Message for the Tamil Diaspora

Economic engagement in the North and East could change political dynamics in Sri Lanka 

The Global Tamil Forum, since its inception in 2010 has always propagated a negotiated political settlement in Sri Lanka. So, we have actively engaged politicians, civil society in Sri Lanka, externally, foreign governments, international organisations, forums, and all those engagements were to engage and negotiate a political solution for the Tamil grievances in Sri Lanka – Suren Surendiran, Spokesperson for the Global Tamil Forum

by Raj Gonsalkorale

In an interview with Easwaran Rutnam published in the Daily Mirror on the 27th of October, Mr Suren Surendiran, the Spokesperson for the Global Tamil Forum based in the UK has said that there is more the Tamil Diaspora can do for Sri Lanka. This is true and it is a positive sign that greater political engagement might be in the offing. 

The GTF and other Tamil Diaspora organisations should however reflect on the strategy they have adopted so far (actively engaged politicians, civil society in Sri Lanka, externally, foreign governments, international organisations, forums - Mr Surendiran’s words), and question the success of that strategy todate. 

The acid test is whether the Tamil Diaspora activity has made Sri Lankan Tamils living in Sri Lanka more advanced economically, socially, politically, and whether they are safe in the country, particularly since 1983, when a section of the government organised a pogrom and drove hundreds and thousands of Tamils out of the country.

There can be a justifiable argument that other than many Western countries taking a hard line attitude towards Sri Lanka, and punishing Sri Lanka economically, and in international fora, this strategy has not helped the Tamils in Sri Lanka or for that matter, other communities in Sri Lanka. Direct political engagement with Sri Lankan governments by the Tamil Diaspora has been cursory at best, and Tamils in the North and East in particular continue to live with hardships faced not just by them, but by many people belonging to other communities as well. 

It is widely reported in the media that some young persons in the North and East are also engaged in the drug trade and /or have become addicts, and have become serious alcohol consumers using funds sent to them from overseas sources. This is not confirmed and it is not clear or established what these sources are, if indeed it is the case. If true, these developments are manifestations of frustration felt by many young persons in the North and the East, and it could well lead to developments that the region, and the country, would not wish to experience ever again.

In this regard, anyone who has the welfare of the people of the North and the East in mind should consider fresh strategies that would help the people living there and not leave them where they are now, and have been for a long time.

There is no debate that Tamils in the country faced untold misery in the hands of goons organised by sections of the then government in 1983. Mr Surendiran’s contention that a majority amongst the more than a million strong Tamil Diaspora didn’t leave Sri Lanka to look for economic betterment, but left because Sri Lanka ceased to be a safe place for them and they felt they were not treated equally, is absolutely true. When the State failed to protect some of its citizens, there is no equality or universal justice at all, and when in fact sections of the government itself organised the pogrom in 1983, it was a message that Tamils were not wanted in Sri Lanka. How could anyone challenge Mr Surendrans’ statement? 

However, since 1983, consequent to LTTE terrorism and eventually the war fought by them with the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, neither successive Sri Lankan governments, nor the powerful Diaspora have been able to usher in measures for a long term sustainable peace for the Tamis living in Sri Lanka, and achieve even a fraction of the economic success enjoyed by many Tamils living overseas. 

In general, Tamil Diaspora groups have projected an image that on the one hand they were supportive of the cause of the LTTE as it was their cause as well, but on the other hand, they did not support the violent methods used by them to achieve the objectives of that cause. For impartial onlookers it is difficult to see how these two could have been separated as it is known and documented that the LTTE was well funded by sections of the Tamil Diaspora. Given this situation, it needs to be acknowledged that engaging in meaningful discussions with the Tamil Diaspora would have been a difficult political task for successive Sri Lankan governments, at least until 2009.

To the best of the writer’s knowledge, no Tamil Diaspora group has openly disengaged themselves with or condemned the violent methods employed by the LTTE to achieve their objectives, certainly not till the end of the war in 2009. Some seemed have been of the opinion that means employed were for a justifiable end, and therefore they were justified and even inevitable.

A separate Tamil administrative region

In an answer to a question posed to him, Mr Surendiran was non-committal about how the GTF feels about Sri Lanka needing a separate Tamil administrative region similar to a separate Tamil state.  He said, quote “Like I said before, we do not want to prescribe a particular solution to the issues in Sri Lanka. We want to see a political solution that is negotiated between the parties concerned and the stakeholders involved to arrive at. So there is no pre-prescribed solution for the Sri Lankan problem as far as GTF is concerned”. Unquote.

This has not been the approach that the public has known about how the GTF will engage in political discussions with a Sri Lankan government. Neither has any other Tamil Diaspora organisation been open to discussions in a similar manner without some type of pre-conditions. This is different to the stand taken by the TNA even to date and other Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka who have always insisted on a North East re-merger and the full implementation of the 13th Amendment as starting points for a discussion. 

There is hope for a political settlement if the Tamil Diaspora, and hopefully the TNA and other Tamil political parties show a willingness to be open minded and consider different options as to how Tamils in Sri Lanka could be given a degree of self-determination within a united country and where they can be safe, and will be treated equally as other citizens in the country. From a broader political governance point of view, the Diaspora groups should give thought as to how the Tamil voice could be heard and taken note of at a national level if there is a serious desire to influence policy settings and governance at a national level.

What sort of role do you feel the Diaspora should play on the Sri Lankan issue? 

In answer to the above question, the GTF also gave some hints as to how the future could roll out, quote “by coming out of the country and living in foreign countries under democracy, freedom of speech, that kind of rule of law, having a free speech as you could imagine and also educating ourselves and becoming relatively wealthy. There is a whole series of things in capacity capability terms that the Tamil Diaspora, all the Diaspora, the Sri Lankan Diaspora can offer to Sri Lanka and to bring it up. The other thing is. We left Sri Lanka because we couldn’t live there or we felt unsafe to live there. Therefore, we feel that we still are stakeholders in matters that concern our people who are left behind in Sri Lanka. We did a little calculation about this proscription and what impact that is having on the Sri Lankan economy. We worked out roughly as a minimum USD 250 million to USD 300 million of income in foreign exchange that Sri Lanka could have had is being deprived because of this proscription. Right now, I think the forex reserve is about two and a half to three billion US dollars. That’s all Sri Lanka has. A 10 per cent of that could have come from the Diaspora. So that is the deprivation for the people that this kind of proscription and these postures that the government makes has a negative impact on the people of Sri Lanka and the economy. So there is a lot to offer from the Diaspora, particularly the Tamil Diaspora, unquote.

Mr Surendiran has hit the nail on the head here. Indeed, the Tamil Diaspora can do far more than the Sri Lankan government to help those Tamils living in the North and East of Sri Lanka. 

However, while he and other Diaspora groups argue for a political settlement first in order to intervene in the economic and social upliftment of the Tamil people living in the North and East of Sri Lanka, and consequently, that of all Tamils and other communities in Sri Lanka, through their engagement, it is worthwhile for the GTF and others to consider doing this in parallel, and not debate whether the egg or the chicken should come first, if the intention as stated, is to help the Tamils living in the North and East in Sri Lanka.

Many members of the Tamil Diaspora no doubt have the economic clout and contacts to invest in export oriented projects in the North and the East, and elsewhere, and provide economic opportunities to people in the region and help to uplift their economic and social status. Prosperity in the North and the East will result in Tamil political parties acquiring far greater strength and negotiation powers to even tilt the balance of power in their favour and thereby influence the outcome of a just political settlement. Economic power brings political power, and in Sri Lanka, what the Tamil people need is effective political power at the central level. Diaspora groups should consider for example, a situation where they control say 10-15% of the country’s foreign earnings, and the power they will have to be treated with equality and respect.

If the Tamil Diaspora is seriously interested in a political solution to this vexed issue, their strategy should shift to acquiring that power through economic power. As discussed earlier in this article, the strategies adopted so far by the Tamil Diaspora has only made some leaders within it to feel important in having access to world leaders and influencing international bodies, consequently, antagonising Sri Lankan governments, but also adversely affecting the Sri Lankan economy which affects all Sri Lankans including the Tamils in the North and the East. Mr Surendiran alluded to this in an indirect way stating that the Sri Lankan economy has been affected by $ 250 -300 million dollars as a consequence of the ongoing conflict, and readers might conclude that had the Diaspora tactics been different, and the approach of Sri Lankan governments was different, the country would have benefitted by this amount if not more.

The current tactics of the Tamil Diaspora has not addressed the situation faced by Tamils living in the North and East of Sri Lanka and in fact, has made it worse for them. It is time the Tamil Diaspora changed tact and placed importance to acquiring greater political power within Sri Lanka by strengthening their economic power in the North and the East through export oriented investments, educational opportunities, industrial and commercial establishments that link them to international practices. The world has changed a lot since 1983, and while the wounds suffered by thousands of Tamil people may never heal, the Tamil Diaspora can help Tamils living in Sri Lanka by garnering enough power to ensure they have a powerful stake in how the country is run in years to come.

If they continue with the current strategies and push for a political settlement as a pre cursor for engagement in economic and social development, it may not materialise as already hard positions of the Sinhala Buddhist majority may even become harder, and a government of whatever hue will find it extremely difficult to undertake negotiations with the Tamil Diaspora for a political settlement. Some cynics may take the view that this outcome of not having a political settlement might well be the real objective of the Tamil Diaspora, as a solution will weaken them, and even make them irrelevant in the absence of a cause to espouse and fight for.