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 - Dr.S.SathananthanSelf Determination - a Tamil Perspective

Selected Writings by Dr.S.Sathananthan

Self Determination - a Tamil Perspective
9 March 1998

(a) Introduction

The first and the longest political struggle for self-determination in Sri Lanka (Ceylon until 1972) is the national movement of the Ceylon Tamils. It began in the mid-1950s as a response to the discrimination suffered by Tamils in language; and it was fuelled by further discrimination in access to employment and higher education. Between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s, the Ceylon Tamil national movement sought internal self-determination, that is, a share of State power within the existing Sri Lankan State, through the introduction of a federal system. The principal objective of the movement was to facilitate power-sharing between the major Sinhalese nation and the minor Ceylon Tamil nation; which would then empower the minor nation to defend its collective or national rights and democratise the State, as demonstrated by the post-colonial Indian experience of creating linguistic states.

The Ceylon Tamil national movement focused on non-violent resistance; and protests were launched through a series of satyagrahas in the Gandhian tradition. The Sinhalese-controlled coalition regime (1960-1965), led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), struck the first violent blow against the Ceylon Tamil national movement when the predominantly Sinhalese armed forces were deployed in the Tamil-majority Jaffna peninsula in 1961 to repress the non-violent peoples� agitation. The State repression and violence against the non-violent resistance of Tamils escalated after 1961. In short, the Sinhalese-controlled regime categorically rejected the Tamil demand for internal self-determination and treated the Tamil nation as an internal colony.

The reaction of the Ceylon Tamils was two-pronged. On the one hand, their national movement increasingly articulated the demand for external self-determination, that is, the establishment of an independent Tamil State, Tamil Eelam; and by the mid-1970s it evolved into its revolutionary variant, the national liberation movement. The parliamentary party of Tamils, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), paid lip-service to the changing Tamil political aspirations: in order to harvest Ceylon Tamil votes at the 1977 parliamentary elections, the TULF formally committed itself to the goal of Tamil Eelam by adopting the 1976 Vaddukoddai Resolution. On the other hand, the new generation of young Ceylon Tamils, who had been economically marginalised by discrimination in employment and higher education, were politically brutalised by State repression. The radicalised Tamils were left with no option but to resort to armed resistance. They formed five major Tamil guerrilla organisations in the middle to late 1970s.

The Ceylon Tamil people endorsed the Vaddukoddai Resolution at the 1977 parliamentary elections and voted the TULF to a landslide victory. But the TULF opportunistically abandoned the Resolution after the elections and betrayed the mandate of the Ceylon Tamil nation.

The Tamil guerrilla organisations, led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), began armed resistance in the late 1970s to establish Tamil Eelam in the Northern and Eastern Provinces where Ceylon Tamils constitute the majority.

The Sinhalese-controlled United National Party (UNP) regime (1977-1988) escalated State repression and subjected Tamils to repeated pogroms. Simultaneously, the regime closed and locked the door to internal self-determination for Tamils by two crucial provisions in the 1978 Constitution: Article 2 specified that �The Republic of Sri Lanka is a Unitary State�; whilst Article 76(1) provided that the �Parliament shall not abdicate or in any manner alienate its legislative power, and shall not set up any authority with legislative power.� Thus, the UNP regime vindicated the decision of the Ceylon Tamil national movement to pursue external self-determination.

By the mid-1980s, EROS joined forces with the LTTE. The other three organisations abandoned the goal of external self-determination for a combination of reasons: due to weaknesses in their understanding of Tamil nationalism, tactical errors in their approaches to the Sri Lankan regime and Indian Government, and because they were marginalised by the LTTE. Today, only the LTTE (together with EROS) remains committed to advancing the Tamil national liberation movement.

Since the mid-1980s, the national movements of the Muslim and Up-Country Tamil peoples for internal self-determination have gathered strength as the Sinhalese-controlled regimes intensified religious and economic discrimination. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Up-Country Peoples� Front (UPF) have demanded political autonomy for the Muslims and Up-Country Tamils respectively within the regions where they constitute the regional majority.

(b) Self-determination and internal de-colonisation

The Ceylon Tamil nation and the Muslim and Up-Country Tamil peoples are part of the many thousands of nations and peoples who invariably were forcibly incorporated into multi-national States. The vast majority of multi-national States in Asia, which are in fact the bleeding remnants of the crumbling European empires, had been carved out through colonial military conquest of nations and peoples, who were politically de-empowered by colonialism and lashed together within colonial territories. In each colonial territory the numerically smaller nations and peoples were redefined as �minorities� and politically subordinated to the respective numerically larger nation, called the �majority�.

The first phase of de-colonisation was external de-colonisation, that is, the dissolution of direct colonial rule through anti-colonial movements, which set free the colonial territories and transferred political power to the major nation within each independent territory. The vast majority of the independent territories, called �States�, represented in the United Nations are products of external de-colonisation.

Whilst external de-colonisation is well advanced, - the most recent instance being the return of Hong Kong to the Peoples Republic of China - the independent territories have entered the second phase, that of internal de-colonisation. Internal de-colonisation is sought by the minor nations and peoples, who had been herded together within each former colonial territory and who suffered internal colonialism under the respective major nation in each State. The minor nations and peoples in most instances have launched national movements against their respective States seeking political empowerment through either internal or external self-determination.

The global scale of national movements is grossly understated by the semantic sleight of hand, which subsumed national movements within the all inclusive term �ethnic conflicts� employed by mainstream social scientists. However, the first step to an appreciation of the principle of self-determination is to distinguish national movements from ethnic conflicts. Ethnic conflicts refer to inter-group confrontations between cultural units (linguistic groups, castes, etc) which live within the borders of a State. They are issue-based and usually arise out of` the competitive interactions between the groups and are justified in part by differences in cultural attributes (of region, religion, language, caste, race, etc). One type of ethnic conflict is the spontaneously and locally occurring communal clashes, which are invariably triggered by emotive confrontations that appear to be based on one or more subjective cultural attributes but more often than not are rooted in objective economic competition (over employment, land, entrepreneurial opportunities, etc) between individuals from different cultural groups. Pogroms unleashed by one cultural group against another - which may or may not be aimed at ethnic cleansing - in which the State has a participatory or supportive role are another type of ethnic conflict.

In contrast, national movements are a form of struggle for State power. They are political struggles launched by nations or peoples against the State. The legitimating ideology of national movements is constructed around the right of national self-determination. In each instance, because the State is identified more or less with the major nation, the national movements of minor nations and peoples for State power superficially resembles an ethnic conflict between the major nation and the minor nations and peoples. The apparent similarity between national movements and ethnic conflicts is exploited by mainstream social scientists to de-legitimise national movements as �atavistic� communal agitation and to mask the issue of external self-determination specific to their revolutionary variant, the national liberation movements.

A further distinction between national movements and ethnic conflicts is the different modes of their resolution. National movements seek political solutions, that is, access to State power to defend the national rights of minor nations and peoples: the demand for the introduction of a federal system is a case in point. In contrast, ethnic conflicts are contained typically by institutional arrangements and legislative provisions to protect individual rights of members of each cultural group as individual citizens. Thus human rights organisations are formed and legislative safeguards are introduced to deal with ethnic conflicts.

The one often shades into the other. For instance, ethnic conflicts as well as national movements may exploit cultural symbols. But the distinction between the two must be borne in mind for the following important reasons. Firstly, national rights of a nation or people are greater than, and are qualitatively different from, the sum of individual rights of its members. Secondly, the dimension of State power inherent in national movements, but absent in ethnic conflicts, requires attention to the right of internal and external self-determination and, consequently, imposes a conceptually different set of analytical demands in the assessment of national movements.

(c) Self-determination and geo-politics

While mainstream social scientists have preferred to slur over the right of self-determination and, instead, to focus on �conflict and integration� and �identity formation�, political actors have recognised and, according to their interests, stoked or suppressed the demands for self-determination. Colombia opposed the demand of its northern territory, Panama, for external self-determination. But the United States Government, which had already drawn up plans for the construction of the Panama Canal, promoted the external self-determination of the Panamanian people and served as the political midwife for the independence of Panama from Colombia in 1903. The actions of the US Government had virtually nothing to do with professed altruism and almost everything to do with establishing direct control over the proposed Canal, through a client Panamanian State set up by, and subservient to, Washington DC. At the end of the First World War Britain and the United States undermined the Ottoman Empire by invoking the �principle of nationality�- that is, �each nationality its State, each State its nationality� - to promote the external self-determination of many nations and peoples ruled by that Empire.

Rosa Luxemburg argued against external self-determination principally to prevent bourgeois forces from weakening of the world socialist revolution by segmenting the workers into an increasing number of capitalist States. But Lenin sought to dismantle European colonial empires and weaken capitalist imperialism by encouraging external self-determination among the nations and peoples of colonial territories.

Perhaps the most blatant instance where a national movement for self-determination was exploited for geo-political ends is the case of Eritrea. At first the United States backed Emperor Haile Salassie of Ethiopia and rejected the Eritrean claim to external self-determination. The Soviet Union supported the Eritrean liberation movement as an important component of the African anti-imperialist struggle. When a pro-Soviet regime was installed in Ethiopia by Colonel Mengistu, Moscow switched allegiance, aligned with Addis Abbaba and rejected Eritrean external self-determination; whilst the United States came to the rescue of Eritrea claiming that the Eritreans were engaged in a struggle against communism.

Another instance occurred during the Gulf War. The United States encouraged the Kurdist liberation movement within Iraq in order to undermine President Saddam Hussain�s rule but it withdrew support for the Kurds after the War ended.

In South Asia, the Punjabi-controlled Pakistani regime repressed the Bengali demand for external self-determination in the then East Pakistan. But Indian Government, confident in the knowledge that the Indian Union was secure under the strong Centre, promoted the liberation movement in East Pakistan and engineered the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 in order to weaken Pakistan. Again, India supported the Tamil liberation struggle in Sri Lanka between 1983 and 1987 in order to bring to heel the Sri Lankan regime. But by the late 1980s the Central Government in India was considerably weakened by the growth of national movements, euphemistically referred to as �regional parties�. Consequently, the Indian Government came to view national liberation movements in countries on the Indian border as potential encouragement to Indian national movements and threats to the unity of India. So the Indian Government emphasised internal self-determination for the Ceylon Tamil national movement.

(d) Self-determination or conflict reproduction

The foregoing arguments demonstrate that the national movements for self-determination in Sri Lanka are part of a global trend among minor nations and peoples who seek their political empowerment. It would also be obvious that the right of internal or external self-determination is self-evident and recognised universally; and that its promotion or suppression are political decisions which often are influenced by geo-political imperatives. The fact that the political decisions are dressed up in legal terminology do not make them any less political.

It follows that the question is not whether the Ceylon Tamil nation and the Muslim and Up-Country Tamil peoples possess the right of self-determination; that they do is beyond doubt. What is at issue, and needs to be confronted, is the denial of the right by the Sri Lankan regime.

When Ceylon Tamils demanded internal self-determination, it was rejected by the regime. When the Tamil demand escalated to external self-determination, the regime attempted to discredit the national movement by creating the illusion that the alternative of internal self-determination was available and dismissed the insistence on external self-determination as an �extremist� demand. The deception was attempted twice by the UNP regime: first when the farcical District Development Councils (DDC) were set up in 1981; and next when the toothless Provincial Councils (PCs) were formed in 1988 under the 1987 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Both proposals excluded the repeal or amendment of Articles 2 and 76 of the Constitution.

The Peoples Alliance (PA) coalition regime (1994 to the present), led by the SLFP, conjured up the alternative of internal self-determination in three versions of its so-called �peace package� between August 1995 and October 1997. The 1995 President Kumaratunga�s Devolution Proposals were more convincing. They appeared to provide for internal self-determination by describing Sri Lanka as a �Union of Regions� and proposing the repeal of Article 76 (para IX). But the most recent version, the 1997 Parliamentary Select Committee Report on Constitutional Reform, incorporated Article 76 as Article 92 and so rejected internal self-determination for the Ceylon Tamil nation and the Muslim and Up-Country Tamil peoples.

All the while both regimes disingenuously promised internal self-determination and vacuously urged that external self-determination was neither legitimate nor necessary.

The extent of the deception could be gauged from the provisions regarding the official language in the Constitution. Coerced by India under the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement to Establish Peace and Normalcy in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan regime amended Article 18 and proclaimed that Tamil was at par with Sinhala as official languages and that the Language Question has been resolved. But a closer reading of the Article revealed it to be an unconscionable deception:

�(1) The official language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.
(2) Tamil shall also be an official language.
(3) English shall be a link language.�

The Article was worded in such manner as to retain the primacy of the Sinhala language: Sinhala is �the� official language of �Sri Lanka�; the Tamil language was accorded a subordinate status by the use of the word �also� and by not stating that it is the official language of Sri Lanka. In short, Sinhala is the sole official language of the country.

A constructive and sincere approach would have been to amend Article 18 to read: �The official languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil.� Article 32 of the 1997 Parliamentary Select Committee Report on Constitutional Reform provided that �The official languages of the Republic shall be Sinhala and Tamil.� But the hopes of justice for Tamils were dashed by the subsequent Articles, which negated the sense of Article 32 and qualified its implementation to make Sinhala the de facto sole official language of the country. Thus, the Language Question has yet to be resolved.

It will be evident that, for more than four decades, Sinhalese-controlled regimes have refused to concede the language (and other) national rights of Tamils. The regimes have rejected the right of internal self-determination for the Ceylon Tamil nation and the Muslim and Up-Country Tamil peoples. The obstinacy of the regimes has contributed to the emergence and reproduction of conflict over the demand for self-determination.

If the PA regime wishes to reach a political compromise with the national movements on the basis of internal self-determination, the following constitutional reforms are indispensable preconditions:

1. Repeal Articles 2 and 76 of the Constitution to permit the introduction of a confederal or federal system.
2. Amend Article 18 to declare that �the official languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil�, enforceable throughout the country and without qualification.
3. Amend Article 9 to delete �the foremost place� granted to Buddhism and to declare Sri Lanka a secular State.
In other words, the only basis for peace in Sri Lanka is the acceptance by the regime of the right of self-determination of minor nations and peoples and the re-establishment of the secular State.


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