Over the past few months, Sri Lanka has experienced something of a political tsunami, with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government being voted out of office in January. With Maithripala Sirisena as the new president, space is gradually opening for greater engagement for critically discussing government policy and issues of reconciliation.
Last month International Alert made use of this more conducive political environment by organising a conference entitled ‘Our Sri Lanka 2025: Engaging people of Sri Lankan origin overseas’, which showcased the work Alert has been doing with people of Sri Lankan origin or heritage based in the UK over the past four years.
The two-day event, held in Colombo from 27–28 February, was attended by over 50 people, including representatives of civil society, government ministries and the private sector from Sri Lanka, the UK and Australia. Attendees engaged in in-depth discussion on the challenges and opportunities for people of Sri Lankan origin or heritage living overseas to contribute to the positive and more open development of the country. The presence of the Minister of Finance, former State Minister for Higher Education and Deputy Minister of Highways and Investment Promotion, provided a crucial direct link to the government on issues relating to diaspora engagement.
The conference opened with a keynote address by Shirani de Fontgalland, the former head of the criminal law section of the Commonwealth Secretariat in Australia, who stressed how people of Sri Lankan origin, including professionals and experts, can be further encouraged to contribute to Sri Lanka as “agents of peace-supportive development”. She concluded her speech by stressing that such initiatives need to be strengthened through collaborative engagement with the government of Sri Lanka as well as civil society groups.
Presentations by two UK-based organisations of young professional British Sri Lankans, Voices for Reconciliation and Achieve Real Change, highlighted some of the opportunities and challenges for their engagement in Sri Lanka. A common denominator was described as the lack of trust and a breakdown in understanding between the diaspora and Sri Lanka. One participant, for example, stressed that the diaspora sometimes feel they are being blamed either for not doing enough or interfering too much.
However, it was also highlighted that despite the challenges of integrating members of the diaspora to effect positive change in Sri Lanka and to finding useful partnerships for sustaining projects, the diaspora has a lot to offer when it comes to skills and expertise, which can contribute to positive development, reconciliation and integration of ethnic communities.
During its three-decade-long war, Sri Lanka experienced a massive brain drain as a result of the violence and loss of opportunities. The years of conflict also served to increase mistrust between the government and people living abroad.
Discussions following the presentations therefore pointed to the importance of redefining the term diaspora in order to re-establish trust, as the term is ‘flawed’ with negative connotations. And discussions following the panel debates emphasised the vital role the government can and should play in restoring good relationships with the diaspora and ensuring their role in the development of a peaceful country. Participants also stressed the need for the government to provide mechanisms for encouraging greater diaspora engagement by setting up a framework or unit for engagement as well as to ease regulatory constraints on investment and visas.