By Siri Gamage –
Being an Island nation, Sri Lanka’s links with the Asian region and the world go back to millennia. Trade and religious links have been critical factors in its historical evolution and change -some leading to invasions and even colonisation. Mixture of cultures, identities, families, social and economic relations have been a part of multicultural nation that it has come to be. Contacts with the foreigners – voluntary and involuntary – provided space for opportunities to advance in the occupational, business, political and social ladder especially after the British colonisation. Independence brought further opportunities as well as cleavages in society leading to substantial changes in the stock of the native population. Since the opening of country’s economy in 1977 and the liberalisation of migration policy that had experienced a closed economy model between 1970-77 significant changes were introduced and many sought to access opportunities such as employment and business provided by economically developed countries and those in the Middle east. A trend towards brain drain was also experienced including in the academia and other professions such as medicine and engineering. A large number of skilled and unskilled workers migrated out of the country during the subsequent decades making the Sri Lankan diaspora. A notable event that led to outward migration was the 1983 Kalu Juliya. As a result of this event many Tamil civilians migrated out of the country. After the 2022 economic collapse and aragalaya, the trend to migrate to any country has accelerated. It is reported that the government in fact encourages professionals to go overseas and earn dollars. A less discussed phenomenon in relation to this out migration trend is the social and economic divisions that have been created between those Sri Lankans with international links and those without as well as the attitudinal and behavioural cleavages that have emerged in the country.
Those who have either migrated or had the opportunity to spend time away from the country for education or professional training etc have been exposed to the way Lankans in the diaspora live and the manner systems of governance and administration operate for the benefit of the people in foreign countries. They also may have learned about opportunities for work education, employment and living a peaceful life without politics entering into their daily lives in an intrusive way. In the process they may have absorbed lifestyle and positive attitudes about how to respond to everyday life and progressive avenues for further advancement. Without having to spend valuable time and energies on obtaining government services (as they are efficient by the standards of many Asian and African countries), they may have spent their time and energies on more important matters while also enjoying the benefits of watching or participating in some sports, recreational activities including family and community gatherings. More importantly they may have obtained a knowledge about the way the economic and political systems work in the foreign countries especially those with an English or European heritage.
As many Lankan families have sons and daughters who have gone for studies or family members employed and even secured citizenship, they may have had opportunities to visit relatives for brief periods. Some such visits culminate in them migrating themselves or finding temporary work. Through such visits they must have obtained valuable insights about the beauty of the urban landscape and countryside where the natural scenery is splendid. On return they bring back memories and stories that are transmitted to the rest of their family and friends.
However, for those Lankans who have had no opportunity to experience first-hand the way other countries and their systems operate, the only avenues available are stories of those who migrated or went overseas for temporary work and education etc. by word of mouth or through information published in the local media. My guess is that this group of Lankans is the majority. Members of this group can see those who return from overseas, the way they behave, spend money in super markets, build houses or buy cars and get services from servants and more. Through such avenues they form various attitudes about the food culture, habits of foreigners, education and employment, transport, governance and administration, civic rights and freedoms, rule of law, and other aspects.
One aspect that is emerging is the attitude of negativity about those who have been successful in migrating overseas for education and employment. Given the difficulties the people who did not get the opportunity to do so, it is understandable that this group adopts such negative attitudes but they can be not healthy for a society looking to construct a better way of life. Jealousy also plays a role in creating such negative attitudes.
Even among those who migrated to foreign countries, after living there for some time, some adopt negative attitudes to those who arrive later. Partly, this may be because of the struggles they themselves faced when they migrated. This is specially so in relation to those who arrive as refugees.
This is an area that social scientists and others may need to pay attention and conduct surveys and anthropological studies with the intention of documenting the intricacies involved. Politicians and planning professionals cannot ignore these cleavages and attitude formation either.
Social change vs Status Quo
A more fundamental cleavage involved here can be those who want to preserve the status quo as they benefit from the system and those who tolerate the existing system as they are powerless to enact change.
In the former category are the politicians who benefit from the system, bureaucrats, business men and women, professionals such as doctors, lawyers and engineers, as well as their extended families. However, a large majority can be those without access to material wealth, power or status from the existing hierarchies of control. Members of this category are subjected to immense pressure under the prevailing conditions. If there are members who are inclined to attempt change through multiple means face the heavy hand of law enforcement. Nonetheless, the history will be determined by material forces that are contradictory and the collective power they secure through the course of time.
As a result of out migration, society benefits in some ways. Vacancies for occupations open up for those remaining in the country.
Diaspora can play a significant role for social change in the country. One such way is through donations to various charitable projects. Another is through educating the minds of those Lankans remaining in the country without much exposure to life I and systems in foreign countries.
Such cleavages are not limited to Sri Lanka. Countries of Asia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere also experience similar phenomena and attitudinal cleavage. Some countries adopt policies and programs to encourage overseas employment and others adopt more inclusionary ones. However, this is an important policy area to examine with a critical eye, particularly by way of adopting a decolonial approach. Each country has to examine and decide what particular policy should be in the national interest?