Omniloquence

Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

Peace Building through Sport in post-conflict Sri Lanka

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Sport has the capacity to bring people together even in the most unforgiving circumstances.

During the Christmas Truce of 1914 exhausted British and German soldiers fighting in the trenches of Western Europe – sworn enemies, crept out into No Man’s Land to exchange food, sing carols, tell jokes — and even play soccer. Nearly a century on, sport can still lend a hand to build peace in post conflict Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan conflict lasted over a generation and during that time, I recall people from all ethnicities, pessimistic and relegated to the fact that the war perhaps would not end in their life time. Sri Lanka’s brutal conflict ended on the 19th of May 2009. Sadly, that chapter damaged the fabric of Sri Lankan society, replacing in its wake polarised communities, violence and immense suffering. Anybody visiting the country’s capital can observe the buzz of development everywhere. Conversely the country’s Northern and Eastern parts (where most of the conflict took place) lags behind from an economic point of view. The reconciliation and healing process has not yet reached a meaningful tipping point. In this backdrop, I believe sport can lend a hand to help build peace in post-conflict Sri Lanka.

Globally, over the years peace building has evolved to include a sustainable process of four core procedures happening before and after peace accords, specifically to provide security, build the socio-economic foundations for long-term peace, establish the political framework for long-term peace and foster reconciliation, healing and justice.1 According to the UN report of An Agenda for Peace (1992) Peace building is defined as an “action to identify and support structures which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict.”2 Granted these challenges are beyond the scope sport, and sport alone cannot prevent further conflict nor build peace. Sport has to be used as a tool within a holistic approach to foster peace building. What is peace? Peace can be defined in many ways but, some researchers categorize peace as ‘negative peace’ or ‘positive peace’. Negative peace refers to an absence of violent conflict, but the continual existence of the sources of violence (fear, hatred, intolerance), structures of violence (injustice, denial of rights, discrimination, social and economic exclusion) and sources of social and economic inequality (lack of access to clean water or basic health care).3

On the other hand positive peace could be described as the absence of both violent conflict and structural violence and offers the most favourable environment for development. Positive peace-building involves helping nations to develop more impartial and democratic systems in which poverty, illiteracy, and other root causes of conflict are abolished. In Sri Lanka today there is growing evidence that there is an absence of conflict but a positive peace is yet being built. Over the last decade sports-based peace support programs have been commenced by leading humanitarian agencies such as UNICEF and Save the Children, and by professional sport development organisations such as Right to Play, and sport programs are becoming gradually built-in into international assistance and response mechanisms. In 2001 for example the UN set up an Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) and an Inter-Agency Task on Sport for Development and Peace in 2002.4

Some researchers point out the “purpose of sport for peace initiatives is to harness the power of sport to support the four types of peace-building activities outlined.”5 High profile sporting events and programs have the capacity to galvanize support and bring people together. At the most basic level, well-organised sport activities that incorporate the best values of sport — self-discipline, respect for one’s opponent, fair play, teamwork, and observation of mutually agreed rules — help people to build the values and communication skills required to avert and resolve conflict in the own lives and in their communities. Some researchers argue that sport has the capacity bring people together by helping building relationships, connecting individuals to communities, sport could be harnessed as a platform for communication and creating a space for dialogue.6 Sport for peace programs are being utilised in both post-conflict to help build peace. What does sport have to do with peace building? Is it a trivial distraction from all the damage and distrust that has built between all communities in the last three decades? Or is there something meaningful in the high-level of interest by leading humanitarian agencies in the idea? The evidence points to a constructive role for sport. Let’s put that to the test.

Sri Lanka is best known for cricket as a sporting nation. One such marquee event was organised in 2012 and 2013 which is the Murali Harmony Cup. The Murali Harmony Cup organisers state that the main objective of the tournament is “to bring together children of different  backgrounds, ethnicities and religions throughout the island to play  cricket together and in the process, both develop the game as well as promote community-building and reconciliation in post-conflict Sri Lanka.”7 The organiser’s selected top-performing schools from across the length and breadth of Sri Lanka and were invited to the North East to take part in a T20 tournament over the course of 5 days.   Evidence collected from a range of stakeholders suggests that the tournament has helped in aiding some of the four competencies required in peace building activities – For example it has helped in building relationships where the tournament worked principally in bridging relationships across social, economic and cultural divides within society, and by building a sense of shared identity and fellowship among the various ethnicities that were participants. Mahela Jayewardene former Sri Lankan cricket captain explained to cricinfo.com reporter Andrew Fidel Fernando that the tournament is all about the kids coming together, and having fun. Jayewardene further explained “Last year, the team from St. Peters (winners in 2012 & 2013) stayed with the boys from Kilinochchi, instead of staying in the separate accommodation that they had been assigned. They made friendships and exchanged Facebook (details) and (phone) numbers” Jayewardene finally added that “when St. Peters got into the final against Jaffna, the boys from Kilinochchi got into a bus and went to watch that game, specially. That’s the kind of thing that needs to happen.” These unscripted gestures of goodwill by students bode well for peace building efforts.

The Murali Cup tournament report of 2012 states that ‘The St. Peter’s boys all learned 5 words of Tamil and taught 5 words of Sinhalese with their counterparts from Kilinochchi each day’8 the tournament has connected individuals from the majority South of the Island with the ‘other communities’ of the North of the Island by providing a shared experience, which in turn helped to “re-humanize” these opposite groups. Through sharing sport experiences, sport participants from conflicting groups progressively grow to feel that they share more in common.

Nico Schulenkorf researched the social, cultural and psychological value of sporting events in Sri Lanka. In 2010 Schulenkorf’s research focussed primarily on the role of inter-community sport events in being a factor for social development between different communities. Schulenkorf examined the work of The Asian-German Sport Exchange Programme (A.G.S.E.P.) an NGO that has been conducting ‘sport events for development’ projects in Sri Lanka since 2002, Schulenkorf concluded that inter-community sport programs can “provide a starting point, booster and catalyst for social development and inclusive social change, and as such should be encouraged and expanded as part of an active and dynamic social development process.”9 This research provides evidence that there is potential for sport to aid in peace building efforts. The challenge for policy makers and humanitarian agencies is to have targeted sport for peace projects by using a variety of sports to reach more communities around the island.

It must be noted that there are limits to peace-building efforts through sport. Sport alone cannot bring about permanent social changes that are outside the scope of the respective event. Sport can also sometimes be seen as a form of exclusion and create conditions of resentment for those communities that lack those opportunities.  The litmus test however is the true political will to change and push forward the national peace building efforts. From the time the civil war ended in 2009, there has been little steps forward in restructuring Sri Lanka’s tattered democratic institutions, nurturing reconciliation between all communities or addressing the central grievances around political representation and inequality that fuelled the ethnic conflict.

In the final brutal phase of the war there were many alleged atrocities perpetrated by both the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam. The UN Human Rights Council met in Geneva in March 2014 and passed a resolution calling on the Sri Lankan government to aid the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct an impartial investigation into allegations of serious human rights abuses and related crimes during Sri Lanka’s civil war. In a press statement issued on the 27th of March the US Secretary of State, John Kerry emphasized that “Today’s vote in the UN Human Rights Council sends a clear message: The time to pursue lasting peace and prosperity is now; justice and accountability cannot wait.” It is clear all stakeholders wish to see a just and peaceful Sri Lanka; the outcomes of these processes remain to be seen. The political strategy toward building lasting peace and bring reconciliation between all the ethnicities should focus on investing in a meaningful Sri Lankan identify.  However, until all that unfolds every ball kicked, bowled, passed or spiked will get Sri Lankans one step closer to a truly peaceful society.


  1. Right to Play (Sep, 2000), Sport and Peace Social Inclusion, Conflict Prevention And Peace-Building, (Chapter 6, p. 205), http://www.righttoplay.com/International/our-impact/Documents/Final_Report_Chapter_6.pdf (Accessed 16 Apr 2014)  

  2. United Nations Peace Building Fund, (Jun, 1992) , ‘An agenda for peace: preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and peacekeeping’, (para 21) http://www.un.org/en/sc/repertoire/89-92/Chapter%208/GENERAL%20ISSUES/Item%2029_Agenda%20for%20peace_.pdf (Accessed 20 Apr 2014)  

  3. Right to Play (Sep, 2000), Sport and Peace Social Inclusion, Conflict Prevention And Peace-Building, (Chapter 6, p. 206), http://www.righttoplay.com/International/our-impact/Documents/Final_Report_Chapter_6.pdf, (Accessed 16 Apr 2014)  

  4. Skelton, J (2013), ‘Winning the Peace or Playing at Development?’, (p. 1) http://www.york.ac.uk/media/politics/prdu/documents/publications/PRDU%20Working%20Paper%206.pdf (Accessed 20 Apr 2014)  

  5. Right to Play (Sep, 2000), Sport and Peace Social Inclusion, Conflict Prevention And Peace-Building, (p. 206), http://www.righttoplay.com/International/our-impact/Documents/Final_Report_Chapter_6.pdf (Accessed 16 Apr 2014)  

  6. Right to Play (Sep, 2000), Sport and Peace Social Inclusion, Conflict Prevention And Peace-Building, (pp. 207-208), http://www.righttoplay.com/International/our-impact/Documents/Final_Report_Chapter_6.pdf, (Accessed 16 Apr 2014)  

  7. Murali Harmony Cup 2012 Review, (Oct,2012), http://www.themuralicup.com/PDF/MC-2012-Tournament-Review.pdf (2012, p. 1), (Accessed 21 Apr 2014)  

  8. Murali Harmony Cup 2012 Review, (Oct, 2012), http://www.themuralicup.com/PDF/MC-2012-Tournament-Review.pdf (2012, p. 3), (Accessed 18 Apr 2014)  

  9. Schulenkorf, N. (2010). Sport events and ethnic reconciliation: Attempting to create social change between Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim sportspeople in war-torn Sri Lanka. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 45, pp. 273-294. http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/research/bitstream/handle/10453/15914/2010003728.pdf?sequence=1 (Accessed 21 Apr 2014)  




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