Diaspora, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Engage the Diaspora

As all issues pertaining to ethnicity in Sri Lanka the role of the Diaspora Tamils has become a point of contention in Sri Lanka. As usual this group is defined in monolithic terms by most commentators within Sri Lanka and its diversity of opinion is overlooked. There is little effort to understand the diversity within this group or to engage them in a constructive manner for the benefit of long-term peace and prosperity in Sri Lanka.

The divergence of political opinions/beliefs within the Tamil Diaspora ranges from supporting a separate state in the North/East of Sri Lanka, to a fair political solution within the framework of Sri Lanka that addressed the legitimate grievances of the minorities. There are also many who are not active on issues regarding Sri Lanka and are more preoccupied in making a life for themselves in the countries they have emigrated to. If you were to add the layers of the second and the third generation within the Diaspora, the views are more diverse because many within this group take into account the global perspective vs. the narrow nationalistic prism by which their parents viewed the ethnic conflict. I am confident that this is the case for the Sinhalese Diaspora too with flag waving nationalist being the minority rather than the majority.

Both Sinhalese and Tamil nationalistic politics have failed Sri Lanka and it’s citizens. They have mirrored each other in defining a nation from the perspective of ethnicity and language and rooted their ideology based on exclusion rather than inclusion. In doing so they have emphasized a glorious past that does not take into account the past cultural interactions between ethnic groups.  This narrow view of defining nationhood and citizenship forces citizens to view every aspect of governance and economic development from the perspective of a half filled glass, where the means of distribution are based on grabbing a bigger share by denying other groups basic benefits and fundamental rights. It also has created a culture of entitlement, which extends to foreign aid and trade benefits. This narrow nationalistic ideology has not only contributed to the civil war but it also has hurt Sri Lanka from the perspective of not allowing it to take advantage of the benefits of the global economy to grow the economic pie that will contribute to the wellbeing of all segments within Sri Lanka.

In the modern global economy a diverse population and good governance works to a nation’s benefit because it allows it to maximize it’s human potential both internally and externality. Countries that can tap into the intellectual capital of their citizens stand to take advantage of a knowledge-based economy. Those who do not are either on the lower rung (limited to a few export and service sectors) or dependent on development handouts. Developing countries that have been successful in the last decade and a half (China, India, Vietnam) also are taking advantage of their Diaspora groups by encouraging them to take part in the development of their respective countries.  The Diaspora groups have introduced new knowledge based industries, opened up new markets for products and services, contributed to improving governance, social development and provided valuable input on the role of the global economy.

It would be to the benefit of Sri Lanka if the Diaspora groups were engaged and allowed to contribute on issues ranging from governance to economic development. Instead of focusing on the vocal nationalistic Diaspora (Both Sinhalese and Tamils) who tend to be blindly nationalistic and ethnocentric, the focus should be on those who are moderate or unengaged. A good start would be for the different communities within the Diaspora to start engaging with each other and addressing the challenges facing Sri Lanka whether it be better governance or economic development.  Even reasonable people are going to disagree on these issues and their ethnic background may play a role in these diverging views. However they will also have a lot in common ranging from having to socially integrate into their adopted countries, taking advantage of economic opportunities, living in multi-ethnic countries, importance of the rule of law and understanding global realities that transcend ethnicity.  They also understand that ethnic nationalism and bad governance is not limited to Sri Lanka. Countries overcome this by inclusive policies that foster a common identity that transcends ethnicity where there is no contradiction between being proud of your heritage and being a citizen of a multi-ethnic/racial state. Furthermore, segments within the Sri Lankan Diaspora (Both Tamil and Sinhalese) lived within diverse societies and modern economies where they do understand the benefits of diversity and collaborating for the benefit of all citizens.

The Diaspora groups can also engage with both the private (Civil society and private sector companies) and public sector (political parties and government) to share their inputs and solutions in regards to key issues. This exchange is not going to be easy and solutions will not be implemented overnight. However, there is a possibility of incremental progress especially in regards to the private sector. Local civil society and industry leaders could be valuable partners to the Diaspora who want to contribute to the dialogue and implementation of reforms.  Those who are justifiably concerned about the condition of the Tamil people in the north and the east of the country can start by engaging private sector partners in Sri Lanka to rebuild the economy and improve the social conditions. This does not mean one should over look a permanent political solution that addresses devolution of power in the north and east and equitable rights for the minorities (both in letter and sprit). However, segments of the Diaspora can create conditions for consensus on these issues if they engage different communities within Sri Lanka and start inter ethnic cooperation on economic and social development issues.

Sri Lanka due to the blind nationalistic/ethnocentric politics of both Sinhalese and Tamil politicians, lack of political vision, political corruption and bad governance has not been able to take advantage of it’s human potential. It is time to change this cycle and provide hope to generations to come.