From Colombo to Birmingham: Rehana Watkinson shares her story
By Jennifer AnandanayagamMother of three Rehana Watkinson, much like most people who make up the Sri Lankan diaspora, is finding it incredibly unsettling to try and go about her day in a normal fashion with everything that’s going on in her home of origin – Sri Lanka. “It’s incredibly disconcerting to have to try and get a normal day’s work done when most people around you have little idea of the magnitude of the situation and the impact it (Sri Lanka’s crisis) has on you. It’s all I can think about,” she admits.Watkinson resides in Birmingham, England, while her mother, brother, and close family members are in Sri Lanka. “It feels like walking around with a weird sense of pride (they all took part in the peaceful protests) and anxiety and fear for their safety. I know what the State is capable of. I’ve seen it,” she shares. It helps to talk about her feelings with other expats, she adds, saying that being open about how all of it has an inevitable impact on one’s mental health is useful. “For example, I talk about it with my manager, and she gives me the time and space needed to check up on how things are going and process my own emotions regarding it. It’s a helpless feeling and no shame in admitting it,” she shares. Watkinson works for High-Speed Rail 2, the largest infrastructure project in Europe. This week on Write Home About, we sat down for a chat with Watkinson, who although claims to come from a life of “tone-deaf privilege” back in SL, is no stranger to the terrors of Sri Lanka’s troubled history. Here are some excerpts from our chat.Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?I grew up in Sri Lanka. Although I was born in Sri Lanka to a Sri Lankan mother, at the time, women were not allowed to pass down their citizenship, so I was forced to take my father’s, and have always been British on paper. Because of this, it made sense to move to the UK, where I read Law at Cambridge University, and I have lived in the UK since. I love my life here. It reminds me very much of the bubble that is Colombo. I have two daughters and a son, and they are very connected to their Sri Lankan heritage. They are also English, so it will be interesting to see how they grow up confronting the horrific realities of colonialism and the Empire, and the devastation that was caused to Sri Lanka and other parts of the world.What was your life like when you were here in Sri Lanka?I had an extremely privileged life at home; the kind of tone-deaf privilege where you are wilfully blind to the inequalities around you. Whilst things were rosy in one aspect, like most of my generation (and every generation post-Independence), we lived through the horrors of civil war, terrorism, revolutions, insurrections, and state-sponsored violence. As my grandfather was M.L.M. Aboosally, who was Minister of Labour and a member of Cabinet, we lived with the additional reality of death threats, armed bodyguards, assassination attempts, and grenade attacks. Both my grandfather and I carry shrapnel wounds in our legs from separate bomb blasts. His from the attack on Parliament, mine from the Joint Operations Command (JOC) bomb attack (1991), which happened on my 13th birthday. Still, I think of my childhood as wonderful, but I am glad that my children have not seen any tortured corpses or know of family friends being murdered like I did at their age.How important, do you think, is the voice of expats such as yourself at a time of crisis such as this?It’s important to raise awareness on what is going on. Talk about it. Be loud. Amplify the voices of those on the ground. I’ll say that again – amplify the voices of those on the ground. Try and counter the kind of narrative that international parachute journalists portray. I’ve done a couple of BBC radio interviews about it personally, and try and talk about it as much as I can. Getting international attention, pressure, and eyes on the situation could save lives. And it helps keep you from feeling like there is nothing you can do.What has your experience been like in England, particularly in relation to race relations, when compared to that of your experience of the same in SL?Having a certain amount of privilege does insulate you from the more aggressive forms of racism – this is true for both countries. But both nations have embedded and ingrained structural and institutional racism. There are undoubtedly additional barriers that one has to face here (and microaggressions as well), because people make assumptions about a woman of colour. In Sri Lanka, because I have an Persian origin name and some of my family are practising Muslims, I would have to deal with all sorts of irritating comments like: “You don’t look like a Muslim”, etc. People would also find it hard to comprehend that some of my family are ethnically Sinhalese, but converted to Islam many years ago, so they are Sinhalese Muslims with a “ge” name, but have been Muslim for generations. I found that quite amusing.A lot of Sri Lankans are concerned about the most recent protests (9 and 10 May) that escalated to violence, and have likened the images of the same to our troubled times in 1983, etc. What do you have to say about this?I think it’s wrong to compare it to 1983. That is appropriating the deaths of thousands of our Tamil citizens who faced a racially motivated, government-organised pogrom. They were murdered, raped, tortured, and their property looted, simply for being Tamil – and their neighbours joined in. The violence we have seen is not the same. We have plenty of violent incidents in our country to compare this to; comparing it to 1983 only feels like minimising that despicable time. What are three things you dislike or would like to see changed in Sri Lankan society and why?Oh my God, where to start!For one, our education system is not fit for the purpose of equipping our young people with the relevant skills to navigate the world and giving them the autonomy to do it. Learning by rote, not being able to question adequately, having properly trained and well-paid teaching staff, and not teaching basics like sex education and an unvarnished account of our recent history – especially when it comes to the appalling treatment of our minorities – is essential.Secondly, our Government and institution structures are weak and not resilient when it comes to abuses like corruption. All of us are complicit in this, because we make the excuse that greasing the palm is the only way to do it. We are just adding to the problem, and then sit back and complain as if it has nothing to do with us. Good men in government can do very little when the structures around them are rotten. There must be accountability in all actions – from bribery and corruption to war crimes.Thirdly, we should be actively demilitarising. Post-war, the armed forces have grown by 30%, and the budget allocated to the military is ridiculously in excess of what is required in peacetime. It is one of the largest consumers of fuel, and responsible for economic crowding out by engaging in work that should go to the private sector. It’s in effect a youth welfare scheme for nearly 100,000 people who could enter the workforce and help meet the current labour shortages.What is your message to Sri Lankans back home?The peaceful protests are a beacon of hope, and the willingness to listen to and learn from the voices around you that have been silenced for so long is an incredible opportunity. Thank you for standing up. Every generation of Sri Lankans have fought for a better country – it’s not just this one. This movement has been the most unified and visible, and it is great to see so much political engagement. Keep up the fight!Jennifer Anandanayagam is a journalist and editor with over 15 years of experience in Sri Lanka’s print and digital media landscape. She is also a freelance contributor with the SaltWire Network in Canada. She spends her time between both countries.