By Ameer Ali –
An economy crumbling by the day, a pandemic mismanaged and refusing to release its shackles, a foreign policy creating more headaches than solutions, strategic domestic assets falling into foreign hands, a parliament in turmoil, and conspiracies and divisions shaking the very edifice of Rajapaksa Regime’s (RR) political foundation: all this has made Sri Lanka’s internal stability, external tranquility and economic recovery increasingly problematic, to say the least.
To be precise, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s (GR) grand vision of splendour and prosperity packaged with an aura of virtuosity, discipline and security; and his alternate route to economic development, are all in tatters. The country is virtually bankrupt with massive foreign debt and just enough foreign exchange to finance imports for three to four months. Debt default appears a strong possibility this year. Above all, pressure is mounting from outside to compound the difficulties faced by the regime. It is with this bleak picture in the background this discussion draws attention to a crucial human variable that is making it harder for the regime to survive without yielding to international pressures: Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora (SLTD).
Neither the Sri Lankan diplomats nor governments they represented and representing attach any importance to SLTD, except to condemn wholesale its leaders as heroes of lost causes and dismissing their organizations as terror outfits. Such condemnation and negative portrayal obviously help to satisfy majoritarian sentiments at home and enhance the popularity and stature of local leaders in power, but it hides an important and unpalatable truth about the rising strength and influence of SLTD, whose activities behind the scenes and at international level are beginning to bite the ruling regime and make it harder for its leaders to survive without driving the country and its people further and further into abyss.
There is no accurate count of the numerical strength of SLTD, because of the methodological differences in census taking. However, it is estimated that in Canada alone its number has reached around 400,000. There are also sizeable concentrations of SL Tamils in UK, US, Australia, France, and Germany, and much less in the Netherlands, Nordic countries and New Zealand. All in all, one can safely put the total strength of SLTD at or little less than three quarters of a million. What matters is not their number but the positions they hold, activities they conduct, and influence they wield within the polities of their domiciled countries.
Broadly speaking, SLTD can be categorized into two groups: pre and post 1983 communities, and a vast majority of both halves were victims of Sinhala Buddhist ethno-nationalism, a constant variable that dominates Sri Lankan politics since independence. (Needless to say, that prominent members of the Rajapaksa dynasty are ardent advocates of this nationalism, and it was during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, with his brother Gotabaya as defence secretary, that some of the worst human rights violations amounting to war crimes were said to have been unleashed against the Tamils). However, of the two diaspora groups, bulk of the pre-1983 half were English educated intellectuals and professionals most of whom hailed from a middle-class background. They emigrated and sought refuge in English speaking countries largely because of their inability or unwillingness to work under the new language policy and swabasha education system introduced by SWRD Bandaranaike. Having settled in the West they were more interested in advancing their own professional careers and family life than getting involved in the affairs of the community they left behind at home. Also, their interest in Tamil language, Tamil culture and Tamil politics were at best peripheral. True, there were exceptions.
In contrast, the post-1983 contingent were of a radically different composition. A vast majority of them were direct victims of the 1983 pogrom and were products of swabasha education. Many of them, without knowledge of any foreign language were desperately looking to migrate anywhere outside Sri Lanka and their number swelled during the civil war and its immediate aftermath. They were part of a new generation of boat people running away from trouble spots in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, and were products of the so-called war against terrorism, led by the US and its allies. In this massive exodus, the Tamil component from Sri Lanka was carrying with them not only bitter memories of their wartime experience but also a feeling of vindictiveness.
One important difference between this new wave and its pre-1983 predecessor was that the new migrants took with them a deep love towards their mother tongue Tamil, Tamil culture, and a firm commitment towards working from abroad to improve the welfare of their own community stuck in Sri Lanka. Accordingly, wherever they settled they organized Tamil language classes for Tamil kids, published a plethora of Tamil journals and Tamil literary works, operated Tamil media channels of communication, opened Tamil language schools to teach grown-up children, mostly during weekends, and in countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand they were also able to receive approval from respective government educational authorities to teach Tamil as a second language in high schools. In short, it will not be an exaggeration to claim that it is SLTD that made poet Bharathi’ dream of enabling the sweet voice of Tamil heard all over the world, a reality. It was also partly through diaspora’s economic assistance that thousands of Tamil families in the North and East were able to recoup at least part of what they lost during the war.
What is more important to the present discussion is how quickly and successfully the relatively youthful post-1983 SLTD replaced its ageing pre-1983 generation in various professional fields as well as in economic and commercial pursuits. This success through hard work created a recognizable Tamil elite in several Western countries, whose integration and socialization with its counterparts in other communities turned out to be an invaluable political asset to work towards advancing the interests of Tamil community in Sri Lanka. Over a period of twenty to thirty years SLTD, like Jews before World War II, has grown into a force to be reckoned with. The Geneva UNHCR resolution of September 2020, US Congress’ attempt to recognize North and East of Sri Lanka as Tamil traditional homeland, EU’s moves to withdraw GSP Plus and such other developments in the West demonstrate the influence of SLTD internationally. To the Rajapaksa Regime, and for that matter to any future regime that entertains Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalism as the primary denominator of national politics, this is an unwelcome development. The new generation of SLTD would continue to exert pressure upon these regimes by influencing world organizations to restore democracy and meet out justice to the oppressed in a country which they still love and yearn to return one day. Not surprisingly, SLTD has also won sympathy to their cause from a growing Sinhalese and Muslim diaspora.
There is obviously a realization within the echelon of Sri Lankan ruling circles that steps should be taken to eliminate or reduce external pressures. The country’s bankrupt economy and rising discontent within the general public, more than anything else, demands this. Even diplomatically, the professional calibre of Sri Lanka’s representatives abroad is so amateurish, as was demonstrated in Geneva last year, the regime is desperately in search of a more direct approach. The hasty invitation by GR to members of TNA for talks is clear evidence of this desperation and realization. Although that invitation was withdrawn no sooner than sent, and talks were postponed indefinitely, presumably because of opposition from GR’s supporters, at least secret channels need be open to start a dialogue with minorities. It appears that talks with TNA would be held sooner than later. History is full of surprising twists and turns, and nothing should be dismissed as an impossibility. In that same vein, will secret channels of communication, at least with sections of moderate SLTD, be open to widen the dialogue with the Tamils? What is obvious from these developments is that SLTD has become the nemesis of a crumbling Rajapaksa Regime.
Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia