By Shanti Nandana Wijesinghe*
Sri Lanka is recovering from thirty years of traumatic civil war, with her people craving peace and prosperity after prolonged exposure to barbaric and cruel experiences forced on them by terrorism. The government for its part is taking significant measures to undo the destructive effects of war on both material and psychological aspects of life by way of carrying out infrastructure development projects of massive proportions and facilitating harmony through special programs aimed at building peace and reconciliation among different ethnicities.
Naturally, the latter endeavor is more testing since it concerns altering thinking patterns that have for so long been conditioned by fear, mistrust, and general negativity. In order to address the issue, a host of reconciliation initiatives are being taken at the state level that tackle various dimensions of reconciliation including, but not limited to, social integration, ethnic coexistence, mutual trust, religious harmony, citizen empowerment, and grassroots leadership training.
A notable effort in this regard was taken by the Presidential Secretariat during the traditional Hindu Thai Pongul festival in January, 2013 where a select group of former female carders of the LTTE along with a group of university undergraduates engaged in the festivities associated with the event at the Leisure World Water Park. This initiative was mainly taken with the hope that both groups will for the first time be given the opportunity to interact extensively, thereby possibly deconstructing misinformed racial and religious prejudices they may entertain about each other.
The writer has specifically chosen this event due to the extensive implications it has for the social transformation process of post-war Sri Lanka. Furthermore, it suggests possibilities of a very wide scope that make it worthy of deliberation. The following theoretical concepts and definitions will be incorporated into this analysis, and the discussion will develop along lines of social integration and social capital in post-war Sri Lanka.
The article will focus on the following aspects in particular:
- How the youth of Sri Lanka can be effectively used to generate and sustain social capital in the terms of social development
- The implications of integrating the university student community with that of former LTTE carders on post-war reconciliation
- The impact of this effort on the process of social transformation as a whole
Clarification of Concepts
The process of post-war reconstruction and reconciliation has spawned a dynamic discourse on social development. An increasing wealth of discussion on public welfare, rehabilitation, and reintegration among other things has made the situation conducive for the emergence of this distinct body of knowledge on social development. This paper attempts to contribute to it by discussing social development in terms of social integration and social capital. In this attempt, the previously mentioned Thai Pongul celebration will be used as a case study to bring into light a practical example of reconciliation and discuss the implications of such initiatives for the future of Sri Lanka.
As is the case with all concepts in the Social Sciences, ‘social development’ too lacks clarity and a universally accepted definition. The United Nations has defined it as follows: “Social Development is an approach to promoting people’s welfare that is well suited not only to enhancing the quality of life for all citizens but to responding to the problems of distorted development.”1 According to Midgley social development is “a process of planned social change designed to promote the well-being of the population as a whole in conjunction with a dynamic process of economic development.”2
As such, it is necessarily a multi-dimensional concept. It concerns itself with improvement in the economic, social, cultural, spiritual and environmental conditions of human beings in order that physical and mental development may be achieved. The development of one variable mentioned above does not ensure overall social development and hence it is essential that all these aspects are progressed simultaneously to achieve sustainable social development.
Social Capital is a broad concept in the field of Social Sciences and the two words were organized as a term as late as the 80s. There is an extensive body of literature on social capital built by various scholars. Coleman held that social capital is not a single entity but a variety of different entities which have two common features; first they are part of social structures and second they facilitate certain actions of actors. To quote, “Social capital is inherent in the structures of relations between actors and among actors.”3 Thus Social capital is not lodged in individuals themselves or in physical instruments of production. He presented three forms of social capital which are listed below:
- Expectations and trustworthiness of structures, information channels and norms
- Effective sanctions
Putnam articulated social capital in his book “Making Democracy work” as follows; “Features of social organizations such as trust, norms and network that improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions.”4 His concept includes three components: moral obligations and norms, social values (especially trust) and social networks (especially voluntary associations).5
It can be derived from the above definitions that social capital constitutes of such components as trust, obligations, expectations, norms, networking, structures, and efficiency of society.
Social Capital is only partially a natural outcome of human social behavior because under certain circumstances – such as those found in post-war Sri Lanka- it can be consciously fostered through trust, reciprocity, and empowerment. Bourdieu’s concept of social capital puts the emphasis on conflicts and the power function. He says that “[t]he existence of a network of connections is not a natural given, or even a social given constituted once and for all by an initial act of institution…it is the product of an…effort at institution…the network of relationships is the product of investment strategies of the individual or collective, consciously or unconsciously aimed at establishing or reproaching social relationships that are directly usable in the short or long term.”6
In this respect “investment strategies … aimed at establishing … social relationships” such as empowerment, volunteerism, and building leadership skills can be considered as effective means of fostering social capital. The case study chosen for this analysis stands as a practical instance of generating social capital across different religions and ethnicities. Since youth were the exclusive participants of the event, the writer assumes that the youth of Sri Lanka can be effectively used to generate and sustain social capital in order to achieve sustainable social development in the country. How this congregation contributed to empowerment, volunteerism and development of leadership skills of the youth who took part in it will be elaborated next.
Empowerment fundamentally refers to equipping people with the skills and tools necessary for them to create a better situation for themselves. In the context of post-war Sri Lanka, empowerment can be viewed as giving people the psychological and material instruments that would help them create conditions conducive for peace, harmony and reconciliation. The empowered society, thus, can be considered as a source of social development. Post-war Sri Lanka must therefore pay attention to empowering people at the grassroots by creating opportunities for economic participation, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival.7
In this quest it is vital to target women as the main beneficiaries of empowerment projects because they comprise more than half the country’s population and were affected to a greater degree than men by the protracted armed conflict. While men recorded higher numbers in actual deaths, it is women who were left behind; women who continued to face the battle of life; women who single-handedly raised the children; women who braved the economically and socially trying circumstances; women, therefore, who should be empowered to better handle these situations.
Sri Lanka demonstrates greater equality between men and women than most developing nations in the world. In South Asia, Sri Lanka ranks first in gender quality. She also boasts the 16th place in the Global Gender Gap Index8. However, the country’s gender equality figures are not very representative due to further inequalities created between women by the war. During the thirty year war, there has been significant advancement in gender equality and empowerment in the Southern part of Sri Lanka but women in the North experienced limited scope in this regard. Survival itself was regularly challenged, and gender equality and empowerment naturally did not assume an important place in the Northern mind.
However, the war itself was not gender neutral. Rape, battery, molestation and numerous other forms of gender-based violence happened in the war theatre sometimes as a means of avenging an injustice of the enemy, and some other times as simply a medium of venting out frustrations resulted by constant armed struggles.
Hence empowerment in the post-conflict reconstruction and development agenda should create new opportunities for women to improve their livelihoods, access finance schemes, join new groups and also to be active politically.9
Recruitment of Tamil women from Kilinochchi to the Sri Lankan army is an example of gender empowerment and equality in the post-war development programme. Most of these women are officially appointed to various parts of the country, thereby encouraging greater integration into extra-regional societies and internal mobilization in Sri Lanka. They are also monetarily well compensated, and hence they contribute to the development of both their families as well as the country. The equal recognition and acceptance of Tamil female soldiers to the Sri Lankan army will generate mutual trust between Tamil and Sinhala communities, and the respect and recognition the position affords will be a huge positive influence on the personalities of said female soldiers.
The Thai Pongul celebration discussed above was another instance of female empowerment in terms of reintegration into the society. Ex-LTTE carders (all female) were given the opportunity to leave behind their violent past and start afresh. They were also introduced to an extensive youth network from the South. The contacts they make utilizing these tools will benefit them socially and possibly even economically.
A successful leader is usually a person with a strong will and compelling personality who can mobilize the people and cause dramatic – if not drastic – social change. This kind of person, however, can either be a positive or negative influence on the society. Generally the concept of leadership can be defined as the ability to evaluate and/or forecast a long term plan or policy and influence the followers towards the achievement of said goal.
Good leadership has the ability to change the society for the better, maintain social order and coherence during turbulent times, and sustain existing good conditions in the society. It is obviously a vital source of social capital because people will have an incentive to unite in the name of a better society.
In Sri Lanka, the general mindset of mistrust and hatred cultivated by the war that has resulted in community disintegration of unimaginable scale, grooming good leaders for the future has become a need of the hour. Towards this end, a state-sponsored reconciliation initiative called “Nena Guna Weduma: Sisu Diriya” conducts programmes at the national level to mould students with promising leadership qualities as change agents in order to contribute to the future of the country’s social development.
The special gathering of university students and newly appointed former female LTTE carders is also important in terms of leadership because both groups comprise of very strong candidates for future leadership. All attendees were young, dynamic personalities whose behavior and interaction with other social structures (schools, government and private institutions, organizations and civil society) will directly and decisively impact the future political discourse of the country. These kinds of interactions will mould leaders with a healthily nuanced and balanced approach to problems, leaders who enjoy close relations with the long segregated ethnic ‘other’, and most of all, leaders who know for themselves the destructiveness of war and therefore would have every incentive to avoid reverting to the traumatic past.
Networking, trust, and reciprocity can be considered as comprising the spirit of volunteerism. It involves dedicating one’s time, effort, and interest for a collectively beneficial cause with no compensation whatsoever. It is mainly inspired by benevolence of heart.
Volunteerism also generates two forms of social capital namely ‘bonding’ and ‘bridging.’ Since a volunteer’s interest lies in serving the community at large racial, ethnic, or religious divides do not apply to him/her. Their work may thus transcend group boundaries and benefit the society in its entirety. In this endeavour a volunteer will necessarily network, form bonds, and possibly even bring together people from different groups to work for the common good. It does not take much imagination, then, to see how volunteerism can be a source of social development.
Putum described voluntary association as the most important form of horizontal interaction and reciprocity and held that it influences social interaction and co-operation between actors in several ways. Associations first “increase the potential costs to a defector in any individual transaction“; second, “foster robust norms of reciprocity”; and third, “facilitate communication and improve the flow of information about the trustworthiness of individuals.”10 In addition Luhmann expressed that voluntary associations can be regarded as socially organized groups based on mutual trust between the members. Trust forges and sustains relations between the members.
According to Max Weber “voluntary associations are relations of domination in two respects: first, within the association (domination exercised by the leadership upon rank-and-file members), and second, in relation to the outside world (by the organization towards the outsiders)”.11
In the case study chosen for this analysis, all participants were volunteers in that they had willingly foregone their routine commitments without any compensation in order to take part in the event. Also the level of extensive networking – in the form of both bonding and bridging – in the event ensured that the true spirit of volunteerism was preserved and promoted.
Social integration can be seen as a very significant aspect of post-war reconciliation and reconstruction. The main reason behind a civil war or protracted social conflict is disintegration of the society due to competing (and often supposedly incompatible) objectives and interests of two or more groups. Hence reconciling these interests to the maximum possible extent is vital to achieve sustainable peace.
Primarily, social integration programmes aim either to recreate the social order that existed prior to a conflict or build an entirely new social order on foundations of peace and harmony. This necessitates according a satisfactory degree of importance and recognition to all members of the reforming society and establishing effective support networks for the sustenance of less able individuals.
In Sri Lanka, a disturbing distinction between Sinhalese and Tamils still exists often with connotations of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of the war. Ethnic snobbery and mistrust still characterize the Sinhala-Tamil relationship to a significant extent. This psychological war obviously cannot be addressed through military means and strongly calls for an undoing of mentally constructed barriers through a comprehensive social integration scheme.
Social integration in the context of post-war reconciliation is more than the return, resettlement, and employment of IDPs; it is more than the termination of armed violence; it includes bringing together the hearts and minds of people who have been separated politically, socially, culturally, and economically due to war. It is about creating defenses against the triggers of war like fragmentation, polarization and exclusion. Social integration should generate new forms of peaceful community relations, reinforce positive social norms, and rebuild social structures which provide stability, equal security and recognition to all communities.
In this context, strategies of social integration in Sri Lanka must be designed to integrate Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim communities to co-exist with faith, mutual trust and cultural understating. As such in contemporary Sri Lanka social integration should denote a “situation in which members of a community share common norms, beliefs, and goals that are structured and enforced through social institutions and a common dialogue.”12
The gathering of university students and former women soldiers of the LTTE provided an invaluable opportunity to integrate two previously divided sections of the society. University students of Southern Sri Lanka were thus far exposed only to the Sinhala interpretation of the ethnic conflict and this provided them their first personal encounter with active ex-combatants of the LTTE side.
They would have gained precious, and hitherto unknown, insights into the underpinnings of the conflict as viewed by those Tamils who were most directly involved in and affected by it. Ex-LTTE carders, on the other hand, would have come into contact for the first time with the Southern experience of war, how it affected civilian life, and what grievances Sinhalese might have regarding Tamils. The resultant mutual understanding and empathy this enables will provide a very strong foundation for social integration.
The event unwittingly enabled integration along other lines as well. University students came into contact with the security forces during this celebration and the duo have long been in a contentious relationship that has marked a bloody trail in the history of Sri Lanka. Especially the youth insurrections of the 70s and 80s (both of which were pioneered by young intellectuals) were crushed by the military with the use of blatant force. Several security force officials were also killed through coups planned by the rebels, and the combined death toll rose to heights that did not invite exploring. The tensions were periodically reinforced since then in the many minor movements organized by the university community in response to various politically heated issues. This event provided the rare luxury of a peaceful reason for these two groups to come together and even enjoy each other’s presence.
The meeting of ex-LTTE carders and members of the armed forces was another instance of integration facilitated through the event. No extensive elaboration is required to imagine the interaction between these two groups during three decades of armed conflict. However, joining hands to celebrate a cultural event afforded an atmosphere conducive for positive interaction. The event served to illustrate that joint action is not only possible, but also desirable especially in terms of reconciliation.
Hence it could be said that this gathering comprised a stepping stone towards a peaceful Sri Lanka. It set a much needed example of the potency of social integration to create a nation rich with love and friendship. The unintended but no less welcome forms of integration that were resulted by the event also show that one act of bona fide can have a multiplier effect by leading to glorious by products that will contribute towards a society less vulnerable to lapse into conflict.
Trilingual policy for social integration
Ethnic and linguistic diversity, though mostly has been a cause for strife, is actually a great resource that can boost the process of social development in the country because a collective Sri Lankan identity can be constructed by drawing from the best of every culture. For a country that has freshly emerged out of a destructive war, this proposal might appear a bit far-fetched. On a more plausible level, hence, Sri Lanka for the moment has to concentrate on accommodating the identity needs of all groups in the nation.
Language, as the most obvious manifestation of group identity, can be used to achieve this end. A tri-lingual policy is the most desirable measure that can be taken in this regard.
As a first phase educational reforms can be introduced to make the medium of instruction English. English is a neutral language that does not represent the essence of any ethnic collectivity in Sri Lanka. Hence no group will feel that they are surrendering their linguistic identity to that of another in the country. Then basic written and verbal knowledge in Sinhala and Tamil can be made compulsory. Obviously, this serves the end of increasing linguistic awareness and thereby enabling effective communication between different ethnic groups. If such an initiative is taken, future generations of Sri Lanka will enjoy increased connectivity and therefore will be at less risk to resort to violence as a means of problem solving.
A tri-lingual approach in all private and public institutions will address the issues of marginalization and restricted access to opportunities. Internal mobility within Sri Lanka will also increase if people are comfortable operating in any language. Demographics will therefore alter, possibly reducing regional segregation that demarcates the boundaries of ‘Sinhala’, ‘Tamil’ or ‘Muslim’ areas.
The current project of recruiting ex-LTTE carders and other interested Tamils to the Sri Lankan armed forces and police will also be complemented by a tri-lingual approach. This can significantly strengthen the gradually emerging ‘Sri Lankan’ consciousness that would effectively undermine all other divides. It will also speed up the reconciliation process by increasing social integration. Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha has stated that,
“I hope now that there will be active encouragement for Tamil as well as Muslim youngsters to join the forces at all levels and in particular as officer cadets. For this purpose there is need of establishing cadet corps in schools in the North and East and, though this has begun, I hope the forces at least will not fall prey to the classic Sri Lankan fault of too little, too late.”13
When implementing such a language policy, care should always be taken to avoid an increase of segregation. Learning ‘the other language’ should not so much be a weapon as it should be an asset. Therefore peace education should always accompany such a language policy to help students understand that knowledge about the other language is instrumental in reaching out to those who speak it, as opposed to penetrating their networks and extracting information. Mutual respect, if not affection, should at all times be emphasized. Encouraging, and setting examples of, interaction between diverse communities in regular activities of the civilian life can also greatly assist this kind of approach.
Social integration programmes should be designed based on ground realities. Getting acquainted with the preferences, habits, and tendencies of the local community that benefits from such programmes is crucial to grasping the context in which to launch the effort. Towards this end, conducting extracurricular activities i.e. activities that are not immediately related to the master programme is a wise strategy to employ because it will reveal how locals interact with each other, their behavioural patterns, etc. The use of fine arts is immensely beneficial in this regard. They have universal appeal, and as such the power to connect the hearts and minds of people who under normal circumstances consider themselves divided.
The Thai Pongul celebration used this factor to the maximum advantage by having dances, songs, and other performances. All items were enjoyed by everyone gathered, and the collective response to the occurrences on the stage generated a sense of unity among the crowd. Friendships were forged, opinions expressed, and sentiments shared. The event provided participants with the opportunity to reconsider the stock notions they entertained about other ethnic and religious groups. A former female LTTE carder commented:
“My name is Consetra. I joined the Sri Lankan forced with my consent as well as the consent of my parents. All the people in here care very much for us. There are no problems with food. We are living happily with them. They treat us like their own brothers and sisters. The only difference is language, but now all Tamil children can understand Sinhala and the Sinhala children are learning Tamil from us. There is no issue between us.”
An undergraduate said:
“My name is Nadeera. I’m a Muslim. I am 23 years old and I came from Hambanthota. I am a final year student at the University of Colombo. I am very pleased to have participated in this programme because I am from South and this is the first time I’m meeting friends from the North. I am very thankful to Mr. Shaheer Mohamed for organizing this programme. Also I am thankful to His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapakshe for carrying out this programme because it has been a great opportunity for us to bond with our brothers and sisters who were always there but whom we got to meet only recently.”
The above comments clearly illustrate that social integration is a fundamental for sustainable peace and, by extension, social development. The commitment and determination of youth to sustain peace and their capacity to achieve that end needs to be systematically organized and mobilized in order for the country to benefit fully from such enthusiasm.
Social development is an all encompassing process which requires progressive changes in the social, political, economic, and cultural spheres. Sustainable and practical approaches are necessary to ensure the viability and effectiveness of any social development initiative. Especially in a post-war context, social development is a crucial necessity because the material and psychological devastation caused by the war needs to be undone. This essay has explored a number of ways in which social development can be facilitated with special reference to contemporary Sri Lanka. It made use of a case study to illustrate how community initiatives can contribute to social development, drawing from the concepts of social capital, empowerment, leadership, volunteerism, and social integration.
The case study – a Thai Pongul celebration with the participation of a group of university students and a select batch of former female LTTE carders – is a promising event for social development because participants generated a significant amount of social capital, were empowered in terms of networking capacity, learnt about leadership skills, brought into life the spirit of volunteerism, and most importantly experienced social integration of hitherto segmented groups. As such, it can be considered as a stepping stone towards a socially more accomplished Sri Lanka.
Reconciliation after the thirty year war should be a process armed with fresh strategies and methods aimed at building sustainable peace and harmony in the country because the end of armed hostilities does by no means imply that ‘sustainable’ peace has been achieved. “It is in the minds of men that war starts and therefore it is in the minds of men that defenses of peace should be built.”
About the author:
*Shanti Nandana Wijesinghe, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Peradeniya, Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.
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Eurasian Review 13 April 2015 – http://www.eurasiareview.com/13042015-sri-lanka-social-development-through-social-capital-and-integration-analysis/