Diaspora Influences on Conflict

Terrence Lyons

Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: I have been trying to track out some of these dynamics of how diaspora related to their conflicts back home and it just became apparent to me that other people have seen this. There is at least a set of protracted civil wars where diaspora groups abroad are very powerful forces in keeping the conflict protracted and also making compromise and settlement more difficult. Cases I have been trying to understand better are things like in Sri Lanka. The Tamil Diaspora in Northern Europe is a very powerful force that is reinforcing the hardliners, who are the people who don't want to compromise by providing resources and they are helping to frame the conflict in ways that you cannot compromise. It is an all or nothing struggle. It is also true for some of the Irish in the US.

For example, the hard-line, don't compromise wing of the IRA was supported by Irish in New York and Boston, more so then by the Irish in Northern Ireland. This is true with Ethiopians, this is true with Armenians and Kurds. There is a number of cases where this is true. So it occurs to me that one of the ways to try to intervene or play a constructive role is to work with the diasporas and see if there are ways to help the diaspora to engage in processes that need them to be more of a force for constructive conflict resolution. Diasporas are often reluctant to compromise or accept a settlement because on the one hand the costs of the conflict is less for them, I mean they are sitting in town houses in Fairfax, Virginia. So to say "everything to the war front" is a different type of statement then for someone in the war zone to say "everything to the war front," whether it is for their children or they themselves are at risk. Holding on to the cause, and it is often an important cause, a cause worth mobilizing for, a cause of social justice for liberation. Holding on to the cause is extremely valuable because it gives them an identity. I am not just one of 250 million Americans, I am a Oromo, an Ethiopian, one of the ethnic groups in Ethiopia. I am a Kurd. I am an Armenian and part of my identity as an Armenian American is mobilizing and working for social justice for Armenians and I get great benefit from working on behalf of that cause.

Being in North America or Europe or Australia or any number of other places means that the diaspora groups often have relatively more resources and many of the refugees, of course, are working. People in the diaspora are working at low end jobs in the North American point of view, but if you are sending 100 bucks a month home that is a huge amount of money for village life in much of the world. So you have tremendous prestige and also power that comes from those resources. Often many of the media sources are run from abroad partly because you can't run a newspaper in many of these war zones or create a web site, or create videotapes or do radio shows, but you can in New York, London, Hamburg, Lisbon, and else where abroad.

Me using the Ethiopian example is because, which is one of the ones I know best, is that Ethiopian politics, the debates, the way that the conflict is framed is largely framed by Ethiopians here in Washington, DC and Western Europe particularly in Germany, because they have the newspapers, the web sites, the radio shows. Within Ethiopia it is very difficult to run some of these media operations, it costs money. Newspapers are regularly closed down in Ethiopia, and so a lot of the debate about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable from a political point of view are set or established by people in the diaspora and then filtered back home. You see this in Ethiopian politicians, including opposition politicians. They will regularly come to the US to address people in the diaspora to raise money to try to influence the debate and to try to position themselves as the leader of the opposition. They come here to the US because part of what they want to do is they want to do an interview, they want to talk to people here. They do this knowing that it will get picked up by the media here, which would then be read by the people back in Ethiopia and in that way provide them with a certain position.

It is tricky because the groups here are often none compromising all or nothing groups, so it forces the politicians from Ethiopia to appeal to a certain political opinion, a certain political set of ideas that often that often do not facilitate conflict resolution. So at ICAR with my colleague Chris Mitchell and Tim ??? we help to organize the Extended Ethiopian dialogue. We worked with groups of Ethiopians in the Washington Diaspora to try to get people from different perspectives together to begin to understand each other better and to be able to recognize to complicate their perceptions of the conflict back home. But really it was, well, to see if we could develop a process that would allow them to relate to the conflict back home in new ways, in ways that we hoped to be more constructive.

Q: Talk for just a second about how polarized the community was within Washington.

A: Within Washington, within a community of whom many have been in the US for many years, some of them decades, they were extremely polarized. The Oromos, which is the largest single ethnic group within Ethiopia, the ???? groups would very rarely talked to other Ethiopian groups, particularly the ????, the old elite, the old governing group. And so within the Diaspora in Washington, there were different subsets, who would go to different restaurants, belong different churches, different community associations. So the Oromo community associations would have nothing to do with the Ethiopian community associations because many Oromos don't regard themselves as Ethiopians. They see Ethiopia as an empire that they were forced and coerced into. Not all Oromos think that, but there is a segment of the community that feels that very strongly.

So part of our process was to get Oromos and Amharas and others into a room together to talk with one another about how they perceive themselves, the community, the conflict back home, the issues of history, identity, and language. You know all of these core things that we know from conflict analysis that are so deeply embedded in protracted conflicts. We wanted both sides to begin to understand each other better and to generate new ways of understanding. In part, not traditionally, many of the Ethiopians in our group that in earlier community meetings which often ended up being very partisan and political, some political organization or leader of a political organization would stand up and say this is the truth stand with me, or you are my enemy. And it was very difficult to get out of that.

The meetings would end in shouting matches, or with the sort of leaders of political factions seizing the agenda. By conducting an extended dialogue not with political leaders, but with kind of mid-level community leaders, not political leaders, we were able to encourage people to talk and listen to each other in new ways. I was very proud of that work. To complicate their understandings and to begin to have them say, "Well I still don't agree with that guy, but I at least begin to understand he is not saying that just because he is out to destroy me or my people or he is not saying that because he has ill intent. It is because of his understanding of the history of his people," for example.


One of the things that we did in our Ethiopia dialogue was that we did not seek representatives of the X groups, whether it was an ethnic identity or a political identity and so on. We wanted people who were generally well informed of represented voices of the community. Many of them had links. This is a characteristic of diaspora groups in general. They were very closely linked with political figures and political organizations back home, that was good and that was fine. They would bring in ideas from some of the political organizations.

We presumed feedback in the political debates and some of the learning that was taking place within the dialogue group. And in that way it was not be simply an exercise of the twelve people in the room but something that would feed into the larger political dynamics as is often the case with conflict resolution processes. Measuring that, seeing that, evaluating that, is extremely difficult except in the most subjective of ways. We at least were hoping and have some reason to think that some of the ideas out of the dialogue would fit into larger debates and discussions.

Q: It is interesting, the more I hear about systems theory, and people talk about complex adaptive systems, and ??? of learning and things like that, this is almost, and of course secondary effects of system, right? I feel like the diaspora is working at a secondary level of a conflict but it feeds into the primary level of the conflict.

A: In part, I think that on the practice side, for practitioners and fore people who are engaged in different conflict resolution interventions; working with diasporas is often a very rich set of opportunities. Not because they are the primary driving force behind the conflict, but because first of all, they are accessible. You don't need to go off into the bush. They are often right in your back yard. They are in the major cities. It would seem ridiculous to me being in Fairfax, Virginia and trying to imagine how could we do conflict resolution in Azerbaijan.

When I kept saying there are people involved in international conflicts, Ethiopians, just down the street and why don't we start working in our own back yard with low costs and we don't have to have a huge proposal. It doesn't take a huge budget and to begin that way will get you to understand the conflict. To have access to the communities to build up trust, and people begin to understand who you are as a facilitator, who ICAR is and that way expand the circles. I have no doubt that there is great potential working with Diaspora groups. We started with the Ethiopians partly because it was a community that I knew, and partly because it is an extremely high concentration of Ethiopians in the Washington area. Anybody in Washington who goes to 18th street for a decent meal will know there is a lot of Ethiopians in Washington.

Q: Or taken a cab .

A: Or anybody who has taken a cab, or parked the car, or checked into a hotel or any number of other places, will know that there is a tremendous number of Ethiopians. It is part of the nature of the Diaspora community. Ethiopians, Eritrans, Oromos, people who often identify themselves within the community is very differently then how those on the outside look upon them, Somalis. But in other places it might be with Tamils or Kurds or any number of other groups. If we were in Los Angeles, I might be working with Armenians. If I was in New York City I might want to work with the Irish and it would depend on

Q: I was just thinking about the Irish, has there ever been an Irish dialogue outside of Ireland?

A: Not to my knowledge, and I think that is a problem because part of the dynamic, but not the only dynamic, of the conflict in Ireland is that groups in the Diaspora don't want to give up the conflict. They don't want Ireland to be a normal place, with normal people, with a normal political life, that is important for them. It is important for their identity as Irish American Nationalists to have this cause and not to surrender this cause. You need 100% if you are you are not willing to say, "Well we will take 80% of our agenda and be very pleased." It is very difficult if you are in exile, you need it all and so that feeds into the most hardline elements, who don't want to settle. Furthermore, when some of these groups in order to show their loyalty to their cause are collecting money and guns and are shipping them to the conflicts, it creates protracted dynamics.

To deal with the conflict on the ground, as many have been doing for many years, but there is an additional need to work with the Diaspora. The Cuban Americans is another case. I don't know the conflict as well but people tell me that one of the dynamics that makes settlement of some of the Israel-Palestine issues so difficult are Jewish American groups here in the United States, who don't want to surrender one inch of territory because they regard it as so salient to their identity. It is so important to who they are. Dealing with these aspects provides and opens up alternatives and opportunities for people back home in the conflict.


A: One of the things that we have done with the Ethiopian dialogue is that we have written up a really large report. You were part of it when we were doing month-by-month reports and then we tried to do a synthesis report. We did writea synthesis report. What we have now is about a 20 page report that is written by ICAR and is in the ICAR voice so it is reflecting from conflict resolution practitioners on the process. We were trying to capture two things. This report has not been released so we will still have to have a couple more meetings with the group to see if they are comfortable doing that. They are much closer now than they were before and seem to be anxious after all of these meetings, as they want some learning to come out of it.

They don't want it all to just kind of dissipate. Learning what went on in the content of the conflict and about different perspectives on Ethiopian conflict, but also learning about the dialogue process itself and how it is a useful process for dealing with conflicts and we hope to be able to continue to work. Again this is not to move from the practitioner to the scholar so as to write up in more of an academic point of view. However, what did we learn from this process in terms of a conflict analysis point of view about how identity and language and history link up with the conflict is that we now understand better about how dialogue processes within the diaspora can work to open up new options, greater opportunities, provide more space for constructive conflict resolution.