Wish You Were Here

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A few days ago, there was a large peaceful protest in Melbourne, Australia, at a very visible public meeting point. This was one of the many international protests held in countries with Sri Lankan Diaspora communities. Sri Lankans are perceived to be generally conservative, respectable, model immigrants, who conduct themselves with decency in public.

Video footage of this protest showed some individuals handing out black and white leaflets to the protestors. The full content of those leaflets were not visible to the camera. But some of the content was vociferously objected to by a loud individual in a strikingly patterned shirt and vibrantly coloured sunglasses.

He was specifically incensed by the use of the term ‘genocide’, which was apparently being cited in the leaflet, and which was part of a request for respectful recognition of the suffering of the Tamil people in the North and East of Sri Lanka during the recent 27-year civil war. The loud man told the leaflet distributors that this was not the place for them to have their say. He told them to ‘remove themselves or that he and his group would remove them’. He followed through on this threat by physically moving to the front of the group of protestors and dramatically and insultingly tearing one of the leaflets into pieces.

The video has been widely commented about on Sri Lankan social media, with most commentators assuming that this manner-less individual is a representative of the majority of Sinhalese people. But about 3/4 of the way into the incident, at 1 minute 16 seconds into the video, if you view it, you can clearly see another protestor coming in and requesting the loud man to take a step back. He can be heard to say, ‘These people also have a right to say what they want to say. It’s not right to tell them to leave.’

The rest of the protestors in this video don’t appear to speak or say anything, displaying collective bystander syndrome. But the fact that the aggressive man attempting to silence and exclude those requesting respect for the day of remembrance on 18 May, was publicly persuaded to stand back, was significant. The predictable dynamics of sharp otherisation and reflex resentments that we are all too familiar with, have changed.

Some commentators on Twitter, showing their own assumptions, didn’t see or hear the man being told that the rights of the minorities should be upheld. They cited the rest of the footage as an example of how crude and toxic the notions of many immigrants from Sri Lanka are, and how – having themselves made a successful bid to escape to the relatively peaceful and prosperous vistas of Australia – they never evolve into a less hateful mindset, but keep their race-based hatreds alive and kicking. Literally.

I am sure that such crude simplifications cannot accurately portray the feelings of all expatriates. The reality of the immigrant Diaspora experience is a complex and nuanced one. I asked some colleagues and friends in Australia and England whose families were economic immigrants, and refugees, what they think of what is currently going on in the country of their birth. Their responses were illuminating:

‘There is a side of me that I need to suppress that daily whispers to me that Sri Lankans have nobody to blame but themselves and that they can now shut the gate and lie down in the mess they have made. Endlessly complaining about how helpless they are. Complaining and opportunistic sniping have been the national pastimes, all these years, and everyone is sick of it.

Where were these people who are now on the streets, protesting, when the North and East were being bombed indiscriminately? Where was the demand for justice when aid workers were murdered? Children shot in parks? Young women and schoolgirls raped and murdered? Years of these very same shortages in the north and east of the country were met with silence in the south and west… So I think: reap now the whirlwind of your own sowing, you fools…

Then I shake my head and think of the actual people who are suffering. Young students with their bright minds and their progressive views, people like the staff of some of the media outlets, continuing to draw attention to the alienation of justice and dignity of minority groups, and hospital workers and Tuk tuk drivers and delivery personnel and kadai keepers. People who had nothing to do with the outrages and the scars inflicted on my people.

I realise that my failure of compassion is part of the disease hurting Sri Lanka and that compassion is exactly the cure we need: globally, locally, familially.

And I am ashamed of myself

Listening to this, I think that, just as Galle Face Green has become a performative physical space for the expression of many diverse feelings and ideas, and for the airing, processing and quasi-exorcism of many long-held but suppressed sources of grief and anguish, so this period of time is a space of conceptual re-evaluation for all of us.

People seem to actually be listening to each other’s stories. There is space accorded for this, even amidst the cacophony and chaos of calls for change and the reflex suppressions they prompt. Many people are realising for the first time how influenced they have been by the biased opinions written and presented on mainstream media public platforms.

They can see that their own fears and prejudices have been catered to, and weaponised. They are tired of being expected to unquestioningly digest and absorb negative rhetoric which authorises their fellow citizens and increases the tension and hostility of the context in which we all co-exist.

Another correspondent remarked that:

‘In Tamil it is said a village bird however high it flies it will never become an eagle. In each community, there are only a very few who have the intelligence, honesty and common sense to practice ethical conduct.’ He went on to say that non-expert opinions are not worth the paper they are written on, and how disgusted and progressively disillusioned he is that modern journalism is so glib, superficial and infested with ignorance and blatant bias.

Ironically, at the same time that the Diaspora communities are being jealously scrutinised by those who can’t get out of what some are calling a ‘failed state’, and being criticised as riddled with negative qualities; they are also being appealed to for financial aid. Their numbers are being counted, and it is calculated that if each immigrant sent back 100 dollars to the motherland, the nation’s debt burden would be significantly resolved.

An activist in Colombo recently observed: “We are not just one people” in the sense that we are a heterogenous group of people. And, appreciating individual diversity is the best way to true unity. She pointed out that mindset reset is required: “Sri Lankans seem to build community by turning to homogenous mass mentalities.”

Progressing from the “this is not the place for you’ stance of the leaflet destroyer to inclusiveness and reconciliation involves empathy and recognition of the other person’s equivalent centre of self and value.

This is going to need not only public performance but private self-evaluation. On the part of all of us.

Dr Devika Brendon