Healing through harmonies in post-conflict Sri Lanka
One project is helping to reconcile divided communities through children and music
Indhumadhi sits on a small wooden stool proudly displaying a photograph of her son pictured in his school orchestra. Beside her, at her home in Mullaitivu in northern Sri Lanka, a pair of crutches are propped up against a decaying brick wall.
Indhumadhi, who is Tamil, lost her leg in a bomb blast during the 25-year Sri Lankan civil war between the government and the militant Tamil Tigers. After her husband died a few years ago following a sudden illness, she was left to raise two children while struggling to cope with the pain she suffers as a result of her injury.
Indhumadhi’s circumstances are not out of the ordinary in this Tamil region, where the scars of a brutal conflict still run deep.
At a political level, not much has happened to facilitate the healing. Since the war ended in 2009, the government has taken few constructive actions to address wartime accountability. A regime change in January 2015 did bring some hope for progress as the incoming coalition government promised a new constitution that would help reconcile the past as well as address the root causes of the conflict.
However, to date, few substantial inroads have been made apart from some symbolic returns of occupied Tamil lands, as well as the release of some political prisoners.
But things are happening at grassroots level, as people seek to build bridges between the Sinhalese majority in the south and the Tamil communities in the north.
One initiative born out of this effort is the Music Project based in Kurunegala. The brainchild of Colombo-based education consultant Shalini Wickramasuriya, the project uses music as a platform for reconciliation, aiming to build orchestral communities between Tamil and Sinhalese school children.
Indhumadhi’s son Sulakshan is one of more than 400 children taking part in the project, learning the rudiments of music through brass, woodwind and percussion instruments.
“It wasn’t the intention to work with both sets of children at all,” says Wickramasuriya, reflecting on how the initial aim of the project back in 2012 was to solely focus on the needs of the Tamil children in the north. “I was working in the north so I thought that we would be setting up a music project there, working with children to engage them with music-related initiatives for therapeutic purposes.”
The project is loosely based on a scheme in Venezuela called El Sistema, which aims to improve the lives of children who don’t have access to quality education, while also taking elements from a community project in Sterling, Scotland, called the Big Noise Project.
“Often with projects you step back and let the project determine its own direction,” says Wickramasuriya. “This is exactly what happened to the Music Project. It just came about that music would be used as the link language between the children of the north and south. While it is El Sistema in Venezuela where we got our inspiration, our core mission now is to use music to connect children of divided communities.”
The project’s pivot was down to the various challenges Wickramasuriya faced in getting it off the ground in the north, particularly the stringent security measures and government efforts to intercept groups of people coming together to establish projects or organisations for fear that they might be politically motivated.
Having received donations to get the project up and running, Wickramasuriya decided to waste no time and introduced it in the Sinhalese areas, with a view to expanding the project once the Tamil regions opened up. Five years after overcoming such obstacles, the project works with six schools – three in Sinhalese-majority Kurunegala and three in Tamil-majority Thunukkai – teaching primary school children to play orchestral instruments through free after-school classes.
The project brings the children from the two communities together four or five times a year to interact and perform in front of an audience. It also runs residential programmes enabling the children – many of them divided by language as well as ethnicity and religion – to mix with each other over a period of four or five days.
It works on the premise that music is an ideal tool for unifying people and challenging stereotypes, a belief shared by Prof John Brewer of Queen’s University in Belfast.
He carried out research on the subject in 2016, examining a similar pilot project developed by Belfast-based Centre for Democracy and Peacebuilding in partnership with Beyond Skin, a non-governmental organisation that uses music, arts and media to assist in the development of cultural relations in Northern Ireland.
“I’ve often said that peace processes are too important to be left to politicians,” he says. “There is a huge role to be played by the performing arts – drama, poetry, art, music – because these are the important parts of popular culture, the activities that ordinary people engage in, that we can use to build a better future.”
Despite the limited funds received through a small number of trustees, Wickramasuriya has big ambitions for the Music Project. As well as extending the programme to more schools in the coming years, she hopes to work with the Muslim community, which in many ways has been marginalised the most in Sri Lanka, as Muslims are perceived to be neither Sinhalese nor Tamil, despite these groups being categorised along ethnic rather than religious lines.
She also hopes to recruit females from both communities, and Tamils of both sexes, as, to date, the teachers working with the project have all been Sinhalese men, due to a shortage of Tamils and Sinhalese women who specialise in western music.
Ultimately though, Wickramasuriya hopes that some day she can shift the focus of the Music Project from it being a means of building bridges between the two communities to instead acting simply as a holistic and therapeutic tool for children.
After eight years of the country working towards peace and reconciliation, she anticipates a time when the people of Sri Lanka will no longer segregate themselves in their own minds and, as a result, there will be less need for initiatives such as the Music Project to act as bridge builders.
“I’m hoping that there will be less onus on the Music Project orchestra element to be a platform for connecting the children, because the wider community will be making connections themselves,” she says.
In Mullaitivu, despite expressing concern that her son is more interested in playing the trumpet than studying more traditional subjects at school, Indhumadhi is grateful for the work that the Music Project is doing within her community. She believes that the better her children’s education, the more prospects they will have in the years ahead.
Regarding her own future, however, she is much more grave in her assessment. “I don’t believe I will be here by the time they have grown up,” she says. “That’s my feeling. If they get a good education they will have a good future but for me, I don’t see any.”
If Sri Lankan society is to fully heal its wounds, it will undoubtedly begin with the post-war generation. A few symphony orchestras might just help along the way.
*This article was supported by a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund
* An exhibition of Joseph O’Connor’s photographs of the Music Project continues at Dublin City University Library in Glasnevin until Friday, April 21st, and aradio documentary on the project will air on Near FM on Friday April 28th at 6pm.