Diasporas and this Geneva season | Daily News

Diasporas and this Geneva season

Diaspora can mean many things to many people.
Diaspora can mean many things to many people.

Do we have ownership of the Sri Lankan Diaspora or not? It is that time of the year when the diaspora comes into even greater focus than usual. It is the phase commonly referred to as the Geneva circus. It is when various worthies in the Diasporas of different ethnic origins behave as if they are infinitely more patriotic than Sri Lankans domiciled in the island themselves.

It is easy to claim ownership of any Sri Lankan cause when one does not have to live the life of a Sri Lankan on terra firma, in this country.

Back here those who want to do something positive for the country fall in and out of favour. That is not the case when there is an entire ocean of patriotic fervour to draw from when one is a ‘Sri Lankan’ living in any other part of the world. Those outside are not organically linked to the issues faced by the people who are domiciled here. That should be axiomatic, but it is often forgotten.

Besides, those who have left have a tendency of being nostalgic probably due to a lack of a sense of belonging in the new countries in which they have settled. Certain writers have observed that established elements of diasporas all over the world tend to be embarrassingly, almost jingoistically, nationalistic. The newer emigrants from the same diaspora who are fresh from experiences in the home country are often chagrined by this ‘embarrassing nationalism’ because they have left a country which they recently experienced as a lived reality, warts and all.

It is impossible to disown the diasporas of today when convenient – and be proud of those in these communities in foreign lands when it suits us in the ‘old country’. Also, it is convenient to say “he is not ours in any way” when a terrorist gets caught in acts of violence in other countries, but to be proud at the same time of the Sri Lankan boy who is now a Canadian or American billionaire of great social standing.

However, be that as it may, the patriotic fervour of the diaspora elements is confusing at best. When the old country is feeling down and out and appeals to the elements in the diaspora for mustering financial assistance, the Sri Lankan communities abroad have been notoriously less than forthcoming.

Geneva round

A good question that could be asked as the new Geneva round approaches, is whether the hold that the Tamil diaspora had on events back here is waning, now that things have come a full circle with the wartime leadership. The Rajapaksa regime which brought an end to the hostilities with the LTTE was voted out of power in 2015 and was not front and centre in Sri Lankan politics for five years. But they are back in the saddle now.

It appears that the ‘catharsis’ offered by the 2015 events to some extent pacified the Tamil diaspora elements. But even so there is no olive branch that has been offered to any Sri Lankan regime, Rajapaksa or non-Rajapaksa. The respective Sinhala and Tamil diasporas in Western countries in particular still do mobilize in favour of the ethnic groups in their home countries. Their ability to keep the post war narrative of “no love lost betwixt us Tamils and Sinhalese” has been considerable.

Nobody has attempted any kind of peace-making or detente between the separate diaspora communities. In particular there is no interested third party that wants to do that because politicians in the countries that the Sri Lankans have emigrated to want to woo the vote banks of the diaspora communities – and peace-making between them may not be a very good idea with that in mind.

So, it is perhaps best that the polarized communities reach out to each other. At the moment, it is almost unthinkable. As the comedians say “it is too soon.” It is too soon to make a joke about the atrocities of war – it is also too soon to think that the diasporas themselves would reconcile.

But it would be a very good idea if they do. Why don’t the peace-making NGOs in this country or those think-tanks allied to this country not so much as think about it? They are, to use the lingo of the dispersed communities, dime a dozen. If peace-making is their credo why did not they offer to mend fences between the Sinhalese spread across Europe, say, and the Tamils in the same European continent?

The pundits may turn up their noses at the idea or pretend to be embarrassed, but it is long overdue. If the two communities abroad make common cause of developing the old country, half of Sri Lanka’s myriad problems would be solved.

Dispersed communities

Diasporas can be peace-wreckers more than peace-makers opines an academic group that wrote a paper on the subject of dispersed communities and so called peace-building efforts. Some Australians put a Burgher, a Tamil and Sinhalese into a bus and told them to go back to the old country together and see if they get along – and they did. More such tours ought to be organized – that way we would have less folk from the communities abroad egging on the people domiciled here to be at each other’s throats.

Back in the day, the colonizer divided and ruled. That is well known be it in South Africa with the Indians pitted against the native Africans and so on, and in Sri Lanka where the British had a history of favouring the minorities with jobs, etc., as a way of keeping the majority Sinhalese from becoming too assertive against the White rulers. The problem with diaspora politics is that much after colonialism ended, the ex-colonizer is dividing the dispersed communities against each other for votes.

British or Canadian Parliamentary hopefuls amplify the rhetoric of strident Tamil diaspora elements when they feel they have to win Tamil votes en bloc, and that is very often. So divide and rule has endured, and is now a weapon in the hands of the former colonizer’s progeny. Interesting to say the least. It is not surprising that peace-making efforts between the Sri Lankan communities abroad do not originate from the ranks of politicians running for office in Western countries. They often like peace when it is a little bit in the abstract with a little or no immediacy and why not – polarization has always been a tactic of those looking to harvest votes in massive quantities.

Homi Baba is supposed to have said, a diaspora subject is always “less than one and double.” They can be a confused lot, but the trouble is when they let this confusion seep into the communities in the home countries that stayed back and stayed put.

Dual citizens

It does not serve to demonize the diaspora communities, but it does not also serve to apotheosize them. It is difficult to resist that when diasporas are being asked to invest in projects back home for instance, but unfortunately when not, it is easier to demonize them than to cheer them on. It would not do, and particularly when there is another Geneva round around the corner, the subject of diaspora politics should be handled gently and not be bruited about as if these communities are an inconvenient reality – even though sometimes they are indeed just that.

But they are here to stay, and a small but significant cross section of them have dual citizenship to boot though they are for the most part full-time citizens of the new countries and hardly use the dual citizenship status to mooch around in the old country, for whatever reason.

That may give some indication about their real ‘commitment’ to the causes back home, but there is no reason to be unkind.

Diasporas have injected themselves into the home country discourse whether we like it or not, and though they may be important at certain times in the calendar year more than others, it is best that we invest some energies in studying how exactly their abundant energies should be dealt with if not channelled for the good of the country of origin.

The worldwide spread of the Sri Lankan Diaspora.


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