with the Government of Sri Lanka.