Engaging the diaspora

In January 2011 International Alert teamed up with the Royal Commonwealth Society to take eight British youth of Sri Lankan heritage, and from both Tamil and Sinhalese backgrounds, to Sri Lanka as part of our Sri Lankan programme and our work with Sri Lankan diaspora who live in the UK.

We also brought two British Members of Parliament with the group, using support from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. They were Andrew Rosindell (Con) of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and John Mann (Lab) of the All Party Group on Sri Lanka.

The aims of the trip were to:

  • Contribute to current understanding of the British diaspora of the rapidly changing circumstances in Sri Lanka following the formal end of the war;
  • Contribute to the level of understanding and public debate taking place among Parliamentarians in the UK on the subject; and to
  • Forge links between the young diaspora and youth groups engaged in peace in Sri Lanka, and between parliamentarians on both sides.

The trip, taking place over five days, entailed a heavy agenda with early starts and late finishes in order to cover all of the meetings, which reflected the fact that we enjoyed access from the upper reaches of Sri Lanka’s Government to the work being carried out in the rural areas of the former conflict areas of the North.

Kicking off the week were two days of meetings with Government of Sri Lanka officials such as Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, representatives of the Sri Lankan Youth Ministry as well as the current Minister of Economic Development (and Presidential Advisor) Basil Rajapaksa and the leadership of all political parties in opposition (UNP, TNA, JVP). Then the group was off to spend the remainder of the week travelling across the interior and north of the country, taking in stops designed to engage the British diaspora and the MPs with a wide range of communities and populations which have each both been affected by the conflict in different ways and have their own role to play in building towards peace.

It also included a trip to the Northern town of Vavuniya, visiting a partner organisation in the north, Sevalanka, one of the largest Sri Lankan NGOs. They provide a range of services, from rehabilitation and recovery to advice on establishing businesses. This organisation is based on what was the front line during the conflict. They have seen much change over the months since the conflict ended but profound challenges remain, including those of people’s perceptions of what the future holds and their own place within it, as much as the damage to buildings and infrastructure. They try and meet these complex needs with minimal resources and the community centre that they are running itself exists in a tranquil environment.

It became clear that these discussions, which took place in formal meetings but also through informal one-one talks on the side-lines, were having a real effect on the members of the diaspora in the most unlikely place – the minibus!

Our trusty fleet of two minibuses, which ferried us up, down and around, became a debriefing and debating venue as the group attempted to unpack and understand some of what they had seen and heard. And for some of the young people what they had experienced was hard to take in and equally hard to talk about, challenging as it did some of what they had thought beforehand. This led to the sort of discussion between the groups that by their own admission rarely if ever took place back in the UK. How each perceived the other. How each regarded the other’s role during the conflict and how each instinctively preferred not to address any of it. They were difficult and sometimes awkward conversations, increasingly so as the week wore on, and yet each of the participants felt that they were both necessary and important if the British diaspora was to move on within the UK but also play a positive role in addressing some of the issues they had seen throughout Sri Lanka.

Our MPs, having taken a lot from the visit to input into their own discussions on Sri Lanka in Parliament, also offered the young people ideas on how to take things forward, especially when dealing with what might be groups within the diaspora on both sides who are not yet prepared to put aside hard-line views to think about peace.

And in keeping the momentum from this trip going, the diaspora will be taking these ideas forward here in the UK with a number of meetings designed to inform and engage others. The events will continue the link with Parliament, in several cases taking place at Westminster, but also reach out to the community as a whole.

At our final dinner one of the young participants said “We arrived as Sinhalese and Tamils, but we leave as Sri Lankans”. It was a risky trip in many ways and challenging to pull off – but the rewards thus far, and the potential for generating a positive impact in the longer term both here and in Sri Lanka are very real.