19 October, 2017

Diaspora Responsibilities: The (Mis)Conception Of Diaspora Privilege

By Romesh Hettiarachchi

Romesh Hettiarachchi

Romesh Hettiarachchi

During my visit to Sri Lanka last year, I heard many Sri Lankan communities across the island express grave reservations about “The Diaspora”. For some Sinhalese, “The Diaspora” is dominated by Tamils who uncritically support the Tamil Tigers and their quest to create a separate mono-ethnic Eelam. I also heard from groups of Tamil Sri Lankans living in war affected communities who thought The Diaspora has forgotten them because of their belief that “The Diaspora” ignores the importance of community development in the war-affected areas.

Although I continue to struggle to understand why these sentiments are expressed, it may be that many Sri Lankans do not identify with the positions taken by the global Diaspora. To these individuals, The Diaspora ought to solely facilitate and finance community development and should not shape international opinion regarding the historical and current political challenges faced on the island. As a member of the Diaspora, let me address some of the misconceptions behind this perspective.

Diasporan Privilege

Regardless of ethnicity, most individuals in the Diaspora are physically, mentally and psychologically disconnected from the realities of life experienced by their original people and the communities to which they live alongside (the “Diaspora Disconnect“). In the Sri Lankan context for instance, members of the Diaspora have relatively fewer difficulties in accessing water and sanitation facilities, fair access to employment opportunities and an impartial legal system relative to their original communities in Sri Lanka. Rarely do members of the Diaspora face restrictions in their freedom of speech or live in communities where one in four people in the community carry weapons.

Due to the Diaspora Disconnect, the Diaspora is not exposed to the political, social, economic, and environmental factors that constantly influence perspectives in the original communities. Although opinions in the Diaspora may vary, there are few incentives for opinions in the Diaspora to change or be challenged. Views in the Diaspora do not change in accordance with views in the Original Community. However, by virtue of being born in and residing in countries possessing more international political clout than Sri Lanka, the Diaspora accumulates special advantages, rights and benefits in asserting their perspectives to shape international political opinion with respect to Sri Lanka than their original communities.

This is not idle academic chatter. I am far more aware of the privileges I may enjoy as a member of the Diaspora after visiting communities across the island. These privileges may include:

  • promoting or asserting racist and prejudicial attitudes under academic and legal theories developed for widely different contexts
  • talk about what life is like back home without recognizing that life back home means very different things to different communities
  • discussing how other Sri Lankan communities think and act without being informed by the experiences of those other Sri Lankan communities
  • talking about issues in Sri Lanka without taking advantages of opportunities to visit the island
  • formulating policies and strategies without listening to other differing voices from other Sri Lankan communities
  • analyzing the challenges facing Sri Lankan communities by using concepts and discourses that a) may not be understood by the original communities and b) adapted to the context and challenges faced by the Sri Lankan community
  • having false expectations about the speed of progress based on my experiences living and working in the Diaspora and without accommodating for the challenges of local bureaucracies
  • supporting narratives I personally favor by portraying inaccuracies about other narratives
  • shaping opinions about challenges faced by various Sri Lankan communities without also discussing a) the perspectives of these communities to my views or b) discussing the practicality of my proposed solution
  • speaking solely about the experiences of my community without highlighting or discussing the experiences of an Other community
  • developing strategies that directly or indirectly affect Sri Lankan communities while remaining unaffected by any negative repercussions of those strategies
  • have amazing tourism experiences in Sri Lanka without taking a moment to learn about some of the difficulties faced by its citizenry in other communities

Recognizing these privileges does not mean I exercise these privileges. It also does not mean that some of these privileges may be linked to other aspects of my identity. Having said that, I do believe many of these privileges may not unique to me and are in fact shared by significant populations in the Diaspora.

Shortcomings of the Privilege Discourse

If true, I can certainly understand why Sri Lankans living on the island resent the Diaspora and the privileges they enjoy when engaging with their original communities particularly when people on the ground disagree with and do not identify with the approach adopted by the Diaspora. However while I do recognize the privilege I have as a member of the Diaspora, it is equally as important to acknowledge the shortcomings of any conversation about privilege:

  1. Perspectives solely focused on privilege are premised on the assumption that the propagated stereotype accurately reflects reality. This is not necessarily true. For instance, not all members of the Diaspora are privileged in the same ways I am. Inaccurate stereotypes quickly lead to the less privileged having emotional reactions to the name of a group (“The Diaspora”), the ascribing of particular characteristics to the Diaspora and a negative evaluation of those characteristics. Such actions are features of prejudice.
  2. Those most attached to the concept of privilege rarely recognize the possibility that their perspectives are skewed by their own unacknowledged privileges and prejudices. For example, few critics of the Diaspora in Sri Lanka recognize that “The Diaspora” plays critical roles in financially supporting their relatives in Sri Lanka. Moreover, the Diaspora would not be filled with such a diversity of political opinions if “The Diaspora” did not care about their original communities.
  3. Rarely are proponents in the privilege discourse open to the possibility that they might be wrong. The conversation about privilege is structured as a mission to validate ones own prejudices, opinions, biases and assumptions. In over eight years of being involved in conflict resolution and anti-racism initiatives, I have never heard anyone say “I now recognize the privilege I perceived you having is not an accurate reflection of reality. You and your group do not have the privilege that I thought you and your group had. I am sorry for my mistake.”

These shortcomings mean that conversations about Privilege create power dynamics that emphasize the expression of viewpoints. As a consequence when disagreements occur, participants may choose to resent in silence about their disagreements, express the disagreement and walk away, or, in the case of friends, result in irreparable breaches of trust, regardless of the length of the friendship or the brevity of conversation. Seldom do conversations about Privilege feature a commitment to effectively listen, understand and change attitudes.

The failure to acknowledge the shortcomings of the Privilege Discourse may mean that at least one participant uses the concept of Privilege to legitimize racial and prejudicial attitudes. The Privilege Discourse is the equivalent of the (anti-) intellectual sledgehammer; a tool capable of causing deep trauma to individuals and communities if wielded inconsistently and recklessly, especially in communities recovering from conflict.

Developing New Discourses

The shortcomings of this discourse do not mean I should not recognize that I may have benefited from opportunities that I did not entirely earn. I should. The shortcomings of the discourse also do not mean it is not valuable to have individual and community reflections on how our perspectives are skewed by the privileges and experiences of our original and Diasporic communities. It is valuable.

I only mean to say it is easy to list various privileges that one group has over another and lose sight of the fact that it negates ally building or that these lists impose guilt on people. Some of the most effective alliances I have led and been involved in were with individuals who did not acknowledge any or all their privileges but whose commitment, talents and leadership were absolutely critical to the success of the initiative. The companionship and friendship of these individuals, through better and worse, is in and of itself a very rare privilege.

In a conversation about Diaspora Privilege, there is a corresponding obligation to discuss how the privileged Diaspora and the less privileged original communities can work together to either increase access to the privileges enjoyed by the Diaspora or alternatively undermine the structures creating the privileges of the Diaspora.  My next article shall elaborate on how the Diaspora has reacted to such opportunities by being: the Apathetic Observer, the Conflict Enabler and the Peace Architect.

My sincere gratitude goes out to all those who provided valuable and constructive feedback on the ideas behind this article. I am truly appreciative. Read the background to this series of articles here .

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Latest comments

  • 0
    0

    It bothers Romesh Hettiarachchi that in Sri Lanka they are able to repress Tamils and heap atrocities in their homeland, but unable to do with the diaspora Tamils.

    Well, if Sri Lanka is a paraya state don’t expect others to be similar.

    This guy is shedding crocodile tears for Tamils in Sri Lanka, while young Tamil women in the North and East are raped by state forces, killed and dumped in wells or in the bush. Then their Sinhala police claim it is sucide.

    As I write this another body of a woman was found in a well in Inuvil. Villagers protest that it was sexual assault and murder by military sponsored by the regime.

    • 0
      0

      Many investigations were carried out by both NGOs and diaspora ones inside refugee camps and north to see rapes and murders take place there.But they could come up with none. There is simply NO eidence to suggest tamil women were raped or murdered in the post war scenario.

      really you found another body? just check whether it is in your well!

      • 0
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        sach:

        Why not you cite the reports of these investigations so that we will be able to evaluate the truth or otherwise of the claims. The recent report by Frances Harrison, verified by independent medical experts, tell a totally different story from what you say. So, please cite the reports from which your conclusions were drawn upon.

        Times and again, Romesh has been talking (in shows) about this development, needs, etc, side-stepping the importance of investigations into the atrocities committed during the war. What is more disheartening and worrying is the continued commission of atrocities by the regime. The results of the recently concluded NPC election debunks the claim of Romesh. Development is necessary but more than that the people want to know about missing relatives, rapes and tortures.

      • 0
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        Sach you idiot ,

        Where was the army when these investigations were carried out by both NGOs and diaspora ones inside refugee camps.
        What you are saying is that Army Gave permission for these investigations by the NGOs and the Diaspora. Stop talking bloody rubbish.

    • 0
      0

      Thiru,

      There are people on both sides who shed crocodile tears and you are no exception. I am waiting to see some good things done for your “oppressed” Tamil brethren. Sinhala Diaspora always do something for their “oppressed” brethren. What RH has highlighted in the article are worthy of consideration by people of diaspora on both sides in the context of “Diaspora Disconnect”.

      If you still feel that your blood is boiling, go to your kovil or church and meditate for sometime or participate in a shramadana to help your “oppressed” brethren. If you need professional advice please do contact any of the 43-member associations of the OPA Sri Lanka. They are ready to help.

      With kind regards,

      The Professional

      • 0
        0

        Pre 2009 we never heard of a so called Tamil diaspora.We only knew Tamil tiger terrorists living abroad.Pl correct it to the defeated Tamil terrorists living abroad.

        • 0
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          (゜゜)~Pl correct it to the defeated Tamil terrorists living abroad(゜゜)~

          Max vol the Amude

          From 2009 the whole wide world have heard “born of Incest Southern Sinhala

          Buddhist” control freeks – preek preek preeeek! :)

          (o|o) (o|o) ☆彡^5

          • 0
            0

            Javi,
            There’s no doubt that you have gone absolutely nuts since that unfortunate incident at Nandikadal!

            • 0
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              Max you Animal,

              By your own admission you have confiremd the following.

              1) You belong to the Animal Kingdom ( History has taught us this )
              2) You have sex with your willing partner and then kill her.
              Both the above admissions are on record.

              I have already asked you the following questions and told you that before you answer them you are not fit to post any Comments.

              1) When did you last have sex
              2) Was that with a willing partner ( or may be an Animal).
              3) Have you killed her or have you passed on to another Animal

              ANSWER IT MAN

        • 0
          0

          Max you Animal,

          By your own admission you have confiremd the following.

          1) You belong to the Animal Kingdom ( History has taught us this )
          2) You have sex with your willing partner and then kill her.
          Both the above admissions are on record.

          I have already asked you the following questions and told you that before you answer them you are not fit to post any Comments.

          1) When did you last have sex
          2) Was that with a willing partner ( or may be an Animal).
          3) Have you killed her or have you passed on to another Animal

          ANSWER IT MAN

      • 0
        0

        Won’t they like to cover up genocide taking place?

        Martin Vickers, Conservative MP, UK:

        Clearly there has been genocide taken place in Sri Lanka and the International Community needs to take the issue much more seriously and investigations should take place.

        Source a video clip in English, above is a transcript by me from:

        http://www.tamilwin.com/show-RUmrzBSVMZit7.html

      • 0
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        The Professional:

        I take it that you are an UNDERTAKER by Profession.

        Diaspora are a group of people who live outside the area in which they had lived for a long time or in which their ancestors lived.

        Who are these Sinhalese Diaspora.
        Are they Asylum Seekers who fled because of Tamil Atrocities inflicted on them.

        1) What is their role
        2) What are their objectives.

        ****Sinhala Diaspora always do something for their “oppressed” brethren:

        Who are these oppressed people?

        a) MR and his Cronies
        b) Dr.Shirani and people like her
        c) Victims of Weliweriya

        ***you need professional advice please do contact any of the 43-member associations of the OPA Sri Lanka. They are ready to help.

        The only person who needs professional help is you as your head is screwed up mate.

    • 0
      0

      Thiru, Why don’t you publish a list of all those who were raped, raped and murdered, you can in separate columns indicate acts committed by the forces/committed by visiting diaspora persons or by the former LTTE carders. If you can indicate the dates and places these crimes occurred will make a real case for you rather than throwing blanket allegations.

      • 0
        0

        NAK,

        I have never heard a more insulting invite than yours. There is call from many quarters and corners to have an Independent Inquiry and MR and Gotha have point blank refused and they haven’t even set up their own inquiry. They are both Judge and Jury and if you are a civilised Individual ( which I doubt ) why don’t you call into the Murder House TEMPLE TREES and have a quiet word with MR to do just that.
        Otherwise stop talking rubbish . We will set up an International Inquiry when we have a Change at the Top in India. Don’t you worry mate. The Tamil Nadu Army( TNA ) are scheduled to arrive after March 2014.
        Jai Hind

  • 0
    0

    you have some valuable points but it takes a lot of time to understand them !

    • 0
      0

      It’s more of a sleeping pill.

  • 0
    0

    Romesh was right in asserting in his previous post that nationalists on both sides will object to his approach. The first response to this article says it all. There are people who would like to fan the flames of hatred not try to bring about understanding and reconciliation.

    • 0
      0

      Lynx,
      Birds of the same feather flack together, no wonder you are with this man who advances Sinhala point of view down the throats of Tamils.

      First Sinhala regimes and people have to apologize for all the atrocities heaped on Tamils since independence before talking about reconciliation.

      How crafty to want to reconcile before accounting for the horrible misdeeds inflicted on Tamils.

      Do you want to make Tamils serfs of the Sinhala majority and Tamils to reconciling to the serfdom?

    • 0
      0

      Yes,people will to fan the flames of hatred, when the government is adding the fuel.

      Romesh would have been right if he touched upon that fact,but he has not addressed done that.A good example of it would be the non implementation of the LLRC which the government itself came up with.Many such instances can be cited,the last being the reasons which led to the impeachment of the de jure CJ,and that is why his article is like the curates egg.

      • 0
        0

        I think you should read his first article which is linked at the end of this piece. His understanding may be more deeper than you think it is.

  • 0
    0

    Nationalists on both sides, on the one hand in Sri Lanka and on the larger hand the we tamil Diaspora….

    Sri Lanka going nowhere only towards another blood bath Mr. Thiru ??
    Your children & kith & kin were not involved. They are safe & sound.

    • 0
      0

      You Thondaman Aru Idiot

      Sit right in the middle talking nonsense. There wont be a Blood Bath this time. Poka Poka Therium why.

  • 0
    0

    I am not sure what point Romesh is trying to articulate, it’s lost in his attempt to cramp a lot.

    But let me say this about Tamil Diaspora. Every single one of us have a relative,or friend or someone close to the family living in NE or have ancestoral connection to the NE

    There are many charities raising money for small scale projects, through old school associations,and professional associations such as doctors , accountants, lawyers as well as group of individual who want to do something for their village/school/local library etc

    These may not be n large scale or supported by sporting legends and publicised such as Beefy’s Sri Lanka walk or Murali cup.

    But these are small scale fund raising charities which does not seek or get any publicity at all.

    There are many orphange schools funded, wells dug in villlages, canteen, sports facilities, computers, mediccal facilities, all done in small scale by various Tamil Diaspora charities form all over the world.

    The recipient of these donations are very greatful to the diaspora.

    I can alreday forsee many comments from Sinhala racist here stating that I am a LTTE diaspora and these charities are funding LTTE Propaganda. I am not going to individually respond to them here.

    My response is please come out of your racist mind sets if not two fingers

    • 0
      0

      Sinhala racists have a bogey man in LTTE: LTTE is born out of the atrocities of the Racist Sinhala regimes since 1948 stop.

    • 0
      0

      Well said RajasH.

    • 0
      0

      RajasH,
      You are correct.
      Diaspora are in constant contact with kith & kin back home and know daily happenings,and send funds to assist those who lost homes, lands and livelihoods to survive.
      They are aware of their friends & relatives’ struggle to survive daily threats and oppression by State Terrorism.
      Recently,the body of a raped and murdered woman was found,and though forensic examination revealed these as cause of death,police continue to insist that she died of natural causes.
      There were protests but none took notice.

    • 0
      0

      1. I think RH is trying to say that the Diaspora includes both Tamil and Sinhalese. I.e. he is Sinhalese and calls himself a member of the Diaspora.

      2. From the article: For example, few critics of the Diaspora in Sri Lanka recognize that “The Diaspora” plays critical roles in financially supporting their relatives in Sri Lanka. Moreover, the Diaspora would not be filled with such a diversity of political opinions if “The Diaspora” did not care about their original communities.

      RH clearly recognizes that the Diaspora raises funds and cares for the for people back home. I think he is asking all of those living outside Sri Lanka to reflect on the limitations of our understanding.

  • 0
    0

    The diaspora is not interested in reconciliation. That defeats the very purpose of their involvement in this. Their primary and only goal is to achieve a separate state for the Tamils in the north called Eelam.
    Even though they know that is a far fetched dream, their own survival rests on this. Therefore they have to at least pretend that they are getting there.
    The first step in this direction is a regime change in Sri Lanka, with out which the main task can not get off the ground.

    The diaspora will never help their own in the north get up on their own feet,which again will defeat their purpose. The diaspora gives fish for them to eat and with that hand out they control them. But will never give them a fishing rod to fish for themselves.

    This is not just a Diaspora agenda, there are many western countries who are interested in, if not to see an Eelam established but at least to keep the harassment going against a government that is stubbornly resisting their interference and hopefully some day topple.

  • 0
    0

    Mr.Hettiarachi,

    You are completely out of your mind.

    ****As a member of the Diaspora, let me address some of the misconceptions behind this perspective.***

    Do you belong to the Sinhalese Diaspora and this is the first time I have heard of the Sinhalese Diaspora and before I move on to address the points you have raised let me ask you two questions.

    1) What is your role.
    2)What are your objectives.

    Now let me find some holes in your arguments.

    1) During my visit to Sri Lanka last year, I heard many Sri Lankan communities across the island express grave reservations about “The Diaspora”. For some Sinhalese, “The Diaspora” is dominated by Tamils who uncritically support the Tamil Tigers and their quest to create a separate mono-ethnic Eelam.

    ***Without wishing to be partisan who are these Sri Lankan Communities. I take it they are all Sinhalese.

    2) I also heard from groups of Tamil Sri Lankans living in war affected communities who thought The Diaspora has forgotten them because of their belief that “The Diaspora” ignores the importance of community development in the war-affected areas.

    ****Where did you go and who did you meet. Did the army give you permission and were they recording your conversation. Let us be honest.

    3) Although I continue to struggle to understand why these sentiments are expressed, it may be that many Sri Lankans do not identify with the positions taken by the global Diaspora.

    *** As a Sinhalese I don’t expect you to understand the Tamil Aspirations as you lot never did in the 64 years since Independence.

    4) To these individuals, The Diaspora ought to solely facilitate and finance community development and should not shape international opinion regarding the historical and current political challenges faced on the island. As a member of the Diaspora, let me address some of the misconceptions behind this perspective.

    **** I totally and utterly reject your analysis on the above. For us Tamils it is not just simply about getting our legitimate rights for the future. But it is also about Accountability and we cannot move on until those who are responsible for the Genocide are Punished and they cannot be part of the Reconciliation which is a distant dream

    5)Diasporan Privilege

    Regardless of ethnicity, most individuals in the Diaspora are physically, mentally and psychologically disconnected from the realities of life experienced by their original people and the communities to which they live alongside (the “Diaspora Disconnect“). In the Sri Lankan context for instance, members of the Diaspora have relatively fewer difficulties in accessing water and sanitation facilities, fair access to employment opportunities and an impartial legal system relative to their original communities in Sri Lanka. Rarely do members of the Diaspora face restrictions in their freedom of speech or live in communities where one in four people in the community carry weapons.

    Due to the Diaspora Disconnect, the Diaspora is not exposed to the political, social, economic, and environmental factors that constantly influence perspectives in the original communities. Although opinions in the Diaspora may vary, there are few incentives for opinions in the Diaspora to change or be challenged. Views in the Diaspora do not change in accordance with views in the Original Community. However, by virtue of being born in and residing in countries possessing more international political clout than Sri Lanka, the Diaspora accumulates special advantages, rights and benefits in asserting their perspectives to shape international political opinion with respect to Sri Lanka than their original communities.

    ***You are completely ad utterly wrong and we are in Constant touch with our kith an kin so don’t talk rubbish.

    6) This is not idle academic chatter. I am far more aware of the privileges I may enjoy as a member of the Diaspora after visiting communities across the island. These privileges may include:
    •promoting or asserting racist and prejudicial attitudes under academic and legal theories developed for widely different contexts
    •talk about what life is like back home without recognizing that life back home means very different things to different communities
    •discussing how other Sri Lankan communities think and act without being informed by the experiences of those other Sri Lankan communities
    •talking about issues in Sri Lanka without taking advantages of opportunities to visit the island
    •formulating policies and strategies without listening to other differing voices from other Sri Lankan communities
    •analyzing the challenges facing Sri Lankan communities by using concepts and discourses that a) may not be understood by the original communities and b) adapted to the context and challenges faced by the Sri Lankan community
    •having false expectations about the speed of progress based on my experiences living and working in the Diaspora and without accommodating for the challenges of local bureaucracies
    •supporting narratives I personally favor by portraying inaccuracies about other narratives
    •shaping opinions about challenges faced by various Sri Lankan communities without also discussing a) the perspectives of these communities to my views or b) discussing the practicality of my proposed solution
    •speaking solely about the experiences of my community without highlighting or discussing the experiences of an Other community
    •developing strategies that directly or indirectly affect Sri Lankan communities while remaining unaffected by any negative repercussions of those strategies
    •have amazing tourism experiences in Sri Lanka without taking a moment to learn about some of the difficulties faced by its citizenry in other communities.

    **** As I have said above we have waited for 64 long years to achieve Parity with you lot and you all are born Racists and it is in your Gene and you are not going to willingly give us our Legitimate Rights.

    Shortcomings of the Privilege Discourse

    The only people who resent the Diaspora are those who have most to loose and that is the Majority Sinhalese and I don’t blame them as they see the Diaspora as standing in their way to complete Ethnic Cleansing.

    7)In a conversation about Diaspora Privilege, there is a corresponding obligation to discuss how the privileged Diaspora and the less privileged original communities can work together to either increase access to the privileges enjoyed by the Diaspora or alternatively undermine the structures creating the privileges of the Diaspora. My next article shall elaborate on how the Diaspora has reacted to such opportunities by being: the Apathetic Observer, the Conflict Enabler and the Peace Architect.

    *** Before you write your next Article I suggest you do some research on the Jewish Diaspora to find out their contribution to the existence of the State of Israel otherwise please don’t waste your time.

    • 0
      0

      Kali,
      1. The Sinhalese Diaspora exists and has always existed, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

      2. The Sri Lankan communities I met were in rural villages outside Omanthi, Jaffna, and Killinochchi. These communities were primarily Tamil.

      3. I was visiting friends of friends and travelling with native Tamil speakers. There was no army present during these conversations.

      The rest of your comment is just racist drivel. Doesnt need further elaboration.

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