The bitter emigrant? | Sunday Observer

The bitter emigrant?

30 July, 2023

The Tamil Diaspora has done well by all accounts and also done well for the Tamil families they left behind in Jaffna and the Northern province. By every yardstick, Jaffna district in particular is growing spectacularly, and is also sometimes even in the midst of the most harrowing economic tumult of our times, amazingly self-contained.

It’s of course mostly the work of the Diaspora they say, but there is the legendary resourcefulness of the people who put the Diaspora’s money to good use, and that cannot be discounted. Either way, Jaffna is thriving, and rightfully so, because the people there deserve the prosperity after years of war and neglect.

Without the money that came in from the Diaspora, this transformation would not have been so spectacular. It had to be a resourceful Diaspora, and also a caring one that sent money to family members. At least in some people’s opinion, most of the money was sent to keep the families and extended families that were left behind alive and hopeful.

But this is contested. The other version is that most of the money was pumped in as deliberate investment so that Jaffna could thrive. It means that there were persons in the Diaspora that wanted to see that there was tangible development in the old country they left behind, in the city and region they used to call home. In other words these were people that wanted to engineer positive change, and acted with a sense of responsibility.

It’s not to say that every single member of the Tamil Diaspora has this almost visceral desire to contribute to their place of origin, and that’s not necessary or even realistic. There may have been many who had put down too many roots in their adopted countries to think about anything their parents and uncles had left behind in a distant land.


But that didn’t matter. There was the critical-mass of people who cared enough and wouldn’t forget. That way Jaffna and the region can be proud of a celebrated Tamil Diaspora. Some in the Tamil Diaspora of course may have profited from investments made back here in the old country, and nobody is disputing that. But that’s called investment and is a good thing too.

Meanwhile, the recent large exodus from the Sinhala majority areas of the country has been seen as a phenomenon that would add to the already vast Sri Lankan Diaspora. Armies of qualified people have fled the country and are creating a temporary shortage of skilled categories of workers in the country.

But there are also hopes that those who have left would add to a responsible Sinhala Diaspora. Not that there isn’t a considerable Sinhala Diaspora already. But those ranks are swelling due to the exodus last year.

But some are objectively looking at the reasons these new emigrants left the country, and are having doubts. They feel a lot of these people left with a seething sense of resentment. They felt the motherland had let them down, because basics had been mismanaged, and the country had been left to overrun debt and end up bankrupt.

The Tamil Diaspora that first started leaving in ‘83 and comprises those who left in a steady stream after that, may have been bitter about the circumstances that made them leave, but was nostalgic about Jaffna. Of course Jaffna was war-ravaged later on but whatever menace that lurked, was mostly due to ‘external forces’ beyond their control.

Those — mostly Sinhalese — who left in a steady stream due to the unsettling circumstances of 2022 may have felt somewhat differently.

They could have had a different reality if those among their own had acted differently and run the economy better. Corruption, they had often been told, was an own goal.

If they are to be nostalgic about their old country, it may take many years or perhaps a generation, and the country would probably not expect much from such a newly created ‘Diaspora’. They were not welcome as economic refugees in the countries that they were going to adopt as their own, at least for the most part. But they went anyway.

Those are probably not the conditions for creating a Diaspora that’s going to feel nostalgic in a hurry. Look at it this way — these are folk who at the outset had opted to stay.

But they were forced to leave when the economic circumstances started souring around them, a situation they blame for the most part on the country itself and not external actors or factors.

These people probably were bitter and wanted a new beginning and wouldn’t be looking to the old country any more than the convicts who were sent to Australia would look to England, or the frontiersmen in New England would look to Britain after events that followed the Boston Tea Party.

So it is that each new Diaspora has its own dynamics. But if the country thrives, those who left after 2022 — the second wave of the Sinhala Diaspora — would probably change their minds. Even if they don’t come back in droves, at least a generation later, they would probably look back fondly at the old country.

At the moment, the struggle is existential. There are sad tales in the newspapers for instance, of star Sri Lankan athletes who went as housemaids last year to the Middle East because Covid-19 had interrupted their stellar athletic careers, and forced them out of the country to look after families. Such tales are almost legion, and though migrant workers have no choice but to return, others who went such as the steady stream of doctors, radiologists and so on would probably be bitter.


Sri Lankans can’t expect the Diaspora under these circumstances to pick them up, so the opposite dynamic will have to work — they can make the country so much better, that those who left would be envious.

The flip side of the story about athletes who left as migrant workers, is the story of our recent performances at the Asian games. Our medals tally was only next to the giants, India and Japan, and if this doesn’t say something about the innate potential of the country, what does?

As a come from behind country, we could probably be ‘nostalgic’ about the recently created Diaspora than the other way around.

Those who went — with all due respect — took the path of least resistance. Good luck to them, because they have their families to think about first before thinking about the country.

Those who stayed were probably of two categories, first, those who couldn’t go abroad because they didn’t even have that opportunity, and those who consciously stuck it out because they believed Sri Lanka is the best place despite all the drawbacks and the recent upheavals.

Some descendants of mainland Chinese who left China because of the gold-rush or because they wanted to try their luck in Malaysia or Singapore, may be looking back in wonderment at the world’s second largest economy and thinking they should have been there. There may even be such a thing as a reverse Diaspora of Chinese.

In fact return-migration to China, according to a UN report, is having a major impact on the home economy. “China’s new talent strategy builds on the fact that returnees have played a pivotal role in opening up and globalising China,” the report states.

A bitter newly created Sri Lankan Diaspora forming as a result of last year’s exodus, should not be chided for their bitterness. Neither is there necessarily a contrast between the Tamil Diaspora that built and sustained the new vibrant Jaffna,and the newly created class of essentially Sinhala migrant workers who are probably too bitter to think of giving back something to their motherland.

Diaspora dynamics are different and ever changing. Decades ago who would have thought there would be return-migrants agog to get back to China? Well, they are more than eager now. Good luck to the newly created ‘Diaspora’ but those left behind back home in this country, will find their own devices.