My experience at Sri Lanka Unites – Neluni Tillekeratne

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  1. What was your first experience at SLU? 

My first experience at Sri Lanka Unites was 8 years ago at the 2nd Annual Future Leaders’ Conference. The entire event re-defined what it means to be a Sri Lankan, catalyzing students to see the value of Sri Lankan diversity and the privilege to be Sri Lankan. The conference atmosphere brought out a depth in our human connections. We formed bonds based on mutual understanding and trust across ethnic, religious, linguistic and geographical lines.


  1. What made you to engage seriously at SLU?

The conference gave us a sense of a common identity and common goal for all ethnic and religious groups diverted students to look beyond the bounds of their own ethnic/religious groups and see how Sri Lanka could thrive if all groups worked together. This experience stuck with me since, and it’s been a joy to join the SLU team and give my time to ensure as many young people in Sri Lanka get this experience as well. SLU showed its students what a paradise Sri Lanka could be if we reconciled and worked towards the larger goal of re-building the country after the conflict.

After my first conference as a student, I attended the second conference as a mentor to a younger batch of students. After 5 days of mentoring a group of 20 diverse young students, I along with my co-mentors were able to transform a group of strangers to be inseparable! My co-mentors and I followed up on the students even after the conference to monitor if they ever relapsed into racism, but they never did. 

After this conference I was invited to the first dream team of Sri Lanka Unites. I travelled to schools right across the country with a team of young people my age, except we were from different districts, spoke different languages and were from contrasting walks of life. By the end of the school relations tour, I was convinced of the tangible change that could be brought about by liberating ourselves out of the confines of our ethnic and even socio-economic identities and embracing a larger and most certainly, greater sense of Sri Lankan identity.


  1. State an inspirational moment that proved change is possible

I was a witness to multiple student testimonies that convinced me that change is possible. A Sinhalese student from the deep South of Sri Lanka wanted to be a politician for his people (who he defined his people as Sinhalese Buddhists). But after SLU, he redefined who he called his people to include those of all ethnic and religious groups. As I pondered on this statement, the magnitude of its implications was an inspirational moment to me. 


  1. What is the biggest challenge for reconciliation process in Sri Lanka as seen by a youth-peace activist?


The biggest challenge I see is the manner in which we are get the common man into the conversations around the topic, especially on elements of justice. 

Conversations around reconciliation and co-existence continue to be driven by just a few politicians and members of civil society in the country. Millions of voices are represented by a few. Reconciliation should have been demystified into being a household discussion, not just one limited to individuals who serve the justice/political systems.

Politicians brand themselves as leaders of reconciliation when the branding should be to the general public. 

I am quite happy to note that SLU addresses this gap. The term “reconciliation” is simplified. Conflicts come and go in Sri Lanka and it is no secret that our history  points these incidences  being fueled by political motives. We have seen at SLU that once young people see the link between power struggles and civil conflicts, they are immediately able to understand the origins of conflicts at present. They become active voices against hate and promote peace as they have studied the consequences of conflict at SLU events. This enlightening is much needed in our reconciliation process. If we understand our history and the identity crisis faced by each ethnic group in Sri Lanka, being against racism becomes very easy. Sri Lankan politicians know this. Politicians around the world know this. Hence the liberation that comes with embracing an inclusive national identity will never truly be communicated by politicians. 


  1. How do you think SLU is responding to these challenges?


  1. SLU has most certainly mastered a model around understanding the multiple emotions that need to be addressed when addressing reconciliation. 
  2. SLU has also chosen an approach of youth led reconciliation
  3. The inclusion of pillars such as equality, dignity and forgiveness while talking about justice has been a game changer. 
  4. Young people are given a call to action, and clear steps they could take to be ambassadors of peace.

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