(Encyclopedia of the Sri Lankan Diaspora – Editors Peter Reeves, Rajesh Rai, Hema Kiruppalini. (Published by Editions Didier Millet in association with the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, 2013) 200 pages. Price – U.S. $50.00) .Reviewed by Leelananda De Silva The word diaspora has Jewish origins, and it means the dispersion [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan diaspora – An extended family?

Book Review

(Encyclopedia of the Sri Lankan Diaspora – Editors Peter Reeves, Rajesh Rai, Hema Kiruppalini. (Published by Editions Didier Millet in association with the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, 2013) 200 pages. Price – U.S. $50.00) .Reviewed by Leelananda De Silva

The word diaspora has Jewish origins, and it means the dispersion of any people from their traditional homelands. The Sri Lankan diaspora has spread out to a large number of countries with a few countries having significant concentrations. Today, the diaspora has unpleasant connotations in some quarters in Sri Lanka, although the numbers who have created controversy is only a small minority of the overall diaspora. In general, the Sri Lankan diaspora has played a positive and productive role in the countries in which they live and also in connecting with Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan diaspora is only marginally important (except in four or five countries) in state to state and government to government relationships. The diaspora is more important at the family and community levels, where contacts and connections have grown over the years. There are families in Sri Lanka which have family diasporas of one to two hundred persons or even more. They can be immensely important in the provision of economic and social support to those at home in Sri Lanka. The growing interactions among family and community diasporas are clearly positive.

This volume on the Sri Lankan diaspora is assuredly an encyclopaedia.

It is the first time that information and analysis, based on extensive research on the subject has been brought together in one publication.

Over 50 scholars have been associated with the venture and individual contributions are identified throughout the volume. The volume can be seen as having four parts. Part I deals with the Sri Lankan context and the background from which the diaspora emerged over the last five to six decades. Part II deals with the life of the people of the diaspora – their food habits, religious traditions, sports and popular culture. Part III is a short and lively description of the literature of the diaspora. The final part is called ‘The Communities’ which takes up the bulk of the volume. It deals with over 20 countries, most of them individually where significant numbers of the diaspora are to be found. This section is replete with information on Sri Lankan diasporic activities and the community and civil society organizations which they have established in their adopted homelands. The information accumulated is truly remarkable and there is a promising opportunity to utilize that information for the benefit of these communities and for the country and its communities which they left behind. The volume is beautifully illustrated with over 300 evocative photographs. The bibliography, disaggregated by country and with a distinctive section for diasporic literature is a valuable resource for future researchers.

The volume deals with the various waves of migration that took place over the years. During colonial times, there was migration in search of jobs to places like Malaysia and Singapore which were part of the British Empire. This part of the diaspora has now established firm roots in these countries and is active in political, economic and social life. Although they were originally from Ceylon, their connections with the original home country are increasingly tenuous, as they now approach the fourth or fifth generation. This category of people was basically economic migrants. Then in the 1950s and 1960s, there came an exodus of the Burgher community, largely due to the erosion of their role in Ceylon and impending political changes. They were also attracted by the economic prospects in places like Australia. Beginning from about the 1970s, there was the migration of members of the Tamil community. The reasons for this phase of migration are political fears relating to access to education and the place of their language in the country. There was at the same time the economic attractions of the developed countries to which they were migrating. Since the 1980s, migration accelerated due to tensions and unrest in the North and East. A liberal migration policy towards those affected by civil unrest, by some of the developed countries also encouraged these people to leave Sri Lanka. Also in the last 50 years, there has been a notable exodus of professionals from all communities mainly in search of economic betterment, and also professional fulfillment, due to institutional failures in this country. One fascinating titbit in the whole migration saga and the creation of the diaspora is what happened in Sweden. In 2010, 6772 inhabitants born in Sri Lanka and 4000 born in Sweden, constituted the diaspora. About half (3326) of those born in Sri Lanka were adopted when they were very young by Swedish families.

The volume does not define who constitutes the diaspora. In some countries, there are statistics for those born in Sri Lanka and have migrated to the new country. According to these figures in 2006, Austalia had 62,000 Sri Lankan-born people, comprising the 16th largest ethnic group in Australia. Are we to define the diaspora as constituting only those born in Sri Lanka? Australia probably has nearly half a million people whose origins can be traced back to Sri Lanka, although born in Australia. Switzerland is not generally seen as a host country for Sri Lankan migrants, but since the 1980s there has been an influx of Tamil refugees so that by the year 2000, there are over 50,000 Sri Lankan born migrants, almost identical to the figures in Australia for Sri Lankan borns. Now with their offspring, the figure might be about double that, and that would amount to two per cent of the total population in Switzerland. The volume does not provide quantitative details on the Sri Lankan diaspora for all countries and as such, it is difficult to come up with even an estimate of the overall numbers. It also depends on how the diaspora is defined. The members of the Burgher community who migrated to Australia were already a diaspora in Ceylon, with their own origins primarily traceable to the Netherlands. Are they now Dutch Burghers, or Sri Lankan Burghers in Australia?

Two of the more extensive country chapters are on Canada and the United Kingdom. The volume estimates that the Sri Lankan diaspora in Canada in 2011 was 450,000 strong, comprising over 350,000 Tamils and over 75,000 Sinhalese and over 30,000 Muslims. For the United Kingdom, according to a Labour Forces Survey (2006), there were a little over 100,000 Sri Lankan born immigrants. The diaspora in the UK might be three or four times the number, depending on the definition. What we have in these chapters is a discussion in some depth of the economic, social, religious and cultural life of the Sri Lankan diaspora. In the activities they engage in, the diaspora is clearly divided along ethnic and religious lines. There is no evidence of any inter-ethnic and inter-religious connections. When institutions are organized on religious lines, there appears to be more cooperation and collaboration among co-religionists from other Asian countries. The Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, get together across country diasporas.

In the UK, in the Buddhist temples, the Sri Lankans and the Thais and the Cambodians and others get together on religious occasions. It is the same with the Hindus and the Muslims, with Hindu temples and mosques, playing an important role in encouraging cooperative activities on the basis of religious and cultural and not country diasporas. The diaspora also appears to live in ethnic and religious concentrations, with Greater Toronto having a large concentration of immigrant Tamils from Sri Lanka. When would they assimilate with the larger and traditional groups in the host country? Are they in the process of developing a ghetto mentality? In these two countries, there is evidence that the Sri Lankan diaspora is increasingly engaged in local politics. There chapters also offer illustrations of the type of engagement the Sri Lankan diaspora has with communities in Sri Lanka.The volume has a chapter on the diaspora in the Gulf states. These are temporary migrants on work permits and whether they fit into this volume is a moot point. However, this chapter has many interesting insights. The number of Sri Lankan migrants in the Gulf states is estimated at 1.8 million (2009), and that is about 10 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population, and maybe 25 per cent of its workforce. These figures attest to the fact that the Sri Lankan economy has failed to create jobs in sufficient numbers within the country. The chapter describes the constraints that countries like Sri Lanka face in trying to safeguard and protect their citizens in the Gulf states. There is very little that countries like Sri Lanka can do to protect their citizens in these countries, where labour laws are deficient. Here is an area where NGOs and international human rights organizations have to be more concerned, and where multilateral organizations like the ILO can play a meaningful role.
The volume cannot be expected to deal with the fascinating detail of individual diasporic experiences. There must be over two or three million people who have origins in Sri Lanka and are now settled abroad. As time passes, those born in Sri Lanka will be fewer and the majority would have started a process of assimilation in their host countries. Most of them however, will be eager to trace back their origins to the towns and villages of Sri Lanka from where their families came. This appears to be true in all parts of the world. The Vietnamese who fled their country in the 1960s are now coming back in large numbers to Vietnam to trace their roots. In Scotland, there is a revival of interest in the old Scottish clans whose members are now dispersed over many countries. There are now clan gatherings. The diasporic element could be an important segment in a future tourist industry.

Reviewing this book, I was reminded of a few of my own experiences with the diaspora, which may not be totally out of place here. In Accra, the capital of Ghana, I met a Dr. Samarasinghe who had gone to Ghana in the early 1940s for temporary employment. He married a Ghanian lady and settled down there. He was the brother of a well known public servant in Sri Lanka, G.V.P. Samarasinghe. He was a chief medical officer of health in Accra and was instrumental in establishing the first cemetery in Ghana and the first crematorium.

Burial practices in Ghana were very different in the 1950s. Once I went to Wellington, New Zealand and had to meet some officials in the foreign office. I was met by a Ms. Lynn De Silva, obviously a Sri Lankan who has never visited the country. That evening, she invited me and my wife for dinner at her home where she lived with her mother.

Her old mother was born, and married, in Galle, and migrated to Malaya before the Second World War. She had her children there, and never returned to Sri Lanka. There were two languages she knew, Sinhalese of her younger days and Bahasa Malay. Her daughter Lynn knew no Sinhalese and her languages were English and Bahasa Malay. She spoke with her mother in Bahasa Malay, as her mother knew no English. So the mother was very happy that evening in Wellington, as she could speak with us in Sinhalese and without the daughter having any clue of what we spoke. Then there is Dr. Rajan Muthuveloe, a general practitioner in Milton Keynes in the UK. He has organized a group of church-based British volunteers to undertake small projects at the community level in all parts of Sri Lanka. Over the last 20 years, they have sent over one million British pounds for these projects. Here is an example of a member of the diaspora creating a very positive interest in Sri Lanka, among the local British community. As the diaspora changes and evolves over time, there will be new and strange paths it will take.

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