By Salma Yusuf
When history repeated itself on 6 June 2012, it became clearer that something is amiss in our post-war nation building efforts. One and a half years on, the itinerary of a Presidential visit to the United Kingdom was once again altered when an invitation to deliver the keynote address at the Commonwealth Economic Forum organized by the Commonwealth Business Council was cancelled on the morning of the event. The Commonwealth Economic Forum was organized as one of the events to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations in London.
The incident was harshly reminiscent of the events of December 2010 when the President’s address at the Oxford Union was suddenly called off. The massive protest expected in the University premises put the Oxford Union in the awkward position of having to make the decision that it did. The then President of the Oxford Union, James Kingston, in an email response to a query raised by D.B.S. Jeyaraj, published in an article authored by the latter in these pages on 9 June 2012 stated the following: ‘I was advised there was a serious public order risk, and a serious risk of major disruption to the activities of the local community. At 5000 protestors, it would have been the largest demonstration seen in the history of Oxford, and the risks would have increased accordingly.’
THE GRAVITY OF THE SITUATION
The revelation of the projected turn-out at the December 2010 protest as being the largest in the history of Oxford is noteworthy for more reasons than one – the ability of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora to potentially generate the largest demonstration in the history of the Oxford Union is one, and the ability for it to alter Presidential itineraries is another. The most worrying aspect, however, is the indicator it serves to provide – perhaps a barometer, albeit non-scientific, of the intensity of passion that still exists in certain members of the Tamil Diaspora abroad with regards to grievances.
Come 2012, and similar such efforts to gather a number as large as 2000 at the Mansion House where the Commonwealth Economic Forum was to be held, signals the unwavering commitment and sentiments that were displayed one and a half years ago at the protests staged at the Oxford Union, and more importantly, three years after the ending of the war. Further, it has been reported in the media that members of the Tamil Diaspora had travelled from other countries in the region, namely, France and Germany to join and strengthen the protests.
THE UNDISPUTED CONSENSUS
The reactions, the analyses and the interpretations of such incidents have been wide and varied, yet agreement can be forged across the spectrum of views at least on the following: the Diaspora communities ought to be engaged with some seriousness in our post-war nation-building and reconciliation efforts.
Engaging the Diaspora will not only improve our foreign and international relations but also contribute to internal national stability: the link between the two is inextricable. As my article of 13 June 2012 in these pages concludes, the protection of our national interests and international positioning cannot be clearer. Grounding our foreign relations and policies in strong national positions is the way forward.
The most credible manner of engaging the Diaspora is through addressing the rights of minorities locally, both systematically and genuinely. Rights of minorities need to be coupled of course with assurances for the possibility of peaceful return and life in the country. This is once again illustrative of how domestic policy and foreign policy are inextricably linked.
The LLRC report has highlighted that there exist perceptions about the conflict areas, what happened in the conflict areas, what is being done in conflict areas, and what is the thinking of the people in the conflict areas: such in turn have an impact on the perceptions of relatives and friends overseas, the Diaspora, and the international community at large.
Hence, perception management must be accorded top priority in any effort to engage the Diaspora and reap the benefits of true reconciliation. Effecting a strong and credible visibility strategy of national progress, plans and challenges is critical to perception management. Additionally, documentation and visibility will serve the larger purpose of measuring progress and identifying gaps to be filled, thereby providing direction for taking the nation-building and reconciliation agenda forward.
INSTITUTIONAL SUPPORT: AN OFFICE OF DIASPORA AFFAIRS
The final report of the LLRC recommends that the Government constitute a Multi – Disciplinary Task Force that will include representatives from the Presidential Secretariat, External Affairs, Defence, Foreign Employment, the Private Sector, and Academia, to propose a programme of action to harness the untapped potential of the expatriate community, and to respond to the concerns of the so-called ‘hostile Diaspora groups,’ and to engage them constructively with the Government and other stakeholders involved in the reconciliation process.
There may be merit in going one step further to recommend the setting up of a specially designated Office of Diaspora Affairs. The roles and responsibility of the Office must include the emphasis on highlighting the importance of Diaspora engagement in reconstruction and capacity-building; and an identification and assessment of Diaspora organizations and individuals, and contributions they can make towards reconciliation, peacebuilding and nation-building. It must be stressed that Diaspora contributions ought not be only limited to the financial or commercial, but also include technical and professional expertise. The Office must ensure that the Diaspora contribution match the needs, priorities and capacities that exist in the country.
The Office must also seek to encourage visits to Sri Lanka for disillusioned members of the Diaspora community to make assessments for themselves on what is taking place and what remains to be done, and more importantly, how they themselves need to be a part of the country’s plans and future. Every effort should be made to build loyalty and seek to neutralize and counter hostility, misperceptions and grudges, real or otherwise.
FORMS OF INVOLVEMENT AND ENGAGEMENT
Forms of Diaspora engagement that are likely to be most beneficial for the long-term development of the country must be identified. Leveraging Remittance for development purposes can be through investment in real estate, capital markets, BONDS, and a Diaspora Trust Fund which would enable those in the Diaspora to invest in specific development initiatives such as infrastructure and agriculture development, health or education facilities or even shareholders of new private enterprises in the country.
THE ROLE OF OUR EMBASSIES AND HIGH COMMISSIONS
Countering negative propaganda: The opportunities that our foreign missions have to directly engage with members of the Diaspora communities places them in a critical position of being able to provide information on the situation prevailing in the country, government plans and progress. However, it must be mentioned that no attempt to subvert the importance of addressing remaining issues in our post-war efforts must be made. The positive developments together with the success stories of hope must be emphasized with every effort given to actively engage and discuss specific and particular concerns that remain.
Overcome inadequate information about trading opportunities: This will include providing market information, supplying matching and referral services, facilitating the process whereby migrants forge host and source country bilateral trade and investment. The Diaspora can be an important source as well as facilitator of research and innovation, technology transfer and skills development. Our missions can play a critical role in encouraging such transactions and garnering the necessary interest.
In addition to the all-important contribution to the stability of the nation and political future of the country, the Diaspora could be invaluable to supplement local capacities through the formation of a global exchange of knowledge. Admittedly, a remaining challenge is that no government mapping of Diaspora exists, current data is mainly based on those who register with embassies and high commissions. Nevertheless, the existing networks can provide a critical mass of professional peer-review, an effective mechanism for keeping in touch with frontier knowledge and a cost effective means for specialized training and skills formation.
Ultimately, the dividends of successful engagement with the Diaspora communities will be felt by the country both locally through an improvement in relationships between communities and increased national unity and stability while contributing towards positive international positioning. Diaspora engagement is by no means a small or easy task but it is one that cannot be overlooked any further in any effort to take the country forward towards genuine reconciliation.