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Civics Textbooks, Peace Education, and Peacebuilding in Sri Lanka

Citation: Bentrovato, D. & Nissanka, M. (2018). Teaching peace in the midst of civil war: Tensions between global and local discourses in Sri Lankan civics textbooks. Global Change, Peace & Security, 30(3), 353-372.

Peace education is widely held to be an important piece of the puzzle in building cultures of peace and moving societies away from violent conflict. Scholars have noted a recent “global convergence” of peace education curricula under the rubric of global citizenship education, incorporating global norms such as “human rights, democracy, equality and social justice, diversity and multiculturalism, and sustainable development.” At the same time, we also know from the so-called “local turn” in peacebuilding research and from critiques of “liberal peacebuilding” that what emerges on the ground is always a result of negotiation between global and local forces, with globally sanctioned peacebuilding projects being adapted and/or resisted by and repurposed for local actors to serve their interests. In the case of the implementation of peace education and civics curricula in deeply divided societies, recent scholarship has shown that textbooks in such contexts often avoid discussion of the most controversial local issues and adhere to a more traditional approach to civics education that emphasizes national rather than global identity, reinforcing “national unity and allegiance to the nation-state.”

Peace education: the promotion of “the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values needed to bring about behaviour changes that will enable children, youths and adults to prevent conflict and violence, both overt and structural; to resolve conflict peacefully; and to create the conditions conducive to peace, whether at an intra-personal, interpersonal, intergroup, national or international level.” (Fountain, S. (1999). Peace education in UNICEF. New York: UNICEF).

In this study, the authors examine the case of Sri Lanka, asking how a peace education curriculum (supported by the international community) was implemented in Sri Lankan schools during that country’s civil war, and what the “dominant themes, values, emphases and omissions” were in its accompanying civics textbooks. What tensions emerge in this particular negotiation between the global and the local, and what are the implications for a multicultural Sri Lanka moving forward after the government’s military victory over the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in 2009? The authors analyze civics textbooks that were published in 2007, just as the Sri Lankan government was turning away from the peace process and towards a return to war against the LTTE. These textbooks were created as part of educational reform initiated in 2000, supported by international donors, which, like other similar educational reforms in Sri Lanka, was generally geared towards building national cohesion and appreciation for diversity. Drawing on the six official textbooks for grades 6 through 11, the authors’ analysis entailed first identifying dominant themes and then attempting to “discern how state-sponsored educational discourse produces, reproduces and legitimises particular knowledge” in these textbooks.

The authors identify three themes in their analysis of the textbooks: “social cohesion around civic virtues,” “understanding and resolving conflict,” and “social justice, democracy and human rights.” Within each of these themes, however, they note particular emphases or omissions that bring out the tensions between local and global priorities. With regards to the first theme, the authors note how the textbooks reflect an understanding of the purpose of citizenship education as promoting social cohesion and patriotism, emphasizing citizens’ duties to the community and their respect for authority, including that of the government. Also notable is the framing of rights as being contingent on the performance of duties—contrary to the western liberal understanding of human rights as being inalienable and granted to all people by virtue of birth.

In the textbooks’ treatment of the second theme, the authors find a pronounced emphasis on interpersonal conflict resolution skills and dispositions, thereby highlighting individual responsibility for conflict and almost completely eclipsing structural violence as an underlying cause of conflict. The authors note key silences around the grievances that motivated the Tamil struggle for independence (which is instead viewed one-dimensionally as “terrorism”) and around the concrete suffering and destruction the civil war has wrought on various Sri Lankan communities. Furthermore, the authors note that most references to the civil war were removed in 2016 revisions of these textbooks.

Finally, with reference to the third theme, the authors find abstract discussions of the importance of social justice, democracy, and human rights but a lack of attention to the operation—or shortcomings—of these in the Sri Lankan context. Not only do the books fail to frame the Tamil struggle for self-determination in terms of human rights, but they also avoid discussion of inequalities among different ethnic communities and of undemocratic practices that have existed over the course of the conflict (e.g., “electoral violence, unequal political representation of Tamil and Muslim minorities, and restrictions on freedom of speech and expression”). Furthermore, the didactic style in which the textbooks are written does not encourage the critical thinking and debate necessary to the flourishing of democracy.

It is evident that these particular emphases and omissions serve the interests of the Sri Lankan government in its desire for national cohesion and harmony. In short, while the textbooks affirm global norms around peace and citizenship education in the abstract, they also simultaneously contradict and/or undermine these in various ways that serve the government’s agenda. In addition, in failing “to critically address identity-based power relations and historical and contemporary structural inequalities and injustice” in the country, the textbooks are unlikely to contribute to the creation of a sustainable peace in post-war Sri Lanka.

Contemporary Relevance:

This research on Sri Lankan civics textbooks is framed as a concrete example of “hybrid peacebuilding,” where the outcomes of peacebuilding efforts are understood as the product of tensions and negotiations between global and local priorities. In many discussions of hybrid peacebuilding, local interpretations of (and push-back against) internationally funded projects are celebrated as forms of resistance against the neo-imperial “liberal peacebuilding” project. This study draws out some of the ambivalence around this celebratory stance, as the “local” in this case is the Sri Lankan government and its “resistance” is to craft narratives in its textbooks that promote national cohesion at the expense both of critically examining power inequalities and injustice in the country and of encouraging the dissent and debate crucial to a healthy democracy. So, while there is some positive recognition of the textbooks’ emphasis on so-called “Asian values”—a privileging of the community over individual rights, to some extent—as a form of push-back against western, liberal conceptions of human rights, there is also the acknowledgement of a cost to sustainable peace in the textbooks’ disregard for aspects of the global peace education discourse. This ambivalence forces us to examine larger questions about who has the authority to judge the value of different approaches to peacebuilding—those positioned as advocates of “global norms” or those on the inside of a particular conflict who have their own ideas about how to move their society forward? Almost a decade after the Sri Lankan government’s military victory over the LTTE, with as of yet no substantial resolution of the issues or grievances that fueled the violent conflict in the first place (as well as a recent constitutional crisis that puts any progress on this front at risk), it is worth asking, what is the nature of the “peace” that has emerged in Sri Lanka, to which these textbooks have perhaps contributed?

Talking Points:

  • Analysis of the prominent themes in Sri Lankan civics textbooks related to social cohesion, conflict, social justice, democracy, and human rights reveals particular emphases and omissions that reflect tensions between global norms and local interests—in particular, the interests of the Sri Lankan government in national cohesion and harmony.
  • While Sri Lankan civics textbooks affirm global norms around peace and citizenship education in the abstract, they also simultaneously contradict and/or undermine these in various ways in service of the government’s agenda.
  • In failing “to critically address identity-based power relations and historical and contemporary structural inequalities and injustice” in the country, Sri Lankan civics textbooks are unlikely to contribute to the creation of a sustainable peace in post-war Sri Lanka.

Practical Implications:

This analysis of Sri Lankan civics textbooks brings up larger questions about how best to use textbooks in the service of peacebuilding in deeply divided societies. One of the key tensions that peacebuilders must work through in post-war contexts is between, on the one hand, recognizing harms that have been committed and injustices that have existed over the course of the conflict so that they can be adequately addressed and, on the other, smoothing over differences and divisions to move forward as a unified society. The problem with the former approach, of course, is that continuing to discuss these harms and injustices can reinforce communities’ sense of grievance and motivate further conflict, while the problem with the latter approach is that it risks moving on too soon, stifling dissent, and leaving important grievances unaddressed such that the new society is built on a weak foundation. It is clear that, in these textbooks at least, the Sri Lankan government (controlled by the Sinhalese majority) has opted for the latter approach—an approach it sees as being in its best interest. As the party to the conflict with the most power (and a numerical majority)—and as the party whose position in the conflict was to ensure the territorial integrity of the Sri Lankan state in the face of demands for a Tamil homeland—it has the luxury of emphasizing unity, ethnic harmony, and democracy, as any unified, multiethnic state will likely exist on its terms, the terms of the Sinhalese majority.

This approach may be in the short-term interest of the Sri Lankan government and of the Sinhalese majority, but the erasure of injustices and violence experienced by the Tamil and Muslim communities on the island will not serve long-term prospects for peace if these minority communities feel that their long-held grievances are not being recognized and rectified. Rather, in considering the textbooks shaping the minds of its young people, the Sri Lankan government—and other governments emerging from wartime contexts—should endeavor to tell the stories of the country that are uncomfortable, along with the rosy depictions of ethnic harmony it is already telling. It is only by doing so that students who are members of minority communities will see themselves and their actual experiences reflected in the textbook pages and therefore feel as if they belong in the narrative of the country’s struggles. If Sri Lanka or any other deeply divided country wants all of its citizens to buy into the national project, it must actually listen to the voices of all its citizens, acknowledge its own responsibility for some of the wrongs they have experienced, and commit itself to creating a country worthy of their genuine allegiance. This is a risky enterprise—one to be tackled everywhere from the educational system to the judicial system—but it is a worthwhile enterprise necessary to the development of a healthy democracy—whether in Sri Lanka, in Germany, or in the United States.

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