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 > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings - Adrian Wijemanne >Tamil Eelam's Right to Secede: A Historical Perspective

Tamil National Forum

Selected Writings - Dr. Adrian Wijemanne

Tamil Eelam's Right to Secede:
A Historical Perspective

Hot Springs, 1 January 1997

The perils of the historical perspective

1. History has often been pressed into service by both sides in war. The war in Sri Lanka is no exception. Sinhala nationalists have enrolled history on their side to give legitimacy to their unyielding stand on majoritarian rule. Tamil nationalists reach back to the pre Christian period to support their ' national identity and its territorial grounding. The polemic is now so voluminous that a professor of history at one the universities in ' Sri Lanka has written a recent book on "historiography" (i.e. the manipulation of history) in times of conflict. The common factor is that both sides return to medieval times and go no further- the Sinhalese to their 6th century Mahavansa, the Tamils to the 13th century kingdom of king Sankili. History seems to stop there and go no further. More surprising still , history is confined to the historical - record in Sri Lanka; the history of other countries with similar problems is ignored. The modern history of our nearest neighbours to the North and East is never mentioned and yet it holds lessons of great relevance for Sri Lanka.

2. To the student of history, history is a continuum coming right down to the present day. The shrinking of time and space brings the history and experiences of distant countries into our lives. The lessons of those experiences are inescapable. The factors which determine the marking of history in other countries are equally at work in our own country and could well produce similar outcomes. Wars are especially vital linking factors which link the combatants in one country to many agencies and organizations in other countries. For example, the Sinhala side to the conflict in Sri Lanka  arms itself with military supplies bought abroad. It is now well aware of the enormous, and rising, costs of  state of the state of the art military hardware. It knows it cannot buy many items of such equipment for lack of funds. The historical trend of the
rising sophistication of modern military weaponry and of the exponential escalation. of its cost is a vital factor impinging on the war, in Sri Lanka. The return to medieval history cannot insulate us from modem battle ground realities.

Lessons of History

In seeking the lessons of history need to identify the elements of  relevance to our own situation. The first requisite is a clear
lessons understanding of the conflict. In Sri Lanka the conflict is the product of a very deep cleavage which is not all that common in other parts of the world. In Sri Lanka the conflict is the cleavage is:

I. Ethno- Territorial i.e.: Two distinct ethnic groups grounded in distinct, adjacent, compact territorial areas as the majority population in each such area over a long, historical span of time.

II. Linguo - Cultural i.e.: Each ethnic group is possessed of its own language written in its distinctive alphabetical script and equipped with a long evolved and distinct cultural tradition.

III. Religious i.e.: The vast majority of each ethnic group adheres to a distinct religion, the Sinhala being Buddhist and the Tamil being Hindu. There are Christians in the middle class of each of these ethnic groups, but they have proved to be powerless as a reconciling factor

3. In the three ethnic conflicts now raging simultaneously in India so deep a cleavage does not manifest itself in any. In the Punjab the cleavage is ethnic- territorial and religious but not lingo-cultural for the Punjab language is but a minor variant of Hindi and culturally Sikhs and Hindus are one. In Assam the cleavage is even less, only ethnic territorial, there being no great difference linguo - culturally or in religion. In Kashmir, the cleavage is ethnic territorial and deeply religious but not linguo- cultural.

4. In Myanmar the wars of secession by the several tribal peoples on the western, northern and eastern peripheries of the state have overtones of religious cleavage as some of the tribal peoples are Christians and others animist. The ethnic cleavage is minimal and so is the linguo- cultural especially as many of the tribal languages are not written- ones but only oral.

5. In the Philippines the cleavage in the Moro (Moor) war of secession is only territorial and reigious but not ethnic nor linguistic. Both Philippines and Moros are of the same ethnic stock and speak Tagolog. The conflict is between Christianity and Islam.

6. In Pakistan in the sixties the East Pakistan rebellion was based on an ethno-territorial and linguo-cultural cleavage, but not a religious one. Both parties were, and are, Islamic. Yet they could not be reconciled within a single state.

7. In the Sudan the cleavage is just as deep as in Sri Lanka- ethno territorial, linguo-cultural and religious, with the Christian/ Islamic religious cleavage being much sharper than in Sri Lanka. The war there has proved to be as incapable of a military or constitutional solution as in Sri Lanka. The Sudan is one of the world's poorest countries and soon found it could not afford both to pay for the war and at the same time foot the bill for civil government. As is commonly the case in such situations (Myanmar and Ethiopia and others) it was civil government that was dispensed with and replaced by a military dictatorship. Even that has proved unavailing in producing a military victory. The war goes on, unwinnable, unendable and driving down the living standards of the people into grinding poverty.

8. Another case in which the cleavage was almost as deep was in the U.K. The Irish war of independence was based on ethno-territorial, linguo-cultural and religious cleavage oven though the religious cleavage was only between two branches of the Christian family Protestant (Great Britain) and Roman Catholic( Ireland). Irish nationalism which arose out of that cleavage eventually dismembered the U.K. and divided it into two separate sovereign states. Only then could peace be secured.


9. The emergence of a separate unique national consciousness is one of the features of post French revolution history. Nationalism often combines all three elements of the cleavage present in Sri Lanka and then takes its form- Ethnic nationalism. The Nationalism of the Sinhala people is ethnic nationalism; so too is that of the Tamils, Sinhala nationalism attempts to leap the barrier of ethno-territorial reality and to deny the existence of the vibrant nationalism of its great neighbour, the indigenous Tamil nation in the island. That is, and will be proved to be, its undoing in the misconceived war in which it is engaged. The legitimacy of Sinhala nationalism will be restored when it is confined to the territory occupied by its people and when it takes account of the nationalism of others.

10. A nationalist war of secession, especially a guerrilla war fought on the guerrilla's home ground, is not capable of being ended by constitutional 'devices which seek to contain the warring nations within the straight jacket of a single state. The 4 wars of this type that have been concluded by partition into separate sovereign states for which the guerrillas fought. We are witnessing now the painful emergence of a similar peace in Palestine.

11. In Sri Lanka too there is no other way in which the war can be brought to an end. The writing of the moving finger of history is upon the wall. When it will happen will depend when one of the world's poor countries will crumble under weight of military expenditure.As things stand now it will not be long.



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