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Home > Tamils - a Trans State Nation > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Right to Self Determination - Tamil Eelam > Tamils Right to Self Determination - Satchi Ponnambalam
Tamils Right to Self Determination
Justice Satchi Ponnambalam
In order for the theme of this paper and the contentions advanced to be understood and appreciated I will first have to delineate the national identity profile and the self-perception and the mutual perception of the constituent parties to the conflict and the basic elements of the subject and object of the Tamil national liberation struggle in Sri Lanka.
The constituent parties to the conflict and the liberation struggle are the Tamil people comprised in the Eelam nation occupying the north-eastern parts of the country, whose interests are advanced, protected and defended by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a politico-military organization of young Tamils under the leadership of its founder and military commander Velupillai Pirabaharan on the one side, and the State of Sri Lanka under the leadership of the President of the Republic, his ministers, his commanders of the armed forces and the men of the armed services employed by the state, in the name of safeguarding the territorial integrity of the state and avowedly defending and protecting the interests of the Sinhalese, particularly the Sinhala-Buddhist people occupying the west, south and central parts of the country, on the opposite side.
There is no 'ethnic conflict' between two ethnic people with the State as the arbiter, as the primary meaning that descriptive phrase connotes. In fact, the two ethnic people - the Sinhalese and the Tamils - are as far removed from the conflict and are at a distance as the cosmic dwellers, the sun and the moon, except that the Tamils participate in it as the direct sufferers of the wanton and naked oppression and killing by the armed forces at the command of the President of Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese people are involved in it as the proxy in whose name the conflict is waged and so are the assumed beneficiaries of it.
More importantly, the conflict was not engendered by any dynamics of social change generated incrementally from below seeking the re-ordering of the status quo so as for the people to derive the consequent socio-economic benefits but was given rise to by the manipulative politics of the Sinhalese-Buddhist ruling class to divide the people on the basis of race, religion and primordial loyalties in order to ensconce themselves in power.
Even more importantly, the conflict was engendered by legislative actions in violation of the entrenched provisions in section 29 of the independence constitution of 1948, which prohibited the legislature of Sri Lanka from making any law imposing any disabilities or restrictions on any community or religion to which persons of other communities or religions are not made liable, or conferring on persons of any community or religion any privilege or advantage which is not conferred on persons of other communities or religions - the solemn balance of rights and the bed-rock covenant of the civil society ordained by the constitution.
What was achieved by the Sinhalese politicians being manifestly deprivatory of the basic rights and discriminatory of the Tamils, lacking in legal validity and political legitimacy caused national cleavage and rupture of the civil society. Hence, the attempt at containment of the national ethnic turbulence and turmoil that erupted in consequence by resort to the extreme of the coercive powers of the state. There is, therefore, total reliance on the military to destroy the Tamil political protest and resistance and the Tamil people's eventual resolve for national self-determination.
The outstanding fact of Sri Lanka's nationality structure is that, from ancient times and continuously over the last two millennia, two indigenous ethnic people - the Sinhalese and the Tamils - have lived in and shared the country as co-settlers. They lived their lives in the separate parts until the administrative unification of the country effected by the superior fiat of the British rulers in 1833, when the Sinhalese and the Tamils were for the first time brought together under one government of Ceylon, by the imperial masters.
Sir Hugh Cleghorn, the first British colonial secretary to the island, in what has become the famous "Cleghorn Minute", observed in 1799:
Over these millennia, the Tamil people have, for their part, organised their life and society in a civilized way and have not only safeguarded and defended their own interests but have even lent support and assistance to the Sinhalese Kandyan kingdom against the Portuguese attempts to conquer it.
The British overlords who brought the Sinhalese and the Tamil people in one central government under their rule in 1833, quit the country on independence in 1948, leaving the majority Sinhalese nation and the minority Tamil nation yoked together under a Westminster-model unitary constitution for both to enjoy the fruits of freedom and self-rule.
But what happened was the exact opposite of what was expected. Soon, through the arithmetic of the ballot-box and Sinhalese-Buddhist sectarianism, this freedom and independence was converted as the prerogative of the Sinhalese; the Tamils, left with assurances, gentlemen's agreements and State Council resolutions, witnessed the collapse of them all and were aghast at their betrayal. Starting at equals with the Sinhalese in subordination to the British, the Tamils for a time became "junior partners" and, by the 1960s, had been reduced a subject people under the rule of the Sinhalese masters.
What was expected was that the political leaders and their governments having the power to rule would in order to create unity out of diversity devise modalities of governance on structures of compromise so that the Sinhalese and the Tamil co-settlers and co-sharers of the national patrimony would live as equal citizens in peace and unity, in union and unity on the foundations of bi-lingualism and bi-culturalism, without the bigger Sinhalese nation subjugating the separate collective and cultural identities of the smaller Tamil nation. This did not happen.
The S.L.F.P. leader S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, a Christian who converted to Buddhism for the sake of politics, inducted this Buddhist clergy into the drumfire of political propaganda on the eve of the 1956 general election in his cause for "Sinhala-only" and to defeat the incumbent Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala, a Christian, and his U.N.P., which then appeared invincible.
Buddhist agitation was then mounted by them with the contorted claim conveyed in a new message that Sri Lanka is the country of the Sinhalese and that Sinhalese-Buddhists are a chosen people with the special mission of safeguarding and protecting the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha, in the country thrice blessed by Buddha. It is in the making of this contorted claim a reality by manipulative pressures and majoritarian tyranny that the ethnic powder-keg was set ablaze and the Sri Lankan polity torn asunder.
The corollary of this new message and the new vision was that the Tamils are invaders from South India who had come and fought wars against the indigenous Sinhala-Buddhists, beginning with the Elara-Duttha Gemunu war of the second century B.C. In tandem with this new conceptualisation of the Sinhalese-Buddhist and Tamil history, Dr Walpola Rahula, a Buddhist Bhikkhu scholar who was later appointed the Vice-Chancellor of the Vidyalankara University at Kelaniya, wrote in 1956 of Elara and that war:
It is in this genre of falsified and exaggerated chauvinistic interpretation of Sri Lanka's historical past, which is the reputed tradition of Buddhist clerical scholarship beginning with Mahanama, the Bhikkhu author of the 6th century A.D. MAHAVAMSA ("The Great Chronicle"), which is both history and bible to Sinhala-Buddhists, that we have to locate the true basic causes of today's Sri Lanka Government-Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka.
It is the writings of the type represented above by Sinhala-Buddhist scholars that have come to be disseminated by the Bhikkhus to their credulous lay constituency and held out as justifying the deprivation of the basic rights of the Tamils and the discrimination heaped on them and the oppression and repression inflicted on them in the name of defending and safeguarding the interests of the Sinhala-Buddhists, who to Anagarika Dharmapala, a 20th century Buddhist zealot, are the "sons of the soil", and to whom alone Sri Lanka belong, in the convinced belief of a great many of the Sinhala-Buddhist people, since the Tamils have been represented to be the descendants of foreign invaders who fought many wars against the Sinhalese and pushed them to the south-west.
It is the belief in the truth of this falsified conceptualisation of the ethnic relations in the historic past that made the Mahanayake of the Ramanya Sect to articulate in May 1967:
It is again, in affirmation of this falsified view of the past history of Sinhalese-Tamil relations that in 1967, Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike as Prime Minister declared: "The Tamil people must accept the fact that the Sinhalese majority will no longer permit themselves to be cheated of their rights."(quoted in Robert Kearney, The Politics of Ceylon, Ithaca, Cornell, 1973, p. 163)
It is again, because that falsified past has become implanted in the Sinhalese psyche, that an M.P. unabashedly asserted in 1962:
I will now sketch how these old atavistic memories and irrational fears embedded in the psyche of the Sinhalese leaders and people because of their belief in the truth of this falsified Sinhalese-Tamil past history prevented the grant of even nominal concessions, by reference to the attitudes and assertions made by the Sinhalese Parliamentarians to the then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake's innocuous proposals for District Councils, presented as a White Paper to the House in 1968 (as compiled by Sri Lanka's respected Journalist and editor S. Sivanayagam in his 40-YEAR CHRONOLOGY 1946-1986 - A TIRU Publication, Madras, 1987):
The District Councils episode and the fiasco in which it ended brings into focus the significant realities of the Tamil national question.
Firstly, it epitomizes the resort of the opposition Sinhalese politicians to "false propaganda and the spreading of communal hatred", as in the words of Dudley Senanayake, on any measure even remotely connected to or ameliorative of the enslaved and deprived of "birthright" condition of the Tamil people.
Secondly, that false propaganda will accuse the proposer of any such measure as the author of a scheme "to divide the country to the detriment of the Sinhalese", in order to heighten the controversy over it so that the proposer himself would jettison it, as did Dudley Senanayake.
Thirdly, the vociferous Buddhist lobby consisting of the Mahanayakes, Bhikkhus and the A.C.B.C. have become the keepers of the conscience of the Sinhalese nation and the custodians of the Sri Lanka Government's positions over the Tamil problem, which the two have created in the country.
Fourthly, the ultimatum threat of an influential section of the Government Parliamentary Group to the P.M. to give up or face revolt shows that the Sinhalese politicians do not divide on party lines on the Tamil problem but on racial or ethnic lines and therefore it is not possible for the P.M. to shore up support for his proposals even within the ranks of his own party parliamentarians.
Fifthly, living up to Dudley Senanayake's predatory wish, the Tamil people have "sent away ... the Tamil Congress and the Federal Party", but have yet not regained their "birthright in Sri Lanka."
Lastly, and most importantly, the new status quo of the Sinhalese and Sri Lanka Government - Tamil position of rulers/ruled, overlordship/subjugation has come to be cast in such a rigid, impenetrable and immutable mould that the Tamils have been left with no choice but to break that mould by force to free themselves to be counted as humans; otherwise, it was slavery, revolting to any civilized conscience.
From the foregoing statement of the preliminaries, it will be evident that the central fact that lies at the heart of the national question and the Eelam liberation struggle, and, in fact, that which has spawned both and determine their turbulent and indomitable course is that the Tamils are an indigenous nation of people, who occupy their own lands in Eelam from pre- and proto-historic times. That territory is their national inheritance, their national patrimony, their separate homeland, their motherland to which they are bonded in all the strength and attachment as the native people.
They possess all the patriotic love and yearnings and all other conscious and unconscious bindings of any indigenous nation of people to their own land, and, in particular, in no way less and in no different manner form the indigenous Sinhalese people to their part of the country. The Tamils right and claim to the Eelam territory has to be bluntly, irrefutably and crisply stated: the Eelam lands are inviolate and Tamil nation's sovereignty over that territory is non-negotiable.
There are several concomitants of this particular fact of being the indigenous people of a land, the chief of which being that when threatened in their own homeland, the nation of people will unite as one and the nation-state in existence, if not, the one to be constituted for their survival and future security assumes mystic significance. When the new contorted Sinhala-Buddhist hegemonistic values and goals were enthroned, the Tamils living within the same political unit and occupying one part of the country with their own separate heritage and culture were left without a modus vivendi, a livable compromise within the Sri Lankan polity.
When the Tamil people, who had an equal right to the country and an equal share in the national patrimony were reduced to servility and imprisoned by their own state, were deprived of their birthrights, were discriminated, oppressed and repressed by their own state, the Tamils were forced to re-discover and revert to their own separate part in the whole.
The new nation-state of Tamil Eelam became their new deity and the liberation struggle to achieve and establish it their new religion, involving an emotional leap, an act of faith. To the Liberation Tigers, at the vanguard of the struggle, the Eelam nation-State became the highest focal point of their loyalties and the cross on which they are willing to die.
This survey that we have made has brought us to the threshold of the solution to the national question as perceived by the Tamil nation - the oppressed and struggling party - to the conflict situation imposed on it by the other party by the fact of the two nations occupying distinct and separate parts of the same country being posited under one government.
This perceived solution of self-determination has evolved and taken shape by the compulsions of more than three decades of political struggles of the Tamil people and their political leaders which ended in the ignominious failure to arrive at any just solution by the process of negotiation between the two parties.
There lay in ruins the scrap-heap of broken pacts and dishonoured agreements as to proposals for Regional Councils, District Councils, Provincial Councils, Provincial/Regional Councils, District/Provincial Councils - all tentative concepts and toothless bodies with no genuine devolved powers of decentralization.
And the surprising truth is that each of these at their different times of proposal was found to be acceptable to the then political leadership of the Tamil Congress and the Federal Party to solve the national question, so as to keep the peace and the united Sri Lankan polity intact, if only they could be established by the Sinhalese Governments.
As to whether these empty shells would have satisfied the legitimate political aspirations of the Tamil people in terms of their alienated condition was never the concern of the Tamil political leadership. These agreements speak a lot for the conservative character of the Tamil political leadership, the type of politics they were engaged in and the predicament in which they found themselves in as the self-styled "saviours" of the Tamil people of that by-gone age.
In whatever form they took shape and by whatever name they were called, they were anathema to the Sinhalese supremacist lobby, which had established the new status quo and which found in every one of them a sinister scheme to divide up the country, and so they all naturally died still-born, just like Dudley Senanayake's 1968 District Councils White Paper proposals.
It is now necessary to briefly sketch the birth, growth and maturity of the Tamil Eelam demand in the over 30-year historical process of the Sri Lanka Government-Tamil conflict.
The Tamil Eelam concept first came into political currency in 1959, when in the aftermath of the 'Sinhala-only' official language law of 1956, the 1958 abrogation of the 'Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact', the Sinhalese riots of 1958, the 'Emergency-1958', the stationing of a permanent army unit in Jaffna and the detention and incarceration of all Tamil F.P. M.P.s in 1958, C. Suntheralingam M.P. for Vavuniya formed the Eela Tamil Ottrumai Munnani (Unity Front of Eelam Tamils) and called for a 'Eela Tamil struggle for independence'. In a booklet, published the same year, Suntheralingam wrote:
Suntheralingam's call for struggle for the independence of Eelam made in 1959, did not strike any responsive note or popular interest among the Tamils in the 'sixties. It came into public focus when a feeling of irrevocable end of the road came into the minds of the Tamils when the United Front government under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in 1972 repealed the independence constitution and with it the entrenched and inviolate section 29 anti-discriminatory safeguards, which the Privy Council in 1964 stated was "the solemn balance of rights between the citizens of Ceylon, the fundamental condition on which inter se they accepted the constitution and are therefore unalterable under the constitution."
The Republican constitution, which replaced the independence constitution consolidated in constitutional provisions all the gains the Sinhala-Buddhists have made in asserting their supremacy and so excluding the Tamils from any power sharing and emphasized the rejection of Tamil demands for federal autonomy, regional devolution of powers, Tamil as the official language of north and east, in these provisions:
To underscore the rejection of the Republican constitution by the Tamils and in response to the mounting clamour from them to in back Tamil equality or withdraw from the unitary state, Chelvanayakam, the F.P. leader resigned his seat in the House and demanded a by-election to test the acceptability of the new constitution by the Tamil people. On winning the by-election held more than two years later, Chelvanayakam declared:
With Prime Minister Bandaranaike and her United Front Ministers constitutionally defining the exclusion and separateness of the Tamil people and holding them subjugated in their won Tamil territory by the use of coercive force, Tamil politics became radicalised by the intervention of the Young Tamils who suffered incarceration and torture and had been released from police detention without any charges. Amidst the fast growing situation of insecurity for the Tamils, the Tamil political leadership formed the Tamil United Liberation Front (T.U.L.F.) in 1976, and at its inaugural convention, presided over by Chelvanayakam resolved to restore and reconstitute the state of Tamil Eelam. Their resolution stated:
At the 1977 general election, the T.U.L.F. went to the Tamil people seeking a mandate from them to establish an independent State of Tamil Eelam. Its election manifesto stated to the Tamil people:
The Tamil people voted in their thousands in the 1977 election and returned 17 TULF Members throughout the north and east. They voted for them primarily as their representatives to the promised proposed National Assembly of Tamil Eelam, which would draft a constitution and "establish the independence of the Tamil Eelam."
When the past determinations have brought about the present oppressive system, the future is certainly not gong to be within the past or present. In the face of early repression, the Liberation Tiger movement was born to resist that repression, and as state repression took genocidal proportions the Tiger guerrilla strategy was supplanted by the Tiger regular army to defend the Tamil people and their homelands and achieve Tamil freedom.
And, today everyone knows that after the 24 November 1990 fall of the strongly fortified Sri Lankan army camp at Mankulam, the Liberation Tigers are in virtual control of the north from the Sinhalese-Tamil border town of Vavuniya with the exception of the Sri Lanka army garrison camps at Palaly, Kayts and Mannar, where battles continue to rage for Tiger control.
It has clearly become the duty of the international community to intercede and make the Sri Lanka government see the justice of the cause of the Tamil people to secede for self-government because they have not government to promote, protect and safeguard life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. The situation of the Tamil people is one of open and blatant denial of human rights and human dignity. There is no greater question of human rights than that of the imprisoned Tamil people of Sri Lanka.
The UN International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (G.A. Resolution 2106 of 1966) defines "racial discrimination" as any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, descent, colour, or national or ethnic which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life."
The UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (G.A.Resolution 1514 of 1960) states that
The Declaration stated:
The UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (G.A. Resolution 2200 of 1966, ratified by the Sri Lanka government in June 1980) in Article 1 states:
The Tamils are seeking precisely this right to self-determination to which they are entitled according to this UN Covenant, which the Sri Lanka government by ratifying has agreed to promote its realization.
The UN Declaration on the International Status of "Peoples" and their Right of Self-Determination (G.A. Resolution 2625 of 1970) states: "The establishment of a sovereign independent state, the free association or integration with an independent state or the emergence into any other political status freely determined by the people constitute modes of implementing the right of self- determination by that people".
The Sri Lanka government has not simply been against but openly oppressive of the Tamil people, as a nation and its political, economic and ethno-cultural interest and advancement. As such the Sri Lanka Tamils have no state and are seeking to create their own sovereign state of Eelam in their own homelands based on their right to self-determination. They proudly announced their desire for self-determination at the 1977 general election and their political right and their resolve for self- determination must be recognized and supported by the UN and Member States.
The Tamil freedom fighters today assert and bear arms in pursuance of their internationally recognized right to self- determination. In practical terms, what is now necessary is a constitutional formula for secession. In this, the Tamil people need the help of the international community, as the oppressor does not recognize its own international obligations. Otherwise, the state of international relations would be seen to one of paralysis and bankruptcy, the inaction dictated by out-dated cliches of 'internal affairs', 'territorial integrity', 'national unity', etc.
To avoid further unnecessary violence, turmoil and loss of lives, on both sides, it is the right and the duty of the UN and Member-States, to intervene in recognition of their own obligations and the right of the Tamil people to self- determination. Secession today to the Tamil people is not a matter of choice but one of ineluctable necessity for Tamil national self-preservation.
There can be no compromise with the oppressors, and the struggle, otherwise would be won at high human cost. Professor Suzuki states: " Territorial separation when demanded by cohesive groups with a strong sense of separate identity is essential for human dignity." (Suzuki, Self- determination and World Public Order, 16 Va. Journal of International Law, 779-862 (1976)
The UN Declaration on the Principles of Equal Rights and Self- Determination (G.A. Resolution 2625 of 1970) gives the right of self-determination to peoples within existing independent states when government fail to "conduct themselves in compliance with the principles of equal rights" and when the state does not "represent the whole of the people belonging to the territory without distinction as to race, creed or colour."
Internal violence has many a time threatened international peace and it must be avoided by the timely intervention of the international community. Henkin, Pugh, Schachter and Smit, the eminent American professors, in their treatise on INTERNATIONAL LAW set down the present practice of States in regard to demand for secession:
Professor Robert Jackson of All Souls College, Oxford, in his study of South-Asian Crisis (Bangla Desh) of 1971, concluded with these words:
The particular justifiable circumstance of the Tamil peoples separationist demand is that it developed out of the dynamic of national oppression and resistance and has generated its own momentum and its perceived solution. It is a national liberation sui generis and in the words of David Selbourne of Ruskin College, Oxford, it is "a true national question, if ever there was one."
There is need for enlightened and progressive realization that self-determination necessarily involves attack on existing union, territorial unity and state sovereignty. But that is for the higher cause of human liberation, human rights and human dignity. The existing state structure cannot be regarded or defended as permanent and immutable in the face of internal colonialism, racial subjugation, genocidal repression, organized programs and massacres of a nation of people.
The liberation force of Tamil separatism seeks to achieve for the oppressed and enslaved Tamil people what liberation movements the world over achieved for their people from overseas colonialism. It can be furthered by early recognition and support of Tamil peoples right to secede on the basis of self-determination to establish the state of Tamil Eelam in their own homelands of the north and east Sri Lanka in order to promote, protect and safeguard their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.