Next weekend, President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be involved in two significant events – hosting a group of Sri Lankan expatriates from across the world and seeking their support in the post-conflict development of the country, and announcing the date for the next presidential poll.
The date of the next presidential election is keenly awaited by the opposition though according to schedule such a poll is not due till 2011. However, increasingly, in public statements by the President and his ministers, the government has expressed interest in holding this poll first before parliamentary elections which must be held before April 2010.
Rajapaksa believes, with the end of the war and a significant development phase beginning in the north and the east, his popularity is at such a peak that he is confident of easily winning a second term. The main opposition, now formed into a 12-party alliance with the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress being the key parties, is banking on growing public protests over cost of living, wage-rise demands and demands for jobs from unemployed graduates and others, to oust the incumbent president. UNP unions, alongside JVP unions, are also taking part in the November 11 work-to-rule campaign by workers in public services like petroleum, water, electricity and ports.
The opposition says these issues could turn a majority of the people against the government. Thus the sparring goes on with the joint Opposition yet to name a common candidate, now widely believed to take on Rajapaksa.
In this uncertain scenario and also with parliamentary polls to follow the presidential elections, the call to Sri Lankan expatriates to help in the country’s mega development phase may not elicit the kind of response government authorities are seeking – until a clearer picture emerges after the elections.
According to Chandrapala Liyanage, chief organiser of the conference and media director at the president’s office, between 100 to 150 expatriates are expected to attend the 2-day meeting in which the President will on November 14 meet the visiting expatriates at Temple Trees and discuss the future development of the country, followed by a meeting at the BMICH the next day where ministers and connected officials in the banking, finance, investment and tourism sectors will brief the Sri Lankans domiciled abroad.
Liyanage, who recently returned after a stint as minister-counsellor at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Italy, is confident of a productive discourse, saying, “I am aware of many Sri Lankans who want to help their country. We are planning to set up a network of Sri Lankans prepared to help in the country’s development.”
However many professionals in Colombo believe the government needs to restore its credibility with the international community, particularly in the West, for Sri Lankans living in those countries to invest in Sri Lanka or return to help their motherland.
“There is a pressing urgency to restore our credibility with the international community. Expatriates can be used as ambassadors but that would happen only if the democratic institutions like the media are allowed to operate without hindrance that happens in a subtle and indirect manner,” a Colombo business professional said.
Athula Ranasinghe, head of the economics department at the University of Colombo, says expatriates can play at least three key roles – invest in the stock market, apply their human capital, knowledge and skills to rebuild Sri Lanka, and function as “peace diplomats”.
A retired Sri Lankan diplomat also agrees that expatriates could put the knowledge and skills they have picked up in developed countries to good use in Sri Lanka. He says the community could work as a bridge between Sri Lanka and the international community and try to counter the influential pro-Tamil lobby, especially in the West.
While the two events – the meeting with expatriates and the planned announcement at the Sri Lanka Freedom Party annual convention of the date for the next presidential poll - are unconnected and were never, intentionally, meant to coincide, Sri Lankan expatriates are certainly going to weigh all options taking into account the presidential poll stakes, before making decisions.
While investing in Sri Lanka is an attractive option given the post-conflict sentiment and development and that such an environment is unlikely to change irrespective of the party or coalition in power, decisions like for example returning back to the country would be taken carefully and probably left undecided till the two elections are held.
Ultimately for most Sri Lankans abroad, particularly those who fled ethnic violence after 1983 or left for economic opportunities, what is important for their return is a peaceful environment where all communities can live in peace and harmony and where people have the freedom to choose and practise their faith, profession and support the political party they prefer.
Only when such an environment prevails will the hundreds of Sri Lankan professionals abroad heed the call by the President to return to their land of their birth and help in its development path ahead.