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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Fourth World Nations: Conflicts and Alternatives

Bernard Q. Nietschmann
Department of Geography,University of California, Berkeley
Copyright 1985 Center For World Indigenous Studies

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Most of the world's conflicts are between states and nations, yet almost all international efforts to prevent and contain war and to promote peace are directed to state against state conflicts. With 168 states asserting the right and power to impose sovereignty and allegiance upon more than 3000 nations, conflicts occur that cannot be contained or hidden, nor resolved on a state-to-state basis. More than one-half of the world's 45 hot wars involve Fourth World nations against invading First, Second and Third World states (some put the numbers at 32 of 58). And Fourth World nations are also engaged in hundreds of warm and cold wars against expanding states.

The nature of conflicts has changed, yet the means to understand and resolve them have not. Most hot and cold wars since 1945 have not been state against state, but states against indigenous nations and ethnic groups that are fielding resistance forces to protect sovereignty, to gain greater autonomy, to restore national boundaries erased by colonial powers, and to end economic exploitation and political oppression. Many Fourth World nations are promoting or practicing separate rights to their own territory, not as minorities, but as distinct sovereign peoples.

Considerable international effort is directed towards controlling and containing state against state conflicts. Yet when Fourth World nations attempt to defend or regain territory and sovereignty usurped by a settler state, these conflicts are labeled "domestic" by the international community of the Brotherhood of States.

From the domestic perspective, indigenous combatants are seen as "rebels," terrorists," "bandits," "separatists," and "extremists." But most Fourth World nation combatants see themselves engaged in an international conflict, nation against state; and thus they may call themselves soldiers, fighters, warriors. The view of international states is that states declare war, nations declare terrorism.

By treating conflicts between states and nations as but an internal matter of the state, the conflict may be masked but not understood, nor resolved.

For one thing, it is quite likely that the combatant and civilian base in an embattled Fourth World nation do not identify as citizens or minorities of the state, or as rebels or insurgents against it. They identify as a people with their own nation that has its own territory and sovereignty. This means that most of the international agreements and forces (diplomatic, economic, military, etc.) are not agreed to by people doing the fighting on the other side of the frontier.


The settler states of First, Second, and Third World countries encircle and encroach upon Fourth World nations. What is termed nation-building, economic development, population resettlement, and integration is seen by indigenous peoples on the other side of the frontier as simply attempts to dispossess and to incorporate indigenous lands and resources. While some 168 internationally recognized states attempt to expand political control and to use energy-intensive technology to exploit annexed environments, across the frontier, some 3000 indigenous nations persist in their efforts to defend their own land -- and spiritually-based societies and economies.

The term Fourth World includes indigenous enclave nations and peoples and designates identities and sovereignties masked by the ready acceptance of the sanctity of international states.

The Fourth World and the persistence and continuing defense of indigenous nations have remained largely hidden to the outside because of the widespread acceptance of myths that all indigenous peoples are disappearing, their absorption by state systems is inevitable, and they have no sovereignty, territory, or rights except those given to them by states.

Anthropologists focus on dying cultures, political scientists chronicle the decline of "tribalism," and human rights organizations admonish governments for abuses and reductions of tribal minorities. These all reinforce the dominant idea that indigenous peoples are on the way out. However, if one crosses to the other side of the frontier, the perspectives are vastly amplified: regionally and worldwide indigenous peoples are actively engaged in political, military, legal and economic solutions to defend and promote their interests.

Fourth World hot and cold wars will increase in number and intensity as central state governments continue to expand to integrate and assimilate indigenous peoples and their lands and resources.

The hot wars will be fought against the developing countries, and the cold wars will be carried on against the developed countries. Most of the Fourth World wars are being waged against Third World colonialist states that seek to incorporate lands and peoples that formerly were autonomous small nations. Third World colonialism is a principal factor behind Fourth World wars.

Increasingly, the Fourth World is emerging as a new force in international politics because in the common defense of their nations, many indigenous peoples do not accept being mere subjects of international law and state sovereignty and trusteeship bureaucracies. Instead, they are organizing and exerting their own participation and policies as sovereign peoples and nations.


It is critical to note the distinctions made by indigenous leaders and movements between states and nations, minorities and peoples. States are the political apparatuses that unite (sometimes forcibly) different peoples and nations into one internationally recognized political and territorial entity. Nations, conversely, are made up of a self-identifying people, often united by a common language, religion and political consensus, who occupy all or part of an ancestral territory. Although they are often referred to as minorities (tribal minorities, ethnic minorities), indigenous peoples reject this label as it automatically infers membership in a state which may be the issue that is in dispute. To identify a people as a minority often sacrifices their claimed national identity to state sovereignty.

For example, the UN Human Rights Sub-Commission's definition of a minority is

"A group numerically smaller than the rest of the population of a State, in a non-dominant position, whose members -- being citizens of the State -- possess ethnic, religious, or linguistic characteristics differing from those of others of the population and show, if only implicitly, a sense of solidarity directed towards preserving their culture, traditions, religion and language."

While these may very well be important, even critical, to preserve and protect, the significant geographical and material base for the survival of a people is conspicuously absent: nothing is said about land and resources. This is not only typical, it is symptomatic of common terminology, perspectives, and policies that attempt to negate the root cause of state-nation conflicts. A people, rather than a minority, is a concept widely recognized and accepted to include rights to territory, self-determination, and sovereignty. One of the ironies in the current status of international legislation on rights is that individuals have more rights than does a people in a nation unless that people forms a state.

One-nationality states [the nation-state] are rare (Iceland), while the drive to create one territory and one people out of many nations and peoples (ironically termed "nation building") is a primary cause of half the world's conflicts.


The Fourth World is trying to stabilize and push back the frontiers imposed by colonialism and expanded by modern states that seed to politically and economically develop their own peoples. The essential conflict is centuries old, but it is indigenous peoples who are creating new situations through the worldwide movement for self-determination, and territorial and political sovereignty. This is leading to new political, military, economic and legal entities that are separate and distinct from traditional East-West, North-South, and left-right alliances and conflicts.

The accompanying sketch map indicates some of the Fourth World hot wars. Defense of indigenous land, resources, people and identity appear to be the common roots of most if not all of these conflicts, not East-West, or North-South geopolitics. These wars have an apparent tenacity and grassroots strength that make them difficult to suppress. Central to many of these indigenous peoples' defensive wars is the belief that their ability to resist will outlive the invaders ability to oppress. Some armed conflicts have been going on for several decades.

For example, the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict is Africa's longest war; the Karen-Burmese war is Southeast Asia's longest; and the Naga have been fighting the government of India since the early 1950s. Fourth World hot wars are imbedded in communal land and identity which provide the potential to be longlived and tenacious. Most of the wars don't seek to overthrow but to remove the invading or settler governments from indigenous nations, and to achieve recognition of indigenous peoples' rights to self-determination.

To deal with an indigenous war a settler state may choose one or more strategies:
1) attempt to militarily defeat the resistance (East Timor, West Papua, Western Sahara, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Tigray, Indian Nicaragua);

2) begin a long-term program to relocate and assimilate the indigenous population (Guatemala, Nicaragua, Indonesia, etc.);

3) stay out of the indigenous territory (no known examples); and

4) negotiate (at present, India and the Mizo National Front, Nicaragua and the Miskito, Sumo and Rama, The Tamils and Sri Lanka). [written in 1985]

Indigenous cold wars occur worldwide and involve claims and disputes over political jurisdiction, self-determination, rights to land, fishing, and compensation demands for expropriated lands and resources. Many of these conflicts are being fought in the courts; for example, Sami grazing lands in Sweden and Norway, and Aboriginal homelands and sacred sites in Australia. Indigenous cold wars involve the Micmac, Cree, Shuswap and Bella Coola (Canada); the Quinault, Hopi, Navajo, Lakota, Iroquois, Inuit Athapaskans, and Aleuts (United States); Tibetans and indigenous Taiwanese (China); Ainu (Japan), Meo, Akha, Karen, Lahu, etc. (Thailand); Maori (New Zealand); Pitjantjatjara, Yirrkala, Gurindji, and Warlpiri (Australia); Shaba, Luba, and Kasai (Zaire); Catalonians and Basques (Spain); Corsicans and Sardinians (Italy); Flemish and Walloons (Belgium); Mapuches (Chile); Aymara and Quechua-speaking peoples (Peru); Guaym� and Choc� (Panama); Baruca, Cabecares and Bribris (Costa Rica); and Zapotec, Mixe and Mayans (Mexico). There are many, many more.

Negotiated resolutions of a hot war or a settlement of a cold war, generally requires a bilateral agreement between the state and nation over political and territorial autonomy or sovereignty. Many examples exist worldwide although they are not widely known. And each of the examples provide alternatives to the current state of affairs based on no solution or a final solution.

Indigenous peoples and nations have made many advances toward self-determination and new relations with adjacent or encircling states, such as the San Blas Kuna and Panama; the Basques and Spain; the Inuit of Greenland and Denmark; the Six Nations and the United States and Canada; the Otavalo, Shuar and Ecuador; and the Faroe Islanders and Denmark. And the Miskitos, Mizos, and Tamils are in the process of negotiations with settler states. Some indigenous nations have become recognized states such as Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Qatar, and Nauru.



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