Sri lanka: ‘A Lost Generation of Tamil Youth; Impact of Past War Trauma, Present Psychosocial Context, Education and Globalization’

(Excerpts from C.E. Anandarajan memorial lecture delivered by Dr. Daya Somasundaram, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Jaffna and University Adelaide)

A beacon of inspiration. Late C.E.Anandarajan, former   Principal of St.John's college, Jaffna[1]
A beacon of inspiration. Late C.E.Anandarajan, former Principal of St.John’s college, Jaffna
Many youths, the blossoming flowers of our communities were killed during the recent civil war in Sri Lanka. Many more were injured (and) maimed; some continue to live with shell (fragments in their bodies) and spinal injuries. Many were psychologically scarred by their traumatic experiences. They were sacrificed, or sacrificed themselves or were caught in the crossfire of rebellion, spurred by dreams of freedom and brutal suppression thereof. The state launched a reign of terror and violence, committing innumerable military atrocities, including detention and torture of Tamils and discrimination against them particularly in university admissions, which propelled students to join militant movements. The propaganda of militants and their leaders aroused strong feelings of Tamil identity based on three factors of motherland (Eelam), soil (mann) and blood (ratham). The leaders called for heroism (veeram), commitment (arpanippu) and sacrifice (thiaham), Including martyrdom. A sense of adventure drew the young into becoming child soldiers.
Present day youth in Northern Sri Lanka who survived, face a grim future. Society is just recovering from three decades of devastating civil war. In the current post war context, the future of the community depends on rebuilding broken social structures in which youth can play a crucial role. However, to understand the predicament of today’s youth, it would be necessary to understand their past and current psychosocial context plus the educational system.

Jaffna Public library-burnt down in 1981
Jaffna Public library-burnt down in 1981

Most of the present constituency of youth in North and East Sri Lanka were born during the war, faced many hardships, growing up amidst natural and man-made disasters. Coming of age, they have to struggle through a multitude of psychosocial problems; many of them a legacy of the war. There is also the sudden impact of modernization and global culture which they were not exposed to during the war due to blockades and more immediate survival needs. In addition to these handicaps, they also have not had the advantage of a beneficial educational sector to help them make a future for themselves and rebuild their society.

The exodus
The mass exodus from Jaffna peninsula in 1995 affected almost everyone in Jaffna and the final war in 2009 in the Vanni District caused massive destruction and devastation. During the war, many were injured, lost their loved ones, witnessed killing and some were detained and tortured. Children were also forced to carry weapons and become soldiers. They were made to fight in the war front and carry out atrocities, imprinting hatred and violence in their developing minds.

The path that present youth have travelled through[1]
The path that present youth have travelled through
People in the North faced more devastation during this period: the Tsunami of 2004. Due to this natural disaster, multiple deaths occurred in many families, houses were damaged, families separated, and whole villages destroyed. It is evident from studies that youngsters who experience massive trauma develop a loss of concentration, memory impairment, alienation, lack of motivation, lack of commitment to work, fear, anxiety, depression, relationship issues, and an increased tendency to become addicted to drugs and alcohol. War and natural disasters have major consequences not only on youth but also on their families and society at large which we can describe as collective trauma.
Focus group studies by psychologists in Northern Sri Lanka have published the resulting psychosocial problems. Serious issues including poverty, malnutrition, mental illness, disturbed family dynamics, loneliness, helplessness, abandonment, antisocial activities, child and sexual abuse, suicide, orphans, unmarried mothers, teenage pregnancy, illegal abortions, domestic violence and alcohol & drug abuse. Children have to grow up facing considerable abuse and violence within the family and even at school.
There has been a welcome drop in the high suicide rates in 2015, perhaps, due to the hope that has been created this year. Generally, women’s roles have changed as a result of the war. Women have become more emancipated generally because they had to take on responsibilities when husbands died or disappeared resulting in female headed households. Thus there was increased stress on females, some of who have developed psychosocial problems such as increased in somatic illnesses and other minor mental health disorders.

Young women group
Young women group

Today In the Vanni, teenage girls are becoming pregnant, giving birth and then bringing up children while they have barely attained adolescence. This is mainly due to the lack of knowledge about reproductive health and the consequences of unprotected sex. Some face harassment at the work place and violence at home.
Alcohol consumption by males has increased dramatically after the war. Furthermore, there is an increase in the consumption of foreign liquors in comparison with locally produced alcohol. Alcohol use has become common even among school students. Alcohol use has a wide reaching effect being closely associated with domestic violence, crime, road traffic accidents, suicide and attempted suicide. In contrast anti-social behaviour is not so marked in the East. A reason could be that many of the community level traditional practices and structures and belief systems have survived or revived in the post war context, thus providing the necessary social controls and adaptive mechanisms. In the north the police are often called to deal with incidents of rowdyism.
During the war, those with leadership qualities, the intellectuals, the dissenters and those with social motivation have either been intimidated into leaving or have been killed or forced to remain silent. Talented and committed leaders like the principal of St. John, Anandarajan and Dr. Rajani Thiranagama were labelled as traitors and executed in the prime of their life, leaving behind young, grief-stricken families and submissive communities. Apart from the extrajudicial killings by the state and its allied paramilitary forces, the internecine warfare among various Tamil militant organizations competing for the loyalty of the community resulted in the elimination of many of civilians of Tamil ethnicity- a process of self-destructive auto-genocide. There was also a crippling brain drain, where intellectuals and professionals with their families sought greener pastures or safety abroad. Now, Tamil society is left without vibrant leaders and youth without role models.

Child soldiers
Child soldiers

Among the few positive consequences of the war and displacement was the disruption of some of these structures such as the rigid caste system and patriarchal systems and violence against women. However, in the post war situation, these traditional structural practices and social attitudes are reviving with vigour. It is important that the young) are not influenced by these oppressive and outdated attitudes and behaviour. Once the seeds are planted in their minds, not only will they continue these practices but pass them onto generations to come.
Suspicion and paranoia were also generated against Muslims who were expelled ‘en masse’ from the north during the war. Some are venturing back. Politicians and conflict entrepreneurs will endeavour to fan the flames of communalism and ethnocentrism which will lead us again onto the path of calamity. The young do not appear to be infected by the sectarian virus yet. The future of this country and society will eventually pass into their hands. For national reconciliation to work, youth will need to be encouraged to broaden their outlook and consciousness.

In the post-war context, there is a major attitudinal and behavioural change in the present day youth. During the war they had been insulated from global influences due to blockades, travel restrictions, lack of consumer goods and unavailability of credit. It is literally as if the doors have suddenly opened to the outside world and its influences – good and bad.

There is an increasing feeling of security; the number of foreigners who visit Sri Lanka as tourists or to meet their relatives, has been rising, particularly after the opening of the A9 road which connects the North and South. The sudden changes in their lifestyle, job aspirations, fashion, attire and commitment to place has drastically changed and altered the socialization of youth. Consumption patterns have increased with the remittances from relatives abroad and easily obtainable loan facilities. In the post war context, this vulnerable and defeated society is subject to the free ingress of modern market and corporate forces.
The widespread consumption culture has brought about changes in people’s thoughts, attitudes and activities. The impact of cinema, videos, YouTube, and other media, particularly South Indian tele-drama series and movies on youth has been immense. They take these telecasted stories as real, and try to imitate or practise these imaginary life.(lives)
Psychosocial Regeneration of Youth

Meditation- A form of cultural calming technique
Meditation- A form of cultural calming technique

We are faced with the urgent task of rebuilding this shattered society which was devastated by war and Tsunami, and to provide a prosperous, hopeful future for the younger generation. According to international and United Nations conventions, victims of war and conflict have a right to reparation, redress and rehabilitation including psychosocial rehabilitation. However, since the end of the war in 2009, the state had actively prohibited psychosocial interventions and healing processes. At present, with the change in the political climate, there are opportunities to address the psychological trauma youth have undergone and create an enabling environment for them to thrive. However, it should be noted that psychosocial regeneration has to be related to broader social and economic changes using a holistic approach.
A key element of post-war rehabilitation and reconciliation would be to rebuild trust, the basic glue that holds society and nations together. Trust in institutions of law and order, governance structures between authorities and the ruled and between the different members of society themselves.