By Romesh Hettiarachchi –
Dear President Sirisena,
I write to you as a member of the Sri Lankan diaspora; a multi-ethnic and multi-faceted community identifying as Sri Lankan but living outside the country. At the outset, let me join many others in congratulating and wishing you the very best on beginning your term as the 6th President of Sri Lanka.
As President, I recognize neither you nor your Government owe any obligations to me, a member of the diaspora, especially since you are likely deluged with so many requests and suggestions from your own constituents so early in your presidency. I am also acutely aware that many if not most Sri Lankans have strong reservations about the Diaspora, arising in part from the continuing support in certain segments of the Diaspora for the goals and objectives of the LTTE.
I nevertheless write to ask you to consider implementing measures that lead to a more constructive relationship between the people of Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Diaspora. As you are likely to aware, the global Sri Lankan Diaspora consists of all Sri Lankan communities; there are Tamils living outside Sri Lanka who identify as being Sri Lankan and not Tamil . Even with respect to the self-identified Tamil Diaspora, few generalizations can be made. Your election amply demonstrates these differences: Tamil Diaspora organizations such as the Global Tamil Forum encouraged the Sri Lankan Tamil population to vote in this election as Tamils “still have the good of the country and of all peoples at heart and wish the triumph of democracy and rule of law” while other Tamil Diaspora activists urged the Tamil population to boycott.
I write to offer you some measures you may consider adopting with respect to the Diaspora when appropriate; measures based out of my own professional experience and the conversations, public and otherwise, which I have been a part of that have been occurring within and between the Sri Lankan and Tamil communities over the last five years.
Ministry of Diaspora Relations
Your Excellency, my first suggestion to you is to establish a Ministry of Diaspora Relations dedicated to fostering a constructive relationship with the Sri Lankan Diaspora. This Ministry ought to have the expertise to coordinate a variety of aspects of the relationship between the Sri Lankan government and its Diaspora such as processing dual citizenship applications, offering favourable investment opportunities to members of the Diaspora, developing academic and exchange opportunities and facilitating legitimate charity and fundraising events that contribute to the lives and well-being of their ancestral communities.
This idea is not a novel one: both Bangladesh and India having a Ministry of Diaspora Relations. India’s Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs may best be adapted to the Sri Lankan context, offering exchange programs and other initiatives designed to increase the engagement of the Diaspora with the lives of Sri Lankan citizens. If Your Excellency is truly concerned about the national security implications of giving the Diaspora citizenship carte blanche, then you may be interested in the limited form of citizenship offered by both Canada (temporary limitations) and India (permanent limitations) for a period of time.
A Ministry of Diaspora Relations will play a critical role in reversing the migration of young Sri Lankan professionals to other countries; a “brain drain” that has become all too common over the past four years. An effective Ministry will facilitate knowledge transfer from educated professionals in the Diaspora to local Sri Lankan professionals, catalyzing local entrepreneurship and business communities leading to increasing job growth. The Ministry of Diaspora Relations would also be responsible for engaging with the so-called ‘hostile diaspora groups’ constructively and address their concerns as recommended by the LLRC (See Recommendations of LLRC Report below, 9.261-9.263). I will specifically highlight the work of the Canadian Tamil Congress whose members have the competence and the talent to play integral roles in rebuilding communities in the North and North East of Sri Lanka.
In the long term such a Ministry will likely persuading members of the Sri Lankan diaspora to stay for extended periods of time in the communities that their mothers, fathers and ancestors once called home.
Begin Implementation of the LLRC Recommendations
Your Excellency should also consider the substantive implementation of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (“Commission”); the Commission emphasized the Government bears the responsibility of moving the reconciliation process, an objective which should be “continuous and broad based” (Para 9.183).
Implementation of the recommendations of the Report (English, Sinhala, Tamil) will generate considerable goodwill in the Diaspora and international community, some of which are outlined below with paragraph of Report included in (parantheses):
- Phase out the involvement of the security forces in civilian activities and use of private lands by Security Forces (9.171)
- Phase out the presence of the military in the Northern Province and ensure that the Northern Province reverts to civilian administration to ensure people enjoy the benefits of peace (9.227)
- Begin a good-faith effort for devlolution (9.230 – 9.237)
- Make the learning of each other’s language a compulsory part of the school curriculum (9.243).
- All Government offices should have Tamil-speaking officers at all times. Police Stations should have bi-lingual officers on a 24-hour basis (9.247)
- National anthem should be sung simultaneously in two languages to the same tune. (9.278)
- A separate event should be set apart on the National Day (4 February) to express solidarity and empathy with all victims of the tragic conflict and pledge the collective commitment to ensure that there should never be such blood-letting in the country again. (9.284-285)
Demilitarization in the North and North East/Psychosocial Programs
In line with other recommendations of the LLRC Report, I urge your Excellency to consider making plans over the medium term to replace military professionals in the North and North East with psycho-social professionals to assist in the recovery of war affected communities throughout the island. Anecdotally speaking, I have personally heard many stories of deep psychological trauma that civilians in various regions of the North and North East have undergone, all of whom in my non-professional opinion require professional assistance. Given the duration of the conflict and the communities the conflict expected, it is reasonable to assume that the same psychological trauma is present in other areas of the country. Provisions need to be made to obtain professional care for these victims, particularly in populations in the North and North East of Sri Lanka who bore the brunt of the conflict.
Expecting the drastic reduction in the military presence in communities in the North and North East of Sri Lanka may not be politically feasible in the short term, given the current calls for you to not do away with post-war security measures. Notwithstanding, I strongly hope there will soon come a time in your Presidency when Your Excellency will enact policies to ensure Sri Lankan civilians of Tamil descent in the North and North East will be as free from the military as their counterparts in other areas of the country.
Release the LLRC Report in State Media
Again I recognize that you are (and indeed ought to be) preoccupied with the need of your constituents. But in time I hope you will consider implementing some of these proposals. I recognize these suggestions may not be practical or feasible at the moment, given the demands and pressures exerted by Sinhalese nationalists. In response to these pressures, ensure that the Sri Lankan people are aware of recommendations of the LLRC by asking State Media to release the LLRC Report in all official languages on a serialized basis. Know that there are groups in the Sri Lankan Diaspora – and even in the Tamil Diaspora – that may be able to assist in the substantive implementation of the LLRC Recommendations, if that assistance is at all needed.
In conclusion, please know your demonstrated courage and humility during this election has been incredibly inspirational and has instilled in many a Sri Lankan a great hope for reform. I hope you continue to set an example for all Sri Lankans to emulate to the world and to each other for the duration of your presidency.
May the Blessed Triple Gem continue to give you strength and bless you and your loved ones.
Romesh Hettiarachchi is a lawyer and mediator in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached @romesh_h.