Colombo Telegraph

Letter To The Sri Lankan Diaspora: Dear Akka

By Romesh Hettiarachchi

Romesh Hettiarachchi

Akka,

Look, we need to talk.

While we’ve never agreed on Sri Lankan issues, some of the stuff said last week was unacceptable. While your views are not representative of most Sri Lankans I know, I write this letter to you hoping to frame my thoughts in a way that resonates with you.

1. Diasporas Matter

Let me begin by addressing the start of our conversation: why should Sri Lankans care about the Diaspora? For one: the opinions of the Diaspora matter to Sri Lankans. President Rajapaksa understood this; his whole campaign was premised on the idea that Sri Lankans should fear the Tamil Diaspora. Even today, Sinhalese nationalists and Buddhist radicals continue to use the idea of the “Tamil Diaspora” as a propaganda tool.

A second reason: Members of the Diaspora have skills, knowledge and money that could be leveraged to benefit all Sri Lankans. Your reservations about the Tamil Diaspora arise from your failure to acknowledge the sheer diversity of the Tamil Diaspora. Take my friend Bala for instance, a Tamil nationalist living in London. Bala is frankly brilliant, gregarious and all round awesome . We simply disagree when it comes to issues relating to Sri Lanka.

Which is why referring to the “Tamil Diaspora” as terrorists is maddeningly inaccurate.

2. Differences between Sri Lankan and Tamil Diaspora

The Tamil Diaspora (those who identify as exclusively Tamil living outside Sri Lanka) and the Sri Lankan Diaspora (self-identified hyphenated Sri Lankans living outside Sri Lanka) were born in different circumstances.

The Tamil Diaspora was a product of several violent episodes in Sri Lanka’s history. As a result of the violence culminating in Black July, Bala’s family fled to the UK as refugees. In London, Bala’s parents experienced tremendous hardship, unable to find employment in part due to systemic racism and the difficulties speaking English. Bala’s dad, a professional, was subject to verbal abuse while working two jobs to feed his family and send Bala to school. Notwithstanding these experiences, Bala’s father still supports his extended family in Sri Lanka. Bala does his best to remain connected to their ancestral community – it was Bala who showed me that Tamilnet was not only a news site but a tool to remember their history; a tool that recognizes the relationship between the Tamil and Sinhalese languages. These experiences are etched into Bala’s history; such experiences cannot be forgotten simply because it is asked.

Acknowledging the experiences of the Tamil Diaspora does not diminish our own Diasporan experience. I’ve told Bala how Uncle Hasindu has deep animosity against the Tamil community after he was forced to leave Sri Lanka due to the intimidation and violence the Tamil Diaspora funded. Bala knows Chaminda’s near escape from suicide bombers attacking public buses. You of course know the warnings Aunty Manel has given us about speaking out on political matters; fears based on her own experience living through the JVP insurrections and the ensuing security measures imposed by later governments. For most of the Sri Lankan diaspora, we are keenly aware of what may happen to us or our loved ones if we upset the apple cart. These experiences are etched into our family history; such experiences cannot be forgotten simply because it is asked.

3. MIA: Sri Lanka 2015?

As a result, the Sri Lankan and Tamil diasporas politicized differently. While the Tamil Diaspora organized themselves into formal political advocacy groups, our community without ties to the Government largely chose to remain apolitical. The Tamil Diaspora frame every decision taken by the Government as a political one; the Sri Lankan Diaspora assume all government decisions made are pragmatic and unbiased.

MIAs Channel 4 interview demonstrates these differences in politicization. MIA‘s early assertion that “Sri Lanka is basically the same government with a different face.” is clearly not true: the President is different – so much so that MIA says President Sirisena is “unknown” – as is the Prime Minister and cabinet. The retired member of the military as governor of the Northern Province has been replaced by a civilian. MP’s of Tamil descent have been appointed to key positions in the government including the Ministry of Resettlement and Reconstruction.

All of these are signs of progress.

But while MIA is wrong in many respects, at least MIA understands the crucial points: Tamil people voted for the benefit of all people of Sri Lanka (1.44) and want peace, dignity and the simple things: homes, education, jobs and government participation (10:00). What ought to be notable is what MIA does not say: the Tamil people want self-determination. (Also notable: MIA is open to visiting Sri Lanka! Someone get her ticket now that the travel ban against foreigners has been lifted!)

Again, signs of progress.

4. The Sri Lankan and Tamil Diaspora: Mirror Images?

Sure, MIA analyzes Sri Lankan political issues through the eyes of her own experience. But you are no different. Consider:

  • “Canadian politicians will always be influenced by votes in the Tamil Diaspora.” If so, then why do you argue with me when I point out that Sri Lankan politicians are influenced in the same way by their constituents? If you demand your voice as a minority be respected, shouldn’t you demand the voices of the minority population be respected in Sri Lanka?
  • “The “Tamils” should not be able to visit Sri Lanka” How do you expect the Tamil Diaspora to learn that Sri Lankan Tamils don’t want Eelam if they aren’t exposed to Sri Lankan Tamils?
  • “The “Tamils” should identify as Sri Lankan” The Tamil Diaspora would probably be more willing to identify as Sri Lankan if you treated them and respected them as if they were Sri Lankan.
  • “The Tamils are insular and will never allow a Sinhalese/Sri Lankan person to lead them.” I don’t know if that’s really true – after all the Sri Lankan Tamils did vote for President Sirisena – but be honest are you be willing to cast your vote for a Tamil politician?

I get it: the Tamil Diaspora were silent while the Tigers eliminated dissent and held no elections. Yes, it is hypocritical for Tamil activists to preach the virtues of self-determination in the face of this silence. And yes, in February 2009, prominent Tamil activists resisted calls for the Tigers to lay down their arms and doubted evidence that civilians were forced by the Tigers to stay in the conflict zone. Many lives would have been saved if the Tigers laid down their arms in February 2009. Yes, the international community has a short attention span.

But MIA is right: Five years after May 2009, fear of the LTTE and the Tamil diaspora cannot be the dominant policy consideration for Sri Lanka. While Sri Lankans may always need to be vigilant against extremism, such vigilance cannot be at the expense of the rights and security of minority groups or general civil liberties. As the Dhammapada says:

Hostilities aren’t stilled through hostility, regardless.
Hostilities are stilled through non-hostility: this, an unending truth.

5. Responsibility to Rebuild: Role of the Diasporas

There remains a need to ensure progress in Sri Lanka is mirrored in the Diasporas. The Responsibility to Rebuild (R2R) doctrine may play a role in this regard. The R2R doctrine was first articulated when the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Doctrine was proposed in 2001 as the obligation of the international community to provide “full assistance with recovery, reconstruction and reconciliation, addressing the causes of the intervention was designed to alt or avert.” Although R2R is not official UN policy, the international community continues to have an interest in ensuring there is no return to conflict as others have indicated.

With President Sirisena facing daunting challenges to address the needs of the war-affected and impoverished, the Sri Lankan and Tamil Diasporas may be able to provide some assistance. In my experience, many in the Sri Lankan and Tamil Diasporas would welcome a role in assisting in the rebuilding of communities in Sri Lanka if there are no expectations are attached to participation. That’s how Bala and I became friends: I didn’t expect Bala to identify as Sri Lankan and Bala didn’t expect me to agree to political questions. Bala and I not only have a stronger understanding where each of us are coming from, but we have found our friendship has enormous value when working on issues of mutual concern. Our friendship better enables us to assist the people we care so deeply about.

International organizations may also have a part to play by incentivizing engagement between the Sri Lankan and Tamil communities. Such roles may include:

  • facilitating and funding formal and informal interactions between and within Diasporas to promote constructive engagement and working together to address and fund the needs of Sri Lankan communities all across the island, particularly those most in need of assistance or
  • holding the communities accountable for positions and statements that undermine peace and justice in Sri Lanka.

Conclusion

Akka, I know your looking for way to categorize me based on the content of this letter. I think the conflict has conditioned any of us to mentally classify people based on statements they make, reacting to what we think is being said rather than responding to what they actually are saying. I certainly have struggled with this in the past.

And you are right, I can’t speak on behalf of the Tamil Diaspora; I simply write based on my experience of the Tamil Diaspora through my Tamil friends. Overwhelmingly, my Tamil friends have proven to be people of integrity and talent. You don’t see these qualities simply because they are Tamil. It is easy to write diatribes against those we don’t understand or respect while remaining closed to their real (and often emotional) experiences. While happy the Tigers no longer threaten the lives and livelihood of the Sri Lankan people, Bala has helped me recognize the importance of empathizing with the emotional significance that May 2009 means to others. In validating the experiences of the Other, perhaps the Sri Lankan and Tamil Diasporas can learn ways to work together to free the prisoners in the Sri Lankan Dilemma.

I began this letter by hoping some aspects of this would resonate with you. This is no certainty of this. If you do intend to criticize me, remember the five keys of Right Speech Bhante taught us. Regardless, while I know I’ll always be “Looney Malli” to you and the rest of the family, remember that I will always consider you family.

I simply wish your definition of family was more inclusive.

*My deepest thanks go to the members of Kathae Kadai. These letters could not have been written without such vibrant discussions.

Romesh Hettiarachchi is a lawyer and mediator in Toronto, Canada and was a former director of Sri Lankans Without Borders. Romesh can be reached @romesh_h. The previous two reflections written in the form as letters can be found here and here.

Although Bala and the other named individuals are all constructs, the experiences described are real. I would particularly encourage readers to learn more about the real hardships some members of the Tamil Diaspora faced by checking out the Roots of Diaspora Facebook page (again, no affiliation). Thanks go to the participants in the Kathae Kadai facebook forum, whose discussions made these reflections possible.

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