SRI LANKANS OVERSEAS
SOCIAL FABRIC UNDER THREAT
Mahesh Abeyewardene warns of the threats posed by fake news
Q: How do you perceive Sri Lanka today especially in terms of progress or a lack thereof?
A: Sri Lanka has beaten the odds, and the people have been resilient through conflicts and natural disasters. Recently, we have observed advances in reconciliation efforts. However, it was sad to witness the events in Kandy and Ampara, which can be considered a step backwards.
Sri Lanka is advancing in the areas of press freedom and democracy but it can all be hijacked by the actions of a few.
It was heartening to see celebrities, civil society and religious leaders speaking out against racism. This continues to offer faith that Sri Lanka has a highly educated society that will not tolerate another conflict.
Q: And how do compatriots in your country of domicile view Sri Lanka?
A: The Sri Lankan community in Canada is vast and diverse. Many have not visited their country of origin for several years but are returning to the island.
Some are doing great work in their former hometowns by building houses, volunteering, starting businesses or simply flying over for vacations. You can travel to any country but Sri Lanka continues to have a deep emotional connection for the community here in Canada.
Q: What were your impressions of Sri Lanka on your last visit and how much has it changed from the past?
A: My first visit was in 1996 as an 11-year-old with my mother who took me out of school for a few weeks to show me the land of my birth. That trip was transformational and I owe to it my current interest in Sri Lanka.
The visit of some 22 years ago quite accidently coincided with the 1996 Cricket World Cup and I was perhaps the only 11-year-old on the island who didn’t understand how the game was played! That soon changed as I had a firsthand experience of what that World Cup meant to the country and its people.
During the same trip, my mother took me on public transport in Sri Lanka. I remember struggling to keep my balance on packed private buses. My mother’s intention was to show me how people struggled to travel on a daily basis.
Since then, I have travelled to Sri Lanka at regular intervals and witnessed immense changes.
Yet, many areas including public transportation have stagnated. I think that Sri Lankans deserve a better quality of road and rail passenger transport. People depend on public transportation to travel to and from work and school. A solid passenger transit system will help the economy and offer all Sri Lankans a better quality of life.
Overall, visiting the island is important if you have roots in Sri Lanka. I tell my friends who haven’t visited the land of their birth in many years to do so – and many Canadians of Sri Lankan origin are doing just that. For millennials of my generation, genuine experiences have a greater impact on our lives.
Q: From afar, how do you perceive news about Sri Lanka?
A: I care deeply about news from Sri Lanka and follow it closely. In the present context, we have a variety of news sources and press freedom is important in an educated society such as that which prevails in Sri Lanka.
However, as demonstrated recently, fake news is on the rise in the country. This is fuelled by irresponsible posts and tweets on social media platforms. Such app based activity can interfere with peaceful race relations and even impact the results of elections. Fake news on social media is a serious threat to Sri Lanka’s social and political fabric.
Q: How do you view the brain drain and why is there still no reversal of it in your opinion?
A: Last year, the Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce Rajendra Theagarajah delivered a great speech in Toronto. Don’t give us handouts or help us to migrate; instead, give us access to markets, he urged.
Sri Lanka is overly dependent on remittances from overseas workers and expats. To reverse the brain drain, Sri Lankans living abroad can help create a new generation of entrepreneurs in the island by sharing their expertise and best practices.
Q: So what should Sri Lanka focus on most in the coming decade?
A: Transforming itself into a knowledge based, innovative and resilient economy coupled with sustained development to preserve its natural treasures.
Q: And what are your hopes for the country in the next 10 years or so?
A: A nation where all Sri Lankans can be proud to live and benefit from economic opportunities.