Small Wars Journal

Diasporas and Democracies

My friend and CCISS colleague Tom Quiggan just wrote an excellent piece at GlobalBrief called The LTTE is targeting Canada. While Tom focuses on the LTTE or Tamil Tigers and, in particular, the October 16th seizure of the Ocean Lady, the piece highlights a critical problem for democracies: when do the structures of a democracy encourage the support of international organizations using terrorist tactics? As Tom notes:

Notwithstanding the recent finding of the Government of Canada that the LTTE is a terrorist group, we still see MPs supporting it in public. The MP for the riding of Bramalea-Gore-Malton, Gurbax Singh Malhi, was on Parliament Hill this year telling demonstrators waving LTTE flags that "I'd like to let you know I'm helping you guys. I'm behind you because you are fighting for a right cause." At the same time, elected officials from various levels of government are still seen in public in 2008 and 2009 supporting yet another banned terrorist group, the ISFY.

This is just one illustration of a larger problem: Members of Parliament, Congressmen or whatever we call the local representatives in our various democracies are elected to support and represent their constituents and, increasingly, these constituents are members of diasporic communities that have strong ties (blood, family, emotion, politics) back to their countries of origin (often defined by going back multiple generations). This problem is not new -- it has been around in both Canada and the United States since at least the 1860's (cf the Fenian Raids), and diasporic communities have also been drawn on to support later military operations such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

While not new, the problem has both grown and, at the same time, become an increasingly potent battlespace that is poorly understood and strikes at the very root of many democracies asking the existential questions of "Why and when do we as a society fight?" and "For what causes?".

Part of the reason why it has become an increasingly potent battlespace can be found in the simple observation that many post-Westphalian states were built around an assumption of control over information and centralized control of information dissemination, a tendency that was accelerated with the development of state controls over broadcast technologies such as radio and television. This centralized control has, however, been diminishing over the past 20 years, and that diminution has accelerated since ~2000 with the increasing global adoption of net 2.0 technologies and smartphones. Increasingly, people are able to form and maintain "communities" that are not geographically bounded as their primary attachment groups while, at the same time, using the geographically bounded areas in which they happen to live as conveniences to support their "real" communities.

So, what is a poor politician to do with people who happen to geographically reside in the area that forms their electoral boundaries, but who "live" in another country entirely?


marct (not verified)

Sat, 10/31/2009 - 9:10am

Hi Ariel,

Thanks for the comment and the paper. I do agree, the results are not always dire and can, in some cases, be very good. It is, however, an interesting and somewhat paradoxical situation when we take a geographically based form of identity ("Citizenship") and juxtapose that with a kin / descent based form of identity ("Ethnicity"). In the case of the LTTE, that paradoxical juxtaposition really gets highlighted in Canada thanks, in part, to our historic use of ethnicity politics.


You've placed your finger on a very important topic of the permeability of state boundaries and the ability of diasporic groups to exert influence across these boundaries. The results, however, are not always dire. As I wrote with Yossi Shain in Orbis (2003), diasporic groups can also be integral to conflict resolution and democratization.…