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An assessment of the role of the Sri Lankan Diaspora

COMMUNITY: The term 'diaspora' refers to a scattering or dispersion of a particular community outside their country of origin.

Sri Lankans have since the early 1950s migrated for different reasons; economic factors, professional advancement, as asylum seekers in times of conflict and voluntary exile, Diaspora must be distinguished from our migrant workers whose stay, mainly in the Middle East is of a temporary nature.

Today there are nearly one million persons of Sri Lankan origin who live permanently overseas in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. The Diaspora also comprises second and third generation Sri Lankans some of whom are no longer distinguishable because they hold Foreign passports, use westernized names and have either married foreign nationals or one of their parents is of a foreign nationality.

The Sri Lankan Diaspora has taken on added significance because a greater number of them left our shores 'aggrieved' either due to discriminatory language policies or following violent ethnic pogroms of previous regimes.

Therefore, not all of them are well disposed towards their country of origin. In fact some of them are permanently engaged in campaigns to destroy Sri Lanka's image abroad and to promote the division of their country.

Their campaigns have drawn the world's attention to Sri Lanka's human rights situation, plight of internally displaced persons and alleged belligerence of Armed Forces towards civilians.

Having acquired 'legal status' by obtaining citizen-ship in some of the richest and most powerful countries of the west their actions have a significant impact on the international community's perception of political developments in Sri Lanka and this in turn affects the political stability and economic development of Sri Lanka.

The representations made by members of the Diaspora at multilateral for a and to international non governmental organisations are also significant. As the Sri Lankan Diaspora continues to grow numerically an assessment of their impact and how important it is to engage with them become relevant issues. Left ignored or agonised they could substantially erode our standing in western eyes.

Every Diaspora has its own significant and distinguishable characteristics. The Sri Lankan Diaspora has gained a reputation in their adopted countries for diligence and dedication in their employment, significant academic and professional attainments.

The overall perception therefore is that they make a useful contribution in their adopted country.

However, some noteworthy features have been that unlike the Burghers who were the earliest migrants from this country, the other communities that migrated subsequently have not assimilated or integrated into their country of adoption and remain distinguishable in their language, food, culture and habits.

Evidence of this is visible to any visitor to places like Dandenong in Victoria Australia, Toronto in Canada, Wembley or Harrow in London, U.K.

This is partly due to the multi culturism that these liberal democracies of the West have promoted in order to make migration more attractive and partly also due to the individual and collective desire of the Diaspora to retain their 'identity', in some instances to 'exhibit their perceived high culture' and for some others because they see Sri Lanka as their eventual point of return.

This failure to integrate has positive and negative aspects. On the positive side it means regular foreign currency remittances to help family and friends, endowment of charities back home, frequent holiday travel, investment in business, real estate in Sri Lanka. On the negative side financial support for 'causes' dear to them and in some cases influencing western governments to support these 'causes'.

The Sri Lankan Diaspora is also sharply divided on ethnic, religious and ideological lines and hence our communalism is exported. Foreigners now distinguish between 'Sri Lankan Sinhalese' and Sri Lankan Tamils' and have a sense that these two communities are traditional antagonists.

It is significant also that the Sri Lankan Diaspora by and large have not been high achievers. Few have made a mark in their adopted countries either in their profession or as entrepreneurs and a majority are engaged in blue and white collar jobs.

Yasmine Gooneratne, Malinie Jayasinghe Pieris, Nirj Deva, Christopher and Michael Ondaatjie, Chandra Wickremasinghe, Charmaine Solomons, S.D. Thambiah, Ralph Bultjens are a few names that spring to mind.

Nor have the Sri Lankans become a financial force to reckon with, unlike the Jews, Greeks, Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi Diaspora in their adopted countries. Therefore, their influence on the political landscape of their adopted countries is limited.

This partly explains how the LTTE remains banned in most of these countries in spite of heavy infiltration of LTTE sympathisers into key institutions in these countries.

Nevertheless their influence as stated earlier on western governments is substantial enough to affect us.

Whilst the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora is actively engaged in influencing foreign governments in their adopted country to exert pressure on Sri Lanka to address their 'Causes', the Sinhala Diaspora is hardly engaged with foreign governments in trying to correct this disinformation campaign but more focused on parochial issues in Sri Lankan domestic politics.

They have even abandoned efforts to propagate Buddhism in the West, when interest in Buddhism is on the rise and to promote their culture and traditions among foreigners.

The Tamil Diaspora has largely sustained the separatist war in Sri Lanka through funding and also helped LTTE build infrastructure in areas controlled by them.

The latest trend is for Tamil professionals who are LTTE sympathisers to travel to Killinochchi supposedly to visit relatives but in actual fact to offer their expertise voluntarily for short periods to build LTTE infrastructure and provide medical assistance to their cadres.

Their absence from the theatre of war helps them dream of a homeland in the luxury of their Western homes. The Sinhala Diaspora on the other hand propagates their pre-constituted idiosyncrasies about nationalism and takes a more conservative view of politics in Sri Lanka ironically while living in liberal democracies which are the very antithesis of such extremist nationalism.

It should be no surprise then that the JVP, JHU and Sihala Urumaya are substantially funded by the Sinhala Diaspora. Failure to integrate has thus largely contributed to the fact that liberal and secular culture in which they live has not influenced their thinking and approach in Sri Lanka.

It is significant also that in the case of the Tamil Diaspora that the independent dissenting voices of those opposed to the LTTE is more visible in these very communities than in Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka Tamil dissent is minimal due to their being the target of LTTE assassination. TULF leader V. Ananda Sangaree being a case in point. But those living abroad are 'safe' to express their views more freely.

In the UK alone Sri Lankan Tamil political parties and organisations like TULF (UK branch), Tamil Democratic Congress (TDC) and Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, Tamil Peace Forum, Tamil Broadcasting Corporation (TBC) function as alternative voices of moderation and are increasingly gaining support among the Tamil Diaspora.

This has clearly helped foreign governments to see that not all Sri Lankan Tamils acknowledge LTTE leadership and that in fact very many resent their terrorism. LTTE's violent campaigns have however helped Tamils seek asylum in the West under the guise of being persecuted and being unsafe back home.

LTTE fund drawing abroad however goes beyond the pale of extortion and collection of donations but also into commercial activities, smuggling and money laundering.

The Sinhala and Muslim members of the Diaspora are more visibly divided. Furthermore their more conservative views on devolution of power and secularism as means to resolve the conflict in the North and East has made it difficult for them to influence Western governments in their policies towards Sri Lanka.

Whilst the pro-LTTE lobbies projection of alleged discrimination of minorities, civilian deaths, restriction of humanitarian aid and human rights abuses whether substantiated or not has resonance with western values.

Members of the Sinhalese diaspora like Brian Seneviratne, Neville Jayaweera speak on LTTE platforms and BBC Sinhala service is perennially critical of Sri Lanka. In a recent speech in Melbourne, Brian Seneviratne claimed he supported a separate state for Tamils since the time he was a schoolboy in Sri Lanka in the 1950s.

The Tamil Diaspora also has individuals like Anton Balasingham in UK, Fr. S. J. Emmanuel in Germany, Manoharan and Shiva Pasupati in Australia who have individually contributed towards propagating their 'causes' and damaging Sri Lanka's image abroad.

The Tamil Diaspora also heavily influences western media to focus on the violence in Sri Lanka through orchestrated listener responses to programmes. Tamil Diaspora events such as demonstrations, cultural shows draw massive crowds whilst Sinhala and Muslim events of a similar nature are poorly patronised due to divisions.

Efforts in recent times to unite all Sri Lankan ethnic and religious Groups under a single banner remain positive steps, organisations such as Campaign for Peace and Unity in Sri Lanka (CPUSL) in the UK, the Committee on Sri Lanka in Australia, Festival of Cricket in UK are a new phenomenon that even foreign governments are trying to guage in that they mirror various shades of opinion within the Sri Lankan Diaspora.

The LTTE lobby is particularly concerned about these organisations because they challenge the myth that the Tamils cannot get along with the Sinhalese and that the Sri Lankan Diaspora is divided.

Any analysis of the impact of the Diaspora on Sri Lankan politics and the economy cannot be exhaustive but undoubtedly it is a phenomenon of growing significance with increasing numbers of migrants.

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Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
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