RIGHT TO SELF DETERMINATION
The Crisis and Struggle for Fundamental Change
Dr.Ramani Chelliah at the ‘Conference on Asia ’
held on 25 and 26 May 1991 at University of London
I have been invited to talk to you
about the present situation in Sri Lanka.
When we look at the current situation
in Sri Lanka today, the first point that needs to be borne in mind is that there
are two units of analysis involved - the Tamil nation of Eelam and the
associated Tamil national liberation struggle and the Sinhala nation of Sri
Lanka and the struggle of the oppressed there against the ruling regime. These
two national entities are quite distinct, representing two different social
formations, the dynamics of each being driven by different political, social and
What I intend doing today, is to
provide an outline of the present reality in Eelam and situate it in relation to
The backdrop to the emergence of the
Tamil national liberation struggle in Eelam is provided by the national
chauvinism of the Sinhala ruling elite,
which over the past 40 years has dictated a persistent policy aimed at
destroying the Tamil nation. It is the consequences of this disastrous
policy that made a revolutionary rupture from joint existence an inevitable
So what are the features of Tamil
- The first act of independent
Ceylonese government was the
inhuman Citizenship Act of 1948
which robbed 1.2 million Tamil plantation workers of their basic human rights
and reduced them to an appalling condition of statelessness. In one stroke,
this Act deprived almost 50% of the Tamil population of its basic
- The Tamil language which
represented an aspect of the identity of the Tamil nation was another target
for attack. In
1956 the Sinhala language was declared the only official language of the
country which directly resulted in thousands of government servants
immediately losing their employment, due to their non-proficiency in the
- The Sinhala only policy coupled
with open discrimination has resulted in the almost complete drying up of
employment opportunities for Tamil speaking people. Today a Tamil employee
in the public sector is a rare finding although Tamils constitute almost 30%
of the populations.
- In education,
the norm of open competition has been abandoned in favour of various
standardisation and regional quota systems, the sole result of which has
been to exclude well qualified Tamil students from higher education -this in
a country where education is highly valued and the literacy rate is 97%.
- A most sinister threat to Tamil
nationhood has been posed by the
state-aided colonisation schemes
that have been vigorously carried out since independence. Aimed at destroying
the geographical entity of the Tamil nation, it is also used to reduce the
Tamils to a minority in their own homelands. As a direct result of
colonisation two new Sinhala electorates have been created and more than one
third of the land area in the Eastern province has been taken over.
- The traditional Tamil homelands
have been starved of investment and development. Of government investment
from 1948 to the present day, less that .01% has been for the benefit of
Tamil people. Aid projects and industrial development projects are
exclusively sited in Sinhala areas. As a result, while the rest of Sri Lanka
prospered, the Tamil nation has been impoverished and made dependent on the
Sinhala master nation.
- Various acts of culture barbarity
have been carried out as in the police disruption of an International Tamil
Research Conference in 1974 (resulting in 9 dead and 100s wounded) and the
burning down of the
Jaffna Library in 1981 with its collection of rare and irreplaceable
archives. In either case, no inquiry was ever held.
- Periodic pogroms occur in which
thousands of innocent lives have been brutally sacrificed at the alter of
national chauvinistic hatred. On every occasion the state and the armed
forces colluded with thugs and vandals in their sadistic orgy of arson, rape
and mass murder.
- Various laws have been rushed
through parliament aimed at crushing Tamil resistance.
The PTA Act of 1979 denies trail by jury, enables the detention of
people for a period of 18 months without being charged and allows
confessions extracted under torture as admissible evidence.
- The brutality of the Sri Lankan
army of occupation in the Tamil homelands is an everyday threat to the life
and livelihood of ordinary citizens in the Tamil homelands.
It is out of history of oppression that the
struggle for national liberation emerged.
The point was eventually reached when
it became evident that the only solution was the establishment of an independent
state of Eelam in the traditional Tamil homelands of the North and East. While
the history of oppression and betrayal by the dominant powers in Sri Lanka goes
back over four decades, yet the
cry for an independent Eelam is relatively recent. It is important to
remember that the
Tamils had already travelled the path of peaceful agitation and parliamentary
participation asked for minimum autonomy and federal status - only to be met
with betrayal at best and total dismissal at worst as the foundations were laid
to create a Sinhala Sri Lanka.
This explains the almost universal
support for the national liberation struggle amongst Tamils today which cuts
across class, caste and gender barriers. This is not to say that all or any of
the particular liberation organisations leading the struggle enjoy universal
unconditional support. The point is, that amongst the Tamils as home and abroad,
there is a wide consensus of support for national liberation as an essential
goal which takes primacy over internal contradictions and problems within the
liberation movement itself. These problems have to be resolved within the
context of national liberation - not outside of it.
It is now almost 20 years since the
inception of the armed struggle for national liberation. It has been fought
against great odds. The Sri Lankan state has refused to seriously consider
anything other than a military solution to the problem.
imported massive arms supplies from various countries including the USA,
Britain, Pakistan, South Africa, Taiwan and Israeli. Israeli secret service
personnel and British mercenaries have been used in combat operations. All
resources have been directed to the massive programme of militarisation with
enormous increases in defence expenditure.
Then there was the Indian adventure
when Rajiv Gandhi took the decision to send in troops to bail out the then
President Jeyawardena’s tottering regime in Sri Lanka and in the process
exacting a handsome price in terms of economic and political rights within Sri
Lanka. The infamous
Peace Accord signed in 1987, met none of the Tamil demands, was negotiated
over the heads of Tamil representatives, and in the face of Sinhala opposition.
The only way of enforcing the problem - ridden accord was to impose it by force
and the necessary precondition of crushing Tamil resistance was a required step
in the process of India gaining control, not only over the Tamil nation, but the
entire island of Sri Lanka.
At the height of the Indian invasion,
over 120,000 troops were stationed in the Tarril homelands of Eelam The
concentration of these troops in the northern province was such that for every
10 people in that region one was an occupying enemy soldier. In spite of the
power and might of the Indian army and the large scale loss of civilian lives
that it inflicted on the Tamil population (a conservative estimate has been put
at 100,000), Tamil resistance could not be crushed. The Indian Peace Keeping
Force, dubbed the Innocent People Killing Force had to withdraw two and a half
years later, defeated and disgraced.
Currently the Sri Lanka army is back on the offensive. The army of
occupation in Eelam is in fact confined to army and navy barracks in certain
towns - the rest of the country being under the control of the LTTE.
Nonetheless, the army is able to inflict havoc and heavy civilian casualties
through its daily indiscriminate bombing - using napalm bombs over densely
populated areas and indiscriminate shooting from helicopters. They are operating
a policy of levelling to the ground entire villages.
Since June of last year, when the
latest offensive began, to the present day, all electricity supply to the
northern province has been cut off. The transport of medical supplies, including
life-saving medicines into Eelam is banned. The transport of petrol, kerosene,
any form of batteries and matches have been banned. In addition there is an
embargo on sugar, milk, paper and money. The cash economy is collapsing due to
lack of paper money with elements of bartering system emerging. As fuel shortage
rules out transport, more and more people of Eelam are being pushed back into a
primitive, self-sustaining form of life reminiscent of the last century.
Over 4,000 civilian have been killed
since June. The effects of the bombing are compounded by lack of medicines and
trained medical personnel. The region's biggest hospital has been evacuated.
other small, working hospitals have been bombed. In an effort to dent civilian
morale, they have even been showering the area with human and animal excrement -
which speaks volumes about the psychological underpinnings of this war.
Civilian casualties are high, but so
is their spirit. The net outcome is that those who are fighting against the
state are heralded as protectors, and saviours from the otherwise certain fate
Over the last decade the struggle the
Tamil people of Eelam have paid a heavy price. Those who have been forced to
flee the country as
refugees amount to
about 125,000 in Europe (including UK), 200,000 in India and a sizeable number
in Canada and other parts of the world. Within Eelam itself, the havoc and
destruction of war means that about 1 million people are currently displaced.
The loss of life, mostly among civilians, runs into several hundreds of
thousands. In fact, the situation facing the Tamils is one of genocide and I use
the term advisedly. In spite of all this, the iron will of the people as a whole
to win their freedom has been tested through fire and found to be unshakable The
fundamental basis for the Tamil national struggle for liberation has only be
enforced. Having been conceived in the womb of national oppression, it
is impossible for that struggle to be aborted by that very same oppression,
however intense. If anything, it is sustained by it
That is the current situation in Eelam.
Let us turn now, very briefly to the
situation in Sri Lanka.
Economically, the country is in
tatters. According to a recent, confidential World Bank report, Sri Lanka is on
the brink of a "disaster scenario".
Defence spending accounts for almost 20% of the budget, mostly spent in hard
currency needed to import arms. Domestic inflation is at 20%. The official
figure for unemployment is 22% t the real figure is much higher). The 1991
budget deficit stands at Rs.60 billion. External debt service ration is 20.3%.
The recent Gulf crisis has added to the
problems. Middle Eastern earnings is the second largest export earner for Sri
Lanka, second only to tea. Its benefits were enjoyed by large sections of the
lower middle classes, as opposed to being concentrated within the few hands of
the very wealthy. The sudden drying up o this source as a spin off effect of
George Bush acting out his Rambo fantasy as ''ass kicker" means that there is
not only increased economic hardship in Sri Lanka, but also that it is acting as
a serious destabilising force given the class character of the people who have
been adversely affected.
The degree of state repression has been
steadily increasing and human rights violations have been condemned
internationally. A four member team from the European Parliament who visited Sri
Lanka at the end of last year have reported that at least 60,000 people have
been killed or have disappeared in central and southern Sri Lanka in the past 3
years i.e. 1 in every 250 people. These developments are related to the brutal
suppression by the state of the violent Sinhalese anti-government uprising over
the past few years led by the JVP. Accounts of barbarity abound such as the
incident when uniformed police publicly line up/ shot in cold blood and beheaded
6 boys for an alleged crime of taking part in a bank raid.
These killings and disappearances are
mostly carried out by paramilitary and vigilante groups representing a new layer
of institutionalised violence beyond the army and police force that is
unaccountable and unidentifiable. Parallel to this is the militarisation process
that has been taking place within the state apparatus itself. Recent years have
seen a massive multiplication of ''security" ministries and the proliferation of
security-related ministerial posts with the creation of new departments for
'"defence", 'internal security", national security", "commercial security'' and
The methods used to crush the JVP have
taken on a momentum of their own placing under severe threat democratic
structures in the country. Trade Unions are often not allowed to function
properly, lawyers who file habeas corpus applications on behalf of the
disappeared are threatened, and local journalists have to exercise extreme
caution. Organisation such as Amnesty International have been banned from the
country for several years.
Leading the struggle against the
repressive state in Sri Lanka is the JVP. It is only radical force of any
significance, which in spite of its brutal means and utter ruthlessness, poses
the question of seizure of state power and its radical transformation. It is
however, rabidly chauvinistic and under the slogan of "defence of the
motherland" makes a direct appeal to Sinhala national chauvinism. It represents
a sizeable proportion of the most oppressed section of the Sri Lankan nation.
It's support base is provided by the poor, students, unemployed youth and
recently they have begun drawing support from a sizeable section of the
intelligentsia and made inroads into the organised urban workers movements.
Although the entire top and second
ranking leadership of the JVP has been systematically and brutally wiped out
over the last two years by the regime, it still remains the only significant
radical challenge to the state.
To conclude my presentation, I will sum
up with the following points:
- For the Tamils of Eelam national
liberation is the only solution. The social, economic and political
contradictions within the Tamil nation have to be resolved and can only be
resolved within the context of national liberation.
- For the Sinhalese in the South of
Sri Lanka the points and sites of confrontation between the people and the
regime are multiplying. As the state resorts to increasingly repressive
tactics, it is creating the conditions for an imminent revolutionary
- Unity between the leading forces in
Eelam and Sri Lanka can only come about on a basis of equality. The
precondition for this basis of equality is the liberation of Eelam. It
cannot be otherwise, given the effect of 40 years of rampant Sinhala
national chauvinism that has struck deep roots in the psyche and fabric of
the Sinhala nation coupled with the unparalleled oppression and sacrifices
imposed upon the Tamil nation.
- At present the only common feature
between the Tamil national liberation struggle in Eelam and the struggle
against the state in Sri Lanka by the oppressed Sinhalese is that neither
will tolerate super-power intervention, or any external influence for that
matter. national consciousness and the right to self-determination are
pivotal factors for both struggles.
These are some of the features of the
present reality in Eelam and Sri Lanka. Thank you.