The Diaspora Dilemma
Posted on February 8, 2016 at 8:56 am


by Amjad Mohamed SaleemThe Diaspora Dilemma_Sinhala (AMS)(2)

(This article is also available in Sinhala and Tamil)

There is a Filipino poem that says “The pilgrim shall return to his country, shall return perhaps to his shore; and shall find only ice and ruin, perished loved ones, and graves-nothing more. Begone, wanderer! In your own country a stranger now and alone! Let the others sing of loving, who are happy-but you, begone”.

This is an apt description that affects many choosing to return to live in Sri Lanka either after a long time of being away or for the first time as a resident. This is made even more difficult by the labels of identity that are given. For those returning back after a long time of being away they are simply classified as ‘returnees’.

For those whose heritage is Sri Lankan but whose home and nationality may be different, the challenge begins. Are they called ‘expats’ or ‘diaspora’? Each of these terms has a specific connotation and academic meaning, however for the latter in particular, the term is divisive and loaded. For a large portion of the Sri Lankan society, diaspora represents something of suspicion and evil. As result of the conflict and the post conflict international scrutiny, diaspora remains this one entity whose sole purpose is to destroy the country with its members being indoctrinated to work to this purpose. In effect, the diaspora are ‘Hydra’ to the ‘Shield’ of Sri Lanka.

This makes it very difficult for anyone to have a conversation using the word ‘diaspora’ in Sri Lanka. It is simply a nonstarter. As someone who comes from this community, the contentious nature of the word has just added to the conflicting insecurity of identity that members of the diaspora have. As you see, many of us although born and brought up in other countries where we hold citizenship and nationality, have been brought up largely in traditional Sri Lankan cultural and religious settings.

Emotional attachment

In an attempt for us not to ‘lose’ our heritage and values, our parents have gone out the way to ensure relative exposure to various things that are Sri Lankan. Picture a much less intense version of the ‘Asian Provocateur’ series with Romesh Ranganathan, with the same intent shown by his mother. So many of us are brought up with these dichotomies of being Sri Lankan plus plus. We live Sri Lanka through the experiences of our parents seeing it through their eyes (which depending on the circumstances in which people left is negative to the point of hate or indifferent to the point of ‘nothing works’).

Hence identity and the search for its meaning becomes even more of a preoccupation and aspirational for us second or third generation members of the diaspora. We don’t know where we are. We search for belonging. People’s sense of belonging in diasporic contexts is forever in them making, and emerging in constant interplay with ‘host’ cultures. Making home anew, therefore, is not just a matter of conviviality and tolerance; it is also one of friction and exclusion.

We don’t necessarily fit in truly with our countries of nationality because let’s face it, there are issues of difference of culture, religious practice, food clothing and even colour. Yet we also do not fully fit in with the country of our heritage, because we speak differently, are seen as different or are labelled either the ‘enemy’ at worst or ‘different’ at best. This dichotomy find agency in many ways. The notion of belonging evokes an emotional attachment to a homeland, a place of origin, whether real or imagined. We thus form ‘imagined’ communities in the mobilisation of sentiments and action.

In forming these communities, certain myths are formed which we need to dispel. For example, the myth that somehow the diaspora are homogeneous. There are inter generational cleavages transcending inter and intra community fault lines. Despite having multiple ties to their country of heritage and residence, diaspora are rarely homogenous by nature, representing many political opinions and experiences.

Reconciliation and recovery

Diaspora communities always act on behalf of communities on the ground. However, the interaction they have with these communities is often unrepresentative of the full reality and limited to the same ethnic group as their own.

This has to be the starting premise for any discussion with regards engaging the diaspora community (in its wider sense of ethnic, religious and political affiliations) with Sri Lanka. As long as Sri Lanka’s diaspora communities are active on Sri Lankan issues, there are always opportunities to harness this motivation for peacebuilding, reconciliation and recovery. However in the past, much needed concerted and focussed engagement with members of the Sri Lankan diaspora community has been at best patchy.

A lot of this inertia can be attributed to a reactionary impulse of previous governments to deflect widespread international criticism on human rights and so on, perceived to be largely pressurised by a vocal and influential Tamil Diaspora. The new government has pledged to change this by engaging with and encouraging those expatriate groups interested in redevelopment and reconciliation efforts.

This is much welcome as for too long we in the diaspora have felt sidelined and frustrated that we were unable to engage or couldn’t be engaged with. Yet in engaging with the diaspora, the government needs to be cognisant of several things:

1. Understand the multiple grievances that diaspora communities have with Sri Lanka. Communities have migrated out of Sri Lanka for a variety of reasons (either by choice or lack of choice). They each have a different perception and grievance regarding the country they left behind. This needs to be understood and acknowledged before an attempt is made to engage with them.

2. Understand the complex multiple diverse diaspora communities and dynamics that represent the myriad of views that exist with regards the country of heritage. Diaspora communities are representative of their views and their experiences; they are not representative of the views and experiences of communities, civil society and political society in their country of heritage at the present day. Nevertheless, they still have a special connection to the country of heritage and the ability to be able to have a significant impact, be it political, economic or developmental (human and otherwise).

3. Recognise generational divisions in experiences, attitudes and motivations which even exist within different generations of the same family, who have different personal challenges and motivations.

4. Many diaspora communities are more polarised (within faith and between ethnicities) than exist in Sri Lanka. There must be a recognition of this division and opportunities for honest and constructive conversations to take place.

5. Building knowledge of actual needs, gaps and motivations of the respective communities and correcting the assumptions of each community is a crucial starting point for engagement. This then provides an opportunity for a wider reality to be provided to the diaspora.

6. Just as the perception of Sri Lanka is varied from the diaspora perspective so is the perception of diaspora from the Sri Lankan perspective. There needs to be clarity and a dispelling of myths regarding the diaspora within Sri Lanka. More open and inclusive spaces for dialogue between home country civil society, policy-makers and diaspora communities needs to be developed and promoted in addition to ensuring connections between local communities and diaspora communities. For people in the diaspora, the easiest position to take is not to engage or to engage on the premise that Sri Lanka is totally bad and needs a complete re-haul.

The more difficult position is to acknowledge the challenges and failings but recognise the potential for improvements. This is the dilemma for many diaspora such as I who have taken the decision to move back to Sri Lanka to give back to the country of our parent’s heritage. Many of us choose to change one quality of life in other countries for another quality of life here (sometimes at a greater cost) not because of anything, but because of the opportunity that avails us of trying to make a contribution. This for me is where the hope and opportunity lies for a mutual beneficial partnership to be developed. For many of us in the Diaspora, we want to belong. This is something despite all the differences we share, we have in common. In wanting to belong, we will provide our skills, knowledge and even our finances. This is something that Sri Lanka could benefit from in its own journey of setting up a common future.

(Amjad is a political analyst on South Asian issues (focusing mainly but not exclusively on Sri Lanka), with expertise in Humanitarian and Development Issues, Peacebuilding and Interfaith Dialogue. He is currently the Country Director of International Alert in Sri Lanka. He is a global fellow at the Project for the Study of the 21st Century, based in London) 

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