The word ‘Diaspora’ has a negative connation in the majority of Sri Lankan minds due to the various implications they have had not only on the civil conflict, but up until recently, in the post-war aftermath. ‘The Sri Lankan Diaspora is either apathetic or extreme’ – this is a common thought and maybe in some instances not entirely unfounded. The intention of this article is not to focus on the negatives but to look at the potential the Sri Lankan Diaspora community can have on reconciling Sri Lanka. It all boils down to an honest human touch and that is the very attitude with which, Diaspora Lanka Australia and Jeremy Liyanage (Director and main coordinator) continue their work in Mannar.
Diaspora Lanka came to being following a delegation to Australia by Sri Lankan business people who sought Diaspora investment in small and medium business enterprise in regional Sri Lanka. Interested parties gathered together in one group with the belief that whether Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, Sinhalese or any another ethnic group, a durable peace can be achieved through a Diaspora commitment to the future development of Sri Lanka. I met the group in July 2010 when I accompanied them on their visit to Mannar in order to scope out the potential for Diaspora investments in the area. It was seen that Mannar needed extensive preparation for the incoming post-war development in order to reap benefits and avoid exploitation and the group was also faced with the fact that the people in the area were mistrustful of ‘foreign’ groups raising expectations and then never returning. Some of the group was shocked by this reality and I was certain that we had seen the last of them. However, I’m glad to write that I have been proven wrong and what has followed is truly a success story.
It is not within the scope of this article to go into depth about all the work Diaspora Lanka has been involved with in Mannar but here are some of the highlights. Several sustainable projects have been implemented; among them, a youth-instigated project to computerize the SME sector led by a youngster who is supported by Diaspora Lanka; development projects including the purchase of boats for a fishing co-operative and women’s development initiatives; developing advocacy mechanisms to address local issues; small discussion groups with banks and the Chamber of Commerce in relation to access to credit and a community visioning program, ‘Mannarin Marumalarchi 2022’ (Reawakening Mannar), comprising village and community-wide workshops, survey and competitions. Several focus groups have been conducted to stay in touch with people’s views and experiences on the ground and a submission has also been made to the LLRC based on these discussions.
All these programs are done through partnership with local people and organizations and that is the key to its sustainability. Jeremy has visited Mannar on numerous occasions since that first visit and he has also managed to create awareness and interest on the positive role Diaspora can play back in Australia. Most importantly, he has become friends with the people of Mannar and he says ‘It has not all been hard work. I have thoroughly enjoyed myself. I have been shown extraordinary hospitality (and put on more kilos as a result), been a spectator at a cricket tournament organised by the youth-run Star Eagles which Diaspora Lanka co-sponsored, been invited out for meals, road and boating trips and have significantly widened my networks, sowing the seeds of a long-term relationship with this unique part of Sri Lanka.’
The work Jeremy and Diaspora Lanka Australia has done in Mannar shows by example how the moderate Sri Lankan Diaspora community can get positively involved in reconciling and developing a post-war Sri Lanka. Actions speak louder than words and the key lies in starting on a small scale and working directly at a grass-root level. It’s great to dream of moving mountains but we all need to start somewhere and all it takes is the will and the determination to do so. As Jeremy will also attest, the support will follow in abundance.
By Selyna Peiris
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