Expats abroad – a key factor in Lankan politics

“No government can overlook the importance of the Sri Lankan diaspora in the post- Prabhakaran phase in particular. Its importance is not only in its numerical strength which could run into at least two million but also because of its potential to play an interventionist role in Sri Lankan politics, particularly in the next phase of durable peace-making.”

By H. L. D. Mahindapala

(November 13, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) President Mahinda Rajapakse is scheduled to meet the expatriates today. A meeting of this kind was long overdue. Whether they are liked or not, (some like the expats, some think that they are interfering busybodies) the diaspora, consisting mainly of the Sinhala and Tamil communities, has come to stay as a formidable force determined to play their part in Sri Lankan politics. The vast majority of the Burghers abroad are mostly keen on minding their own business, though there are some exceptions like Dr. Quintus de Zylwa, who has made 17 trips to Sri Lanka taking medical aid and specialists to serve the needy in tsunami-hit areas. Leaving the Burghers aside, the rest of the diaspora have impacted in diverse ways on Sri Lankan politics. They carry considerable weight in their overseas constituencies. And today’s meeting of the diaspora with the President is timely and necessary.

By and large, the Sri Lankan diaspora has been marginalized by officialdom which is happy only when it plays a subservient role to the powers-that-be. They are also aware that the diaspora cannot be ignored, or kept on the shelves as an ornament, or ignored as an irritant. It is becoming increasingly clear that the diaspora is an active force that is even more powerful than the diplomatic missions abroad. Their lobbying and their voices ring loud in the corridors of Western powers. They exert a certain degree of political clout and over the years of exile they have emerged as a formidable politico-economic force. It can also be argued that their roles, particularly the role of the Tamils in the north-south conflict, have been an overwhelming factor.

No government can overlook the importance of the Sri Lankan diaspora in the post- Prabhakaran phase in particular. Its importance is not only in its numerical strength which could run into at least two million but also because of its potential to play an interventionist role in Sri Lankan politics, particularly in the next phase of durable peace-making. A part of peace-making is also linked to economic growth and this too comes within the sphere of the diaspora.

In broad terms, it must be recognized that the active diaspora is divided on ethnic lines. But there are also internal divisions within these two ethnic groups. The Vadukoddai politics continue to dominate the Tamil transnational extremists. They are clinging on to the failed past haunted by the ghost of Prabhakaran. After the sudden and unexpected collapse of their multi-million investments in Prabhakaran’s sand castles built on the banks of Nanthi Kadal they find themselves in a political vacuum without a leader or an alternative political strategy to achieve the illusions outlined in the Vadukoddai Resolution. They can survive only by hanging on to the myths of the dead past which show no signs of doing a Lazarus.

Just last Saturday the Tamil transnational extremists received a deadly blow in Canberra when Des Browne, the special envoy of the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, told leading Tamil activists in Australia that Eelam is out and that they must engage positively with the Sri Lankan government if they hope to get anywhere. As opposed to the Tamil transnational extremists – some of whom are still issuing statements in the name of the LTTE – there is a moderate wing that is rising with a realistic and pragmatic programme of engaging with the government constructively. The division within the Tamil diaspora came to the fore when Dr. Noel Nadesan, a leading Tamil activists who foresaw that there was no hope in Prabhakaran’s brutal violence and moved into moderate politics, blamed the Tamil leadership for the letting down the Tamils without engaging in constructive interaction with the government. Dr. Nadesan is a Tamil nationalist who actively campaigns to get the best for the Tamils without engaging in counter-productive violence which has taken the Tamils nowhere. He urged Des Bowne to use his influence to put pressure on all parties – Tamil and Sinhala leaders – to work together to achieve common goals and aspirations of all communities.

Des Browne’s message sent shock waves among the Tamil diaspora. This message from the international community said categorically that a separate state is not on the agenda of the international community. But their blind fanaticism has led them to set up a pie-in-the-sky state abroad when their best military leader failed to hang on to the only piece of real estate they had to build their separate future. As in the failed past the transnational extremists have never stopped to ask how the Vadukoddai fantasy haunting their febrile imagination has any chance of going anywhere beyond Nanthi Kadal particularly when even the pseudo-state set up Prabhakaran, with an army, navy and a few flying biscuit tins, was not recognized by any known state.

On the contrary, 32 states banned the Tamil Tigers. So, on a realistic plane, isn’t it time for them go through a soul-searching reappraisal of their Vadukoddai myths and engage in bargaining for what is possible than going against all the powers on earth. Doesn’t this confirm the finding of some sociologists that the Jaffna Tamils have a greater tendency to commit suicide than most other communities in Sri Lanka? It is unlikely that this group of extremists will meet the President. Only those Tamils seeking to engage the Sri Lankan government in cooperative development will attend the meeting. A representative of this group, Manranjan, former director of Rupavahini, is already working with the government on the rehabilitation of the IDPs. He will be joined Mrs. Rajes Balasubramaniam, a London-based literary figure known in Tamil circles.

As for the Sinhala diaspora they are divided mostly on party lines. Some of them are also driven by thundering egos competing for self-glorification and recognition in the guise of serving the nation. In England, for instance, you can be sure that if two Sinhalese meet to consider the Sri Lankan situation they would come up with at least four opinions, most of which will be based on the importance of the contributions made by each one of them. Gotabaya Rajapakse, who had lived among the expats, had this nasty experience with them recently. A tele-conference among expats in America was set up to discuss common issue. The purpose was to bring the expats together for the common good of the nation. Half way through the conference the expats were fighting among themselves to impress Gotabaya how important and good they were as opposed to the others. No one can blame Gotabaya for putting the phone down and ending the futile conference.

The expats must realize that the meeting with the President is not an occasion for grandstanding. Their task is to lay down the groundwork for future constructive engagement with the government. Hopefully, the expats would have sufficient sense to steer the meeting in a positive direction to achieve long term goals.

However, it must be recognized that the government too has not paid due attention to the diaspora or developed a strategy to harness the potential in the diaspora. Despite obstacles the government must go all out to bring the expats in. There are some committed and hard-working expatriates who had devoted their lives (without any payment) to work for the nation to which they owe everything. There are those who are willing to come back and work or work from where they are to serve their motherland. But nothing is regularized. Officialdom is either reluctant or scared to work with the expats out of stupid prejudices or fear of a take over by the expats.

What is important for the government recognize now is that with its limited resources it cannot meet the new challenges raising its head abroad. Nor is the government having a competent instrumentality abroad to deal with the hostile forces attacking the government. Some of the most productive work in defending the nation is done by the expats without any cost to the taxpayers of Sri Lanka. The government is yet to strategize ways of tapping into this resource methodically and intelligently. Even when ways are pointed out the bureaucracy is full of excuses, or takes a high and mighty attitude of know-alls who end up either bungling or producing nothing. The Foreign Ministry, in particular, is noted among the expats for their Alice in Wonderland adventures abroad. It is, therefore, vital for the government to link up with the expatriate community at various levels to get the best out of them without any cost.

Tentatively, I wish to suggest the following for their consideration:

1. Set up a wing either in President’s office or in the Foreign Ministry to deal exclusively with the expats to coordinate their legitimate and productive activities with the Sri Lankan government and people, especially in the fields of delivering aid and services. This unit must be empowered to deal directly with the relevant line ministries and provide assistance/answers to resolve their problems. The tendency is to take the expats working for the nation as granted by the paid officials who tend to think that they are doing a favour for the voluntary workers in the expatriate community. The government cannot expect the expatriate community to work for the nation without extending a welcoming hand. The bureaucratic indifference, if not haughtiness, is putting off expatriates, who are getting tired of those who dealing with bureaucratic red tape.

2. Set up a temporary committee selected from those present to liaise with government officials to map out a constructive programme for future engagement.

3. One of the disheartening features of the existing system is the absence of a coordinating authority to handle issues arising from goods and services sent from abroad. This defect was exposed when the tsunami hit Sri Lanka. The outpouring of sympathy led to spontaneous support from Sri Lanka expats. But they ran into a bureaucratic stumbling bloc with Customs demanding duties and others refusing to release goods etc. An urgent need is establish a mechanism to help expats to deliver goods and services to Sri Lanka, particularly delivering goods shipped to approved charities, organizations and centres that require aid. The expats spent their time, energy and money to collect and ship goods only to find that they have to pay duties at the Colombo end. If the goods are for non-profit services, approved by the government according to the needs of the time (e.g., natural disasters, or victims of terrorism etc) it is nothing but fair that these goods should be exempt from duties and administrative blocks at the Sri Lanka end. To levy a duty at that end is to levy a double tax which is discouraging to the expats committed to serve the needy.

4. The needs of the Tamil diaspora may include some political involvement as well. The Tamil moderates willing and able to engage with the government should be given special consideration at the highest level as their cooperation is necessary for the government to win over the Tamil moderates in constructive programmes of economic development and peace-building.

5. Establish merit awards for those who have rendered valuable services to Sri Lanka. These selfless activists have done their bit without any awards or payment from the government. An award system would also be an encouragement to others to join in. If an annual award ceremony is also thrown in the gathering of the expats would also help the tourist industry.

6. Organise conferences of expats, at least once in two years, to bond the expats with the Sri Lankan officials and intellectuals.

There are other sensitive areas too that need to be addressed. Besides, the necessary refinements needed for future progress can be filled in if a structure is set up to deal with the expats. Some sort of mechanism to deal with the government is a prime necessity. If the expats can get this going then both he government and expats could be hopeful of moving forward together for their mutual benefit.
-Sri Lanka Guardian
kahagalle said...

Mahindapala as usual has done a beautiful analysis on the expatriate’s value for Sri Lanka. However most these expatriate rather than focusing on what they can give to Sri Lanka think of taking more from the country. This is evident when they fight for equal treatment of fees when they visit back home. The visa fees, and other fees levied on foreigners they want to by pass. They want best of both worlds. We should only encourage expatriates who have a genuine desire to help the country also having a desired skill set to return. Just because you have become an expatriate we should not treat everybody equally. Mahinda it is time that you wrote an account on Fonseka, now his resignation has been accepted by the President.