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Youth and Politics: Challenges in Sri Lanka by Vibusha Madanayake

Youth are a valuable resource for any country and thus often seen as a hope for the future, change and regeneration. From a global perspective, it is said that, “the young generation is traditionally seen as one of the most dynamic mediums of social change. This is because the young often play a vital and dominant role in social movements which are usually the driving force behind these changes” (Glinski, 1998) However, in Sri Lanka, mainly due to several violent youth insurrections since 1970, youth are sometimes seen as a problem that need urgent solutions and reactions, rather than as a resource in the country’s development process. The National Youth Services Council (NYSC), which is the premier implementing body relating to youth affairs in Sri Lanka, has defined youth as the young people between the ages of 15-29. Accordingly, youth comprises approximately 21 % of the entire population. In line with demographics of Sri Lanka, a majority of youth live in rural areas. Literacy rate among youth is over 90%, with little difference between the sexes or urban and rural areas. As shown by the literacy rates, mortality, morbidity data and access to services such as education and health, the youth keep in line with the country as a whole and enjoys high rates of human development (Hettige & Mayer, 2002). Yet they continue to face several challenges, mainly poverty and social unrest, unemployment and lack of opportunities, lack of representation and lack of clarity and continuity in youth policies.

In view of the Sri Lankan context of youth-engagement in politics, the situations appears to be much more problematic and complex. It is reported that over 80% of the participants in the youth rebellion in 1971 came from the age group between 15 and 29 years (Obesekera 1974). Erik Erickson argued that the transformation from childhood to adulthood entails a process of self-questioning, emotional instability and even social despair, which he called “identity crisis” (Erickson 1968) might lead to a general rebellious nature in youth. But this context cannot be applied to every situation in Sri Lanka. In consideration of the current situation, it is apparent that, society has to play an important role to facilitate this process, without commanding it, in order for youth get settled in society without any harm to the young community. If not, the situations might deteriorate and youth can easily become a tool of violent political movements of various natures that would aim at gaining political power at the expense of the society at large. Here, current local political leadership need to understand and address the natural processes of youth rebellion to avoid disastrous situations to the youth themselves.

            As a youth activist, I have identified the following challenges as the most pressing, in terms of Sri Lankan Youth.

  • Lack of inclusion. (This is with regard to youth in different political, economic and social spheres, young women, persons with disabilities, people with different sexual orientations and other such communities are constantly excluded and ignored).
  • Lack of understanding and awareness amongst youth about the value of democracy.
  • Lack of youth participation in electoral processes.
It is evident that there is a clearly absence of conscious understanding among the present Sri Lankan society to address the aforementioned youth issues and a lack of mechanisms to deal with them. There is an oppressive process of absorbing youth into society that creates deep frustration among them. As a result, young people tend to rebel in the process of getting their rights. Here, the current local political leadership has failed to understand the importance of youth participation in politics and civil matters. The process of globalization and the open economic system have raised expectations of youth in respect of employment, higher living standards, good governance, democracy, human rights etc. But, when youth grow into adulthood and enter society, they learn that in reality the aforementioned expectations have not materialised. It is evident that, the current local political processes have debunked the expectations of youth and the day-to-day reality frustrates and depraves those expectations. According to the study of Prof. Hettige on Sri Lankan Youth, the “low-legitimacy” of the political system in the eyes of the youth was more and more revealed in the questions asked about the “level of trust” on various branches of the state and political system. This attitude in turn was a reflection of the high expectations of youth on good governance, inclusive of transparency and accountability.” According to the survey he conducted, there is a great deal of mistrust by youth on any of the governing bodies such as central government, the provincial councils and the local government institutions. This is an unfortunate situation since we identified youth as the future generation to take over the leadership of a country.

In this situation, there is a clear necessity for youth to motivate themselves. Not to rebel, but to engage actively to empower youth and preserve the ideals of democracy, youth rights and good governance. Young leaders as the future generation should be able to ensure and sustain democracy in the country in order to maintain a democratic and progressive global order. Such leaders being united enable them to share good practices, exchange lessons learnt, and promote the cause of democracy much affectively, by the smart usage of technology and social media, like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram etc. On the other hand, it is important for political leaders in Sri Lanka to introduce scientific education to the local education system and empower youth with rich attitudes, skills and knowledge. Further, it is also important to let youth to participate in decision making process and active political participation. The mind-set of the Sri Lankan society is still traditional and based on race, religion and language. In this light, a long time may pass before the country heals and integrate with modern globalized ideals. Therefore, I believe the next best alternative is to establish the ideals by introducing a scientific education system.

Finally, it is the responsibility of the local political mechanism to understand these key issues and address them. In order to do so, the local government mechanism needs to take youth seriously, attempt to narrow the gap between different youth constituencies, build capacities of youth and ensure equal opportunities and subsequently combat the discrimination and injustice (Hettige & Mayer, 2002). This can be done through socio-economic changes and also through public policy and political changes. In the event this occurs, youth can have future expectations for a new political culture in the country from political leaders with a better system of governance, devoid of corruption, malpractice, abuse of power and nepotism.

The Author, Vibusha Madanayake is a Research Assistant at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL). This article does not reflect the stance of INSSSL or the Government of Sri Lanka.