SRI LANKANS OVERSEAS
THE LEGACY OF CONFLICT
Michelle Perera hopes that Sri Lanka will shed divisiveness
Q: How do compatriots in your country of domicile view Sri Lanka?
A: Australia and Sri Lanka have long owned a gladiatorial competitiveness so cricket does feature heavily in conversations. Some view Sri Lankans as being reserved but when you see the passion of fans, there’s a grudging respect and acknowledgment that this reservation doesn’t extend to the cricket field.
Sri Lanka also holds a mystique in terms of its rich history, natural beauty, and now free and open regions. So it is fast becoming a haven for many Australian travellers. Then there’s the food! Never forget or underestimate the power of a Sri Lankan meal.
Q: What were your impressions of Sri Lanka on your last visit and how much has it changed from the past?
A: I do think about my old neighbourhood and remember fondly the days when neighbours communicated over balconies or randomly walked into each other’s homes. There was an unselfish level of camaraderie and trust, which I’m sure continues to exist – albeit on a more muted level.I’ve always loved the chaos of Colombo and am pleased that this hasn’t changed. However, I’m certain that those who live in the city would roundly and perhaps even loudly disagree with me.
While my main occupation is in finance, I also work in radio and theatre. So I’m thrilled that private radio in Sri Lanka is flourishing and theatre – especially English theatre – continues to thrive with many of my friends in the island actively producing works often with little or no financial support.
Q: How do you perceive Sri Lanka today in the context of the progress it is making in the postwar era?
A: I feel that Sri Lanka is able to breathe easier. Despite being part of a democracy, the citizens haven’t always been successful in voicing their opinion without fear of retribution. But I think that there’s more freedom to do that now. Politicians are being held accountable – at least on social media.
And having access to the whole of the country is driving both local and foreign tourism. What a coup, considering that Sri Lanka is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Q: What must be done to entice Sri Lankans living overseas to contribute or return to their country of birth?
A: I have yet to come across a Sri Lankan here who doesn’t in some measure contribute to their homeland. Many support their families back home financially. They’re raising funds for charity organisations in Sri Lanka as is obvious by the countless dinner dances I’m invited to but seldom attend.
Sri Lanka may be out of sight but certainly not out of mind. It is often assumed that the easiest inducement is money. But it isn’t enough to entice people financially, if there is little political and social forward momentum.
If social media mobilisation is needed to fight an archaic law prohibiting women from purchasing alcohol or if politicians continue pandering to a vocal minority when determining national policy, the fight will continue to be long and hard.
Q: How do you view the ongoing brain drain and why is there still no reversal of it, in your assessment?
A: I think that brain drain often occurs due to either a lack of opportunity – or that opportunity being mired in some form of sexism, racism, classism or nepotism.
For some, it is because they have been made to feel that their contributions aren’t needed; for others, it’s because their skills are underappreciated – especially those with technical skills such as plumbers and carpenters, whose vocations are highly prized and financially rewarding overseas.
It’s also problematic that people who desire effective change are thwarted by those in powerful positions who are busy ensuring the longevity of their positions rather than working toward positive social change.
Q: In your opinion, what should Sri Lanka focus on most in the coming decade?
A: While the country is working hard to raise its economic profile, it should continue to help those – especially minorities – who continue to live in areas that were directly affected by the war.
Sri Lanka needs to determine where it wishes to be in terms of infrastructure development, identifying what skills are required to build and maintain that infrastructure.
Investment is needed in alternative skilled development paths – such as through technical colleges specialising in trades, ideally located outside Colombo – so that by extension, they help build community economies as well. The investment in local trade would eliminate the need for Sri Lanka to depend on foreign skilled labour.
I also hope that businesses would offer more support to the arts. The existing potential and talent is enormous. A lot of theatre is done for little or no remuneration – yet, the dedication and quality of the end product often rivals more prestigious foreign productions.
Q: What are your hopes for the country in the post-conflict era?
A: The legacy of conflict still looms large but my hope is that Sri Lanka will never know that level of divisiveness again. I hope that people never give in to extremism be it political or religious – and for a country oft described as a paradise, this would eventually be a way of life.