Courtesy Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA)


How diaspora groups can help in the country’s recovery process

‘Diaspora’ is a Greek term which originally referred to the ‘dispersal’ of Jews beyond Israel. In academia, the term first referred to groups of forced migrants with similar identities. However, difficulties in distinguishing between ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ migrants led to the broadening of the definition, to accommodate voluntary migrants.

This inclusion in its definition is still debated. According to Rogers Brubaker (2005), the meaning of the term has changed in semantic, conceptual and disciplinary space from its origin, over attempts to include various intellectual, cultural and political elements.

The Sri Lankan diaspora is a trans national community. And it is the source of much interest to both the Government and development community, especially in the post conflict context. In Sri Lanka, the term is widely used to refer to Tamil expatriates.

However, Sinhalese and Muslims have also ventured overseas as a result of nearly three decades of political crises and economic uncertainty.

They continue to emigrate, predominantly as temporary migrant workers, to West Asia. Large and diverse Sinhalese diaspora communities have formed in Italy, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. Compared to the Tamil diaspora, the Sinhalese are fewer in number – and they tend to be less concentrated in certain areas, and are not as well organised.

The largest Sri Lankan diaspora comprises the Tamil community, as much of the conflict was concentrated in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. These communities are scattered across the globe, with concentrations in Canada, the UK, India, Europe, Australia and Malaysia. Even though the Tamil diaspora is the largest Sri Lankan expatriate community, it is by no means homogeneous.

They are divided not only by premigratory cleavages along caste, class, gender, village or town of origin, education and religion, but also by differences in the process of migration – e.g. date of arrival, length of stay, legal status in the host country, socio-economic standing and political orientation.

Much of the literature featuring diaspora communities often has negative connotations – the most prominent being that the diaspora contributes to sustaining and perpetuating war or conflict in the homeland.

They are often perceived as irresponsible long-distance nationalists who are less inclined to compromise, and driven by a sense of nostalgia, guilt and deprivation, in addition to being obstacles to conflict resolution and peace building. The local perception does not differ from these sentiments, and multiple connotations exist.

Despite these multiple connotations of the term diaspora, it is largely used unfavourably in Sri Lanka. In fact, the

President is reported to have said that he didn’t like to use the word, as the term was (mis)used by some groups, to “destroy the country.” This perception is bred as a result of pressure by vocal diaspora groups among the international community, calling for war crimes accountability as a priority over other issues.

The diaspora has the potential to play a role in supporting post-conflict reconstruction, by investing in or facilitating development initiatives. Financial capacity, a healthy skills and knowledge base, networks and lobbying power – both locally and internationally – are important features of diaspora communities that can be used to foster development in post-crisis homelands.

It is important to recognise that theinterplay between the Tamil diaspora and the LTTE was complex and often misunderstood, as the (Tamil) diaspora was not a monolithic entity that acted solely as the fundraising and political wing of the LTTE. Not everyone supported the LTTE politically, and countless people were victims.

As is often the case, some voices of the diaspora groups were much louder than others, and they continue to be so.

If we are to view the diaspora solely through the lens of the LTTE’s violence, we reduce the entire group to being a stereotype – they do not deserve that. It is important to recognize that moderate diaspora groups have always existed, and they’ve been involved in promoting ethnic harmony through non-violent means through out the years of the conflict.

These groups should not be classified with those of more extreme views. Rather, these moderate diaspora groups should be recognised as the people to start engaging with, in the recovery process.

– Compiled by Mohamed Munas and Nadhiya Najab