An Opportunity To Engage With The Tamil Diaspora

“The Sri Lankan state also has an obligation to reach out to the Tamil diaspora instead of viewing them suspiciously as agents of the LTTE and of separation. The Tamil diaspora consists of people who were citizens of Sri Lanka, and their children, who continue to yearn for the home they once had in a beautiful island, with people who are closer to them racially and culturally than any other people in the world.”

by Jehan Perera

(September 01, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Sri Lankan diaspora broadly defined consists of all those who have left the shores of Sri Lanka. Some of them have gone abroad only for a short time, such as the migrant workers in the Middle East. But others have been in their adopted lands for over a hundred years, such as those in Malaysia. The Sri Lankan diaspora covers all its communities, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers. But the most influential, and most controversial, has been the largest group, the Tamil diaspora.

The vast majority of those in the Tamil diaspora left the country in the aftermath of the events of July 1983, the 25th anniversary of which was commemorated only recently. The Sri Lankan government sought actively to play down those commemoration events, warning its embassies abroad that there was an LTTE campaign against Sri Lanka. Even within the country, those who organised commemoration events in order to show their solidarity with the Tamil people, found their efforts were viewed with suspicion.

The Tamil diaspora is seen by the Sri Lankan state as an important actor in the ongoing war against the LTTE that needs to be checked. It is a fact that many, if not most, who left the country did so in circumstances that were extremely painful and bitter to them. They left homes that were burnt, families that were scattered, and a larger society that did not trust them and equated them with the violence of the Tamil militancy. They left for an uncertain future into alien cultures and societies, in which they would be an underclass for many years. But due to the essentially egalitarian and merit-based nature of the Western societies to which they migrated, many of them and their children have finally prospered.

It is no surprise then that large sections of the Tamil diaspora should feel alienated from the Sri Lankan state that failed to nurture, give them opportunities and protect them as equal citizens. The Tamil diaspora has become a source of support for the idyllic vision of a Tamil homeland which the Tamil people can govern, develop themselves, and live in security. Members of the Tamil diaspora, who once were part of the intellectual and social elite of Sri Lanka, have been very effective advocates for the notion of Tamil Eelam and the main source of support for the LTTE which continues the fight for separation.


At the same time, however, there is diversity within the Tamil diaspora. One is the difference between the first generation of the diaspora who left the country well before the ethnic conflict got into its violent phase, and the second generation who left after the violence had commenced. The Sri Lankan diaspora in Malaysia includes a small number of Sinhalese as well, and consists largely of the first generation who left Sri Lanka in happier times and have correspondingly happier memories.

Last week I was able to participate in a conference organised by the Federation of Malaysian Sri Lankan Organisations, which is an umbrella group that has been able to bring together many of the Sri Lankan diaspora members of all ethnic communities in Malaysia. Most of the participants at the conference came from the Tamil diaspora in Malaysia, but also from other parts of the world, including Australia, Europe and Canada. One of the highlights of the conference was the participation of a large and multi ethnic group of Sri Lankans belonging the Association of Justices of Peace (JPs) for Human Rights, a Sri Lanka-based organisation.

As could be expected one of the main concerns expressed at the conference was to find ways to sustain the life of the people and families left behind in Sri Lanka. The participants at the conference were acutely aware of the tragic situation currently facing many of the Tamil people of the north. With the Sri Lankan military advancing on LTTE-held territory, the government has been advising the people in leaflets dropped from the air to flee their homes for government-held areas. More than 200,000 people have been rendered homeless due to the recent rounds of fighting.

Ever since the mass exodus of Tamils abroad 25 years ago, the Tamil diaspora has been in an oppositional mode with the Sri Lankan state. There has been little or no attempt on both sides to engage in a constructive manner. A large part of the reason has been the confidence of the Tamil diaspora that the LTTE's armed struggle for separation, which they support, will end in success. So long as this belief, and desire, continues there will be little incentive on the part of the Tamil diaspora to engage constructively with the Sri Lankan state.


However, recent developments on the ground and in international politics suggest that the struggle for Tamil Eelam will not be successful. The minds of its different ethnic communities may be separated, but the geographical boundaries of the country will remain intact. The worldwide war against terrorism which is gaining in intensity, the opposition of India to an independent Tamil Eelam led by the LTTE on its doorstep and the determination of the vast majority of the people of Sri Lanka to pay any price to keep the country's borders intact, are most unlikely to be overcome.

This means that if the Tamil diaspora wishes to come to the aid of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, they need to be prepared to engage constructively with the Sri Lankan state, and find ways to do so. It also means that the Tamil diaspora has to reconsider its separatist option and be prepared to accommodate themselves to the reality that the LTTE's military force will not win peace, happiness and prosperity for the Tamil people in the homeland.

The Sri Lankan state also has an obligation to reach out to the Tamil diaspora instead of viewing them suspiciously as agents of the LTTE and of separation. The Tamil diaspora consists of people who were citizens of Sri Lanka, and their children, who continue to yearn for the home they once had in a beautiful island, with people who are closer to them racially and culturally than any other people in the world. One of the anxieties of the Tamil diaspora is that with the passing of the years, and the growing up of their children in foreign lands into the third generation, they will lose their unique identity. But this need not be.

During the period of the Diaspora conference in Malaysia, former Indian President Abdul Kalam paid a visit to the University of Malaya, where our conference was being held. More than 2000 students, nearly all of them members of the Indian diaspora in Malaysia came to listen to President Kalam speak. These were third generation members of a diaspora, and citizens of another country, but their emotional bonds to their Indian homeland were powerful and visible. Even the Sri Lankan diaspora participants could not feel unaffected by the tide of emotion that bonded everyone in the auditorium at that time.

This emotional bonding of the former President of India and the third generation of Indian-origin citizens of Malaysia was not simply a spontaneous phenomenon. It is also one that is carefully cultivated and nurtured by the Indian state, that recognises and calls out to its children and their children living in faraway lands. As a result, wherever there are members of the Indian diaspora, India has its loyal. proud and willing representatives. So must we make it happen for Sri Lanka, with our own Tamil diaspora. Increasing the number of Tamil officers and diplomats in the foreign service and stationing them in Sri Lankan embassies abroad with the specific mandate of reaching out to the Tamil diaspora could be a first step.
- Sri Lanka Guardian