Lankan diaspora important for rebuilding democracy

Govt should facilitate better role :

Lankan diaspora important for rebuilding democracy

Lankan diaspora is a strategically important human resource that is useful in developing and promoting democratic systems of governance in Sri Lanka. Yet, how can they contribute?

Mobilising the Lankan diaspora in the endeavour of developing viable mechanisms to sustain democratic practices and good governance does not appear to have been so successful. Also, the constructive role diasporic communities could play in this field does not appear to have been properly looked into.

The Lankan diaspora comprises people who have migrated overseas due to economic, social or political reasons.

The factors that unite or disunite them reflect the issues that have affected their ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity in terms of their social-economic and political history. Class and ethnic tensions have played a major part in this.

The resultant conflicts in the south and the north have contributed to the tensions that currently exist within them.

In the eighties and nineties migration to developed countries from the developing countries was seen as a symptom of their socio-economic and political failure, a ‘brain drain’ Later, migration was seen differently due to large remittances migrants make and their potential to stimulate economic growth.

According to World Bank, in 2015, remittances to developing countries amounted to $431.6 billion, a source of income for families and foreign exchange.


Lankan diasporic communities can contribute to democratic governance in Sri Lanka, very much the same way they contribute to economic welfare and development through their remittances.

They can make their specialist knowledge, professional experience and technological expertise available for strengthening the democratic capacity of Lankan political institutions.

Due to this potential role of the diaspora in facilitating development, certain governments have established formal dedicated government offices. For example, in the Philippines, a cabinet-level secretary under the Office of the President, heads the Commission of Filipinos Overseas.

There are many conceptual challenges and governance dilemmas in engaging the Lankan diaspora, such as the manner in which the government reaches out to its diaspora, and the way the diaspora pursues their own initiatives, or selectively engages with, or completely evades government initiatives. Lankan diaspora is not a coherent homogeneous whole. It has been fragmented along political and many other affiliations. However, this does not mean that all identify themselves as diaspora.

This situation in terms of social and cultural heterogeneity, and complexity in terms of fragmentation, makes it almost impossible to provide a coherent unified response to overcome their divisions.

Yet, the foreign policy discourse of the Sri Lankan government appears to treat Lankan diaspora as a single, homogeneous, undifferentiated community with which it could engage with a single focus.

First of all, the heterogeneity and the fragmentation of the Lankan diaspora need to be looked into and recognised.

Sinhala diaspora

Most of the Sinhala diasporic community comprises economic migrants, though there was a large out flux of Sinhalese who were caught up between the state and the JVP during the 1988-89 insurrection.

So, most of the Sinhala diasporic community, though fragmented, appears to be more united in strongly favouring a unitary state with special privileges to Sinhala and Buddhism, and strong sentiments against devolution of power in addressing the national problem.

Interaction of the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil diasporic community has been fraught with conflict and disagreement. They mainly consist of large numbers who had to leave due to the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots.

  • This post-1983 Tamil migration was different to most of those who migrated from the island due to economic reasons.Obviously the conclusion of the armed conflict aggravated their already tense relationship with the government.
  • The Muslim diasporic community appears more united in terms of their faith, and mutual interaction though their interaction with Lankan diasporic communities appear to be limited.
  • Some of the Burgher diasporic community still continue to interact with the fragmented Lankan diaspora, but in a limited way.

Many overseas governmental organisations based in the developed world such as Australia, Canada and Germany attempt to assist and encourage dialogue and reconciliation between these diasporic communities. Despite holding such events, dialogue and reconciliation among the Lankan diasporic communities seems remote.

Due to migration, Sri Lanka does not appear to have a sufficient number of people with skills, professional capability and experience to identify policy priorities for socio-economic and political reconstruction, formulate identified policies, and implement them. Due to suppression of human rights, many people who could influence public opinion aimed at nurturing and inculcating democratic political practices had to leave the country.

Hence, many who could help to gradually neutralise the authoritarian tendencies in politics and bureaucracy are overseas.

Seen in this light, Lankan diaspora can become a considerable ally contributing to the efforts of rebuilding democracy by promoting the processes of democratization.


The Lankan diaspora can contribute to promoting a culture of dialogue between political and societal institutions in Sri Lanka and overseas.

They can directly influence political debates and public opinion in Sri Lanka.

Many in the Lankan diaspora have sufficient experience in the practice of a fair go and equality of opportunity at their work places. They could share this democratic experience with the political elite in Sri Lanka through dialogue and an exchange of skills and expertise. They could also contribute to rebuilding democracy by making their specialist knowledge, professional experience and technological expertise available for strengthening the capacity of Sri Lankan political institutions.

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