Notes from the Field

Calling on Overseas Sri Lankans to Spur Post-War Progress

October 19, 2011

For many first- and second-generation people of Sri Lankan heritage, Sri Lanka casts a curious spell. It may be a result of being fed a steady diet of their parents’ nostalgia pie. Other children of recent immigrants from Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America, and Africa might experience the same emotional tug, but if you’ve grown up in a Sri Lankan sub-culture, you can be excused for thinking that your situation is a little different.

Women walk along in Sri Lanka's capital

From decades of civil war, Sri Lanka has lost significant economic ground and many of its most skilled and educated leaders. Photo by Karl Grobl.

The island’s exoticism has been romanticized by Western explorers, writers, and scholars for centuries, and this picture has been embraced and embellished by Sri Lankans themselves, particularly among the hundreds of thousands of diaspora sprinkled throughout the world.

Cultivating feelings of “exceptionalism” is partly an antidote to the country’s obscurity in their adopted countries, and resistance to conflating all of South Asia with India: “no, it’s that island off the tip of India” is something that easily trips off the tongue of overseas Sri Lankans.

This sense of nostalgia is likely to be familiar to anyone of Sri Lankan heritage with parents who migrated to America, England, Australia, or Canada in the 1960s and 1970s and who cling to recollections of an idyllic place they knew as Ceylon. During that time, there was no television to while away the evenings; conversation was the favorite past time. Friends and neighbors didn’t call ahead before meeting, they just dropped in. Limited social mobility generally kept people from getting above their station in life. The army was a ceremonial one that only left its barracks for parades. Police wore khaki shorts and safari hats and carried World War I vintage rifles that looked formidable but weren’t loaded. The middle class of different ethnic communities mixed freely, went to school together, and often intermarried. The first wave of immigrants who journeyed back, sometimes after many years or even decades, were invariably disappointed that things weren’t the same.

The first insurgency led by Sinhalese youth in 1971 and the second, deadlier armed conflict between the government and young Tamil separatists that began in the late 1970s represented a cold water splash of reality that all was not well in paradise. A country that some would have preserved as a sleepy, post-colonial theme park suddenly looked frightening, messy, and rebellious, and had a doubtful future. As a result, the size of the diaspora doubled and trebled in size. Events in Sri Lanka after 1983 overshadowed the common experiences of Sinhalese and Tamils and strained the natural sociability that drew them together, while increasing the nostalgia for the way things were before the other side “spoiled” the country. There were now two Sri Lankan diasporas – one Sinhalese, one Tamil – increasingly embittered toward one another.

Sri Lanka has lost significant economic ground and many of its most skilled and educated leaders during the war; it now must heal social divides – both in-country and among its diaspora. Frontline public and private agencies that are working on these problems in Sri Lanka are open to an infusion of skills, leadership, and fresh, international perspectives.

However, under the circumstances, it has been a challenge to ignite the second generation’s interest in Sri Lanka, especially those in the Unites States, given America’s strong assimilationist tendencies: Sri Lankans in America are scattered across communities from coast to coast, not concentrated in close-knit, urban enclaves. Now more than ever, the young diaspora is likely to be preoccupied with problems closer to home such as the recession, widening social divisions, and the lack of political leadership to solve entrenched structural problems that have a more immediate impact on their lives.

In order to provide young adults in the Sri Lankan diaspora community the opportunity to personally participate in the re-building of post-war Sri Lanka, to experience Sri Lanka first-hand, to see the country today through their own eyes, and to arrive at a better, unfiltered understanding of its contemporary affairs, The Asia Foundation is launching LankaCorps. The new volunteer program gives young professionals of Sri Lankan origin the opportunity to contribute to the dynamic, multi-ethnic nation’s post-war recovery through six-month fellowships where they will be placed in government agencies, the private sector, and community-based organizations and nonprofits.

By applying their education, skills, ideas, and energy, LankaCorps fellows will contribute to the country’s development and recovery from a divisive, destructive war. Fellows should be college graduates with a year or more of work experience. Fellowships will be structured; host organizations will be required to provide detailed job descriptions, supervision, and mentoring. LankaCorps is an opportunity for fellows to grow personally and professionally, and also to make a unique and lasting connection with their country of origin.

Read more about LankaCorps and application guidelines.

*Editor’s note: This article has been edited slightly from the original version.

Nilan Fernando is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Sri Lanka. He can be reached at nfernando@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation. 

One comment on this post:

  1. Rishan de Silva:

    Overall, this article is well written and is quite reminiscent of my growing up as part of the first generation of diaspora in Kenya. However, it hearkens to a period of colonialism which can be seen as the root cause of the lack of national sentiment amongst people from diverse ethnic background. I know from my personal experience that being away from my country of origin has created a deeper sense of belonging which is calling me back to my country and I hope that many other members of Sri Lanka’s diaspora are able to feel the same way.

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