[Editors note: Also read the related post ‘Diaspora Diaries’: Exploring Connections and Interactions with Sri Lanka]
Kannan Arunasalam is a documentary filmmaker and narrative journalist. He was born in Jaffna, grew up in London, and returned to Sri Lanka in 2005. This year, International Alert commissioned Kannan to make filmed portraits of Sri Lankan diaspora members, to illustrate the potential of diaspora to inspire peace and reconciliation in their countries of heritage. In this piece, Kannan takes us behind the scenes of “Diaspora Diaries”, and shares his own story.
I was just a ten-year-old boy living in London when Black July – the communal riots of 1983 – plunged Sri Lanka into decades of civil war.
My father had given me a red t-shirt to wear. It had “Genocide in Sri Lanka” printed on the front, with a grim slogan that shouted “Burnt alive Sri Lanka style” on the back, over an outline of the island in flames. I didn’t really know what genocide meant, but my parents took me with them to the protests taking place in London at the time.
On my last visit to my parents’ home, I searched for the red t-shirt and found it buried among some old clothes in a cardboard box in the loft. I’d forgotten that I still had it and yet it struck me that, even as a child, it had mattered enough to me to keep it all those years ago.
Many diaspora I’ve met tell me how they often wonder how they might have turned out had they not left Sri Lanka. But for me it’s a different question. I often ask myself what I would have been like had I not moved back to Sri Lanka. The answer is complicated.
These memories and experiences have moulded my ideas about identity, the conflict and Sri Lanka. Returning to Sri Lanka eight years ago added another layer of complexity to these perspectives.
I wanted to ask other diaspora about their experiences and about their identity. Did they feel British or Sri Lankan? What did they think about the conflict back home? Indeed, was it really their home?
Exploring the diaspora’s diversity
Back in Sri Lanka the diaspora can draw very different reactions. The common view concerns the diasporic Tamils who are considered a monolithic, single-minded group, whose only purpose is to anger and provoke the Sri Lankan government. But I knew that it was more complicated than that.
There is a Sinhala and Muslim diaspora, and within the Tamil diaspora, even from talking to my own family, I knew there are many viewpoints. The diaspora are a diverse and dynamic community and I wanted to explore some of that diversity.
I was back in London on an assignment for International Alert to collect the perspectives of a cross-section of the diaspora. My journey would take me around the homes of different individuals living in London, to events in the diaspora calendar, as well as to meet those returning to Sri Lanka.
Making Diaspora Diaries
I knew that I could tell only part of the story but I was especially keen on meeting those who held strong views on accountability in Sri Lanka. Those who had reservations on whether to engage with Sri Lanka at all and who felt that they were not ready for reconciliation. I wanted to hear their side of the story and to understand why they felt that way.
The series of filmed portraits I made eventually became the Diaspora Diaries, looking at ways in which the diaspora engaged with Sri Lanka.
Nikini Jayatunga: A young voice for reconciliation
My assignment began with an initiative of Voices for Reconciliation (VfR) – a London-based group that uses art and culture as a way of bringing communities together and talking about the conflict.
Niki – who is Sinhalese, born and raised in England – asked me to show some of my work at an event she was hosting at the Royal Commonwealth Society. VfR’s ideas resonated with my work in Sri Lanka and so I agreed to take part. The event went well – the audience had been supportive and there was a lively discussion after a show and tell of work by artists, writers and filmmakers. But I did sense that I was preaching to the choir. There weren’t any diaspora in the audience with more vociferous views – individuals I was hoping to meet and interview for my series of films.
Paul Sathianesan: From refugee to deputy mayor
Days later, I visited Newham, a Tamil diaspora heartland in East London to meet its local councilor, Paul Sathianesan, who came to the UK in the 1980s as a war refugee.
We sat and talked in a Tamil-run café opposite Newham tube station. Paul told me about the dilemmas he faced in his work as councilor. He often felt conflicted. Although many of his constituents wanted him to take a firmer stance on the question of accountability, he felt that he could not single out one perspective. I’m sure that being a Tamil made these decisions that much harder for him.
Akneeswaran Jeganathapillai: Using medicine to build bridges between communities
My next portrait was on Akneeswaran Jeganathapillai (or Akee to his friends), a young Tamil doctor from south London. I visited him at his parents’ home in quiet suburban south London, but he was proud of his roots in Amparai in eastern Sri Lanka. A musician and events manager in his spare time, Akee led a busy life outside of medicine. He had recently volunteered to take part in an International Alert diaspora-led project where individuals from different ethnicities were using their background in medicine to engage with Sri Lanka.
Engaging with other diasporic communities was something he was used to doing when he was president of the Sri Lanka Society at King’s College London. Some Tamils formed their own society as a mark of protest over what was taking place in Sri Lanka in the last months of the war. Akee understood why they felt this way, but disagreed with them. “I felt there was another way to help”, he told me as he played some of the tracks he was working on with his cousin on his laptop.
Activist diasporic voices missing
My time in London was nearing its end and I knew I hadn’t managed to capture the diaspora voices that I was so keen to include. I was looking for activists from all diasporic communities, but I found it difficult to convince them to take part in my series.
However, I was concerned that their voice was conspicuously missing. Of course I was unlikely to meet them in Sri Lanka.
Amjad Saleem: Addressing the growing Islamophobia in Sri Lanka
Also visiting Sri Lanka was Amjad Saleem, originally part of the Sri Lanka expatriate community in Nigeria and now living in London.
Amjad’s parents still lived in Colombo and I visited his home in Bambalapitiya.
He showed me photos of growing up in Nigeria and also of his family affected by the tsunami of 2004. At the time he worked for Muslim Aid, helping with the recovery. He was close to the disaster. His family from Ampara was terribly affected, his grandmother had died.
The experience had strengthened his resolve to give back and he has been coming back, initially with Muslim Aid in connection with war displacement as well as with The Cordoba Foundation. The growing Islamophobia in the country was a serious concern to him and to the Foundation and he had several meetings talking to religious leaders and Muslim civil society to explore what responses they could make. He invited me to one meeting with a Nigerian colleague and friend who was talking to a group of Muslims about the negative anti-Muslim campaigns in Sri Lanka. I was glad to have included Amjad in the series – a community so often ignored.
Now the community was at the receiving end of hostility from Sinhala Buddhist extremism. Amjad felt that as a diaspora individual, his role was to facilitate without preaching. But his direct experience over the years of the tsunami and the conflict couldn’t be ignored. As a diaspora Muslim, his views mattered.
Return to Jaffna
The next leg of my journey was a visit to Jaffna. It is always a little surreal taking the military flight. The staff knew me well as I had flown to Jaffna several times before. When I saw the red soil of Jaffna approaching, I felt I was home.
Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam: Ex-Olympian Coaches Sri Lankan Youth
I was in Jaffna to meet Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam. He had come back to start an education programme using the Internet as a resource as well as his usual coaching sessions with up and coming athletes.
Ethir took me to visit his hometown of Villan, just north of Jaffna town. But we weren’t allowed to enter his or his family’s houses. They were all occupied by the army. We parked up as close as we could get and he explained how he felt about not being able to step inside his ancestral home.
What impressed me most was that, while many diaspora I had met were confused and uncertain as to how to engage with Sri Lanka, although emotional, Ethir expressed his views clearly. He knew where he could contribute but without feeling he was selling out.
Talking to other diaspora during my visit, especially the diasporic Tamils, made me think what I might have been like had I not made Sri Lanka my new home eight years ago. Would I have made Sinhalese and Muslim friends? Would I have gone to the protests that took place in London? I would like to think that I would have had the strength to resist extremism in all its forms. But it was difficult to say. Being a Tamil, I feel conflicted and confused.
I had also been uneasy about the position that colleagues and even friends in Sri Lanka had taken during the last months of the war in 2009.
My parents had friends from the other communities – but I worried for the next generation of diaspora. The ones I had met in London have started to change that, to work together and find common ground, using their skills and knowledge, like art, culture and medicine. But there were diasporic Sinhalese and Tamils who resisted my approaches.
The Sinhalese felt the war is over and terrorism defeated, so what was there to talk about? The Tamils felt that by even taking part in my film they were implicitly agreeing with the government. That somehow all projects aiming at understanding the other were aligned with the Sri Lankan regime. Clearly, they saw little progress was being made to tackle the problems for Tamils in Sri Lanka and the question of accountability should trump any other efforts. I understand that. I didn’t agree with them, but I respect their right to hold these views and their decision not to take part.
Perhaps at some point in the future both groups would be ready to talk to me and others whose approach to the conflict was different to theirs.
But I had also been moved by Ethir’s firm stance. Even if you agreed that reconciliation was the right approach, just talking about it wasn’t enough.