Groundviews

Why The Diaspora Must Return To Sri Lanka

Image from Himal Southasian, Sri Lanka’s alternatives abroad, December 2010 | By Sworup Nhasiju

[Editors note: Also read The Disillusionment of the Diaspora and Two years after war’s end in Sri Lanka: What can the Tamil and Sinhala diaspora do? that offer context and counter-points to this article.]

In a recent post entitled “How The Diaspora Can Overthrow The Government”, blogger Indi Samarajiva put forth the notion that all the Diaspora needs to do to claim Eelam (or whatever solution it wants) is to come back. As idealistically narrow as this claim may be, it does bear a certain logic. As Indi puts it, radical change requires radical sacrifice.

For many, the idea of returning to Sri Lanka is a fantasy but not a practical reality. There are limits to what one is able to do. Those who have children and extended families to support cannot afford to drop everything. And deeper still, the idea of returning to the devastation of what once was a paradise home is more than some are able to emotionally bear. The island remains unsafe and potential migrants would only be returning to a dangerous and uncertain future. Despite all this, the Diaspora must be willing to take risks and find its way back home.

Whether one wants to label the Sinhala influx as “governmental colonization” or not, it is a fact that the demographic face of the North-East is changing. The degree to which the Tamil Diaspora has participated in this shift is questionable. With dual-citizenship on hold and with the possibility of Eelam gone, much of the Tamil Diaspora has lost all desire to return to Sri Lanka. The housing market in Jaffna has boomed, with British, Canadian, and Australian residents selling their ancestral homesteads left, right and center. The streets of Jaffna, once rife with friends and family, are now peopled with strangers and isolated neighbors — many of whom are afraid to speak openly to each other in the current climate of fear.

Of greater import than any physical destruction, the Tamil community has been psychologically decimated. “Selvarani” is a young woman, a former LTTE cadre, who was released earlier this year from the Poonthotam Rehabilitation Camp. She returned to Mullaitivu, where she lives with her mother and father. For many, the rehabilitation camps are thinly-veiled prisons, separating former cadres from their families and from moving forward with their lives. “Selvarani”s experience is different. She has voluntarily returned to the camp to take a teacher’s certificate course offered by the government. “I love coming here,” she says. Tears quietly well in her eyes as she explains the loneliness and isolation she feels at home. “When I am here, I am happy. I have friends and people to talk to.”

The people need people. When speaking with a local psychologist, he defined the greatest need not as money but as manpower. “We have a shortage of qualified psychologists who can speak Tamil,” he said. “We just don’t have the people.” Post-traumatic stress disorder — a very real and debilitating psychological disorder — has quietly crept upon survivors of the war. Extreme depression depletes the women, young children suffer from an absolute inability to focus in school, and a growing addiction to alcohol within the male population threatens to overwhelm the entire community.

“Kanmani” is a single mother of 3. Her husband was killed during the final stages of the war, while her youngest was still only a few weeks old. While no longer suffering from as deep of a depression, she laments the effect her post-war emotional state had on her children. “I became deeply depressed…I used to take such good care of my son. I used to sit with him and make sure he did his studies. I can’t say I did the same for my daughter. The reason my son failed to get a scholarship is because I stopped attending to him. Mentally I was a complete mess.”

“Kanmani” attributes her positive emotional shift to an Indian swami who personally visited her and several others in the area. Her face brightens as she reflects on the laughter and care he brought to the village. He visited each house individually, partook in plays, and provided them counseling and a shoulder to cry on. “Because of him, my head is beginning to clear…if I drown in my sorrows, my children too will be lost…Slowly I am coming back to myself.”

The 2001 ceasefire brought an influx of Samaritan traffic to the island. Young adults from Canada, US, and UK arrived in droves, eager to contribute to the people of Vanni and to connect with and understand their own Tamil roots. While the current situation in Sri Lanka may be less than ideal, these opportunities to connect and contribute still exist. Orphanages, schools, and villages would happily welcome young volunteers, eager to spread English, dance, theatre, or any range of cross-cultural knowledge and exchange. This type of contact would do much to alleviate the sheer loneliness which impacts much of the Tamil community. While regions in the Vanni may still be subject to security regulations, travel to Mannar, Batticaloa, and Ampara is easy and unrestricted.

The first wave of Diaspora emigrants was ardent in its vision for a Tamil nation, a vision which has been passed on to their children. However, the past 30 years have robbed families of the opportunity to introduce their children to the land and people they hold so dear. The end of the war has brought no end to prevailing safety concerns. Parents continue to be reluctant to bring their children on visits to Sri Lanka, let alone the North-East. At some point the long term consequences of these choices must be addressed.

Much of the upcoming Diaspora generation has had no direct contact with Sri Lanka’s Tamil population. A large portion of this generation does not speak Tamil and would be unable to have anything but the most basic of conversations with their Sri Lankan counterparts. For others, their connection to Sri Lanka is romantic and genetic – the way many Americans refer to their long-forgotten German or English ancestry.

In the past 30 years, the North-East has been heavily supported through remittances from abroad. Within one generation, these direct remittances will wane or halt altogether. The Diaspora’s current breadwinners are the original immigrant population. These are people who grew up in Sri Lanka, who have shared memories and relationships with the remaining Tamil population. Relationships are the ties that bind. Relationships are what compels an already struggling family of five to continually spare and send $100 per month to cousins, neighbors, and old classmates. Without established, emotional relationships to persons on the ground, the new earners of the Diaspora will be forced to redirect their remittances solely through faceless NGO’s and government endorsed charities.

While Indi’s writings tend to be steeped in ideological theory, his recent post serves as a reminder of the Tamil Diaspora’s true mandate. A homeland is much more than a vacation destination. A homeland can exist only so long as a stable, interconnected community survives. Sri Lanka’s Tamils have endured 60 years of governmental persecution and a devastating war. They are staggering under an emotional weight which, in conjunction with continued governmental persecution, is becoming far too heavy for them to sustainably bear. The Tamil Diaspora can circumvent this weight only by reintegrating itself into the island’s community. The survival of the Tamil Diaspora is equally contingent upon maintaining this connection. Without a concerted effort to return to Sri Lanka and to reacquaint itself with the North-East, the Tamil Diaspora risks losing itself within their host country identities. At some point, the benefits of returning to Sri Lanka must outweigh the costs.

If that time is not now, then when?