By Usha Sri-Skanda-Rajah
A challenge was thrown at me to write in 250 words maximum, why the Tamils of Eelam of the island of Sri Lanka deserve Self-determination. It was not hard to do.
Self-determination and its Emotional and Political Connection to Tamils
In 250 words it was done and is given here later in this article. But before that a brief introduction, to the right to Self-determination and its emotional and political connection to the Tamils of Eelam and a summary of the International Law that upholds the principle, is appropriate as a natural progression to the final 250 word piece.
Cry for Tamil Eelam a Cry for Self-determination against Oppression and Violence
Writing why Tamils deserve Self-determination was in fact not hard to do; the words just flowed in an unbroken stream from within where the head meets the heart, because it’s a fundamental principle upon which the Tamils of Eelam base their cry for Tamil Eelam; it is what they dream about; are passionate about; protested peacefully about, against the early years of willful Sinhala oppression; using Gandhian inspired Satyagraha, to no avail, as was evident in Tamil non-violent protests being always violently crushed by the heavy hand of the then Ceylon army; coming into occupation of the North and East of Sri Lanka, the traditional homeland of the Tamils of Eelam on 10, June 1958; and sadly staying put to this day.
The Metamorphosis from Satyagraha to Armed Resistance
The Tamil separatist struggle based on Self-determination, metamorphosed from a non-violent one, into an armed resistance, spearheaded by the LTTE, after all peaceful means were exhausted; and after nearly 28 years of unrelenting oppression beginning with the disenfranchisement of Indian hill country Tamils in 1949, who are the backbone of Ceylon’s world renowned Tea industry, the LTTE committed to preserving the territorial integrity of Tamil Eelam, the national identity of Tamils and their right to Self-determination.
Regrettable Tragic Events
Lasting more than 30 years, the LTTE resisted the Sri Lankan army occupation of Tamil areas and the kind of ‘State Terrorism’ inflicted against Tamils and fought tooth and nail against it. Practicing ‘guerilla’ warfare and some unconventional methods such as on a few occasions resorting to suicide bombing that was indefensible, the LTTE successfully wrested control of nearly 70% of Tamil Eelam in wars they fought valiantly to defend the homeland and ran a ‘defacto’/ de jure state in the Vanni. The unfortunate assassination of Rajiv Gandhi alleged to having been carried out by the LTTE, the regrettable expulsion of the Muslims from the North due to the belief that they formed a fifth column, the failure of the peace talks despite the LTTE’s willingness to suspend its separatist agenda to a federal system, the defection of renegade Karuna and the banning of the LTTE as a ‘terrorist’ organisation, providing succour to the enemy, could be described as tragic events in the Tamil national struggle for Self-determination; and last but not the least the human cost.
Acts of Genocide against Tamils of Eelam
The weakening of the LTTE set the stage for a Sri Lankan army onslaught in the final months, resulting in the brutal massacre of Tamils of Eelam that had all the markings of genocidal acts engineered by the Rajapaksa regime and carried out by the Sri Lankan army.
The armed resistance to Sinhala state subjugation of Tamils and ‘State Terrorism’ against them ended when the LTTE was decimated and its leaders executed and an unknown number of Tamils of Eelam estimated between 40,000 to 146,679 perishing due to the use of cluster bombs and chemical weapons and due to heavy artillery shelling by the Sri Lankan army; the latter number in the estimated civilian casualty figures mentioned being the number still unaccounted for according to Bishop Rayappu Joseph who has the documentary evidence to prove it.
Militarisation of Tamil Eelam
The infamous, genocidal Sri Lankan army, now much more than 100,000 strong in the North and East alone, building cantonments and bases everywhere in Tamil Eelam are there to stay, firmly entrenched in Tamil territory, appointed as governors in Tamil districts while grabbing the land of Tamils of Eelam and interfering in every aspect of their lives.
Nirupama Subramanian in her article for The Hindu: Sri Lankan Army still has vast presence in North and East’ decries the huge presence of the Sri Lankan army as hampering reconciliation: “A Sri Lankan division is smaller than that of most other armies, and has between 6,000 and 7,000 soldiers. Taking the lower number, that would mean that 85,000-86,000 soldiers are at present in the North and East. This number does not include the separate deployment of a Task Force in the East, and of the Navy and the Air Force. The continued military presence in Tamil areas is viewed as hampering post-conflict ethnic reconciliation.
“The Army is entirely Sinhalese, and the people of the North are almost entirely Tamil,” Nirupama postulated, adding the voice of who, she said, was a former Indian Army officer, Colonel (retd.) R. Hariharan who was with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka who said “the manner in which the troops were spread out in the entire North and East was suggestive more of an Army in ‘operational readiness’ than in post-conflict repose.”
Cheated of the Right to Self-determination at Independence
Self-determination has always been the aspiration of Tamils, the cornerstone of their vision for a free Tamil Eelam; the raison d’être that justifies their claim to self rule.
The Tamils were cheated; when Tamils signed up to the Soulbury Constitution of 1947 which proclaimed a unitary state at independence in 1948, they were nailed; stripped of their right to Self-determination and from then on, were virtually at the mercy of Sinhala majoritarian governments whose main pre-occupation was to strangle the Tamils through legislative enactments and policies that were discriminatory.
What followed from their cardinal error in signing the Soulbury Constitution was betrayal after betrayal, broken promises after broken promises, the Tamils exposing themselves to Sinhala hegemony of the worst kind. Several pacts with successive Sinhala majoritarian governments were broken. The BC Pact of 1957 between Sinhala Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranayake and Federal party leader S J V Chelvanayagam for limited regional autonomy was broken under vehement opposition from Sinhala ultra nationalist extremists encouraged by fundamentalist monks one of whom assassinated Bandaranayake in 1959.
Vaddukoddai Resolution: A Fundamental Statement on Self- determination
In 1976, the Tamils made a fundamental statement, claiming their inherent right to Self-determination by way of a resolution that was unanimously adopted at the 1st National Convention of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) held at Pannakam, Vaddukoddai on May 15, 1976 – presided over by Mr. S J V Chelvanayagam QC MP: “This convention resolves that restoration and reconstitution of the free, sovereign, secular, socialist State of Tamil Eelam, based on the right of Self-determination inherent in every nation has become inevitable in order to safeguard the very existence of the Tamil nation.” The fact that the TULF won an overwhelming mandate from the Tamil electorate in the 1977 general elections was an endorsement of the Tamil right to Self-determination. This was the last time Tamils of Eelam were able to freely express their wish in a democratically conducted poll.
Tamils in their struggle for Self-determination had to endure Sinhala wrath that manifested in ‘State Terrorism’. Any opposition to Sinhala oppression and marginalization of Tamils, in their language being relegated to 2nd class and their educational and employment prospects stifled, was met with immediate repercussions resulting in their persecution; in state sponsored violence against them and in the destruction of their properties in major pogroms in 1956, 1958, 1977 and 1983. Although the 1983 pogrom was said to have been triggered off by the ambush killing by the LTTE of 13 soldiers belonging to an intimidating and occupying Sinhala army in Jaffna, an island wide pogrom was already planned by the J R Jayawardene regime and was in the works and waiting to happen, complete with voter’s lists to help Sinhala thugs identify Tamil homes and businesses in Colombo and other parts. The 1981 burning of the Jaffna Public Library “one of the biggest in Asia, carrying 97,000 books and ancient manuscripts is one of the most violent examples of ethnic biblioclasm of the 20th century.” : (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_burning)
The burning of the Jaffna library was an act of tyranny against a people, prompting Virginia a Leary a Jurist, in a report after a mission to Sri Lanka to speak out, expressing outrage at what happened: “Imagine a rowdy band of reserve policemen being brought all the way from the south to the Tamil capital city of Jaffna, and in the unusual presence of two Cabinet Ministers, setting fire to the biggest cultural possession of the Tamils – the Public Library housing 95,000 volumes, some of them rare manuscripts…. and for Nancy Maury an author, in ‘The state Against the Tamils in Sri Lanka – Racism and the Authoritarian State’ to say this: “With several high ranking Sinhalese security officers and two cabinet ministers, Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake (both self confessed Sinhala supremacists), present in the town (Jaffna), uniformed security men and plainclothes thugs carried out some well organized acts of destruction. They burned to the ground certain chosen targets – including the Jaffna Public Library, with its 95,000 volumes and priceless manuscripts, a Hindu temple, the office and machinery of the independent Tamil daily newspaper Eelanadu…”
Devolution, 13th Amendment and Eastern PC Elections
Up to this day no political solution recognizing the right of Tamils of Eelam to Self-determination has been forth coming, most Sinhala politicians hating the word because it involves at the least a federal arrangement for the Tamils with maximum devolution as an option to separation.
The 13th amendment does not come close to meeting the criteria for Self-determination. Without police and land powers and functioning under the control of a powerful despotic executive presidency, the system of provincial councils which India is trying to ram down the throats of the Tamils of Eelam, as a devolution package, it must understand, will never satisfy the Tamil penchant for Self-determination.
The Eastern Provincial Council Elections have shown how easily politicians can kowtow for positions and how political patronage dictates outcomes: The manner in which Rajapakse can twist Rauff Hakkeem round his finger to form an alliance with the Muslim Congress to run the Eastern Provincial Council so that Hakkeem could hold on to his ministerial post, is a case in point.
The Eastern PC Elections have also shown that the Tamils of Eelam will be in eternal opposition, beholden to Sinhala masters and left to pick up the scraps that they throw at us. To think that if the Eastern PC Elections was ‘free and fair’, the TNA “would have come first,” is an eye-opener. The TNA leader Mr. Sampanthan’s statement after meeting the President reveals the hopeless position the Tamils are in and is indicative of what future elections would be like if safeguards are not put in place. If brief power cuts can decide the fate of the elections, and become a factor between victory and defeat, it begs the question as to why international observers and media were not present at all. When the Rajapaksa regime uses all its resources to corrupt the democratic process, harassing and threatening the TNA candidates to “cross over to the government,” promising material incentives there is very little Tamils could expect by way of recourse.
International Bill of Rights and Self-determination
The right to Self-determination that the Tamils of Eelam are seeking is a right recognized in international law and is mentioned as a key component in many United Nations Treaties and Declarations.
The ‘Committee of 100 for Tibet’ has compiled it for easy reference and is given here: “Self-determination is recognized as a right of all peoples in the United Nations Charter, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and known collectively as the International Bill of Human Rights. The right is also recognized as a right of indigenous people in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP).”
Sri Lanka has been a signatory to all UN Treaties and Declarations mentioned and has ratified the ICCPR and ICESCR. It voted yes to the DRIP when it first was adopted, before the US and Canada who opposed it but signed it much later.
Why Tamils of Eelam deserve Self-determination in 250 words:
Self-determination would mean as a nation, we can become the architects of our own destiny and herald a new era of freedom and self governance. We can then put Tamil Eelam first; put the people first; their security, prosperity and happiness first. It boils down to having the freedom to determine our affairs and not be dictated to by another nation. Taking a leaf from Abe Lincoln, at last we can say with certainty that ours will truly be “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.” It will free us from enslavement and subjugation: from a Sinhala dictatorship devoid of checks and balances that has no mandate to rule over us; from strangulation by Sinhala majoritarian parliaments known to legislate in its interest not in ours; from a 100,000 strong Sinhala army of occupation; from diminishing boundaries due to forced Sinhala settlements intended to change the demography; from systematic genocide: the UN convention defines it as acts (killing …or causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction…) committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial..group. At last we shall have control over our resources and our finances, enabling us to determine our own taxes, negotiate our own contracts and foreign investment deals and to develop our economy with our people in mind, giving us the best opportunities to realize our own potential.
Life and Liberty – Thomas Jefferson
It is fitting at the end of this essay on “Why Tamils of Eelam deserve Self-determination” to finish with a quotation from Thomas Jefferson, the ‘Founding Father’ of the ‘American Revolution’, the principle author of the ‘Declaration of Independence’ and the 3rd President of the United States of America: “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty; the hand of force may destroy but never dis-join.”
Notes: Provisions in UN Treaties and Declarations for the right to Self-determination:
The ‘Committee of 100 for Tibet in it compilation has noted thus about the provisions of the Treaties and Declarations that articulates very well the concept of Self-determination:
The United Nations Charter of 1945 provides for the right of self-determination stating one of the purposes of the United Nations is “to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.”
The Universal Declaration of Human rights recognizes “that everyone has the right to a nationality and that no one should be arbitrarily deprived of a nationality or denied the right to change nationality.” The UDHR also recognizes the right of everyone to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and expression including the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) multilateral treaty with two optional protocols, commits its parties to respect the civil and political rights of individuals, including the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, electoral rights and rights to due process and a fair trial.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) multilateral treaty commits its parties to work toward the granting of economic, social, and cultural rights to individuals, including labour rights and rights to health, education, and an adequate standard of living.
Article 1 of both the ICCPR and the ICESCR reads:
1. 1. All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
2. 2. All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.
3. 3. The States Parties to the present Covenant, including those having responsibility for the administration of Non-Self-Governing and Trust Territories, shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations.
Self-determination is also recognized as a right of indigenous peoples in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007. The declaration sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues. Specifically, it “emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions, and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations”, “prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples”, and “promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them and their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development”.
Usha Sri-Skanda-Rajah, Senator TGTE
The views expressed are the author’s own.
This article appeared in The Sri Lanka Guardian and is reprinted with permission.