Educated, Unemployed Youth in Postwar Sri Lanka: Saman’s Story

In 2009 the nearly thirty-year-old war between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended with the defeat of the LTTE. Many young people, such as Saman around whose story this essay is constructed, saw the end of war as promising new opportunities for the future. But what I found while researching young, educated, unemployed Sinhala youth in Colombo was that the hope they held out for secure employment and better futures was also tinged with an ongoing sense of dejection that so-called peacetime had not curbed.1 As they saw it, the encroachment of politics on state employment opportunities—and increasingly on private-sector employment—contributed to a disappointing gulf between their aspirations and their lived realities. They respond to this situation through what I call “skilling up,” relentlessly chasing after further skills and qualifications, in the hope that their extra efforts coupled with their university education will help them secure decent employment and better futures.

Young people in many ways suffered the worst of the war, as government soldiers or guerrilla combatants on the front line, and through missed educational and employment opportunities. Furthermore, prior to the war, the post-independence government was entangled in two other violent conflicts with educated, unemployed, young Sinhala militants from marginalized backgrounds led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front, JVP), in 1971 and the late 1980s. Grievances regarding state power and politics, exclusion, resource distribution, and access to quality education and employment underpinned all three of these conflicts. Many of these grievances persist, making post-conflict peace fragile. Paying attention to young people’s attitudes to politics is key to the success of any attempts to promote sustainable peace.

Saman’s story illustrates the struggles of educated, unemployed, young people in post-conflict Sri Lanka. Saman grew up in a small border village in the north squeezed between the ferocious fighting of the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE. The son of Sinhala Buddhist peasant farmers, his childhood was marked by war, poverty, and disrupted education. Sleepless nights spent hiding in the jungle or bunkers, poverty exacerbated by war, chronic teacher absenteeism, and the conversion of his school into a refugee camp adversely impacted his education. Nevertheless, Saman was determined to make it to university, driven by the desire to leave his village and secure a decent job that would uplift his family. Saman was finally admitted to a university in greater Colombo. In 2009, while Saman was pursuing his degree, the war ended.

When I met Saman three years later, he was a dejected twenty-six-year-old unemployed graduate. Saman and his family had invested hope in the “transformative potential”2 of education, considering it the only means available to escape violence and poverty. But, in reality Saman’s life as an “educated young man” was marked by a series of disappointments. Saman remained in Colombo after completing his degree doing various temporary service-sector jobs while he continued to seek secure employment. He barely made enough money to get by. Saman described his current existence as one of degidiyāwa (uncertainty) and anxiety about the future. He felt unable to move forward with his life due to his lack of decent employment. He couldn’t economically support his family, build a house, or get married. He found himself caught in a liminal place between youth and adulthood. Saman sought to improve his “marketability” by attending various courses (e.g., English, information technology and human resources).

Saman, like many others, aspired to a job in the state sector. But he identified the stranglehold of politics (dēshapālanaya) on the employment sector, entailing recruitment based on political patronage, nepotism, and corruption, to be the key barrier he faced here. Saman considered these barriers to be an injustice (asādhāranakama) wrought on young people like himself. While political patronage primarily applied to securing work in the state sector, the increasing entanglement of politicians and their relatives in private businesses postwar has caused politics to creep into the private sector too. When I asked Saman why he didn’t cultivate links with politicians to secure a job, he responded, “We can’t keep our good character and engage in such work!”

Many educated Sinhala youth explained to me that politics is a dirty and dangerous game, and involvement in it is immoral and even shameful. Involvement in politics would compromise not only one’s moral standing but also the dignity conferred upon an individual by education. These youth drew my attention to the greed and belligerence of politicians, including fighting and shoot-outs between political factions, explaining this with a sense of disillusionment, disenchantment, and apathy. Saman expressed profound concern about the future degeneration of the country, due to the mismanagement of politically appointed, incompetent, and corrupt workers. Saman stated, “The state must stop the interference of politics in employment. But this will never happen . . . no matter what party comes into power it is the same . . . . You can’t break this system.”

Saman, nevertheless, maintained hope for the future and held firmly onto the belief that in five years he would be in “a good place” with a secure state job and married with a family. Despite his disaffection with the state and politics, Saman nonetheless held out for the government to deliver the promised fruits of education, a civil-service job. To this end he continued “busying” himself with “skilling up.”

Similar to Saman, the state is in a liminal place. During the post-conflict period it has failed to address the fundamental grievances that fueled its post-independence conflicts. This situation has created much uncertainty, causing people like Saman to have an ambivalent relationship with the state. Despite his moral critique of “dirty politics,” he invests hope for his future in the prospect of the state providing him a fundamental resource (stable employment) and the ensuing social capital (status).3 Skilling-up enables young people like Saman to garner a sense of control over dynamics that are beyond their power. “Skilling-up” here is a future-oriented “mode of being” for unemployed youth, an important means through which they give meaning to, and negotiate, a post-conflict context ridden with uncertainty and anxious liminality.4

Notes

[1] This research is part of a project titled “Alchemists of the Revolution? The Politics of Educated Unemployed Youth,” funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

[2] Jeffrey et al. 2008.

[3] Spencer 2007.

[4] Snellinger 2011.

References Cited

Jeffrey, Craig, Patricia Jeffery, and Roger Jeffery. 2008. Degrees Without Freedom? Education, Masculinities and Unemployment in North India. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Snellinger, Amanda. April 21, 2011. “Space within Limits: How Nepali Student Activists Orient themselves in the Political Landscape.” Paper presented to the Anthropology and Sociology Department, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.

Spencer, Jonathan. 2007. Anthropology, Politics, and the State: Democracy and Violence in South Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.