Education and trust building. Remarks from a Sri Lankan experience


Rüdiger Blumör, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Sri Lanka

„During the war“, I was told in the east of Sri Lanka, „we used to open our mouth only to eat”. In wartime trust becomes a question of life and death. Mistrust is a good advisor for survival, instead.

If we view the war in Sri Lanka as something that stretched from 1983 to 2009 we will face an account of insurgency and counterinsurgency, interrupted by successions of more or less unsuccessful attempts to broker a political solution. Education has a position of high esteem in Sri Lanka because it is seen as the instrument for social advancement per se. As part of insurgency and counterinsurgency strategies education played a crucial role to “win hearts and minds”. What was at stake in many areas was not so much an absence of state institutions, but an excess of such structures because the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was keen to exhibit its own state-like capacities to the people. In consequence the state and the LTTE competed in winning hearts and minds and building trust.

If we reverse the chronology of events and move some years back to the 1970s we identify a story of political aspirations of educated but un- or under-employed youth. The war was preceded by violent conflicts between the government and radical youth in the North similar to the insurrection and repression in the south in 1971 and again in 1987. The demographic and political similarities between the youth rebellions in the north and south are striking. The success of many rural youth in a highly competitive and academic oriented school system did not lead to an expected social advancement. Thus, disappointed young men (and some women) accused the government in public of having reneged on its promise to provide opportunities for a decent live. The uprisings express a huge mistrust which frustrated and angry youth show to the political establishment.

If we start the story of conflict even earlier we come close to its root causes. In 1956, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party won a landslide election victory on a popular platform dominated by the demand to make Sinhala the national language. Tamil complaints were successfully opposed. Tamils became the main victims of the language policy facing discrimination in the education system, in the public service and in the job market.

Meanwhile, the language policy has been changed, establishing English, Sinhala and Tamil as media of instruction in schools. However, the Ministry of Education does not have the capacity to make Sri Lanka a trilingual country. Qualified teachers and instructional materials are not available as needed. Most schools (94 per cent) remain segregated by language or religion. These schools perpetuate the socialization of group identities with rigid group boundaries. Therefore, individual competition for schools and universities with high reputation is charged with ethnicity and religion.

In addition, the Ministry of Education intends to convert nine schools in each province (or less than 1 per cent of all public schools countrywide) into “ethnically mixed schools”, which will offer English, Sinhala and Tamil as medium of instruction. Despite possible positive amplifier and diffusion effects which may generate sparks of hope for inter-ethnic trust building, I remain unconvinced that such integrated schools will address social and ethnic inequalities. It will be an exclusionary diversity for the selected few. What will happen to the less fortunate schools and students?

Furthermore, peace education is actively promoted, which is mainly perceived as personal development of students and inter-group contacts. Indeed, student exchange programs have the potential for building trust. However, in recent student encounters there is a constant emphasis on learning about differences and about the others which may actually tighten stereotypes. The language is often about “their dances”, “their food”, “their prayers” instead of finding bonds and bridges.

But not only public schools persist to be a vehicle for introversive trust building. The rise of religious violence after the end of the “hot” war affirms that education beyond state control plays a crucial role as well.

The (violent) tensions over divergent interpretations of Islam between returned migrant workers from the Arab Peninsula and settled Muslims in the east of the country are a case in point. The history of violence between Tamil separatists and the government had bred an acute awareness of group identity, group boundaries and concomitant concerns with internal purity. Trust building became necessary in the formation of a new Islamic movement in the east. Madrassas established by migrants taught a so far unknown vigorous adherence to Quran and hadith and the rejection of Sufi practices. It did not prevent religious violence.

Another example are Sinhala mobs led by extremist Buddhist monks that have attacked churches, mosques, Muslim business and even dissenting members of the Buddhist clergy. Most of these monks were educated in Buddhist religious schools (“piriven”) which were under control of militant Buddhist organisations inspired by the triumphalism of the Rajapakse government after 2009.

Despite these remarks, I like to close with a slightly optimistic outlook. After a student had performed in a theater program together with participants from different ethnic and religious schools she told me: “For the past days I had almost forgotten about my family and my village. I had wonderful days playing and living together with new friends.” This quote fits nicely with a suggestion by Lynn Davies: “leave borders where they are but make them less important”.