Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > International Tamil Conferences on Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle > > Peace with Justice, Australia >  In Defence of Tamil Nationalism

International Conference on the Conflict in Sri Lanka:
Peace with Justice, Canberra, Australia, 1996


Dr. N. Sriskandarajah

Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Agriculture and Rural Development,
University of Western Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.
President of Eelam Tamil Association, New South Wales

"In defence of Nationalism" is the theme of my presentation. However, the question, "The Dream : is it out of reach?" which Mr. Lee Kuan Yew is supposed to have asked the Singapore Parliament recently in a totally different context seems apt to what's going on in my mind. The Dream : is it out of reach?

I wish to share with you in the context of all that has been said here some concerns and personal experiences, my Tamil consciousness and how it has been shaped and how and why my Tamil Nationalism is defensible. I live in Australia like a million other Tamils of my background who live outside of our homeland My position as a Tamil is that of someone who left home in 1977 which in itself is a significant year in my life.

The perspective I wish to share with you though is not that of a casual observer of what is going on in my homeland but that of a Tamil whose views have been moulded by the same post-Independent history of the island of Sri Lanka. It is just that I belong to the large group of Tamils who chose the path of flight rather than one of fight which many of the younger ones of my generation have chosen having faced even harsher realities than most of us have.

I am trained in the Natural Sciences with strong exposure to objective ways of knowing. Over the years, I have come to accept the limitations of such objectivism in human affairs and I have learnt to accommodate subjective ways of seeing reality in my search for identity and my "sense of place". I say this as a preamble to stating my position because I believe that we need to move beyond blinding objectivism and simplifying rationalism in order to allow for multiple realities of people to be expressed and enable us to embrace new possibilities for the future.

Dr. John Powers who spoke yesterday had trouble believing that the first exposure many Tamils have had to Sinhalese people was when they came to Colombo. My first exposure to Sinhala people was when I was very young in my own village in the island of Karainagar, not because they lived amongst us but because they were either khaki-clad policemen who were located on a police post on the beach near our home. Or they were blue-and-white uniformed navy men who moved about carrying guns even when they were transporting drinking water in tankers on the main street of my village. These were impressions of a Tamil child growing up in the 50's and the degree of separation that existed even then between the two peoples.

My earliest image of the conflict was in 1958 when my father returned home in a refugee boat alongside many others of the village - to narrate their stories of survival and escape from the South. There were many, many other impacts of the conflict on my life and my views - as there would be on many who are gathered here today.

Our history, our Varalaru, is a personal view of history and as Dr. Dagmar Hellman-Rajanayagam pointed out, is dominated by conflicts rather than co-existence. The tragedy of the history of Sri Lanka is that there are many histories but there is only one history that is known to the world, and that too, as we heard from Mr. Ana Pararajasingham, is full of stories and myths. The people who inhabit the island of Sri Lanka have many identities but they have been forced to adopt one and suppress their own. The single-minded push towards one Nationalism has brought to the people of the island violence and destruction. Rev. Dr. Emmanuel described in his touching speech the pain and suffering brought to the Tamil people by this denial of their own nationalism by the Sinhala State. Mr.G.G. Ponnampalam,Jnr. gave us an eloquent account of Sinhala intransigence associated with this denial.

In speaking about Nationalism I wish to dedicate a few moments to the memory of a fellow-Tamil, a great Nationalist, a distinguished scholar and former-Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna - Professor Alagaiah Thurairajah who passed away two years ago leaving behind the unfinished task of nation-building to all of us. It was Thurai who gave me the opportunity to return to my homeland two years ago to visit the University of Jaffna, the only University at that time that had functioned uninterrupted in the previous 10 years anywhere in the island of Sri Lanka. It was during that visit that I was able to witness the impressive and convincing structures of the administration that were in place in the Tamil homeland. Development efforts of organisations like TRO and TEEDOR in building a self-reliant state in the face of sanctions and embargos.

And it was also on that visit that I made the confident crossing of the Kilali Lagoon, the "Red Sea of the Tamils" as we have heard, pushing the boat in which my aged mother who was then travelling not out of but towards Jaffna. She had confidence in the life she was experiencing then. Today my mother is out of the Peninsula and in Vanni and so are the thousands of students and staff of Jaffna University. Apart from the interest of Prof Schalk of Uppsala University, the University of Tromso in Norway, the most northern university, also has an interest in the University of Jaffna.

The former Rector of the University of Tronso wrote this column two weeks ago in the Norwegian Press. In this article entitled "The Forgotten War" the Norwegian professor talks about how the University of Jaffna has been prevented from fulfilling its educational and societal roles and pressed on Universities in Norway and the Norwegian Government to demand the withdrawal of armed forces from Jaffna and declaration of a ceasefire. He also recommended that everyone read Mr. Vasantha Raja's book The Tamil Exodus and Beyond for a good understanding and analysis of recent events and I commend this book to all of you .

Nationalist struggles have a long history and the Nation-State has become the main form of political organisation. What do we mean by the term "nation"? A Nation is a group of people from the same region of origin who share a common history. They may share a common culture, tradition and language and all of this is true of the Tamils. In common speech, "nation" is sometimes used as a synonym for "state". A State is in fact the main political authority within a clearly defined territory. When we link the two as a Nation-State which we also call a country, which then in theory we assume that everyone living there belongs to the same nation; but in practice this is not always the case - as the Tamil nation currently being seen as living within the State of Sri Lanka.

There are at present 185 nation-states and at least 15 of these have been created since 1990 mainly with the fall of Communism. Nationalism is the ideology that holds the nation and the state together with an attachment to one's homeland. Political theorists and philosophers have been critical of the idea of nationalism, particularly nationalism based on ethnicity and common ancestry. They argue that Western nationalism based upon a common territory is compatible with a liberal state whereas Eastern nationalism , often based on ethnicity, inevitably leads to authoritarianism and cultural repression. And so the Western version of it is considered good, acceptable ; if it is Eastern it is invariably not acceptable. I spent three months in Norway and nationalism exudes from every Norwegian in all aspects of his life. Everything about it seemed positive to me.

I would like to quote from Horace Davis [1] who said, "When used for murder the hammer is no doubt a weapon; when used for building a house it is a constructive tool. Nationalism as a vindicator of a particular culture is morally neutral; considered as a movement against national oppression it has a positive moral content; considered as a vehicle of aggression it is morally indefensible."

Writers and political scientists also argue that globalisation and supra-national capitalism will inevitably overtake nationalism and lead to globalism cleansed of all national differences. They give the example of the European union as an example of development in this direction. We all know that no trans-European national identity has as yet emerged. David Miller [2], an Oxford Fellow, in a recently published book proposes nationality as a preferred and defensible term which encompasses national identity as a part of one's identity.

In this sense someone from the Tamil nation is a Tamil not because he or she speaks Tamil but because Tamil is their nationality . Having a national identity of course does not exclude one having collective identities of other kinds. And this may be of some relevance to Tamils living outside their homeland. A person's national allegiance does not always have to be a single object so that Miller argues a person can identify themselves as both "Jamaican" and "British" or for that matter we can say that a person belonging to the Tamil nation and living in Australia could have a collective identity of a Tamil and an Australian. That is where the next step of one's nationality comes in which brings in the political dimension.

For Tamils to assert their Tamil nationality the nationhood of Tamils has to be accepted. And secondly, Tamils are a national community occupying a particular territory in Sri Lanka - their claims to political self-determination have to be acknowledged as well. And institutional structure that enables them to decide collectively matters that concern primarily their community need should be in place, the essence of the right to self-determination. Historically the sovereign state has been the main vehicle through which the claims to national self-determination has been realised and this is not an accident. Nevertheless people like Miller and others argue that self-determination can be realised in other ways. Historically every nation has a good claim to a state of its own and this has been the vehicle of self-determination . The assumption of nationhood and the quest for self-determination are merely two sides of a same coin .

I would like to refer to a recent paper by Francis Boyle and his arguments from a legal perspective under International Law of the rights of Tamils to self-determination and why the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are a National Liberation Movement under International Law and not a terrorist organisation. The Tamils share racial characteristics, religion and language of their own. The Tamils still live and occupy their historic homeland which is the strongest argument anyone has to the right to self-determination. ]

The importance of people living on their land: these are objective criteria and subjective criteria . Do the people themselves feel that they are a group of people living on their historic homeland with the right of self-determination? Certainly after all the atrocities and the Human Rights violations that have been inflicted on the Tamil people for quite some time it seems too clear to me that is the way the Tamil people feel subjectively. They must have the right of self-determination because under International Law, pro-active self-determination is the only way a people can protect themselves from annihilation. This has been proven true in other conflicts around the world.

The rights of national self-determination must be recognised in order to ensure the existence of the people. Tamil people are a people with the right of self determination within the meaning of the UN Charter, the two UN Covenants and certainly Article 1 Para. 4 of the Geneva Protocol 1. That is the most important criteria for being recognised, not as a group of terrorists and criminals, but as a National Liberation Movement with the right to use force in self-defence of their people and always in a manner consistent with the laws and customs of warfare.

Against colonial domination: Clearly there is a historical situation where Britain as a colonial occupying power took two pre-existing states - the Sinhala state and the Tamil state and forcibly merged them and proceeded to exercise its colonial control of the island of Ceylon by means of a unified state. When the British decided to leave they set up a unified state under the control of the Sinhalese to continue this type of colonial occupation of the Tamils that had existed before this. So the requirement of colonial domination is also fulfilled.

Alien occupation: We do know today that the Sinhala Army occupies the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka and they treat the Tamils as if they were an alien race of people, not as full-fledged citizens of Sri Lanka with all the rights that the Sinhalese have themselves. So the third requirement for self-determination is fulfilled.

Against a racist regime: If you study the history of the conflict, racism and racist practices that have been inflicted by the Sri Lankan Government on the Tamil people have been in violation of the International Convention against all forms of racial discrimination. Therefore the fourth requirement is also fulfilled.

The four requirements have been fulfilled with respect to Sri Lanka by the struggle of the Tamil people and the LTTE. For that reason they qualify for Article 1, Para. 4 of the Geneva Protocol. What that means is that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam must be treated as if it were an army , not as if it were some terrorist or common criminals, within the meaning of international law and practice. These are Francis Boyle's deliberations on the right to self-determination of a people.

The Indian author Sumantra Bose [3] wrote that what was clearly required in Sri Lanka was the will and the sanity to recognise that there is nothing inviolable or sacrosanct about the Constitution of extant juridical states. That all forms of unitary or centralised authority are social and political constructions. There must be a realisation that the recognition of state-society relations is fundamental to lasting peace and justice. Scholars and policy makers must address themselves to the task of accommodating these multiple identities by advancing creative flexible ideas of dispersed, diffused sovereignties, build institutional frameworks that would give distinct national formations a sense of belonging and bestow on them power to actively negotiate terms on which to forge larger equal economic and political unions. It is necessary to totally rethink our understanding of state and nation and creatively reconceptualise the notion of sovereignty to accommodate both.

Sumantra Bose argued further that the most efficacious solution would transform Sri Lanka into a voluntary confederation of two equal and essentially sovereign peoples. Sathasivam Krishnakumar, known affectionately to all of us as "Kittu", repeatedly expressed this idea of "confederal" resolution, negotiated in a trusting civilised manner rather than a bloody and acrimonious partition. A cautious and international intervention might contribute something towards this end, and that is the theme we heard this morning. Bose quoted from an LTTE publication of 1988 which said that the Tamil National Movement cannot be snuffed out. It can be reasoned with. I think this position of the Tamils still remains open.

I like to echo the words of Adrian Wijemanne [4], the sympathiser and ardent supporter of the Tamil cause, in relation to the role of the Tamil diaspora. "In many wars of Independence the national diaspora had played an important part. The classic examples are the Jewish and Irish diaspora, both of which contributed towards the establishment of an independent state for each of their nations and continued to participate in the work of nation-building. Both followed a near identical course. First, their moral logistical and financial support for their emerging states locked in war. Then the clear explication to their host nations," ( in our case Australia and the international community)" for the reasons for the war of independence. Next the long and patient endeavour to influence public understanding and secure media support for the struggle of the compatriots back home. And then finally, when the time is right in securing the sponsorship of host states for the international recognition of emergent state."

It is a long road but as members of the Tamil diaspora it is our moral obligation and duty to tread this well-worn road to freedom for the Tamil nation. We have spoken a lot about peace here, but we dream not of just peace, but Peace with Justice. Peace and Justice. I would like to close by reading a translation of a poem by Subramaniam Barathi, a poet of revolutionary Tamil nationalism in colonial India at the turn of the century:- ]

In our land
we can longer be slaves,
We are no longer afraid.
On this earth
injustice multiplies with
To the Motherland we sacrifice
Should we
continue to die,
sobbing silently to ourselves
Or is Life so sweet
we dare not risk it
for rebirth in freedom? . . .
Is it a sin to love Freedom
until Death ?
Is it a crime to end our suffering?
Is there hatred in that?
We have learnt
that the only way is unity .
we have learnt well.
We will no longer be surprised,
by your cruelty.
Our will is unshakeable.
If you slice my flesh
into bits,
will you lose your fear of us?
your hunger for revenge?
Will you gain your purpose?
When my corpse is burnt
my heart will not melt.
for there is locked
my life desire:



1 Horace B. Davis:Towards a Marxist Theory of Nationalism,Monthly Review Press, London 1979 page 3

2 David Miller On Nationality, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1995

3 Sumantra Bose: States, Nations, Sovereignty, 1994

4 Adrian Wijemanne in Hot Spring May 1996

5 Translated in Ludden 973: 274-75) quoted by S.Bose, cited above.



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