all towns are
one, all men our kin.
|Home||Trans State Nation||Tamil Eelam||Beyond Tamil Nation||Comments||Search|
An Overview - Nadesan Satyendra
Early Political History
The island known to Tamils as Eelam (and known under British rule as Ceylon and under Sinhala rule as Sri Lanka) is about 25,000 square miles in extent, situated about twenty miles from the southern extremity of the Indian sub - continent.
About one fifth of the island's population of 17 million, are Tamils and somewhat less than three quarters are Sinhalese. The Tamils reside largely in the north and the east and on the plantations in the central hills, whilst the Sinhalese reside in the south, west and in the centre as well. The area of the Tamil homeland in the north-east is around 7,500 square miles. A large number of Tamils are Hindus, some are Christians and the overwhelming majority of the Sinhala people are Buddhists.
The Tamils are an ancient people. Their history had its beginnings in the rich alluvial plains near the southern extremity of peninsular India which then included the land mass known as the island of Sri Lanka today. The plant and animal life (including the presence of elephants) in the island evidence the earlier land connection with the Indian sub continent. So too do satellite photographs which show the submerged 'land bridge' between Dhanuskodi in the south east of the sub-continent and Mannar in the north west of the island. It is estimated that it was during the period 6000 B.C. to 3000 B.C. that the island separated from the Indian sub continent - and that too by a narrow strip of shallow water.
The Sinhala people trace their origins in the island to the arrival of Prince Vijaya from India, around 500 B.C. and the Mahavamsa, the Sinhala chronicle of a later period (6th Century A.D.) records that Prince Vijaya arrived on the island on the same day that the Buddha attained Enlightenment in India. Here, the words of the Sinhala historian and Cambridge scholar, Paul Peiris represent an influential and common sense point of view:
The early political history of the people of Eelam, in the centuries before the advent of the European powers, is largely a chronicle of the rise and fall of individual kingdoms. When the Portuguese landed on the island in 1505 there was not one but three kingdoms viz the Tamil Jaffna Kingdom, the Sinhala Kotte Kingdom and the Sinhala Kandyan Kingdom.
The Jaffna Kingdom was captured by the Portuguese when the king of Jaffna was defeated in 1619. The Portuguese ruled the Jaffna Kingdom from 1619 to 1658. The Dutch who captured the Jaffna Kingdom from the Portuguese ruled till 1795 and the British till 1948.
Even when the island was ruled by the Portuguese and the Dutch, the Tamil homeland in the North and the East was administered as an entity separate from the rest of the country. In 1833, the British amalgamated the north and east with the rest of the island for administrative convenience.
With the departure of the British in 1948, the re emergence of a separate Tamil national identity was reinforced by the actions of a Sinhala majority which regarded the island of Sri Lanka as the exclusive home of Sinhala Buddhism and the Tamil people as `outsiders' who were to be subjugated and assimilated within the confines of an unitary Sinhala Buddhist state.
It was a belligerent Sinhala chauvinism which laid claim to the island of Sri Lanka as a Sinhala Buddhist `Deepa' and which often found open and shameless expression:
Sri Lanka President Chandrika Kumaratunga, speaking in July 1995, declared:
President Kumaratunga buttressed her 'assimilative' approach by recourse to "history". She declared:
In claiming that her ancestors had succeeded in forging one nation, President Kumaratunga followed in the footsteps of ex President J.R.Jayawardene who too claimed in 1983 that the country had been a united nation for 2500 years. Here, the comments of the International Commission of Jurists in 1983 remain relevant:
Be that as it may, the statements of Sinhala political leaders reflected the appeal that such statements have for the Sinhala electorate.
The reality of 'parliamentary democracy' in Sri Lanka was that no Tamil was ever elected to a predominantly Sinhala electorate and no Sinhalese was ever elected to a predominantly Sinhala electorate. Majority rule within the confines of an unitary state and the constraints of a third world economy served to perpetuate the oppressive rule of a permanent Sinhala majority. It was a permanent Sinhala majority, which sought to consolidate its hegemony over the island of Sri Lanka, through a series of legislative and administrative acts, ranging from disenfranchisement, state sponsored colonisation of the Tamil homeland, discriminatory language and employment policies to standardisation of University admissions.
When the Tamil people sought to resist these oppressive legislative and administrative acts by resort to Parliamentary agitation and non violent protests, they were attacked physically, some of them burnt alive, and their homes destroyed and looted. The attacks in 1956, 1958, 1961 are illustrative of these Sinhala attempts to terrorise and intimidate the Tamil people into submission at a time when Tamil protest was confined to entirely non violent forms of agitation.
Again, successive Sinhala dominated Sri Lanka governments dishonoured agreements solemnly entered into with Tamil parliamentary parties including the Bandaranaike -Chelvanayagam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayagam Agreement of 1965.
In 1972, a new Constitution was proclaimed by the Sinhala majority who constituted themselves a Constituent Assembly, sat in premises outside Parliament to reinforce the constitutional break with the past, gave themselves an auththochnous Constitution, which changed the name of the island from Ceylon to the Sinhala, Sri Lanka, proclaimed Buddhism as the state religion and removed even the meagre safeguards against discrimination contained in the earlier Constitution. The plea of the Tamil parliamentary parties for a federal constitution was rejected and the leader of the Tamil parliamentary group resigned his seat in Parliament and sought a mandate from the Tamil people for a separate state. On winning the bye election, he declared:
It was a mandate which was later crystallised in the Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976, and in the 1977 Election Manifesto of the Tamil parliamentary parties and was overwhelmingly endorsed by the Tamil people at the General Election in July 1977. The response of the Sinhala people to this parliamentary struggle was yet another physical attack on Tamils to intimidate them into submission.
Tamil Armed Resistance & Sri Lanka's Genocidal Onslaught
The failure of peaceful parliamentary means led to the rise of the armed resistance of the Tamil people. The armed resistance of the Tamil people arose in response to decades of an ever widening and deepening oppression under alien Sinhala rule. The question whether that armed resistance was lawful or not falls within the domain of international law. At the same time, it may be helpful (and, indeed, necessary) to heed the words of Dr Colin J Harvey
At the same time, an armed resistance movement brings in its train certain predictable consequences. Jean Paul Sartre's Statement 'On Genocide' at the Second Session of the Bertrand Russell International War Crimes Tribunal on Vietnam, held in Denmark in November 1967 remains valid today:
In Sri Lanka, the Tamil armed resistance was met with wide ranging retaliatory attacks with intent, to compel the Tamil people to accept Sinhala rule. In the late 1970s large numbers of Tamil youths were detained without trial and tortured under emergency regulations and later under the Prevention of Terrorism Act which has been described by the International Commission of Jurists as a `blot on the statute book of any civilised country'. Torture was almost an universal practise for the Sri Lankan authorities.
In 1981 the Jaffna Public Library was burnt whilst several high ranking Sinhala security officers and two cabinet ministers were present in Jaffna town. The widespread attack on the Tamil people in 1983 was described in the Review of the International Commission of Jurists in the following terms:
In the subsequent years, the Sinhala dominated Sri Lankan government continued with its efforts to conquer the Tamil homeland and rule the Tamil people. The record shows that in this attempt, Sri Lanka's armed forces and para military units have committed widespread violations of humanitarian law.
In the East whole villages of Tamils were attacked by the Army and by the so called Home Guards. In the North aerial bombardment and artillery shelling of Tamil civilian population centres by the Sri Lanka armed forces was undertaken on a systematic basis.
The attacks on the Tamil homeland were coupled with the declared opposition of successive Sri Lankan Governments (including that of President Kumaratunga) to the merger of the North and East of the island into a single administrative and political unit and the recognition of the Tamil homeland.
Sri Lanka continued its genocidal attack on the people of Tamil Eelam with impunity despite hundreds of statements of grave concern expressed at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.
In August 1995, 20 Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) declared at the UN Sub Commission for the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in Geneva:
This ofcourse opens up the question as to what it is that leads the so called 'international community' to conclude that it can no longer stomach a continuation of the conflict. The 'international community' is not without its own 'security' interests, whether they be linked to the control of oil resources or nuclear non proliferation or control of the currency in which world trade is conducted - and these may not be unrelated to that which the international community can no longer countenance at any particular time.
Many Tamils take the view that today the Tamil Eelam nation exists. It exists because it is rooted in the direct personal feelings and the material interests of large sections of the Tamil people,
The Tamil population in the North and East of the island are united by an ancient heritage, a rich culture, and a distinct language with a great literary tradition. They have lived for many centuries within well defined geographical boundaries which demarcate their traditional homeland and the group identity of the Tamil people has grown over the past several centuries, hand in hand with the growth of their homeland in the North and East of the island, where they worked together, spoke to each other, founded their families, educated their children, nurtured their cultural traditions and also sought refuge, from time to time, from physical attacks elsewhere in the island.Where a social group, characterised by distinctive objective elements such as a common language and a historic homeland, acquires a subjective consciousness of oneness through struggle and resistance to alien domination, such a group clearly constitutes a 'people', and by any and every test of international law and standards, the Tamils constitute a `people' with the right to self determination.
But that is not to say that the Tamil Eelam struggle is an expression of chauvinism. The people of Tamil Eelam recognise that no nation is an island. They do not deny the existence of the Sinhala nation. It is Sri Lanka which has thus far failed to face upto the challenge of recognising the Tamils as a 'people' and associating with them on that basis.
In February 1993 at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, 15 non governmental organisations (NGOs) urged that
and further that
Again, even apart from the right to self determination, the demand for Tamil Eelam may also be justified in international law under the concept of reversion of sovereignty.
The struggle for Tamil Eelam is a national question and it is therefore not a matter for surprise that it has become increasingly an inter-national question. Efforts at conflict resolution have involved India, the United States, United Kingdom and Norway amongst others, from time to time. The attempt to square the circle - i.e the attempt to square the demand for self determination with the claim of an existing state to its territorial integrity, has attracted much research. But to suggest that the negotiating process is about reaching a compromise somewhere between a 'unitary state' and 'independence' is to continue to think inside a box.
The error is to place 'totally independent' and 'complete unitary state' at the two ends of the continuum, with associations of independent states, such as the British Commonwealth and the European Union, somewhere in between.
A figurative representation more in accord with reality will be:
A meaningful negotiating process will need to address the question of working out a legal framework for two free and independent peoples to co-exist - a legal framework where they may pool their sovereignty in certain agreed areas, so that they may co-exist in peace.
A meaningful negotiating process will need to telescope two stages - independence and beyond independence. Yes, beyond independence to inter dependence.
It is sometimes said that to accord international recognition to separate national formations will lead to instability in the world order. The argument is not dissimilar to that which was urged a hundred years ago against granting universal franchise. It was said that to empower every citizen with a vote was to threaten the stability of existing state structures and the ruling establishment. But the truth was that it was the refusal to grant universal franchise which threatened stability . Self determination is not a de stabilising concept. Neither is it a dirty word. Self determination and democracy go hand in hand. If democracy means the rule of the people, by the people, for the people, then the principle of self determination secures that no one people may rule another.
Here, it may be useful to consider the words of Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein at The International Institute for Strategic Studies on 25 January 2001:
The struggle for Tamil Eelam is about giving effect to the will of the Tamil people expressed by their leader S.J.V.Chelvanayagam in 1975 and reinforced by the mandate that they gave the Tamil United Liberation Front in 1977, and reiterated in the Manifesto of the Tamil National Alliance in 2001. It is also about reversion of sovereignty - a sovereignty that the Tamil people enjoyed before the British unified the administration of the island of Sri Lanka in 1833.
However, the struggle for Tamil Eelam is not about a search for historical first causes - a search that will end in the stone age and in i a discussion about original sin. Nor is the struggle for Tamil Eelam an invitation to engage in the politics of the last atrocity - a pursuit which leads to brave speeches, retaliation and more atrocities.
The struggle for Tamil Eelam is about the democratic right of the people of Tamil Eelam to govern themselves in their homeland - nothing less and nothing more. The struggle for Tamil Eelam is not about 'modest devolution' or 'significant devolution'. It is not about devolving power from the higher to the lower. It is not about devolution. Period. It is about freedom from alien Sinhala rule. It is not about securing benevolent Sinhala rule. It is about securing a legal framework where two free peoples may associate with one another in equality, in freedom and in peace.
The demand for Tamil Eelam is not negotiable. But an independent Tamil Eelam will and indeed, must, negotiate. And here, there will be everything to negotiate about. There is a need to telescope two processes - the emergence of an independent Tamil Eelam and the emergence of a free, inter dependent association of Tamil Eelam and Sri Lanka. The European Union, structured albeit after two world wars, stands as an example of what the Tamil people and Sinhala people in the island of Sri Lanka may be able to achieve -but we will need to dig deep to find common ground.