Groundviews

The Disillusionment of the Diaspora

[Editors note: Also read Two years after war’s end in Sri Lanka: What can the Tamil and Sinhala diaspora do?]

Indi’s post entitled “How Diaspora Can Overthrow The Government” set me off on a train of thought. Thought about the Sri Lankan diaspora, its role in Sri Lanka, both now and in the future.

The first mental hurdle I encountered was that of the definition of the word “diaspora”. What exactly is the diaspora?

I was once involved in a discussion here in London in which a Sri Lankan (as I saw her) lady objected to being classed as “diasporic”. Her reasoning was that the diaspora was actually people who had forcibly left their country, which was not her specific case, and she requested that the rest of us refer to her by some other label. Sadly I can’t remember what it was.

But, up until that point, I’d considered the term diaspora to be a general reference to emigrants. Broad I know, but that was pretty much it for me. 

I looked it up in my handy Collins Concise Dictionary, which tells me that diaspora is:

” A dispersion of people originally belonging to one nation”.

Am I any wiser with this bit of knowledge? Nope. In one way it tells me that any emigrant, from any country, is a member of the diaspora. In another it makes me question the definition of “originally belonging”. Perhaps it’s in the mind of the person, perhaps whether someone is diasporic or not therefore depends on that person’s own mindset and definitions.

Indi’s says in his post:

“It’s very easy for the diaspora to remake their homeland. They just need to come home.”

And I ponder and cogitate on this statement. 

He also says:

“If they all come back and vote they can swing the Presidential election and win the provincial elections in the North and East. Then they can either remake Sri Lanka or claim significant autonomy.”

Again it made me think very seriously.

Is Indi correct? Would the return of the voting diaspora change things politically in Sri Lanka?

My first question here is on the matter of a free and fair democracy. Does that exist in Sri Lanka? Would a body of voters, with their votes in the appropriate direction, actually change things? It’s a matter we could debate endlessly. I’m dubious about it yet feel it’s another argument for another post at another time.

But we then move on to the issue of whether the body of voters would vote in the directions Indi suggests they would. I suspect he’s correct, but we’ll never know until it actually happens.

My view though is that the statement Indi makes; that “they just need to come home” is another example of polarisation politics, of the “if you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality, of the black or white and forgetting of the very existence of grey mindset, that pervades much of the thinking around the Sri Lankan situation.

It’s not healthy. Or, as I used to say to my girls when they were young, it’s not funny and it’s not clever.

I have known and do know many Sri Lankan people who have left the country and feel let down by their motherland.

My maternal Grandmother, a proud and peace loving Tamil, was one of them. I was there with her in July ’83 and, though she died a couple of years later anyhow, she never wanted to return to Sri Lanka. 

She felt devastated and heartbroken by the behaviour of people she had considered her own (Sinhala and Tamil) and was particularly affected at having to deny her identity to save her life.

I know many others now who left the country many years ago and feel similarly. Most of them have been in the UK or other countries for decades, many now having their own kids, some even grandparents.

I certainly don’t make any claims to be able to speak for them but the impression I glean is that they don’t have that love for Sri Lanka that many others do. The thing is, if you consider what some went through, can you blame them? I can’t. Not only that but they’ve carved out lives and existences in other countries.

Telling them to come back, to return to the country that they feel abandoned them, in order to change things is like telling someone that the only way to save the sinking ship “might” be to jump back on it. I’m not actually saying that the ship is sinking, I’m saying that many of those diasporic potential voters think so. Would you give up everything to try to save the sinking ship? Do you love the ship enough?

Increasingly, as I look around me at the many Sri Lankan diasporic people I know, I see a sense of disillusionment. I hear a communal sigh as Sri Lankans around the world get exasperated and give up, walking away from the engaging in the debate, the processes and the discussions. Most of these people don’t consider themselves to be at either end of the political spectrum. No, they see themselves as moderates, just slightly to one side of a line.

It’s the result of crushing the voice of dissent, of the “if you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality and of the polarised and frankly unproductive I am right you are wrong arguments that seem to go on all over the show.

Sri Lanka is losing out on some highly intelligent people, some great minds, as well as a lot of idiots through this. No one is bothered about the idiots, but the great minds should be valued.

One of the things that I’ve learned in life is that very controlling people usually surround themselves with “yes” men. It’s a great plan when you want people to tell you how great you are, what a good job you’re doing and kiss your backside, but it’s not so effective when you need good input, when you want someone to give an alternative idea or plan.

For the longer term good of the country the Government of Sri Lanka needs to figure out ways in which to engage positively and constructively with the diaspora. Ways that are less black and white than saying “come home and vote or shut up”.

How should this be done I know not. One thing I’m certain of is that people like myself (second generation Sri Lanka, born and bred in Britain etc) should have minimal or no say in things. I’m actually talking about “proper” Sri Lankans, people who’ve been born in Sri Lanka, who have passports and the like.

A good friend suggested that perhaps different degrees of involvement, depending on variables, might be a solution. I think that’s got great potential but could be seriously complicated. Still, inventing the mobile phone was complicated, as was designing the Barefoot sarong, and those things happened!

Surely, if you get the diaspora involved, get them to be part of the process, then they’ll start to return. Isn’t that the best order to do things?