The Deception Of Self-Determination In Sri Lanka – OpEd


By Shenali Waduge

In 1945 there were just 55 nations states in the world. 51 years later by 1996 there were 185 nation states. Countries have certainly split and become separated. Much of these “separations” have resulted from decolonization which have evolved to create greater issues that “independent” nations have to deal with. Self-determination as a concept has gained much international attention though very few have shown concern or raised the need to properly define it and clearly demarcate its legality. Ambiguities have allowed countries to remain in conflict and for separatist movements to exist while also encouraging politicians to use self-determination as a key political tool to maximize ethnic votes and keep them in power. It is time for these ambiguities to be cleared.

Selective Self-Determination

It is as a result of ambiguities that self-determination bids prevail and while some countries like Kosovo become independent others more deserving remain in stalemate situations.

The West is following the strategy of promoting federal and confederal solutions to make nations function according to their bidding. Self-determination bids are naturally great opportunities for external forces to uses these conflicts as pressure points upon Governments which is clearly seen in the manner that Western nations have been supporting, intervening and financially assisting these separatist movements. Looking back at separatist movements there is without a doubt that all of them have sprung from a handful of troublemakers, agitators gaining a wider audience which combined with the economic advantage have fashioned themselves with the help of global media into powerful movements.

More often than not the self-determination bids are towards a mono-ethnic state that is keen on owning a territory despite the fact that their ethnic groups are scattered outside of the enclave.

There are 20m Kurds who live throughout different nations but without a separate state to call their own. Most Kurds live in Turkey, Iraq and Iran. It was the PKK or Kurdistan Workers Party formed in 1970 that demanded independence for Kurds from Turkey. The Kurds are themselves divided into clans and groups and speak different dialects.

There are over 65m Tamils in the world – they too live without a separate state but the majority live in India and less than 1.5m in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

The predicament for the Kurds and the Tamil people is the same. Just as all Kurds do not like the PKK, all Tamils do not like either the LTTE or the TNA. However, the Kurds and the Tamil people have supported the PKK and LTTE/TNA not because of any ideology but because they belong to their ethnic group.

The PKK originally demanded a separate state but has now modified to a federal state with autonomy for Kurds and the Turks refuse to accept this on the grounds that it is only a stepping stone towards their ultimate goal. We see the same scenario in TNA’s demand for federalism and insistence on implementation of the 13th amendment. With LTTE now no more it is the TNA that is seen politically spearheading the separatist drive. The only additional scenario is India’s own involvement vis a vis India’s gameplan to tag along with the federal solution and eventually to annex Sri Lanka to India if the situation turns beyond the level of tolerance.

Just as many are of the view that the Kurds would be far worse if they seceded – the Tamils themselves are likely to suffer the same fate. They cannot deny how much they suffered from the LTTE. This applies not to the Tamils living outside LTTE areas for it was they who benefitted by the LTTE.

The conflict over the territories of Jammu and Kashmir including Gilgit and Ladakh has left India and Pakistan in constant battle since 1947. Jammu and Kashmir is divided along a Line of Control. Kashmir is the only state in India with majority Muslims. Pakistan continues to question the legitimacy of Kashmir’s accession to India. Kashmir is the only state that was constitutionally guaranteed autonomy and it has its own constitution though India continues to govern via its Central Government ignoring its autonomy rights. Yet Kashmiris however are seeking independence from India or accession to Pakistan while India is accusing Pakistan of aiding the insurgents. Pakistan however is accusing India of vast human rights abuses with loss of lives leading to thousands.

India’s handling of Punjab is no different. The issue in Punjab revolves around access to water resources. Kashmir’s problem is about political autonomy for Kashmiris. Pakistan insists on implementing the UN resolution now over 45 years old calling for a plebiscite in Kashmir which India refuses to accept.

India’s poor handling of minorities extends to other areas of India – Assam, Gurkhas in West Bengal, Naxalites, Tamil Nadu are all festering volcanoes for India.

Khalistan movement does not represent all Sikhs, Afrikaner homeland does not represent all Africaners, and LTTE or TNA does not represent all Tamils.

Secession does not necessarily solve any problem.

Often issues that are said to highlight oppression and discrimination are used to push greater designs by external forces that claim to be spearheading “freedom” drives. In the case of Tibet too before going to weigh the manner China has been dealing with Tibet, we need to remember that CIA began training Tibetans to fight the Chinese as far back as 1950s. The US was even financially supporting Tibetan guerillas by establishing a base in Mustang area of Nepal.

In other words so long as these external forces consider countries of geopolitical interests they would use locals to start drives such as “self-determination” for it would serve their greater plan to eventually take over these new territories and use to their advantage.

However, what must be taken to consideration at all times is that all separatist movements are not without agendas wherein the ethnic card is often put forward merely to usurp political power amongst the minority masses of the ethnic group that these leaders are part of since without the ethnic tag their political careers would fall to pieces. Self-determination to be considered at all must always take the interests of the people and not the welfare of the politicians and their political future.

Whereas devolution has succeeded in developed Western Europe (Spain, France & UK) it does not mean the same blueprint can succeed elsewhere. These western nations have not been colonized and it is important to always remember that the countries that are currently facing separatist chants all have been colonized and carry the legacies of colonial biases and manipulations. All these nations have despite being decolonized and given independence, become entrapped by international monetary institutes that is stifling their economic rise and taking them further into debt traps.

Secession based on self-determination creates further complications by once again rearranging ethnic groups into majorities and minorities and completely confuses the global village concept of multi-ethnic societies.

Analysing the series of secessionist movements taking place throughout the world it is not difficult to conclude that behind every secessionist effort there is another nation or nations backing the separation. It is because of these behind the scenes attempts either through financial, supply of arms or providing training that has led the countries that are targeted to be divided to be cautious and doubt every move and statement made. Ulterior motives behind these separatist movements emerge when international community push strongly for some self-determination bids while totally ignoring more honest attempts.

It is as a result of these contradictions that make nations reluctant to accept self-determination as any solution.

Whatever the arguments secession should be viewed as the last resort and should be made as difficult and undesirable as possible.

The nation state system has been around for over 400 years – the use of “human rights” as a phrase and as a covenant is just over a few decades therefore it is more than important to see what human rights actually is, what it is meant for and for whom and what type of discriminations are acceptable and what are not for often the accusers themselves are the worst abusers!

UN and Self-Determination

The notion of right to self-determination is featured in the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act yet that RIGHT remains unambiguous. UN continues to ignore the need to define self-determination just as it has been ignoring to define terrorism. Despite the controversy around self-determination the UN continues to reaffirm the people’s right to “take legitimate action” to realize this right. Yet the key factor remains that this right must be exercised without prejudice to the territorial integrity of UN member states. This was reiterated in the UN 50 declaration.

Self-determination according to the UN Charter was meant to apply to member states and not to peoples or groups and that determination was based on territory, not ethnicity or nationality. However, on the grounds of its ambiguous wording the “right to self-determination” has been usurped by ethnic groups. Which necessitates the urgent need for the UN to address the ambiguities to self-determination bids by ethnic groups and external forces.

Nevertheless, over the years the UN has manipulated the wordings which unless picked up and questioned ends up becoming accepted norm. This was the case in 1995 when the UN declared that “through the process of decolonization, 100m human beings had been assured the ability to exercise the fundamental right to self-determination”. Though the US had objected that self-determination was not a “fundamental” right it did not push to correct the language obviously since it allowed certain freedoms for the US to explore.

It is without a doubt that the West and the UN approach the subject of self-determination in an ad-hoc manner especially when secession becomes detrimental for their self-interests while they encourage self-determination also for their self-interest. A good example is the US opposing all Resolutions on Palestine. Such an approach is unhealthy and constitutes lack of good-will and generates fear syndromes amongst less-powerful nations which are often targets of self-determination bids.

It was US President Woodrow Wilson that promoted the idea of self-determination in post world war 1 which advocates the right of people to choose its own form of government (internal self-determination), right of people to be free from other rule (external self-determination) and continuous consent of the governed through democratic governance. It was often the US that had a say in which country was to be given self-determination – The Treaty of Versailles took land on the Baltic coast which Germany gained from Russia and created the nation states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Ukraine was formed again from land Germany gained from Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Czechoslovakia was created by the Treaty of Saint Germain, from land in the old Austrian empire. Thus 9 nation states were set up (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary and Yugoslavia). The Treaty of Neuilly in 1919 took areas from Bulgaria and gave to Greece, Yugoslavia and Romania. However Germany was not allowed to seek self-determination as (Germany, Bulgaria and Turkey were defeated powers)

Self-determination is nothing but a political concept which is why it can never hold proper definition in international law and the ambiguities are prevailed in Article 1, Article 55, Article 73, Article 76. From all this jargon it is safe to conclude that the UN is totally clueless as to what constitutes “people” and has scant paid attention to deriving a definition to self-determination allowing vested individuals, organizations and even governments to use the word randomly as they see fit.

It was the Special Rapporteur of the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities” who probably to place the importance of his area of expertise proposed the inclusion of “minority” – those being nationals of a state possessing “ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics” differing from the rest of the population.

What needs to be essentially understood is that self-determination movements are not all related to human rights or the denial of such. Human rights is often misused to push for self-determination as secessionist movements enjoy using international terminology to win over the international community towards their goals. It is the inability of the UN to come up with a concrete mechanism against human rights abusers whether they are from the First World or Developing Nations that has led to misusing human rights and mixing it with ethnic-based aspirations promoting internal self-determination.

Self-determination in international law is basically one that pursues a “collective interest”. The fundamental question is how “unanimous” is this collective interest and what assurance does self-determination give that it will resolves the bigger issues outside of the territorial “independence” the self-determination propagandists vie for?

Tamil National Alliance/LTTE call for self-determination

Sri Lanka has been at the center of an international propaganda to create a separate Eelaam state.

The world is obviously unaware that the politicians espousing to live under a mono-ethnic enclave called their own Eelaam have never been residing in this area for over 30 years and feared going to the area for their dear life when the self-appointed Tamil representatives – the LTTE prevailed.

These Tamil politicians better known as the TNA live in and around Colombo guarded by Sinhala body guards provided by the State and continue to throughout thirty years bemoan life of discrimination by the Sinhalese (when they would have easily left to live amongst their own – the LTTE). Now anyone listening to the TNA must be sensible enough to demand why the TNA did not choose to live in the North amongst their very own? Why would they be the mouthpiece of the LTTE yet keep away from LTTE controlled areas? Why did these TNA MPs fear to go to the North when they are supposed to be promoting a Tamil Eelaam for Tamils to live without FEAR? Do the Sinhalese keep these TNA MPs chained to their homes in Colombo that they could not travel to the North during the hayday of the LTTE? Therefore, when listening to the TNA rants it is now time for listeners to start asking the TNA to stop their gibberish and stop trying to fool the Tamil people any more than what they have done.

Internal Self-determination calls by the TNA is just for a handful seeking to secure their own political security amongst their own people by using the Tamil canard to emotionally entice people to accept an area demarcated as Eelaam wherein caste and class will continue to prevail and ordinary Tamils will return to the stone ages.

Self-determination is almost always fixated with territory which becomes far more important than other issues. Given that territory always get precedence how would these self-determination proponents expect to solve age-old barriers like caste and class which is why they wish to have an area called their own to rule their own people?

How can self-determination stop issues like rape, murder, arson, sexual violence, gender discrimination etc…what guarantees can the TNA give?

The question we next ask is who is to determine whether the minority group has been “discriminated” against in terms of culture, language etc and who is to decide and on what grounds. How is the numerical quantum to determine the discrimination to be arrived at or is it left to the propaganda channels to bloat these “discriminations” and does that suffice to really show the true picture? In a country like South Africa during the apartheid the majority Blacks were ruled by the minority Whites – there was no requirements for numbers to determine the truth. This is not the case in most of the self-determination bids that are taking place – Tamil Eelaam especially.

It is a relief that the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, especially Article 27 does not provide for the right of secession simply to protect the minority status. These are things to be solved politically and not by separation. This is why the Eelaam lobbyists are now going behind the Federal Solution which is the Plan B to secessionism.

The Government of Sri Lanka and its politicians may well do to remember that the UN General Assembly Resolution 1541 (XV) clearly states that a minority who are “geographically separate” and who are “distinct ethnically and culturally” and who have been placed in a position of subordination may have a right to secede. Tamils in Sri Lanka have nothing to complain over as they are holding public and private sector jobs, Tamils living amongst Sinhalese, Tamils free to educate their children, work anywhere they please, own property and land wherever they please and Tamils given a place in the national flag, in public events etc..There is no constitutional denial of political, linguistic, cultural or religious rights against Tamils. Their issues are nothing exclusively suffered by only Tamils, in fact the majority Sinhalese will have enough and more complaints against the State for its inefficiencies.

A good example to recall is the Rhodesian Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 where the minority attempted to discriminate against the majority. Most Sinhalese would not hesitate to say that they feel that it is the majority Sinhalese (especially the Buddhists) that are being always neglected. The Tamil issue has been blown out of proportion so much that even Governments in order to gain international merit ends up only catering to the needs of the minority allocating all government funds to minority development. It is something the Government cannot deny as well. Development in the present North of Sri Lanka did not happen because LTTE controlled these areas for 3 decades. Despite making USD300 a year not a penny did LTTE or its Diaspora spend on making a school, a hospital, or even a road….now with LTTE no more it is Sri Lanka that is taking blame for the lack of development and even the people don’t seem to want to tell the true picture!

The Tamil political parties vying for a separate Eelaam aware that they do not have any argument to separate on the grounds of exclusive discrimination are using examples of historic Tamil homelands as a basis to argue for a federal solution whereas it is clear that over 2/3 Tamils presently live outside this supposed “Tamil enclave”. What we can safely conclude is that the Tamil Eelaam lobbyists can wail and rant but international law does not provide sufficient grounds for any of their arguments to constitute a separate State. Therefore, the separate state claims are simply a maneuver to keep the officials off track while they argue the case for a federal solution which becomes a stepping stone to unilaterally declaring independence. A good example is how Katanga attempted to separate from Congo but failed to receive international acknowledgement.

However, that scenario cannot be contemplated in Sri Lanka’s case as we are aware that India is all the while attempting to engulf Sri Lanka into India using all avenues possible and Sri Lanka’s leaders have been too timid to protect the sovereignty of the Island nation. With each day the country is being cut into pieces and given over to India and how it will be returned is a good question.

What is noteworthy is that the founding fathers of the right to self-determination used the right to achieve their own freedom while preventing others from asserting the same right. Essentially, what self-determination for powerful nations is nothing other than the next stage for territorial imperialism.

What is clear is that with each day we are being inundated with laws, rules, regulations often conflicting with one another but there is nothing significant that can be said of man’s treatment towards another. In fact over the years the indifferences have far exceeded and despite numerous international and local bodies promoting all types of peace, unity, reconciliation have had little outcome locally or internationally. The conflicts are unprecedented and cover everything under the sun and there is little hope that any of these conflicts will see an end not helped in the least by these organizations supposed to be ending conflicts.

What must not be forgotten at all times is that the nation state remains the primary unit in the world order which means it is imperative that nation states should be preserved. If states are divided and divided and divided we are likely to face bigger problems. It is when external nations involve themselves pressing for self-determination and humiliating elected governments that confusion sets in leading to greater disharmony that what actually existed. It is no exaggeration that the roars for upholding human rights becomes relevant to ONLY those countries that the US and its friends target.

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