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 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 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.
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 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 matches 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.