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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Tamil National Forum

Selected Writings - Dr. Adrian Wijemanne

The War of Tamil Independence
The Severance of Parliamentary Government
from Democracy and War as a Result

29 November 1995

The near-48-year history of independent Sri Lanka presents an unique, challenging and ominous paradox. Here is a state which secured independence from imperial rule without a shot being fired or a single life lost; and yet, its first 35 years of parliamentary government has produced an internal war of independence by the Tamil nation, a war which grows in intensity by the day and already has cost thousands of lives, produced a million refugees and caused massive destruction of property mainly of the Tamil people. The peaceful imperial disengagement seems to hold no lessons for the successor government.

The tragedy shows up in poignant relief the difference between parliamentary government and democracy. They may coincide and produce a cohesive state based upon the consent of the governed. Contrariwise, parliamentary government may exist without democracy and produce oppression and war. This difference is perfectly illustrated by the former imperial ruler (the UK) and the successor state of Sri Lanka.

In the UK it is the universally accepted principle that if, by a majority vote, any of the constituent nations of the UK (English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh) decides to secede from the UK and become a totally independent, separate, sovereign state, there would be no let or hindrance to its doing so. Indeed such a separation actually took place in 1922 when 26 counties on the island of Ireland seceded to form the free, independent, sovereign state of Eire (now The Irish Republic).

The principle of freedom to secede is repeatedly re-iterated at every general election in the UK as there are political parties contesting such elections with precisely that stated objective of secession. The sanctity of the vox populi of a nation is the bedrock of democratic life in the UK; it is a basic principle of public morality to which British nationals of Sinhala and Tamil origin residing in the UK subscribe without reservation. The coincidence of parliamentary government and democratic principle produces a cohesive state based upon the consent of the governed.

In Sri Lanka precisely the opposite is the case. It has been made perfectly clear to the Tamil nation, after it voted overwhelmingly in 1977 for secession, that under no circumstances will they be allowed to secede. The will of the Tamil nation in that respect will be crushed by the military might of the successor state. The majority wish of a nation, expressed in a free vote at a general election, counts for nothing if it is unacceptable to the wish of the larger nation. That is how parliamentary government has operated in independent Sri Lanka. It is parliamentary government at a distant remove from democracy. It is that disjunction that has produced war.

Nor is there the slightest prospect of a remedy in the various constitutional reforms that have been produced from time to time by the government. All of them, without exception, aim to preserve the paramountcy of the single all-island state. That supersedes all considerations of democracy or the majority will of a people to secede. The utmost care is taken to eliminate the slightest vestige of a right of secession. The paramountcy of the single all island state, to be clamped on unwilling subjects by military force if needs be, is the basic principle of political Organization. The freely-given consent of the governed is seemingly unheard of and unknown.

It is a classic disjuncture of parliamentary government and democracy. It has produced not a cohesive, let alone harmonious, society but one riven by rancorous discord and finally plunged into war.


In every war both parties regard themselves as endowed with moral justification. It cannot be otherwise for war requires the killing of the troops of one's adversary and encourages the sacrifice of the lives of one's own. So the doctrine of the casus belli includes an essential element of moral justification. Much has been, and continues to be, written on the subject. I urge everyone troubled by the deep anguish about the moral righteousness of the positions of our respective nations in this war to read and reread Michael Walzer's JUST AND UNJUST WARS Basic Books, Harper/Collins, USA, 2nd edition 1992 ).

For the Sinhala people the moral justification for the war goes something like this. "It is the Tamil people who are trying to split up the single all-island state and usurp, even in part, the sovereignty which that state now possesses. Such an extreme step is not warranted by the grievances they profess to have, all of which could be amicably settled by negotiation and secured further by constitutional change. It is they who have taken up arms against the state. We have both the right and the duty to protect the state from subversion and final subdivision".

The position of the Tamil nation is best stated by the Tamil people and, indeed, only by them. Nevertheless, as far as I can understand it, their basic position is that they can secure their physical safety and the integrity of their homeland only by establishing a state of their own in the area in which they are domiciled as the majority of the resident population. The only means by which this end can be secured is by armed struggle and war.

The weakness of the Sinhala case lies in its arrogating to itself the right to decide that Tamil grievances can be amicably settled. That is a matter for the Tamil people, not the Sinhala people, to decide - it is the victim, not the offender, who has the right to decide on the nature and adequacy of the redress. The end result of the Sinhala position is the totally immoral denial to the Tamil nation of the right to rule itself in a state of its own comprising the area inhabited by it and where it constitutes the majority of the present population.

The conclusion is inescapable that the Sinhala position in respect of the casus belli is devoid of moral justification and is based on a culpable folie de grandeur.


In respect of practical possibility too the Sinhala position is in equally egregious error. A modern state, headed willy-nilly for the rigors of economic competition in the 21st century, requires to be founded upon the freely-given consent of its citizens. it is impossible to found a modern state upon the continuous application of military force to a section of its citizens to repress their desire to secede. Eric Hobsbawm in his "The Age of Uncertainty" refers to the "democratization of the means of violence" i.e. the ease with which dissident elements in a state can arm themselves with a formidable array of weapons, explosives etc. in support of their objectives. The state's exclusive monopoly of military force is now a dead-letter. Modern states, existing with ever-diminishing controls over the movement of goods and information and people and funds, are more and more vulnerable to urban guerrilla warfare (demonized as "terrorism"). Even so hallowed a precinct as Downing Street in the heart of London has had mortar fire rained down upon it from a small passing van firing through its sun-roof !

No state, not even the richest and most powerful, can protect all of its physical assets 24 hours a day 365 days of the year due to the crippling cost of such an effort. For a desperately poor country such as Sri Lanka such an attempt would precipitate financial ruin in the short term.

It is an absolute sine qua non for a modern state that it should be founded upon a minimally cohesive society in which secessionist tendencies are marginal and are contained on the periphery by political means long before they even aspire to' armed struggle, leave alone resort to open, organized warfare. It is perfectly plain that in Sri Lanka the situation has long passed that point and now poses the unthinkable and palpably impossible prospect of continuous military suppression. The limits of the practicability of such a course will soon become apparent and could undermine the very existence of civil government.

There is now no viable or rational alternative to bringing the dimensions of the state into line with a society from which it can derive freely-given consent. Only then can the long march to modernity and progress and self-fulfillment begin.


For the Sri Lankan government and its armed services as well as for the Sinhala people this is their first experience of modern war. All of them display the naivet� of primitive magnitudinism - the belief is universal that since the Sinhala side is larger in every physical element, since it has vastly greater financial and economic resources to back its war effort, it is a foregone conclusion that victory will be theirs however long postponed. No account is taken of the numerous instances in recent world history where precisely the opposite has occurred.

Just at present large sections of the Sinhala people and many of its leaders believe confidently that victory in the battle for Jaffna, now in progress, will mean the end of the war. Their own very recent history is forgotten. That the IPKF took Jaffna in October '87 but that their war with the LTTE continued for a further 18 months with ever increasing ferocity until the IPKF withdrew in April '89 is forgotten. Wishful thinking has replaced realism.

Little is known about the true and deadly nature of nationalist guerrilla wars of secession; that their duration is to be measured in decades rather in years; that the guerrillas are strengthened instead of weakened by the prolonged duration of the conflict; that nationalism thrives on military reverses and cannot be extinguished by military force - all of these repeatedly proven factors of the world's recent experience are unknown.

The new stage of the war could well include the dreaded element of urban guerrilla warfare waged in the populated centers of Sinhala society. Colombo has already had its first taste of it. Other cities and towns in the Sinhala heartland could experience for the first time the devastation that such attacks could cause. The IPKF could not be attacked in this way for the urban centers of its origin lay in another country and beyond the LTTE's reach. The opposite is the case now. Furthermore, when repressive defensive measures begin to affect the Tamil plantation population on a large scale their present cautious, pragmatic leadership could be undermined. The policies of the Sri Lankan government at this juncture could well produce a Prabhakaran in the hill country exactly as they did in the north.

The recent enormous increase in refugees is a factor of great military and tactical importance in a guerrilla war. Israel has learnt to its cost how the squalid refugee camps of Lebanon and the Gaza strip became a fertile recruiting ground for all the numerous Arab guerrilla movements, not just the PLO. It is not too exaggerated to say that as long as there are refugee camps, so long will there be guerrilla warfare. The battle for the hearts and minds of the young men and young women who languish in refugee camps can never be won by the forces that put them there; it is those who offer them the challenge of winning their security and dignity by the force of their own arms who have won their allegiance time and again.

The military offensive that commenced in October '95 marks a watershed in the war of Tamil independence in a manner undreamt of by the Sinhala government, its armed forces and the Sinhala nation.


Earlier in this paper it was stated that a war of this type is essentially a war of attrition. In all such wars it has been the government fighting to preserve the status quo (in Sri Lanka the single all-island state) which suffers attrition before the nationalist guerrillas. How long such a war will last in Sri Lanka depends upon several factors peculiar to this particular conflict.

Sri Lanka has no armaments industry worth the name. Nearly everything required by its armed forces has to be imported and paid for in scarce foreign exchange. The purchase of new, state of-the-art, equipment is completely beyond the limited funds available so used and/or obsolete items being jettisoned by desperately cash-strapped East European countries e.g. the 2 Antonov transport aircraft which plunged into the sea shortly after being received in Sri Lanka) are purchased. The IPKF, on the other hand, was backed by India�s large armaments industry some of whose factories are located in Tamilnadu state, north of Madras.

In addition Sri Lanka suffers from a very precarious foreign exchange balance. It is able to service its foreign loans largely from the annual foreign exchange transfusions from the international aid consortium. The garment export industry, which is the largest foreign exchange earner, requires a great deal of foreign exchange for the import of its raw materials. Tourism too entails foreign exchange outgoings though on a lesser scale. Both these industries are very vulnerable to the hazards of urban guerrilla warfare. The needed defensive counter-measures themselves will affect tourism adversely even if there are no guerrilla attacks on tourist facilities. In the UK , which has a full-blown armaments industry, the government was able to sustain the 26-year anti-guerrilla war against the IRA but was unable to crush the guerrillas. Even without any imports of armaments that effort cost the UK E 3.5 billion per year to contain a mere 300 guerrillas of the IRA. That enormous drain on its resources has contributed in no small measure to the UK�s current lowly standing in the world's prosperity league.

The recent escalation of the war in Sri Lanka, entailing increased imports of military hardware of all types, will swallow up foreign exchange earnings and reserves on a scale that cannot be long sustained. Already the scarcity of foreign exchange is being reflected in the steep decline in the exchange rate of the Sri Lanka rupee and this will add to the inflationary impetus of local-currency military expenditures.

It is extremely unlikely, therefore, that the present high-intensity military operation can be sustained at this level for another 12 months. This could result in a reversion to a low-intensity holding operation which could drag on for decades.


In a fast shrinking world every state becomes enmeshed willy-nilly in ever-closer, and ever-more. competitive, relationships with its trading and investing fellow members of the comity of nations. To build up such relationships on a reasonably equitable basis competitive capability needs to be constantly upgraded. This can be done only in conditions of peace. Every state engaged in a long-drawn-out war falls back in relative terms. Sri Lanka is one of the best examples of this. In 1948, when Sri Lanka became independent, it had a g.n.p. per capita per annum of around US$ 200 - the same as another British colony, The Federated Malay States. Today the figures are Sri Lanka US$ 580-, Singapore US$ 18,200 and Malaysia US$ 3200. In 1962 The Federated Malay States split up peacefully without a shot being fired or a single life lost into two independent, sovereign states.

As the world progresses primitiveness acquires a new connotation with every passing decade. Long-continued war will unquestionably relegate Sri Lanka ( as it has already done Myanmar now in the 47th year of an exactly similar war ) to the lower levels of primitiveness as the new century dawns and progresses.


A state is, in the last resort, a state of mind. In that sense the Tamil state already exists in the hearts and minds of the Tamil people. The assumption of the overt forms of a state is delayed. by the continuance of the war of independence. That delay is unavoidable for a war of independence must necessarily be a war of attrition, not one in which a military victory can be secured. That is the essence of nationalist guerrilla wars of secession. The continuance of such a war day by day is a daily victory which contributes towards the final objective of independence.


In many wars of independence a national Diaspora has 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 continues to participate in the work of nation-building. Both followed courses. First, financial, logistical and moral support for their emerging states locked in war. Then the clear explication to host nations and the international community of the raison d�etre of the war of independence. Next the long and patient endeavor to secure their foothold in the host country, obtain citizenship and voting rights and through them influence public understanding and secure media support for the struggle of their compatriots back home. Finally, when the time is right, the build-up towards securing the sponsorship of the host state for the international recognition of the emergent state. There is no doubt that the Tamil Diaspora, which shares so many characteristics of the Jewish, will tread this well-worn road until the independence of the Tamil state is achieved and it joins the comity of nations.


Wars of independence, like other wars, come to an end some day. All wars of independence (save the Biafran struggle which was not a guerrilla war but a conventional war fought by regular army units of Biafran extraction ) have ended by the securing of independent statehood by the nation fighting for it. In Sri Lanka the stage is now set for a long-drawn-out guerrilla war, the total impoverishment of both nations, the demise of civil government among the Sinhala people and the eventual establishment of the state of Eelam. The best efforts of the Sinhala state can only postpone this sequence of events - they cannot avert the final outcome.



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