by Thomas Johnpulle
(July 28, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Tamils of Sri Lanka have left the island in very large numbers. According to estimates, the Tamil Diaspora is 600,000 strong scattered mainly in Western and Australasian countries. Resultantly, the local Tamil population has reduced relative to other communities. War and insecurity has provided a good excuse for hundreds of thousands to go to greener pastures every year. Although war is an excuse, is it the main reason for their emigration in recent times? Many would say yes, but a closer look would reveal more compelling reasons.
Tamils started migrating for better prospects way back in the 1920s when shiploads of Tamils migrated to Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, South Africa, Great Britain, etc. Relative to its percentage, larger number of Tamils emigrated than Sinhalese or Muslims. This trend increased in the 1950s and continued to climb until 1983 when it hit record levels. Since then a very large number of people leave this island annually whether it is war or peace. Those who migrated enjoyed an unparalleled richness and life style their local cousins could only dream about. Natural tendancy is therefore to follow them. Tamils girl in Sri Lanka today prefer a partner who has settled down abroad; preferably in an English speaking country. Overseas residing grooms have become more and more demanding and things that were mot material in a Tamil marriage a few decades ago have become important. Skin colour, westernized social skills, western dress code, aesthetic skills and sexuality have taken centre stage in place of family ties, business relationships of parents, dowry and culinary skills. Poor Tamil girls are under enormous stress to find a partner of their dreams. Similarly poor Tamil boys find that they are left behind by most girls. This adds an unseen pressure on them to emulate their rich cousins. Unmarried sisters languishing at home add further pressure on their brothers to emigrate, earn a decent dowry to marry-off their aging sisters and help their siblings migrate.
Tamil society gives a lot of importance to relative riches and statuses of families. This creates stiff competition among them. If one family emigrate, that adds enormous pressure on its ‘rivals’ to follow suit else lose its relative dignity. Within families also there is a lot of competition. Unless a family owns a business in Sri Lanka, there is absolutely no reason for most northern families to stay back in their home country.
However, traditionally Tamils help each other settle down in their neighborhood. These bonds are firmer among Tamil communities abroad. This has been another factor that stimulates mass emigration. Although media reported a few unfortunate incidents involving Tamil ‘gangs’ especially in Great Britain, the vast majority are law abiding, god fearing people. In abstract terms, the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora’s economy is as big as the Sri Lankan economy (approximately US$30 billion) and fast growing. In economic terms there is no way the Sri Lankan economy can keep pace with the economy of the Tamil Diaspora. This further encourages youngsters to seek greener pastures abroad. The trend of migration has passed the tipping point.
Of course insecurity and war have also contributed to leave Sri Lanka behind. But economic reasons remain the main focus and motive for mass emigration which is also seen among the Sinhalese.
Can peace stop this trend or at least reduce it? Not at all likely; war has little to do with it. Can peace bring about a situation where Sri Lanka becomes more appealing than Canada economically? Can peace uplift the quality of life, education, healthcare, etc. to the levels in the rich West? Can peace bridge the difference in prosperity between locals and their foreign relatives? No.
In this context, there cannot be a meaningful Tamil State within Sri Lanka where Tamils could content with. People living in Vanni have become commodities of the rich Tamil Diaspora; they are fighting a war that can give them nothing in return. After their demise, the next generation will be send to the pit to fight for the fancies of a section of the Diaspora. They also ensure that Tamil politicians don’t settle for something less than Tamil Elam. They maneuver their enormous economic weight in support of separatist forces while moderate Tamils in the Diaspora have totally given up on Sri Lanka. The inability of local Tamil political forces to make compromises on the Tamil Elam demand lies there. No political solution can satiate the need for Tamil Elam craved by sections of the Diaspora. On the other hand no amount of appeasement can compel local Tamils to divorce their overseas brothers and sisters.
This is the reality most political observers fail to acknowledge. However, this doesn’t mean that there is no political solution. On the contrary; a successful political solution should make Tamils meaningful political stakeholders of this country. It cannot be done by regionalizing. The moment a region is given to local Tamils the Diaspora makes other plans for them and their region! Instead it got to be done through ethnic integration. Colombo is a living example of ethnic integration. Sport can do a lot in bringing people together, especially soccer which is the most popular sport among North-East Tamils and Muslims. Unfortunately this particular sport gets step motherly treatment in spite of it being a very low cost sport comparative to others. Tamils must be integrated to national politics of UNP and SLFP where governments should have Tamils holding important ministries. The police force which was once an example of multiculturalism has changed its identity over the past 25 years. It must be reinstated. These are the very things the LTTE deliberately destroyed in order to isolate the Tamil community. On the other hand rejuvenating these little things do not contribute towards separation in anyway; they don’t attract the attention of separatist elements and they are not expensive. They don’t require constitutional sanction or exploring unpopular choices for a government.
In a democracy, decision making power of a community rests with their numbers. These measures will cushion the effects that come with a shrinking Tamil population in Sri Lanka. Coexistence and confidence these little steps bring about coupled with economic revival will set the tone for a more permanent and sustainable political solution that need not be forced upon both the majority and the minority.
The solution to the ethnic problem lies in sharing what we, average Sri Lankans, can share among us; not about attempting to share what we cannot.
(The Writer, Thomas Johnpulle , Econometrics Consultant He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Sri Lanka Guardian