Freedom of expression and fundamental rights

Breaking Imagined Walls that Became Real: Importance of Urban Peacebuilding

Kithmini M. Ranaweera

Where does ‘sustained peace’ start in Sri Lanka? It starts with the first blow to the seemingly real yet imagined walls that have been confining Sri Lankan identity over the course of our history. Mostly power-oriented, regional tensions and internal power struggles in ancient Sri Lanka were often misinterpreted as righteous quests against the immoral ‘other’, laying the foundation for imagined walls which pitted ethnicities against each other and molding centuries-old hostilities. Western Colonizers who later conquered the already divided nation strengthened these walls by politicizing ethnic differences. Though a ‘divide and conquer’ policy worked wonders for the British Administration, Sri Lanka today is yet to heal from thirty years of internal bleeding whose scars will continue to get infected subsequently unless treated properly.

Sustaining peace does not start with the ending of war, rather it should start from where war began. When asked, ‘what is the beginning of the war’, one could conveniently answer that war is when a group of people resort to violence as a form of fulfilling their interests, and being retaliated by the same. The said answer fails to capture the underlying truth behind the bigger picture of conflict causation, where the beginning of a conflict is the wrongful outbreak of physical violence, which is merely the tip of the iceberg. What many fail to see is the underlying currents of shared grievances, hostile attitudes, behaviors and mistrust faced by ethnic communities in the wake of an identity-based conflict like in Sri Lanka. 

Therein, what is termed as ‘Urban Peacebuilding’ which speaks of the importance of the Urban in the process of smooth transition towards peace and reconciliation from a post-war context, seems an interesting approach. This marriage between Urban Studies and Peace Literature understands the major push and pull factors towards migration to urban areas, and links those trends with attempts on Peacebuilding. 

Within the Sri Lankan context, the Colombo Metropolitan area is the ideal specimen to assess the importance of Urban Peacebuilding. Colombo has been a signature destination for internal migration given its pull factors, which are resource and opportunity oriented since decades. Hence, urbanization of Colombo is not racially motivated in contrast to certain ethnically polarized cities in Sri Lanka. Here in Colombo, people belonging to different ethnicities are parties to conflicts who happen to live together in close proximity, with ample opportunities to bring out more fruitful dialogues of reconciliation. People belonging to communities with shared grievances, losses and a shared history of violence are made to cross paths with their counterparts who hold the same baggage of grievances and a hostile history, which is why the said daily engagements can break down these imagined walls of mistrust and hostility. Transportation, employment, entertainment and leisure in the Colombo metropolitan area can welcome the multicultural component, where people can look past each other’s ethnic differences and prejudices and connect as humans having common life struggles. This simple realization through experience becomes the first step towards breaking the imagined walls of ethnic difference. 

Yet, realization alone cannot make the blow; people should be given a reason to have a common voice which is generated from issues such as environmental degradation, gender-based violence, and child abuse which affects humanity beyond ethnicities. These voices should be made, heard and acted upon. Sustained peace does not prevail in battle zones, but it can be cherished on a busy street where two strangers making eye contact see another human being rather than the imagined walls of racial identities. 

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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