By Thisara Devasurendra –
Rather than quoting empirical data, and authors or complex theories, today I will speak to you through my experiences.
As far as I remember, like the majority of my Sri Lankan friends born during the eighties, I have always known my parents’ country as a country in war. And even if the conflict is over since a few years now, I frequently get reminded that there was a war. Especially when I meet someone new, and they ask me where I come from I naturally respond to them – Sri Lanka.
To the majority of people that I have told about my origins, many are clueless, and I just don’t insist. For those of whom are accustomed to living in very cosmopolitan areas of the world or are slightly more aware of the world will ask me, “there’s a war there isn’t it? So are you Tamil or Sinhala? So who are the real bad guys?” All these questions awakens horrid memories that I witnessed as a child during my frequent stays in Sri Lanka. So yes, it makes me upset that this beautiful country had undergone one of the bloodiest wars that even I witnessed, leaving a real meaning to the word ‘gruesome’ in my mind.
Truth be told, I have lived in Sri Lanka, and I go there as much as few times a year since birth, yet I have only been to the Northern part of Sri Lanka during the summer of 2011, and before that the most Northern point I had been was Trincomalee in 2005. It is when I went to Jaffna in 2011 that the feeling that something wasn’t right started growing in my mind. Witnessing all the chaos that ravaged Jaffna and seeing this for the first time gave me chills in my spine. I was then on a family holiday with my parents, aunts, uncles and my grandmother who also lived until the mid-60’s in Jaffna and left like many others during the 70’s. Then I thought to myself, war is certainly over politically speaking, but what if my family background had its roots in Jaffna, and it was the first time I was able to visit my grandmother in Jaffna?
What would one feel coming to visit his or her grandparents or family for the first time and see all the monuments destroyed by bombing or even bullet ridden walls on their family home if not completely destroyed?
How would one feel going back to Colombo and the rest of the country and see the decadence of Sri Lanka after seeing a ruined city by 30 years of war? If it were me, I would indeed have a feeling of bitterness or anger. It is this feeling that can intoxicate the Diaspora, thus the peace between the different populations of Sri Lanka anywhere in the world and that I therefore resent.
I would like to talk about this war in the past tense and talk about the future in the present and future tense. When you are part of the Diaspora, your vision of Sri Lanka is usually distorted. You appropriate your cultural identity through what ties you to the country –your parents, family and peers. Even when you go to Sri Lanka, your visions and impressions are biased by cultural and linguistic barriers. Yet my observation is that the Sri Lankan Diaspora youth is more inclined in keeping in touch with traditions than the ones living in Sri Lanka.
Likewise their will to proclaim their cultural difference or identity is often very visible. We should all be proud of carrying over a bit of our heritage and passing it over to the future generations. But what kind of message and vision has been passed on to us? And as a generation which was born to an era of war? What did our parents and elders go through during this war? How much have WE been exposed to it? Why or how did their opinions shape our point of view? Or at least contribute to it?
My frequent travels to Sri Lanka helped me keep up with my cultural identity, I am lucky enough to have lived there and kept contact with my friends, and meet them ever so often that I can and act like a normal Sri Lankan.
Having the ability to do things to a certain extent on my own has brought me the ability of having a more personal and less biased point of view –at least the illusion of it. Over the years I started contesting and arguing with my parents about topics on Sri Lanka, and I still do, this is thanks to my own point of contacts to Sri Lanka. Saying that the world is moving very fast is stating the obvious, but to the risk of sounding like my parents, I have to admit that even I was surprised to witness the speed of Sri Lanka’s metamorphosis, and its population. There is a gap between how one can assess information and when the information is being delivered to them.
The interpretation of the information will be the key and this will also reflect the involvement to the country of origin. Yet there is a great gap between how Sri Lankans from Sri Lanka perceived themselves and perceive the situation of the country and how the Diaspora perceives the Sri Lankans and Sri Lanka.
There is one upside to being part of the Diaspora I think. That is preserving the cultural identity, which has started to dilute in Sri Lanka. The downside is, maintaining stereotypical viewpoints inherited by people acting like a bridge between the Diaspora youth and the country of origin. So how could Sri Lankan Diaspora youth help?
Changing a mindset is a hard to achieve. Yet change can start but it needs commitment. The Diaspora is indeed a key factor in Sri Lanka’s image, as they are the interface between the country and foreigners. Moreover, it remains a main artery to the peace building process. The Diaspora youth has acquired a certain set of skills through the process of schooling in France or abroad, which is living with each other. The mix of origins in a classroom is often very eclectic. Thus making this generation more inclined to diversity. This is one very positive aspect we should start capitalizing on. And I am persuaded that there are many more.
Likewise to show change, it will need certain commitments and life choices from a group of individuals who are determined to carry on this will to make things better. This will require them to live in Sri Lanka and reach influential positions in society, but they will have to accept that they probably will not see the fruit of their work and choices.
On the other hand the Diaspora can be fearfully dangerous to the current peace process. As mentioned before, the gap between the current situation and the belief of the Diaspora could harm the reconciliation process at this very early stage, and even deepen the current laceration the country is already trying or not, to heal.
“Start as you mean to go along”. Cemal Tosun
*Thisara Devasurendra holds an MBA from Bournemouth University, UK. He currently works as an economic projects manager for an NGO based in Marseille, France. He also runs a research & development business in the field of renewable energies in Brittany, France.