The surge of sudden and brutal attacks on unarmed civilians by violent extremist outfits in many parts of the world has made violent extremism (VE) a grave global concern today. In Sri Lanka, however, violent extremism, manifested in its many forms, constituted a recurring theme since the 1970s. Even ten years after the end of the armed conflict, certain factors and conditions that germinated VE in Sri Lanka remain more or less unattended. In this backdrop, the study on ‘The Potential Role of Young Leaders and Volunteers in Preventing Violent Extremism in Sri Lanka’ intends to present an evidence-based analysis and recommendations which encourage youth-centric policy discourse and enable youth participation in decision making processes in preventing of violent extremism (PVE). The carefully coordinated and meticulously planned Easter Sunday carnage on 21 April 2019 by a little-known Islamic extremist group that shattered a decade-long fragile peace in Sri Lanka brought home to Colombo, more than ever, the need for a national plan in preventing all forms of violent extremism and mobilize all the stakeholders to meet this challenge with strategic vision.
Purpose and Intended Use
The purpose of this research study is to inform stakeholders and Government counterparts on actionable processes to engage young leaders in PVE as well as supporting youth-led initiatives on its prevention. The youth formed almost one fourth of the population (youth bulge), which gives a window of opportunity for Sri Lanka to reap the benefits of both a demographic and a peace dividend. Furthermore, volunteerism has proven to be a meaningful avenue for young people to engage as peace builders. Volunteerism may therefore present an opportunity for Sri Lanka to positively transform the image of youth portrayed as violent actors into committed and active citizens for peace in their communities. The survey report will offer inputs in the formulation of ‘National Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism’ and help shifting of the present discourse from countering terrorism to preventing violent extremism.
The study adopted a three-layered data collection approach as the overall methodology. The first-layer comprised of collecting secondary data, while the second-layer was focused on the collection of primary data from qualitative methods pertaining to the Northern, Eastern, Southern and Central Provinces. At the third-layer, data was collected through a quantitative approach comprising of an extensive field survey of 2,800 youth (15-29 years) encompassing the aforementioned four Provinces in the country.
Limitations & Challenges
A couple of limitations were experienced in the research process. Firstly, too many aspects were needed to be covered in the study within six months’ time. Secondly, the study was expected to collect responses relating to complex and contested terms such as hierarchical order, VE, PVE etc., within a limited time of interview with the respondents. Thirdly, when youth interviewed in the field survey, particularly 15-19 years old, in some instances, their parents intervened and answered some of the sensitive questions on behalf of their children. Finally, the unexpected turn of political turmoil, following the unconstitutional removal of the Prime Minister of the country, affected the field survey, since the field visits were conducted during that time.
The majority of youth identifies themselves only as Sri Lankan or human beings without other divisions. However, they still consider the ethnic factor as important. Attitudes/feelings of nearly half of the youth towards other ethnic groups are friendly. Still, there is a long way to go in building inter-ethnic relations among youth and in dispelling an ‘enemy image’ towards other ethnic groups in the post-war context.
The majority of the youth views violent extremism as the main factor that threatens political and socio-economic stability in post-war Sri Lanka. They have a fairly good understanding of what is meant by violent extremism. Ideology plays a critical role in propelling youth towards violent extremism. To youth revolutionary political ideology is not as attractive as in the past. A quarter of the respondent were of the belief that attraction to ideologies of violent extremism are slowly increasing amongst their peers. Exclusive ethnic nationalism and faith-based extremism are potent and should receive careful attention. But, the political and social discourse of the country is still conditioned by the phenomenon of ‘countering terrorism’. In the context of growing disillusionment and frustration among youth in the post-war period, there is the possibility of a reemergence of violent extremism in Sri Lanka. Youth radicalism, if not addressed prudently at the correct time, would become a precursor to violent extremism.
From the perspective of youth, the level of discrimination in Sri Lanka also seems to be considerable with large disparity reported between the experiences of Sinhalese (29%) and other minority groups (42-52%. Places where these discriminations are perceived to be happening are the education and work environments. Lack of economic and employment opportunities, corruption and misuse of power, drugs and alcohol and absence of the rule of law are main issues affecting the youth in the post-war context. They want to ensure equal access to opportunities for all and equitable distribution of resources. In their view, the three main push factors that could drive youth towards VE are (i) undemocratic governance, (ii) injustice and rejection of diversity in society and (iii) political exclusion.
The youth want a role in the political, economic and social spheres. Their yearning for recognition is deep. However, there is a widening gap between youth capabilities and opportunities. Youth representation in national, provincial and local level governing structures remains miserably low despite many calls to rectify the situation. Considerable trust deficit exists between the youth and the established political, administrative and societal leadership. In general, civil society organizations (CSO) are also not successful in winning the trust of the youth.
There is a marked vacuum of role models for the youth. Absence or inadequacy of traditional social mediators, role models and charismatic faith leaders who could earn the trust and respect of youth is well noted. The positive and negative impact of the role of media, both traditional and social, in an era of information on PVE is vital. Media should be viewed as an opportunity to utilize skills of the youth and to mobilize their energies toward PVE.
The socio-economic context underlying traditional forms of volunteerism in Sri Lanka has now changed with the advent of modern society. However, some of the threads and strands of volunteerism ingrained in Sri Lankan culture still continue. The present youth perspective of volunteerism is different from that of traditional self-help models. They view volunteerism as an opportunity for their own personality advancement and skill development. The lack of interests in volunteerism is not because youth do not like it but because their changed life style and competitive examination system make no room for it. NGOs are viewed by the youth as another source of employment, as they have failed to win over the trust and confidence as seats of volunteering.
In established youth organizations male participation is higher than female participation. Evidence shows that female participation in regular activities are improving. However, the male domination is especially evident among office bearers. The gender imbalance in the leadership of Student Unions in the University system is a good example.
One of the main constrains to promoting the true spirit of volunteerism is politicization of youth organizations and youth programs. They join youth programs and participate in youth volunteer activities to build political capital. However, the true spirit of volunteerism prevails in non-politicized areas, such as relief work in disaster situations and sport and cultural spheres.
Volunteerism has a crucial role to play in mobilizing the youth in PVE. In order to do that, a national strategic plan which identifies areas where youth volunteerism is utilized in PVE is essential. Volunteerism could give the youth the recognition they crave and increase their self-esteem. By coordinating and mobilizing the youth volunteers scattered all over the island with a well-planned national plan, a youth bulwark against VE can be formed.
View the Youth from a positive perspective and concentrate on positive aspects of youth dynamism and build on these qualities. Change attitudes of the older generation with regards to the youth and youth radicalism, which must be reflected in appropriate changes in the policy-making process and in governance by taking youth-sensitive approaches.
Recognize the equality of all ethnic identities in order to achieve the overarching Sri Lankan identity. Translate this policy line into concrete actions in ethnic affairs policy and administrative reforms. At present, there are many agencies and institutions that deal with different elements of national reconciliation, that function without coordination with each other. Improve coordination amongst the agencies and institutions. Initiate an island-wide national discourse with the objective of adopting a ‘Post-war National Reconciliation Charter’, similar to the ‘Freedom Charter of South Africa’ in 1995. Enshrine equality and partnership of all ethnic identities in the Charter while providing a roadmap for reconciliation and national integration with tangible results.
Offer a forum for youth to exchange views freely by getting together civil society organizations on both sides of the ethnic divide, as dialogue is the best way to dispel misunderstanding and mistrust. Join hands with the central and provincial governments/state institutions, civil society, NGOs and INGOs, as well as the private sector, to initiate and increase cross-ethnic programs that are multi-sectorial. Launch a national social media campaign to illustrate the positive examples and benefits of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural youth leadership and activities that are currently carried out at the community level.
Establish a ‘National Cultural Museum’ to highlight and promote multi-ethnic and multi-cultural heritage of Sri Lanka, by drawing lessons from the ‘Kigali Genocide Museum’ which played a positive role in changing the divisive mindset of the people of post-genocide Rwanda.
Bring a comprehensive political and economic reform agenda to the forefront of political discourse to promote democracy and good governance in order to deflate the push and pull factors of VE. Ensure political space for the youth by widening democratic political space and calibrating democratic political processes, which will in turn adequately address the challenge of revolutionary political ideology linked to VE.
Mobilize faith leaders against faith-based violent extremism and initiate a discourse with them. Drawing appropriate lessons from ‘the Circle of Courage’ in post-Apartheid South Africa, encourage faith leaders to set up ‘safe spaces’ for the youth to discuss ‘difficult’ issues with identified stakeholders.
Recognize the importance of the role that formal and informal education can play in promoting or dispelling ethnic bias and stereotype images of other ethnicities. Give priority to relevant education reforms and school curriculum development in the post-war context. Promote English as a link language to foster inclusion across ethnicities. Use social media to dissuade youth from violent extremism. Encourage youth leadership through internships and work placements in the media sector to counter some of the negative aspects of misinformation dissemination that can lead to VE.
Unpack systematically different pathways from youth radicalism to violent extremism by initiating a discourse with political, administrative and business leaders, media, civil society organizations and faith leaders along with youth leaders and their opinion-makers. De-politicize youth programs conducted by the state institutions. Promote gendered approach in all youth programs. Widen avenues for the marginalized youths to come to the center and shoulder responsibilities.
Initiate necessary steps to establish an independent Office of Youth Ombudsman with necessary powers to deal with complaints relating to discrimination in delivery of services.
Introduce a system of social auditing in all provincial level development projects and make the participation of youth leaders in the area mandatory in it. Utilize energy and enthusiasm of the youth to curb waste and check corruption.
Rediscover the traditions and ethos of volunteerism, ingrained in the Sri Lankan culture, and integrate them with modern structures and processes to promote volunteerism among the youth. While giving due attention to the interests of the youth, expand the scope of volunteerism to address national priorities.
Commence a dialogue with youth nation-wide to formulate a national action plan in preventing VE, with special attention to the youth. A culture of volunteerism should be fostered, especially amongst youth.