Countering Youth Radicalization in South Asia: A Sri Lankan Perspective by Asanga Abeyagoonasekera
President Sirisena is a great example and one of the only leaders in the world who has forgiven his own killer - a suicide bomber Sivaraja Jenivan who came to assassinate him in 2005. The following is a quote from Jenivan:
“if there were a leader such as President Sirisena 50 years ago, the national issue in the country and destruction caused to the country would have never taken place”. You are the only leader in the country accepted by all communities and loves all communities in an equal manner. I pray to God that you become the real Father of the Nation by resolving the national issue and the issues of political prisoners,” Sivaraja Jenivan
Sri Lanka thus is a very good example to the entire world to study and reflect especially on this subject as we have experienced the radicalization of LTTE youth as well as the radicalization of Southern JVP extremist youth. During University days this author established the Sri Lanka Youth Peace Movement with few Sri Lankan university students in Australia with the objective of raising funds against the LTTE to assist wounded Sri Lankan soldiers. This could be seen as a youth attempting to take revenge for a personal loss. However, with time and listening to different perspectives, the only wise option is to forgive, this was a process to broaden this authors perspective. In Sri Lanka most of the suicide attackers were youth and they had personal grievances, which led them to become radicalized. Today’s radicalized terrorist was yesterday’s youth whose helpless search for acceptance, identity or opportunity and who had we approached positively could have built a counter narrative.
Youth Radicalization is not a new phenomenon to Sri Lanka. With a prolonged ethnic conflict for nearly three decades, the country have experienced religious as well as political radicalization in all its manifestations. It was the radicalization of Tamil Youth that rewrote the history of Sri Lanka adding a crucial chapter to the global history of terrorism. A significant aspect of the LTTE was the introduction of youth to the suicide bombing culture. Radicalized Tamil youth were not driven by religious belief but directly by a political cause. The dream of a separate geographical homeland called Eelam was created by LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and every single fighter, especially young children was ready to die for this cause by means of a cyanide capsule.
This paper will examine youth radicalization and countering it from a Sri Lankan perspective by looking into The LTTE Black Tigers; JVP and Youth Radicalization; The Sri Lankan Rehabilitation Program for De- Radicalization; Role of civil society in counter radicalization and de-radicalization; and the importance of Global Dignity for youth.
The LTTE Black Tigers
According to R.Narayan Swamy “The members do what the leadership says. Theirs is not to ask why, theirs is to do and die. Matters little what the directive from the leadership is; the leader is always right, he is god, he alone knows what is good for the Tamil community. If the leader orders to kill, it will be carried out – without any question”
On 5th July 1987 the first suicide attack was launched by Vallipuram Vasanthan (also known as Captain Miller) by ramming a track packed with explosives into a military camp north of Sri Lanka. Captain Miller was born in 1966.The son of a bank manager, this 21 year old became the first LTTE Black Tiger Suicide Bomber.
The Black Tiger Brigade operated directly under the command of the LTTE leader Velupillai. Prabakaran and Intelligence Chief Pottu Amman. Evidence in the past has shown that Black Tiger carders were handpicked by Velupillai Prabakaran. Most carders were youth from families who have been severely affected by military operation of the government or opposition groups. Thenmozihi Rajaratnam aka Dhanu -- the garland-carrying woman suicide bomber that killed former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi -- is the prime example. Her family was subjected to severe harassments by the Indian peacekeeping forces in Sri Lanka. Dhanu was born in 1974 and was 17 years old when she died.
It is said that LTTE had implemented compulsory military training for all people over the age of 15 in areas under LTTE control in the Vanni region. It had also established a Leopard Brigade (Sirasu Puli), made up of children. By early 1984, the nucleus of the LTTE Baby Brigade was formed.
The feature that attracts young minds to the LTTE was the glamour and the perceived respect it was paid by society.
These Baby brigades were used as ‘body guards’ and not for suicide missions. In 1998 Sri Lanka’s Directorate of Military Intelligence estimated that 60 percent of LTTE fighters were below the age of 18 and that a third of all LTTE recruits were women.
The LTTE leadership developed the mastery of indoctrinating the masses, especially the youth. LTTE leaders groomed and motivated their members to sacrifice themselves in suicide attacks and to sacrifice the wellbeing of one’s own kith and kin in the pursuit of a violent radical ideology. Radicalization was the tool used to engage and sustain its membership. Therefore a multifaceted rehabilitation program was necessary to engage the surrendered and apprehended detainees’ hearts and minds to facilitate de-radicalization.
JVP and Youth Radicalization
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a communist and Marxist–Leninist party in Sri Lanka was founded in 1965 with the aim of providing a leading force for a socialist revolution in the country.
Radicalization of the Sri Lankan youth in the early 1970’s was not limited to the northern Tamils. The majority southern Sinhalese youth, too, were radicalized by Marxist ideologies and took up arms against the government at the time in an unsuccessful countrywide armed resistance.
Like the LTTE the JVP flourished among the underprivileged and marginalized youth, the JVP managed to establish a strong support base at the grassroots level and in universities.
The Sri Lankan Rehabilitation Program for De- Radicalization
The countries rehabilitation of radicalized youth dates back to the post insurrection period in the south in 1971, 1987 and 1989.
After the Civil war ended in 2009 the rehabilitation process was aimed at reintegrating the former LTTE leaders, members, and collaborators into the community. During the process, beneficiaries within the Protective Accommodation and Rehabilitation Centers (PARCS) were supported to engage in a range of activities and through these activities reconnect to all aspects of individual and communal life, including familial, social, cultural, and religious. The beneficiaries were supported to shift their thinking away from the narrow hate-filled ideology targeted towards the Sinhalese, Muslims, national and international figures that opposed the LTTE agenda. Upon reflection on their actions and experiences, the former terrorists and insurgents found new meaning in their lives. They were transformed into champions of peace with values of moderation, toleration, and co-existence replacing hate, anger, and the mono-ethnic single narrative.
It is therefore clear that rather than adopting a retributive justice model, Sri Lanka has always embraced a restorative justice model by drawing on the countries rich heritage of moderation, toleration and coexistence.
Role of civil society in counter radicalization and de-radicalization
The threat of IS and al Qaeda-directed attacks persist, the dominant threat is by self-radicalized homegrown cells and individuals. The strategy is to create a multinational, multi-pronged, multiagency, and a multi-jurisdictional framework to fight upstream counter radicalization and downstream de-radicalization.
The role of civil society in counter-radicalization and de-radicalization is essential in this process. Civil society and Governments can work in partnership to prevent radicalization by tackling economic, social and political drivers. When Governments set the policy framework, providing funding, and addressing structural issues, but communities also need to play their part for the overall approach to be successful.
Civil society has a role to play to counter-messages of radicalization and often it will be more effective when they come from communities rather than governments. It is important to create a space for dialogue and discussion among youth and is part of the process of taking on divisive narratives and creating an inclusive society that listens and responds to the needs and concerns of the citizens. Civil society can spot the signs of vulnerability and work up stream to protect individuals from radicalization, through improved parenting, neighbourhood support, and community resilience (Role of civil society in counter-radicalization and de-radicalization, ISD). Civil society can play a role in the de-radicalization process. Some community organisations and individuals could contribute immensely to this process. Policies and strategies should include civil society and given a top priority.
Global Dignity for youth
Gen. Banerjee clearly mentioned in his address about important of school system a very important point. I was invited by His Royal Highness, The Crown Prince of Norway to speak on the same subject at the Oslo Nobel Peace center last year. I admire his work on Global Dignity, a program that instills values of dignity to school children which is operational in 60 nations. Understanding dignity and respecting different ethno-religious groups is essential at a very young age especially at a time when the world order is threatened by different ideologies. Unfortunately Sri Lankan Education Minister has yet to introduce this important program to the school curriculum. Our President recognized the importance of this global initiative and sent his best wishes for the 10th Anniversary of this program. I quote from Presidents message “My country is trying to recover from the three decade long brutal conflict that left deep scars on our social fabric. In 2015 when I was elected President I promised my people to introduce genuine reconciliation. It is important to learn at school level to respect other ethnic and religious groups, especially at a time like this with the rise of violent non state actors disturbing the global order”.
At Nobel Peace Center I mentioned that individuals can also be radicalized to do good to the society when injustice is evident. In Sri Lanka, if you take the late leader Vijaya Kumaranathunga who we remembered few days ago in Colombo, was assassinated by radical southern extremist was also called a radical. In 1982 Vijaya along with Ossie Abeyagoonasekera was given a label as radical Naxalites by the then President Jayawardena who put them behind jail for trying to overthrow his government which managed to extend power from an undemocratic practice of referendum instead of elections.
What I am trying to say is that, it’s sometimes the state that makes the nation’s youth radicalized and has to be clearly responsible. South Asia has weak institutions with serious issues of political and other forms of corruption. Sri Lanka is 95th in CPI index and many other South Asian states around similar index value. Weak states has more propensity to encourage and build a conducive environment for youth to radicalize. The youth frustration due to high poverty rates in South Asia and governments failing to provide basic necessary living conditions is another serious issue. Economic factors also should not be ignored. The root cause has to be understood and addressed by the state at the early stage.
Sri Lanka has learned with its bitter experience from the past and our policy makers should take this subject into serious consideration.
Thus, in conclusion finding collaborative approaches to counter youth radicalization is essential. Hence, South Asian nations should work together to find solutions as one community in order to counter youth radicalization in South Asia. The key to the issue at hand is to go upstream and deal with deeper issues and assist our youth to identify a moderate counter narrative; than to only manage the symptoms of this problem.