Sri Lanka: Engaging the Diaspora

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Sri Lanka: Engaging the Diaspora

A robust policy on diaspora engagement remains critical to domestic stability and international relations in postwar Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka: Engaging the Diaspora
Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

The 23rd Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) opened in Sri Lanka on November 15. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has decided to boycott, citing governance shortcomings in the host country. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a late decision to stay away also. Given that India is Sri Lanka’s immediate neighbor and an emerging global power, Singh’s decision to stay home was significant. British Prime Minister David Cameron has come under intense fire for his decision to attend CHOGM 2013, but has said that he will use his presence to place the international spotlight on Sri Lanka.

All of which is bad news for Sri Lanka, a country that is seeking to stabilize and consolidate the dividends of ending a three-decade armed struggle. It is clear that elements of the Sri Lankan diaspora who support the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been actively campaigning, sometimes through LTTE organizations such as the Global Tamil Forum, the Transnational Government for Tamil Ealam and the British Tamil Forum, encouraging calls for a boycott of CHOGM 2013 and adding to the general international furor of recent weeks.

Their efforts have embarrassed Sri Lanka before. For instance, in December 2010, the Oxford Union canceled an address by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, fearing massive protests on the university premises. The then President of the Oxford Union, James Kingston, explained: “I was advised there was a serious public order risk, and a serious risk of major disruption to the activities of the local community. At 5000 protestors, it would have been the largest demonstration seen in the history of Oxford, and the risks would have increased accordingly.”

The ability of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora to potentially generate the largest demonstration in the history of the Oxford Union is noteworthy, as is its ability to alter the presidential itinerary. The most worrying aspect, however, is the intensity of the passion it reveals in certain segments of the Tamil diaspora abroad.

That intensity was revealed again in June 2012, once more derailing the presidential itinerary in the U.K., this time when an invitation to deliver the keynote address at the Commonwealth Economic Forum organized by the Commonwealth Business Council was cancelled on the morning of the event. The Forum was one of the events marking the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations in London. As many as 2000 protestors had gathered at the Mansion House where the event was to be held, with some reportedly traveling from France and Germany.

Most recently, sections of the diaspora have been actively lobbying in the wake of the passage of two resolutions on Sri Lanka by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2012 and 2013. That same disgruntlement and disillusionment have been clear in the run-up to CHOGM, with the calls for boycotts. All this must be taken seriously. The anguish and grievances of the diaspora community must be addressed quickly and seriously, not only because of its impact on foreign relations, but also because of its implications for domestic stability.  

Clearly the most credible way to engage the diaspora would be to address the rights of minorities locally, both systematically and genuinely. Minority rights need to be coupled of course with assurances for the possibility of a peaceful return home for those living abroad. That said, a robust policy on diaspora engagement is also key to both national stability and external relations.

The final report of the Sri Lankan government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) has highlighted the perceptions that exist about conflict areas, what happened in the conflict areas, what is being done in conflict areas, and what people in the conflict areas think. These perceptions in turn influence the views of relatives and friends overseas, the diaspora, and the international community at large.

Hence, perception management must be accorded top priority in any effort to engage the diaspora and reap the benefits of true reconciliation. Effecting a strong and credible visibility strategy of national progress, plans and challenges is critical to perception management. Additionally, documentation and visibility will serve the larger purpose of measuring progress and identifying gaps to be filled, providing direction for the nation-building and reconciliation agenda.

The final report of the LLRC recommended that the Sri Lankan government create a multi-disciplinary task force that would include representatives from the Presidential Secretariat, the External Affairs and Defence ministries, the private sector and academia, to propose a program of action to harness the untapped potential of the expatriate community, and to respond to the concerns of hostile diaspora groups, and engage them constructively with the government and other stakeholders involved in the reconciliation process.

There may be advantages in going one step further and setting up an Office of Diaspora Affairs. The roles and responsibility of the office would include an emphasis on highlighting the importance of diaspora engagement in reconstruction and capacity-building; and an identification and assessment of diaspora organizations and individuals, and the contributions they can make towards reconciliation, peace-building and nation-building. It must be stressed that diaspora contributions ought not be limited to the financial or commercial realms, but should also include technical and professional expertise. The office would ensure that the diaspora contribution match Sri Lanka’s needs, priorities and capacities.

An Office of Diaspora Affairs would also seek to encourage visits to Sri Lanka for disillusioned members of the diaspora community so they can assess for themselves what is taking place and what remains to be done, and more importantly, how they themselves need to be a part of the country’s plans and future. Every effort should be made to build loyalty and seek to neutralize and counter hostility, misperceptions and grudges, real or otherwise.

Avenues of diaspora engagement that are likely to be most beneficial for the long-term development of the country must be identified. In addition to the all-important contribution to national stability and the political future, the diaspora could be invaluable in supplementing local capacities through the formation of a global exchange of knowledge.

Ultimately, the dividends of successful engagement with Sri Lanka’s diaspora will be felt by the country through improved relations between communities, increased national unity and stability, and more positive international positioning. Diaspora engagement is not a small or easy task but it is one that can no longer be overlooked in any effort to take the country forward towards genuine reconciliation.

Salma Yusuf is a human rights lawyer and development practitioner working on both national and international programs in the fields of governance, transitional justice and reconciliation. She may be contacted at [email protected].