Reasoning behind the behaviour of Sri Lankan diaspora
or the purpose of this article, I refer to the Sri Lankan diaspora as those Sri Lankans who have migrated to a foreign country permanently and not those who are temporarily working or residing in foreign countries. Estimates suggest that the total Sri Lankan diaspora amounts to some two million, of which, it is estimated around 1.2 million are of Tamil ethnicity and 800,000 of Sinhalese ethnicity.
A sizeable proportion of the Tamil diaspora migrated following the black July riots in 1983 where they fled in fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. The ensuing migration was the result of the ongoing civil war that posed poor living conditions and a continuous fear for safety. This group of the Tamil diaspora are scarred with tragic tales and horrific memories of the darker side of Sri Lanka’s past resulting in mixed emotions. Externally they bear deep hatred and open anger towards the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) for being the sole reason that they fled their motherland. Internally, they feel what I refer to as “survivor’s guilt” when feeling privileged for achieving material success in their adoptive countries, they are also faced with the guilt for the fate of the less fortunate family members, community and homeland that they had left behind. In wrestling with this guilt, this section of the Tamil diaspora strongly voice out on GOSL who are overly nationalistic and one that still fails to pay heed to the plight of the Tamils living in the North and East of Sri Lanka.
The majority of the Sinhalese diaspora migrated to seek economic success and upon achieving material success, they feel something which I refer to as “wealth seeker’s guilt” where they feel the enduring guilt for leaving behind their motherland to achieve material success and even unfairly lampooned as shallow wealth seekers. In wrestling with their own demons, they support governments that strongly toe the nationalistic line with anti-west sentiments.
The common complex faced by both ethnicities of the diaspora, is that they suffer being the perpetual outsider in white-dominated Christian societies, although, the tide is turning with some moving into mainstream political life in their adoptive countries.
Dangers of Long-Distance Nationalism
While nationalism is an adored patriotic emotion, long-distance nationalism can pose many threats as it eludes reality at the grassroots level. Today, the internet creates a sense of immediacy for an idealised ‘homeland’ without the wisdom of real lived experience. This means that the passions of expatriate communities can be easily inflamed as the diaspora wrestle with their own alienation and demons. Individual nationalistic values are rooted from an individual’s own experiences; as such, it is apparent that there will be conflicting values or sentiments for each group. This is perhaps why George Orwell commented that nationalism is ‘the worst enemy of peace’.
The Sri Lankan diasporas do not vote in Sri Lanka, and rightly so, as all politics are ultimately local. Democratic politics is rooted in the ground realities of municipality and townships and not in imaginary ideas and hankering for an idyllic Sri Lankan from thousands of miles away. GOSL fortunes are not going to be decided in Toronto or London, so why is it important for GOSL to toil for good relations with the diaspora community?
Expatriate communities often tend to be far more conservative than domestic ones, precisely because the assaults on self-esteem are so great in adoptive countries. The Zionist cause was, and is, championed by American Jews; the Khalistan demand was run by expatriate Sikhs in Canada; many Irish Americans supported those in Ireland waging war for the Irish identity and similarly at home, the LTTE received direction, leadership and funding from Tamils residing in western societies. This distinctively demonstrates the danger of the pertaining strength of nationalism from the diaspora who frequently confuse the values of self to those of the country.
The GOSL needs to engage with the diaspora and continuing to ignore their existence or failing to be more inclusive, can become an exercise in polarising society rather than uniting it. In essence, it is pertinent that the GOSL ensures that the sentiments of Sri Lankans living in Sri Lanka are also migrated to the diaspora. In fact, long-distance nationalism is dangerous for Sri Lanka and it is in this context the GOSL should have an inclusive approach where it embraces all stakeholders of Sri Lanka, even the diaspora, and in return these stakeholders should stop putting an “I before Sri Lanka”.