Sri Lanka appears to be a country in transition. Some amongst us question the sincerity of the government or the impact these purported changes will have on the Tamil community; how far and deep these changes are to address the long-standing Tamil national question? Considering the historic trust deficit the Tamil community has on the governments or even the State of Sri Lanka, such questions are absolutely reasonable. But an objective analysis of the present reality in Sri Lanka shows that the nucleus of change, or even the mindset driving them, cannot simply be ignored. Equally important, the perception of the International Community has markedly changed, and it has embarked upon high-level initiatives to encourage and consolidate the nascent transformation. A community that depends heavily on its international leverage as a political tool needs to be cognizant of this reality. Timing too is critical as some crucial decisions regarding accountability and constitutional reforms are about to be made in 2016.
The Tamil Diaspora – a significant proportion being directly affected by the conflict and compelled to leave the country, and has continuing intimate links to people of their areas of origin – is a legitimate stakeholder in successfully resolving key aspects of the decades-long national conflict.
So, what should the Tamil Diaspora do at this stage? What are our future directions and responsibilities? Should we wait as observers, without contributing, with the hope that the changes will succeed? Or sit on the fence until new endeavors fail, and will there be realistic options following failure to advance the interests of our community? Or, knowing well that Sri Lanka and the Tamil community have a history of missed opportunities, should we embark upon proactive initiatives to consolidate this opportunity? Will such involvement confer pre-mature recognition on Sri Lanka and weaken the strength of the Diaspora factor for the Tamil cause? Should the entire Tamil Diaspora take a unified position? Or, is it preferable for sections that are actively involved in diplomatic engagement to pursue that path, while others to wait cautiously, in case failure eventuates, so they may remain relevant at that time?
While there are no simple answers to these questions, recognizing that our community does not have the luxury of time on its side to strengthen its presence in Sri Lanka, the Tamil Diaspora has a historic opportunity and role to play at this juncture. The three most important and immediate priorities to the Tamil people in Sri Lanka are – a political resolution to the Tamil problem, genuine accounting of war time violations, and economic advancement that will consolidate Tamil existence. In every one of these areas, the Tamil Diaspora has been playing a commendable role. For those involved in diplomatic engagement, the most basic and crucial function has been and will continue to be, to do everything possible to keep the International Community actively involved in the emerging judicial, political and economic empowerment processes and also to directly contribute to these in collaboration with the elected representatives of the Tamil people.
While not wavering on these fundamentals, can the Tamil Diaspora create opportunities to expand its contributions even further? Can our experiences in the Western liberal democracies and our economic strength play a bigger and meaningful role, and even impart new thinking, in achieving reconciliation and prosperity for all the peoples of Sri Lanka?
The crucial factors that underpin the national conflict in Sri Lanka – the inequality, lack of political empowerment and insecurity of the Tamil people with respect to protecting and promoting their identity and prosperity in the country, particularly in the regions where they have been living as the predominant community for centuries; and the fear of the Sinhala community that such regional dominance will ultimately harm its national interests – could possibly be addressed through several constitutional and governance models available in the contemporary world. The Tamil Diaspora can constructively contribute to the evolution of a political consensus in Sri Lanka that could make such an outcome a possibility. However, political empowerment alone will not be sufficient to re-establish a thriving Tamil community. The cultural, technical and economic advancement are equally important to promote a confident and proud Tamil community, not just in the North and East but also in the Up-country area as well as in other parts of Sri Lanka. The Tamil Diaspora with its experiences and wealth can bring capacity and capability to promote such advancement, and in doing so, immensely contribute to the development of a positive Tamil nationalistic narrative that is lacking in Sri Lanka.
It is proposed here that the time is right for the Tamil Diaspora to take additional initiatives in partnership with the governments of our adopted countries, the elected Parliamentary and other representatives of all Tamil speaking people in Sri Lanka, as well as the representatives of the Government of Sri Lanka, to play a more crucial and meaningful role. The level and extent of engagement could be tied to achieving tangible progress on issues such as prisoner and land release, demilitarisation and setting up of ‘trustworthy’ accountability, political and reconciliation mechanisms. Timing of such engagement is critical and should reflect and contribute to the optimism among all the peoples of Sri Lanka. Such staged progress and rising optimism will be keys to cultivating a conducive environment where more difficult decisions could be made in the future.
While being fully conscious of the possibility of failure, acting with courage and conviction is a must, to not let go a unique window of opportunity to promote peace and prosperity for our long-suffering brethren in Sri Lanka. In all honesty, an alternative pathway is not apparent.
Dr. K. Mukunthan is one of the Executive Directors of the Australian Tamil Congress (ATC). He is also a Director of Global Tamil Forum (GTF) where he is a Senior Member of the Strategic Initiatives Team. This article was originally published in the Canadian Tamil Congress Annual Dinner souvenir book for 2016.