It has been noted that extremist groups involved in inciting hatred and animosity among different communities, primarily target youth as part of their agendas. Consequentially, the involvement of youth in acts of violence and riots has been on the increase. In recent years, the Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) has worked with youth groups equipping them to be agents of change and counteract disharmony, conflicts, fears, suspicions, misunderstandings and hurt among different ethnic and religious groups. The RLC identified a strategy to counteract this trend of youth involvement in separatist agendas and instil a yearning for peace and coexistence, transcending ethnic and religious differences in the minds of the younger generation. The RLC believes the involvement of youth in the process of reconciliation and peace-building is critical in order to achieve a practical outcome.

Having identified this need, the RLC organised a 3 day camp from 10 – 12 August for youth leaders across the country. The topics were on peace-building and reconciliation, transitional justice, social media and hate speech, responsible use of technology and social media as well as advocacy training for positive campaigns. The meetings also contained interactive sessions and group activities which were conducted by experts in these fields. Three youth from the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities shared their experiences as victims of racial violence.

The youth were introduced to puppetry, a very creative medium used to address social issues using low cost throw-away items. In groups, the youth set about making their own hand puppets and stories to be presented later that day. The facilitators explained that puppetry could be used to change the way people think as an easy to use medium of communicating a message to people who speak in different languages. They expounded how puppetry can be used effectively to initiate discussions among communities on social issues which affect them. The participants were also instructed on the ethics and the principles of taking messages to communities. “We have no right to make fun of any race” explained the resource person. “We must respect each race, religion and diversity. If you don’t have a serious burden for the story you are taking across to the public then the message will never get through to the public. When you take serious messages to the public you must act with caution and great responsibility.”

The four groups that presented their messages through the medium of puppetry presented stories on how politicians hoodwink and incite people, how the government authorities are not sensitive to the needs of victims of natural disasters and how aid is not fairly distributed among the victims. They also presented on the right of every citizen to exercise their vote and religious noise pollution speaking on the importance of living peaceably and understanding each other’s cultural background.

Chathuranga who was a participant at the youth camp, is an arts student from the North Western Province. “I have heard of transitional justice. But it is only at this seminar that I really gained a proper understanding of what it meant. I have worked with several other agencies but I didn’t have a clear understanding on this subject. I think the difference was the creative way in which it was explained to us. If you distribute a hand bill people won’t read it but people are bound to watch something like a puppet show. I think this is a very good and innovative way to take messages across to the youth. I believe we can give an important message through this medium. I work with several youth groups so I plan on sharing this message with them as well” he said. “I thank the NCEASL for organising such seminars for the youth.”

Yohan Fernando who is 29 years old, hails from Kalutara and is a youth parliamentarian. “I had a different idea about puppets; never thought they could be used as a medium to communicate. But this programme opened my eyes to show that it is a useful medium to get social messages across. I am used to speaking on these topics at open forums but it has not been too successful. I realised that you can bring such topics into the open through the medium of puppets. We were given the opportunity to make our own puppets and create our own stories. This, I thought was very good and I thank the NCEASL for giving me this opportunity.”