Kandy women performing the Peacock Dance. CC BY 2.0 - Photo: 2024

The Missing Nexus between Foreign Policy and Domestic Policy: Overseas Sri Lankans

By A.L.A. Azeez*

COLOMBO | 21 February 2024 (IDN) — During my recent visit to Australia I took a keen interest in engaging with several young persons of Sri Lankan origin in different cities. They were among the second and third generation youths from Sri Lanka’s migrant communities resident in Down Under.

For me, this engagement was a continuum from the limited interactions with youths I have had in the East and elsewhere over the last two years. I had gained some direct insights into what the eastern youths felt about their future, what their aspirations and dreams were, and how they viewed inter-community relationships, prospects for peace, reconciliation, and unity in Sri Lanka.

After ‘Aragalaya’ last year, the focus shifted specifically to how they felt the country could move forward in coming years, with it crash landing into a state of bankruptcy.

The idea of engaging with the second and third-generation youths of Sri Lankan origin in Australia came, however, in a specific context. An immediate trigger was “Sri Lanka Fest” – an expatriate cultural event at the Federation Square in the Central Business District of Melbourne on Saturday, 25 November 2023.

When I reached the venue with my wife, the programme was getting into full swing. About a dozen food stalls were serving a variety of Sri Lankan food items from Egg Hoppers to Kottu Roti; an ice cream stall; a Mehndi station; and a stage from where Sri Lankan musicians were performing in absentia.

A good number of persons of Sri Lankan origin and others were thronging the venue. There was a stall run by the Consulate of Sri Lanka in Melbourne, which exhibited some Sri Lankan items, but we kept away, preferring Appe Kade, apparently a hot favourite there.

The event was really good from the point of view of varied facets of culture, but what was particularly conspicuous was there being ‘no show’ by the Tamil community in Victoria. Throughout the programme, public announcements and speeches were heard in Sinhala with an interlude of brief remarks in English by some guests.

In the four-in-one Victorian weather, people were busy making the most of the sunshine there. But it was dark clouds that began to crowd up my mind.

Diaspora communities

Why is there still a defiant lack of rapport between the diaspora communities of Sri Lanka? Not just in Australia but in almost all the countries where persons of Sri Lankan origin live and work. Who can—and who should—take the first steps in creating some understanding amongst different ethnic groups and communities of Sri Lankan origin abroad?

Is it the role of the government back home, specifically that of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its diplomatic missions, to bring people of Sri Lankan origin together? Or, more specifically, is it a function of the newly established Office for Overseas Sri Lankan Affairs (OOSLA) to pursue this goal? OR, is it the responsibility of the leaders of all the communities resident in those countries?

There is, of course, a much larger policy issue as well. That is the continuing trust-deficit prevalent in the domestic theatre, which remains yet to be addressed meaningfully. Inclusive, pragmatic and transformative policies, processes, and leadership, with reconciliation anchored at their heart, are the need of the hour. In Sri Lanka, that challenge lies at the intersection of Foreign Policy and Domestic Policy. What enacts itself in the external theatre is quite naturally the reflection of all that is essentially internal.

Why should this continue to happen year after year, and how can it be changed? I asked a few people around there, seeking some insights. Perhaps these were among the worst questions to ask as people were scrambling to grab a plate of kottu roti or hoppers.

The response was interesting, nonetheless. It was two-fold. First, the Tamil community of Sri Lankan origin has its own events dedicated to promoting their ‘culture’ and members of that community do not ‘usually’ attend events like ‘Sri Lanka Fest.’ Second, Sri Lanka’s Diplomatic Mission / Consulate and Foreign Ministry should undertake this’ rapport-building’, not individuals from their respective communities or organisations.

The person who said this, however, may have felt something was missing in his response and hastened to add, “Of course, individuals from the community can help, but leadership should come from there”—there, meaning one of the three diplomatic apparatuses mentioned above. Interestingly, they seemed not much aware of OOSLA, and not knowing was not their fault either.

It is true that a few people are not enough sample to draw conclusions from in any survey. But the message is a familiar one which we have heard, and continue to hear, for decades: ‘their culture’ and ‘our culture’; and ‘they don’t come’ and ‘we don’t go.’  On one particular aspect, however, my last interlocutor who referred to the role of the Foreign Ministry and diplomatic missions abroad may not have been entirely wrong in his view.

Rapport building

That is, the Foreign Ministry and the Diplomatic Mission / Consulate should take the lead in rapport-building and in bringing communities together. That would seem like a straightforward proposition. There are two aspects to it that require consideration.

The first pertains to the power of diplomatic or consular initiative that a Foreign Ministry usually enjoys—and by extension, High Commissions / Embassies and Consulates abroad, as well.

A simple example is organising events marking Sri Lanka’s Independence Day each year. How many persons of Tamil origin attend such events organised by Sri Lanka’s diplomatic missions, especially in Western countries is a good gauge. Very rarely do independent professionals or persons holding important positions in business, industry or academia grace such occasions in significant numbers.

The second pertains to whether the Foreign Ministry or its diplomatic missions abroad can realistically be held responsible for any lapse in this important matter. Related to this is the question of OOSLA: what it can do to build bridges, deviating from what appears to be its initial obsessions – migrants’ remittances, migrants’ investments, migrants’ rights and increase in migration flow (while the government continues to send a mixed signal of both encouraging and discouraging migration at the same time).

An immediate observation on this is that it is the government, not the Foreign Ministry or its diplomatic missions, that should both inspire and be imaginative to take some policy and practical measures to bring people together transcending all divides. But that is a task left to a government that could ‘unite’, not tear apart.

Exceptions, nonetheless, apply. A few persons I spoke to from Tamil and Muslim communities of Sri Lankan origin in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne lavished praise on a former High Commissioner of Sri Lanka to Canberra S. Skandakumar. A political appointee to the diplomatic service, he had spent much of his time building rapport among the four communities of Sri Lankan origin, and was accessible to anyone from any community, any time.

A refreshing experience

Meeting the youths of Sri Lankan origin was a refreshing experience. I heard directly from some of them how they have achieved excellence in their respective professions, with a few even doing great in business and finance. Nevertheless, to hear some of them recount their experiences and those of their parents melted my heart.

What was immediately evident from this engagement, however, was that there was not much positive perception among most of them about the country’s political culture, its governance, its economy, the rule of law situation, reconciliation etc. These are among concerns that would no doubt influence their approach towards the country in the years to come.

While they had aspersions generally over many things that happen in contemporary Sri Lanka, they appeared to be strongly emphatic on the need for full accounting of all abuses, violations and failures which led the country to where it is today, as well as on non-recurrence of serious infractions in the future.

There was also a general decrying of what they considered was the total lack of responsibility of political leaders and Parliamentarians. They perceive that the latter have failed to fully address the systemic issues even after the economy had fallen out of the bottom, focusing instead on measures that stifle the freedom of the people.

They appeared keener to see a truly independent process of preventing injustices done to people emerging sooner (“to all sides, by all sides”—was the message). Their desire seemed to be for an entrenched culture of inclusivity, independent institutions, justice, equality, and the rule of law—which in their view, formed the crux of a new ‘social contract’ which Sri Lanka needed most, to move forward.

A particular question that they raised sounded logical, even as it seemed queer: If Sri Lanka could do ‘X’ number of things to satisfy the IMF, to obtain assistance to set the country back on a course to recovery and undertake long-term commitments with external agencies, why then shouldn’t the country undertake long term commitments with its own people? Some of these commitments could be made into constitutional and legal guarantees as well as sustainable policies to win over people who call Sri Lanka their home.

‘Migrants abroad’?

Paradoxically, the current understanding of ‘Overseas Sri Lankans’ seems to boil down to a simplistic fact that they are just ‘migrants abroad’. Perhaps this is why the government is currently approaching the whole concept through developing and promoting themes such as “migrants’ rights’, migrants’ social welfare (in host countries), migrants’ remittances, migrants’ investment back home, etc., which is important but far from capturing the complexity of being a migrant — most importantly, being a member of a diaspora community.

For instance, it is said that migrants should promote the ‘national culture’ abroad while the contours of ‘national culture’ yet remain subject to the vicissitudes of politics and dominant political ideology back home.

Having said this, I should not fail to mention that these are among some of the brightest youths of Sri Lankan origin that I have met in foreign countries. Though they seemed to be idealistic in some respects, it needs to be understood that it is this sense of idealism that has driven them to achieve excellence in their professional fields and in business.

After all, it is a modicum of idealism that helps open the frontiers of reality.

*The author is an Editorial Adviser to IDN. He was formerly Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN Office in Geneva and Ambassador to Austria and Vienna-based International Organisations. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Kandy women performing the Peacock Dance. CC BY 2.0

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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