There is no such thing as ‘the Sri Lankan diaspora’. Sri Lankan communities exist in the plural. And yet, nearly thirty years of conflict have rendered a nation with multiple minority communities and religions as though it has only two groups. If you generalise about what you read at all (and most people do), you are likely to believe that Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority are pitted against each other, not only inside the country but in diasporas all over the world.
While conflict and geographic dispersal present real challenges to Sri Lankan diasporas, this image of Sinhalese versus Tamil is far from the whole truth. Although the war ended with a decisive victory by government security forces over the LTTE in 2009, the reductive image remains: Sri Lanka, a nation with Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher communities, rarely appears that way. The media is not the only culprit. In the wake of that resounding military victory, both the Sri Lankan government and its critics have failed to engage Sri Lankan diasporas and to understand their complexity. Indeed, their collective actions have excluded diasporic populations.
Lankan diaspora histories often begin with 1983, when anti-Tamil violence and the rise of Tamil militancy led to the civil war that displaced hundreds of thousands of Tamils from the island. In fact, a longer and more complicated history of migration is responsible for today’s Lankan diasporas. During the 1930s and 1940s, English-speaking upper-caste Ceylonese who worked in the British Empire’s civil service formed diasporic settlements from Burma to Malaya.
After independence in 1948, new legislation disenfranchised Tamils of Indian origin, who had been brought in to work on colonial plantations during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many members of that community were subsequently repatriated to India. An attempt to nationalise government administration with the 1956 Official Language Act ‘ popularly dubbed ‘Sinhala Only’ ‘ led to the migration of Ceylonese professionals of all communities who were not proficient in Sinhala. Large numbers of Burghers, the community of mixed Sri Lankan and European descent, migrated to Britain, Canada and Australia; Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim professionals followed, accompanied by their families.
In these transitional decades, there was no such thing as a Tamil or Sinhalese diaspora; but by the late 1970s this was no longer the case, as factionalism escalated within the country. Three decades of state and economic restructuring had not created a united ‘Sri Lankan’ nation, and tensions mounted between a Sinhalese-dominated government and Tamil political parties. Disaffection with the political status quo gave rise to a 1971 insurrection among predominantly rural Sinhalese youths in the south, and growing militancy among Tamil youths in the north and east by the latter part of the decade. University admissions quotas, among other policies, effectively reduced opportunities for middle-class Tamil students and young professionals, who began to seek employment abroad.
In July 1983, nearly 3000 people were killed and thousands more displaced over five days of government-sponsored anti-Tamil violence, creating a new wave of migrants. The scale of destruction and spectacular displays of enmity spurred sympathetic Western governments to create special categories for refugee resettlement. As the country descended from ethnic conflict into full-scale war between the government and Tamil militant groups, the tide of migration continued. In the 1980s, as the LTTE rose to supremacy by brutally eliminating other Tamil militant groups, non-LTTE Tamil militants and their families emigrated. Internally, too, the country saw mass displacement of Muslims and Tamils.
The war with the state intensified through the mid-1980s and 1990s, again prompting hundreds of thousands of Tamils to depart. By some estimates, nearly 900,000 ‘ one in three ‘ Tamils from Sri Lanka today live abroad, hailing predominantly from the country’s north and, to a lesser extent, the east. India was often their first stop and, for some, their final destination. Others headed to Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, each of which offered the possibility of citizenship. Others remain refugees in India, Southeast Asia and Europe. As the war escalated, the pro-LTTE section of the diaspora became famously militant, pouring money into the Tigers’ movement, while their relatives and friends back home lost children, homes and livelihoods. The Tigers even developed an overseas wing, which managed its propaganda so successfully that other sections of the Tamil diaspora were virtually erased from the public sphere.
Admittedly, the largest Sri Lankan diaspora is a Tamil one, which has commanded considerable attention as a result of post-1983 migration, the war, and visible propaganda and financial support for the LTTE among some of its sections. Some use Sri Lankan diaspora and Tamil diaspora interchangeably, but Sinhalese and Muslim Sri Lankans have also gone to other shores amid political crises and economic uncertainty, and they continue to emigrate, predominantly as temporary migrant workers to West Asia. Sizeable and diverse Sinhalese diaspora communities have formed ‘ among workers in Italy, professionals in the United States, and several generations of migrants to the United Kingdom and Canada.
Today, some Sinhalese (and, to a lesser extent, Muslim) groups maintain ties with each other and with Sri Lanka through various associations. For some organisations, ‘Sri Lanka’ becomes a proxy for displays of Sinhalese nationalism that make critiques of the Sri Lankan government difficult. Similarly, prominent diasporic Tamil organisations have long showcased arguments for separatism, sometimes accompanied by endorsements of the LTTE. Those who do not agree with these respective lines face isolation from their own ethnic communities.
In May 2009, the war’s end saw the differing trajectories of these diasporas converge in tense confrontations in Canada, the UK, Australia and elsewhere. Thousands of Tamils around the world protested the war and the suffering it imposed. Those waving LTTE flags monopolised media attention, sidelining the message of ‘peace through negotiations’ emanating from other quarters. In response, smaller Sri Lankan groups with close connections to embassies and missions abroad organised counter-demonstrations. Their predominantly Sinhalese ranks also included anti-LTTE Tamils who cheered the Tigers’ defeat and hailed the soldiers who ended the war through military action.
Just remittances, please
Over the course of the war, the visibility of dominant sections of the Tamil diaspora ‘ and their stunning vocal and financial support for the Tamil Tigers ‘ has helped the Sri Lankan government to project the entire group as a terrorist threat. Post-war, the authorities’ attempts to derail a monolithic ‘Tamil diaspora’ have transformed into interest in that diaspora’s sizable collective wallet. In anticipation of a post-war Lanka, the government handpicked leaders and activists of the Tamil diaspora to attend a March 2009 conference in Colombo. At the meeting, dubbed the Sri Lankan Diaspora Dialogue, many of the invitees expressed dismay with the government’s heavy-handed agenda. Even as the government invited some Tamils to return to the island, it has made the following conflicting claims: The LTTE has been completely decimated; the LTTE could re-emerge at any time, and has powerful supporters abroad; the diaspora is invited to engage with us financially; we are no longer a colony, and those who criticise us from abroad have the mindset of colonisers (or support the LTTE).
The LTTE’s claim to be Tamils’ ‘sole representative’ ‘ and its well-known allies abroad ‘ is convenient for the government, which wants remittances, not opinions. If it links all its overseas critics to the Tigers, it can dismiss their concerns. As pro-LTTE activists in the diaspora say they will continue to fight for Eelam from abroad (the most visible iteration being the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, formed in May following a diaspora-wide election), their statements fuel Colombo’s ire. In retaliation, the government has announced local and international campaigns to gather intelligence, seize assets and shut down the LTTE’s remaining international network. In such a climate of suspicion, the government has been quick to conflate any criticism with support for the LTTE, leaving no room for serious diasporic engagement with the state.
On the other hand, the government does recognise diasporas’ economic and political power, as well as the effectiveness of pro-LTTE activists overseas who have made it difficult for their critics to speak out. Indeed, since the Diaspora Dialogue, Colombo has learned much from the LTTE’s hegemony in diaspora communities. The government sidesteps political criticism by appealing to the desire of many to aid the war-torn regions of north and east Sri Lanka. To initiate development projects in these areas, it turns to ex-members of the Tigers. Former Tiger arms procurer and international-affairs representative Kumaran Pathmanathan now sits under house arrest in Colombo, dispensing advice to the government; his own public rehabilitation was announced with the launch of the North-East Rehabilitation Development Organization, for which he claimed ‘the Tamil diaspora’ was ready to work with the president. In the Eastern province, former Tigers and current government officials Pillayan and Karuna have their names bandied about as evidence of state engagement with minorities.
The power of foreign exchange as a potent resource for post-war reconstruction is not limited to the Tamil diasporas alone. With the war’s end, Sri Lankan embassies have raised funds (more than USD 690,000 to date), mainly from Sinhalese entrepreneurs and organisations, for Api wenuwen api (Be together for all), a Ministry of Defence campaign to build 50,000 houses for soldiers. Opposition groups also mobilise Sinhalese diaspora communities for their own ends. For example, in September, Sinhalese workers in Italy protested the Colombo government’s continued detention of the former head of the Sri Lankan armed forces, Sarath Fonseka.
The government’s latest statements continue to entreat ‘the Sri Lankan diaspora’ to participate in economic development. At the Asia Security Summit in August 2010, Minister of External Affairs G L Peiris said, ‘Our message to the diaspora in the Western world and elsewhere is that they have a dynamic role to play; we do not want them to distance themselves from the exciting developments which are taking place in Sri Lanka today.’ Such pronouncements are made even as the government cracks down on dissent and political opposition within Sri Lanka, and invokes the spectre of threats to national security to silence activists abroad. Peiris, a chief negotiator during the Oslo peace process, has recently argued that earlier talks and attempts at political reform failed due to a lack of consensus among dominant political interests. This top-down approach has allowed generations of Sri Lankan politicians to suppress debate and dissent while claiming to remain committed to political reform, and the same technique is now being used to mobilise the diaspora communities’ economic power.
This dual approach to (particularly) Tamil diaspora communities dismisses legitimate grievances and criticisms. Simultaneously, it invites potential investors to capitalise on the war’s end and selectively wields former LTTE leaders to collect economic contributions from the former. This not only privileges the economically secure and undermines the political engagement of diaspora communities in general, but also silences the many moderates ‘ in-country and abroad ‘ who did not provide unqualified support to the narrow agendas of successive governments or the LTTE. Such groups could not publicly criticise these agendas before, nor are they able to do so now. Instead, they remain sceptical and watchful of the many projects undertaken in their name.
The government’s dismissal of the Tamil diaspora as being little more than LTTE henchmen is not surprising. It is less encouraging, however, when the same attitude is revealed in progressives’ discussions of, and engagement with, the diaspora. The left has largely disengaged from diasporic politics, preferring to direct its limited energies to the battles to be waged in-country. But this myopia prevents engagement with the considerable resources of moderates within the diaspora.
During the war, progressives from all communities attempted to create space within the diaspora from which exclusivist nationalism could be challenged. Emphasising marginalised histories to refute nationalist narratives, these activists deployed the language of human rights and political pluralism. But they largely engaged with diasporic politics because of its importance to politics in Sri Lanka. Now, in the aftermath of the Tigers’ defeat, this effort has atrophied. And by equating the Tigers’ totalitarian politics with Tamil nationalism and the government’s brutal tactics with Sinhalese nationalism, the left only reaffirms these actors’ respective claims to represent Sinhalese and Tamil peoples.
This cedes important ideological and political ground. Furthermore, by depicting nationalism as static, regressive and exclusivist, the left fails to appreciate the varieties of nationalism, its potential as a source of solidarity, and its importance in forging and transforming identities. Indeed, national identity is what ties those in the diaspora ‘ including progressives who would rather identify themselves as expatriate or exile ‘ to politics in Sri Lanka. But from the diaspora various nationalisms can also emerge, where the multiple identities and affiliations of those in the diaspora can fruitfully inform and expand nationalist politics in Sri Lanka. Many Tamils were privately critical of the LTTE’s tactics; many Sinhalese were critical of the state’s growing authoritarianism. Clearly, between the poles there is space for common ground.
Progressives fashion themselves as exiles who, after years in the ideological hinterlands of the diaspora, can return to Sri Lanka and resume agitating for the transformations they failed to secure thirty years ago ‘ as though those intervening decades did not happen. What this has meant among many leftists in exile is supporting a project of authentic nationalism ‘ for some ethnic, for others, multi-ethnic ‘ from abroad, without engaging the communities living in their midst.
The Colombo government will not successfully engage diaspora communities in large-scale reconstruction if it continues to approach them in the same manner as it did throughout the war. Without a political process aimed at ending minority grievances on the island, many Tamil expatriates will continue to view the government’s embrace with scepticism. More fundamentally, diasporas should not be engaged only because they are deemed useful to ‘real’ Sri Lankan political actors engaged in the serious business of realpolitik. Rather, diasporas should be recognised as legitimate arenas of Sri Lankan politics. To claim otherwise is to reward regimes that neutralise political opposition and silence dissidents by expelling them.
For their part, members of Sri Lanka’s diasporas need to begin a process of critical reflection regarding the last thirty years of war, something that was discouraged amidst calls for solidarity. Instead of forgetting the so-called ‘tragic decades of nationalism’, communities across the political spectrum need to consider their complicity in its crimes, their complacency in the face of its manifest excesses, and their failures in advancing compelling alternatives. Such efforts might be most effective in Sri Lanka, and have begun in various fora there; but, given the significance of the diaspora in Sri Lankan politics and the relatively greater freedoms enjoyed outside Sri Lanka, it is imperative that these conversations happen outside too, and happen publicly.
This political reflection is especially important as the Sri Lankan government woos overseas communities for economic contributions, and contributions alone. Many are understandably excited by Sri Lanka’s post-war economic prospects. And in some respects, economic involvement can be more tempting than political engagement: its requirements are more discrete, its rewards more apparent, and it can look refreshingly (if deceptively) apolitical. In reality, of course, economic development in post-conflict Sri Lanka is subject to intense contestation, with economic fortunes inevitably linked to political positioning (see Himal Oct-Nov, ‘Capitalism contradictions’). Alternatively, the economic clout of responsible diasporic investors can ensure that the war and its bloody aftermath do not get airbrushed away, as in the glossy picture the government and its uncritical allies are so eager to promote.
The diaspora can also promote reconciliation by mirroring it abroad. In the absence of reliable media coverage from Sri Lanka, youth overseas have been too easily radicalised by incomplete histories and half-truths. This can only be countered by collective action to share stories and political pasts. As those private conversations become public, salient criticisms can gain traction through coalitions of progressive voices. Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher activists forming alliances overseas can become a powerful medium for critique and change. Those critical of diasporic extremists have rightfully called for grounding, and for true accountability to those on the ground in Sri Lanka. With action comes responsibility: if we want to work within Sri Lanka, we must listen to those who live there. Sinhalese and Tamil activists abroad must note that certain populations marginalised inside Sri Lanka ‘ for example, Muslims, Burghers and Up-country Tamils ‘ are correspondingly underrepresented in the diaspora. Their interests are Sri Lanka’s interests, and critique of the country must consider and engage them.
Sri Lankan diasporas are an easy target. They are easily ridiculed, their most vocal members often spouting opinions that seem ignorant. Their memories of grievance and grief are embarrassingly fresh, their suggestions oversimplified and trite, their language loaded. Their physical absence from Sri Lanka seems to preclude their involvement in its political life. Their hyphenated identities and modified accents undermine their authenticity. They are not really Sri Lankan ‘ that is, at least, when they do not serve the interests of the ‘authentic’ political actors in Sri Lanka. But they are also an unrivalled resource, with legitimate claims to space in Sri Lankan politics, and filial and financial ties to the country. They genuinely care about Sri Lanka and, in a world with increasingly porous borders, they have every right to do so. Their transnational politics is a product of the war, and they remain connected to Sri Lanka, even though their homes are abroad. Can the country afford ‘ from a practical or moral standpoint ‘ to turn its back on a million people who could contribute to its future?
~ Ashwini Vasanthakumar is at the Yale Law School and is a member of Lanka Solidarity
~ Kitana Ananda is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Columbia University, and a member of Lanka Solidarity
~ V V Ganeshananthan, a journalist and fiction writer, is the Zell Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, and a member of Lanka Solidarity