Make peace with Tamil Diaspora in New Year

by Jehan Perera

(January 04, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The importance of forgiveness, reconciliation and renewal were recurring themes at religious services on New Year’s Day. It is unlikely that those sermons by religious clergy and prayers of the faithful were motivated by considerations of national politics alone. It is more likely that these religious sentiments reflected the wisdom that has come down through the ages to make human life on Earth more sustainable and bearable. There is a reason why religious scriptures give the message that even a human being who has murdered 999 others can be redeemed and that societies that ethnically cleansed others can be a chosen people.

The values of forgiveness, reconciliation and renewal are important and necessary to Sri Lanka today. The end of the war has not ended the separation between the different communities, nor the demonization of one group by another. On the top of the list of enemies of the government, and by implication the majority population, is the Tamil Diaspora. This community showed their continuing support for the LTTE in London during the recent protests against President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit. The manner in which they prevented the President from delivering his lecture at Oxford University was a manifestation of hatred, the cycle of which never ceases by hatred alone.

The Tamil Diapora is not an alien community. Nor are their sentiments alien to those who remain in Sri Lanka and who imbibe of those same sentiments even if in opposition to them. Most of the members of the Tamil Diaspora were born in Sri Lanka, although there are now second and third generation members amongst them. They continue to have their close relatives living in Sri Lanka whom they are in close contact with, and to whom they have a commitment to support financially and politically whatever the price they have to pay. Hatred is not the only manifestation of their lives, but devotion to the relatives and community they left behind is also.

Toronto Experience

A few months ago I was invited, together with Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, to speak to a group of Sri Lankan Diaspora youth in Toronto, which has the largest population of Sri Lankan Tamils living outside Sri Lanka. Most of the youth who came for the seminar which was organized by the Mosaic Institute, a Canadian NGO, were second generation Sri Lanka Tamils, but over a third of the students present there were Sinhalese and Muslim youth. The event itself was organized at a university, which can be hotbeds of protest, as Sri Lanka’s own experience and the Oxford fiasco have shown.

The coming together of Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim youth in one space to talk about the post war situation in Sri Lanka might have seemed a recipe for confrontation. But nothing of the sort happened. Instead there was a serious session of questions and answers in which the complexities of the Sri Lankan situation were aired. The peaceful conduct of the seminar showed that there are methods and manners of speech that can generate either hatred, or forgiveness, reconciliation or confrontation and renewal or rejection with regard to the Tamil Diaspora.

As is the case with any community, the Tamil Diaspora is not homogeneous, monolithic or of one mind. They, too, are a plural community, which is why there are at least three main groups amongst them. There are within it those whose hardness of heart is extreme. But they are a relatively small minority. It is the same in Sri Lanka, whether in regard to those who belong to the majority community or to the ethnic minorities. Most Sri Lankans, on the other hand, are fair minded people with a liberal ethos, and this applies irrespective of whether they are Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher.

In the coming year one of the most important tasks for the Sri Lankan government will be to engage with the Tamil Diaspora and make them partners. It is not sensible to think that they can be ignored or silenced through the government’s counter propaganda. Even though they live far from Sri Lanka, modern technology gives them a virtual presence in Sri Lanka. They can influence the thinking of the Sri Lankan Tamil people with their opinions and financial power, and through their remittances to their loved ones back home. Due to the contacts and networks in their adopted lands, built over the course of decades, they are able to influence opinion leaders, politicians and media in those countries either to the detriment or advantage of Sri Lanka.

Engaging positively with the Tamil Diaspora is also very important for two further reasons. One of these is the economic reason. At the present time the government is trying very hard to develop the economy as it holds to the belief that economic development holds the key to the country’s future as a united and prosperous country. However, the foreign investments that could supplement the government’s own investments are still slow in coming. The anticipated Tamil Diaspora investments in the Sri Lankan stock market, property market and in business ventures have still not materialized. If even a part of this wealth is invested in Sri Lanka, it could give a boost to the foreign investment process.

Another reason for the government to positively engage with the Tamil Diaspora is to ease the pressure on it due to war crimes allegations. The Sri Lankan government together with a wide cross section of society is indignant at the double standards of some countries and organizations in pressing so single-mindedly for war crimes inquiries against Sri Lanka. Other recent wars have seen even greater atrocities and loss of life. The decision to fight a war is invariably a decision to violate human rights of some for the sake of the greater good of others. Sri Lankan leaders do not accept being held to a higher standard of accountability than those leaders of other countries who have made this choice of war.

No make-believe

In recent times the government has tried to make its case stronger in the international community by hiring top class international advertising companies. It has invested heavily in media, advertising and lobbying campaigns. It might be possible for these advertising companies to paint a better picture of Sri Lanka than might otherwise be painted. They have professional skills of a high order. It might also be possible to convince sections of the international community that the picture painted by an international advertising company is indeed the correct picture.

However, engaging positively with the Tamil Diaspora calls for a different approach. This is because the Tamil Diaspora is intimately linked to Sri Lankan reality through their relatives who continue to live in Sri Lanka and to experience life at first hand. No amount of gloss put on by an international advertising company can change the reality encountered by Sri Lankan Tamils living within Sri Lanka. Therefore, the first important step in engaging with the Tamil Diaspora is for the government to win the hearts and minds of the Tamil people living in Sri Lanka. If that is done, the avenues to engage successfully with the Tamil Diaspora will open up in many different ways.

At the present time, large sections of the Tamil Diaspora are totally alienated from Sri Lanka and are opposed to the government. They see it as a government dedicated to promoting the best interests of the ethnic Sinhalese majority alone, and not caring about the fate of the ethnic minorities. The recent controversy over the government decision to have the national anthem sung in the Sinhala language only and not in the Tamil language, even in Tamil-majority areas has convinced them, along with Tamil speakers in Sri Lanka, that the government does not see Sri Lanka as a multi ethnic country in which the ethnic minorities will have their due place. Many of them may see the way forward as being to topple or punish the government. But this will give rise to another vicious cycle. This is the eternal law.

The New Year must be one in which the legacy of war is put behind. Unfortunately although more than a year and a half has passed the old signposts of war still remain on the roads to the North and East, and in the form of rule by emergency laws. These restrict freedoms of people and their willingness to speak up and be critical. The government publicises that all is well in the North and East and that people are leading improved lives, pointing to new roads, bridges and buildings. But people are afraid to say what they feel, and the recent spate of killings in Jaffna has re-ignited old fears in their hearts. This is not good for the government or the people. Seeking to live in a world of make-believe, and persuading others to do so, without dealing with the burning problems that exist on the ground and in the hearts and minds of people, is not for the New Year.

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