The protests outside the British High Commission in Sri Lanka last December over actions undertaken by a small section of the Tamil Diaspora during President Rajapaksa’s recent UK visit, can be described as the wrong answer to the question ‘Who should be more appropriate to respond to the protests that took place in the UK?’
The right answer in my opinion should be the Sri Lankan Diaspora or Expatriate community that has settled in the UK because it is largely through their apathy and lack of genuine concern and dedication to be engaged in matters of national importance to Sri Lanka, that an extreme minority amongst the Tamil Diaspora was able to develop and sustain an unchallenged voice in British politics.
With the demise of the LTTE, an opportunity had arisen in these Sri Lankan circles of politics and influence, where the pro LTTE elements could have seriously been addressed at all walks of the political and media sphere in the UK (as well as Europe). The Expatriate community could have challenged the British politicians that these LTTE elements had stringently lobbied and supported for the positions that they took. Yet what has happened is that despite the end of the war, this small group of LTTE supporters have managed to wield influence within Westminster and even go to lengths to blackmail a prominent university and British law enforcement agencies. What is disturbing about the Oxford Union debacle is the fact that so much pressure and intimidation was put on an institution that was founded on a platform of the Freedom of Speech, when religion and politics were off-limits within Oxford University, that Harold Macmillan called them “the last bastion of free speech in the Western world”, that they were forced to cancel the event at the eleventh hour citing ‘security concerns’. Though there are also questions to be levelled against the university as to its motives and influences, the crux of the matter however, is that this is not the first time that such tactics have been used by the pro LTTE Diaspora. In October 2010, a conference organised by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, where Prof G.L Pieris was to give the keynote address came under similar threats, intimidations and blackmail, however the organisers chose to carry on that time.
The IISS and Oxford Union incidents show that the pro LTTE Diaspora does not want to engage in any meaningful discussion but want to intimidate, bully and coerce. In the absence of any united challenge from the rest of the Sri Lankan Diaspora, this small minority will continue to shout and flex their muscles in a brazen manner.
A feature of the mass protests on both occasions was the open display of the flags of the LTTE, taunting the Sri Lankan government. Despite it being a proscribed terrorist organisation on the same category of Al Qaeda, the mere fact that the British Law Enforcement merely turned a blind eye to this is not because of any contradiction in the country’s democratic principles or a testament to the LTTE lobbyists but actually is a testimony to the ineffectiveness of the Sri Lankan Expatriate community to challenge the normalisation of the narrative, to confront the establishment on their complicity and who are generally content to be apathetic whilst abdicating their responsibility to be ambassadors of good will for their country of heritage.
Thus the problem for Sri Lanka is twofold. It faces problems from those who are anti Rajapakse and who oppose the government not on principle but on party lines. A continuation of the ‘we can do it better than you’ attitude that has infested all opposition parties in Sri Lanka’s independent political history. This ‘anti government’ camp finds itself as natural ‘bed fellows’ to the pro LTTE camp who are also intent on ousting the government, in order to keep their movement alive. What this camp loses is the opportunity to hold the government accountable on real issues of governance such as the rising cost of living or allegations of corruption whilst securing the credibility of the government especially as a ‘victim of an external conspiracy’ consequently rallying the people’s sympathy. However the biggest problem is those who feel nothing, say nothing and ultimately do nothing.
At this juncture in Sri Lanka’s history, this is the biggest enemy. Sri Lanka has traversed a very difficult and rocky road since independence. The mistakes of the politicians reflect the mistakes that have been made by people which have resulted in disparity between people, their religion, culture, religion and social class thereby causing the taking up of arms by the LTTE. No one though can justify the taking up of arms and the reliance on the perpetration of violence to establish superiority.
However the past should not become a ball and chain for the future. What is critical today is to answer the question of the resettling widows and mothers- Where will my next meal come from and who is going to look after the children? What is critical today is about securing an environment of equity and social justice for the betterment of all Sri Lankans. What is critical today is building back trust.
Trust can only be rebuilt when a space is created for effective dialogue and understanding. Rebuilding trust is about honouring unity and celebrating diversity, working towards equity and justice and ensuring the eradication of social prejudices in building a collective identity. Rebuilding trust is about decreasing suspicion and infusing human values with an understanding of the need to move away from apportioning blame for deceit and destruction.
What Sri Lanka needs today are ambassadors of goodwill to create and maintain this space. It also needs a platform for genuine and objective discussion to hear all sides of the argument in hope of moving forward towards achieving reconciliation and a new direction for the country. This is the vacuum that can be filled by the Sri Lankan Expatriate / Diaspora community who have a yearning for a better Sri Lanka.
My worry though is that this group is non-existent or lacks the confidence to be vocal. As such they are missing an opportunity to help re-energise their country of heritage for the betterment of all those who stayed behind. This is sad, because I have always been confident that Sri Lanka has the answers to its own problems and does not need outside interventions. After being involved in providing/organising humanitarian relief for four years post-tsunami and during the concluding stage of the war in Sri Lanka I have been touched by the strength, passion and willingness of people to rally round and work for a common purpose at times of adversity. This I believe is a unique Sri Lankan trait that is an asset to the country. Yet passion without purpose can be misguided as the empty rhetoric of politicians without any substance can lead to irrelevant actions as was evident by the recent demonstration in Colombo outside the British High Commission. What the country gained out of the cancellation by Oxford Student Union and the response by President Rajapaksa was nullified by that demonstration in Sri Lanka feeding into the misperceptions that have been kept alight by the pro LTTE lobby. If anything the demonstration should be directed against the Sri Lanka expatriate community in the UK who have largely been silent on the Oxford Union issue.
Sri Lanka is now at the cross roads of moving forward, cleansed of the past and with a chance to develop a common vision shared by all towards collective nation building and prosperity or to plunge back into another unknown era of bitter interethnic rivalries fanned by divisive politics. Its expats should now be part of the solution and not part of the problem. In 2011 as the country expends energy in attracting people to its shores, it should also spend some time trying to engage and empower those of its expatriate community who can help build its image internationally.