In early March 2012, seven British Sri Lankans and two British MPs met communities in Puttalam, Anuradhapura, Vavuniya, Killinochchi and Trincomalee in Sri Lanka to improve the understanding of British-Sri Lankan communities in the UK of the rapidly changing circumstances in Sri Lanka following the end of the war. They also aimed to contribute to the public debate taking place among parliamentarians in Sri Lanka and the UK on the subject; and forge links between young British-Sri Lankans, British and Sri Lankan parliamentarians and civil society groups engaged in conflict-sensitive development and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. After the week-long visit, soon after arriving back in London, the delegates spent an equally intense period reflecting on their own personal journey in Sri Lanka, and sharing reflections and ideas with their friends and family.
This visit was part of International Alert and Royal Commonwealth Society’s “diaspora dialogues” initiative, sponsored by the British High Commission in Sri Lanka,
On Tuesday 27th March 2012 a meeting was organised with the delegates’ families who were eagerly awaiting to hear what their sons, daughters, cousins and friends had to say, standing side by side with other delegates they had heard so much about since arriving back in the UK but were yet to meet. Opening up the floor, Danny Sriskandarajah – Director of the Royal Commonwealth Society and Dan Smith – Secretary General of International Alert spoke about the history of the project, the importance of these dialogues for the Commonwealth and for post-war peacebuilding and reconciliation. This was followed by a short video, put together by the delegates, giving an overall snapshot of the visit in Sri Lanka – the people they met, the communities they spoke to and their personal reflections.
They went on to speak about the different aspects of their field visit in more detail, which gave them the opportunity to reflect on complex issues. One such issue was of Sri Lanka’s IDPs - from the long-term Muslim IDPs to the more recent war-affected IDPs. They discussed the complexities and challenges of resettlement and the impact this has on relations with host communities.
During their visit, the delegates met a cross section of youth from Vavuniya and surrounding areas, and learnt about the National Youth Policy, the challenge of youth aspirations and the realities of employment in a country in the midst of post-war recovery. Having also visited an ex-combatant rehabilitation centre and the International Organisation for Migration, delegates spoke of their experience in trying to build trust in a short period of time in order to establish the grounds for dialogue about the past, the present and the future. Reflecting on their experience talking to the UK-based HALO Trust, the delegates learnt about the impressive achievement made by the multiple demining agencies who have collaboratively and complementarily worked to demine large and dense areas of contamination.
Presentations about the role of the business community touched upon the importance of supporting sustainable local economies while encouraging conflict-sensitive Foreign Direct Investment. Finally, there were numerous meetings with government representatives and opposition parties which helped highlight the country’s domestic and international priorities, and importantly, the potential roles the diaspora can play in supporting recovery and reconciliation.
One major highlight was the delegates’ reflections on Dr. Panagamuwa’s mobile prosthetics clinic. Dr Panagamuwa is a recently retired British Sri Lankan medical professional who decided to set up an artificial limb-fitting service for injured amputees in the Vanni district, North of the Island. With his background as a consultant in rehabilitation medicine in the UK, he used his enthusiasm, innovation, skills and knowledge to develop a service which has fitted over 2000 limbs in the past three years. This activity illustrated just one of the many ways in which the diaspora can directly support Sri Lanka’s recovery, reconciliation and development at the community level.
What the audience took away was hope, enthusiasm and a renewed respect for their already high achieving sons and daughters. Reconciliation is a long-term process, which involves bringing together the skills, persistence and innovation of people who have multiple backgrounds and differing opinions, but who are prepared to work together toward a common objective.
The next steps for the group will be to take this experience forward, despite the many challenges that are still remaining in post-war Sri Lanka and within the Sri Lankan Diaspora and to explore ways to use their individual skills and perspectives to transform these challenges into opportunities for development, recovery and rehabilitation, with the overarching objective of reconciling the current and next generation of Sri Lankans within the diaspora and Sri Lanka.