Engaging the Diaspora | Sunday Observer

Engaging the Diaspora

25 September, 2022

During his recent official visit to the United Kingdom (UK) to attend the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, President Ranil Wickremesinghe took the opportunity to meet the members of the Sri Lankan Diaspora living in the UK and some other European countries. This gathering included a large number of businessmen, professionals and investors of Sri Lankan origin.

The word Diaspora has rather unfortunately been usually associated with sections of the Sri Lankan overseas Tamil community sympathetic to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This has led to some stigma surrounding this word.

It has been 13 years since the battle against terrorism ended and now it is time to give up these discriminatory labels for good. As President Wickremesinghe has repeatedly said since assuming office, the Sri Lankan Diaspora means just that – all Sri Lankans of all ethnicities and religious groups living abroad. It is in this context that the President met the Sri Lankan community in the UK.

Prior to that, soon after ascending to the Presidency, he had ordered the de-proscription of certain Diaspora groups which had given up their separatist sentiments and aspirations to all intents and purposes. This has been welcomed by the Sri Lankan Tamil community all over the world and many such groups have since vowed to work together with the Government of Sri Lanka to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation.

Sri Lanka is at a very crucial juncture in its post-Independence history where it needs the active contribution of the expatriate community to tide over its present economic difficulties.

Sri Lanka previously recorded a net foreign exchange inflow of nearly US$ 7 billion annually from both the expatriate labour force and Sri Lankans permanently domiciled abroad.

This has reduced to less than US$ 1 billion per year in the post-pandemic period. Coupled with the drastic loss of revenue from tourism and key exports, this led to a massive socio-economic crisis in Sri Lanka that resulted in a mass agitation campaign against the Government.

This in turn led to political changes including the appointment of a new President, who, to his credit, has achieved a measure of socio-economic stability in a short period.

President Wickremesinghe understands perfectly well the need to engage with the members of the Sri Lankan Diaspora, most of whom would like to “pay it forward” as far as their brethren in Sri Lanka are concerned. After all, most, if not all, expatriates have received free education and free healthcare in the land of their birth and are duty bound to help their countrymen back home who funded their education.

Hence the President’s timely invitation in London to the Diaspora to invest in all areas of Sri Lanka, not just in the North and the East. He painted a true picture of the rather dire situation at home in extending this invitation. We hope that the Diaspora will take up this offer and help their Motherland in its hour of need. The President added that new investment opportunities in Sri Lanka are being created with the Diaspora in mind, in line with the Government’s plans of turning Sri Lanka into a developed country by 2048, the 100th Anniversary of its independence from Britain.

At the same time, certain nationalistic groups who see “international conspiracies” behind every move to engage with the Tamil Diaspora, must stop demonising the latter at every turn.

We must remember that we did not conquer a foreign country in May 2009 – it was a battle that pitted brother against brother and sister against sister. It was just that a megalomaniac terrorist leader had brainwashed these Tamil youth to fight for a cause that was never really going to be achieved.

The Government must address any legitimate Human Rights, Accountability and other grievances of the Tamil Diaspora and the local Tamil community as part of a broader reconciliation process. In fact, the Government has promised before the current sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva to engage in this process through a credible domestic mechanism, while rejecting any intrusive foreign intervention.

We hope that the Government and the Diaspora groups would be able to find some middle ground on this issue for the sake of future generations of Sri Lankans.

If the latter needs any guidance, most local Tamil political parties have adopted a more conciliatory stance towards resolving the national question, abandoning their previous belligerent stance.

We need to look no further than our neighbour India for reaching out to the expatriate and Diaspora communities. Indians living or working abroad are given Non-Resident Indian (NRI) status, which gives a host of tax and other benefits to the holders, on par with Indian citizens living in India itself.

NRIs can also apply for a special ID card or even the normal National Identity Card (NIC) known as Aadhaar. They can also register to vote in Indian elections, which is not possible at the moment for Sri Lankans living abroad.

This lacuna must be addressed without delay, as it amounts to effectively disenfranchising around two million Sri Lankans living abroad for work and studies, apart from Dual Citizens.

If dual citizens can enter Parliament (as things stand, though this may change in a future Constitution), we see no reason why they should not be given an opportunity to vote at elections held in Sri Lanka.

Most other countries do allow their citizens to vote either at their country’s embassies or by post. The voice of the Diaspora and expatriates matters, as they too have a major stake in the future of their motherland.