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Right to self-determination

The Tamil people’s right to self-determination
Deirdre McConnell

“This article provides an overview of the crisis in Sri Lanka and states why an armed
conflict has developed in the northern and eastern parts (north-east) of the country. The Tamils’ accusations—of discrimination, denial of the right to self-determination, abrogated agreements and violations of international human rights and humanitarian law amountingto genocide by successive Sri Lankan governments—are supported by specific evidencegiven by international human rights and legal experts, international human rights nongovernmental organizations and other relevant entities. The democratic parliamentary efforts and the non-violent resistance struggle of the Tamil people prior to the outbreak of war are traced over several decades. The article includes an outline of social and law and order achievements in the north-east under the de facto administration of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and concludes with some current international dimensions of the situation.”

The United Nations (UN) Charter of 1945 supports the view that self-determination is a legal principle, and as such the right to self-determination is placed crucially in the first article of each of the two major human rights covenants of 1966: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (UN 1996). The recognition of self-determination rights was first applied in the 1960s to countries hitherto ruled by colonial powers, for example several countries in Africa—during the decades that followed, the right to self-determination of several other peoples has been internationally recognized. Despite the fact that the principle and fundamental right of self-determination is firmly established under international law, consideration of the Tamil people’s right to self-determination and, importantly, the outright denial of this right for many decades are frequently omitted in discourse pertaining to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

Indigenous Tamil people have lived for more than 2,500 years in the northern and eastern parts of present-day Sri Lanka (north-east), known as the Tamil hereditary area. In precolonial days there was the Tamil Kingdom in the north-east (Jaffna) and two Sinhalese kingdoms in the south, called Kotte and Kandy. Drawings and maps from the time of the Greek explorer Ptolemy, and later from the period when the British came to the island, show how the areas of the Tamils and the Sinhalese were recorded separately from antiquity.[ ]

Extensive research has shown that one of the ways in which the relationship between the
government and the Tamils was altered to the disadvantage of the Tamils was a programme of systematic colonization of parts of the Tamil homeland area. The nature and extent of Sinhalese colonization in Tamil provinces and their impact on those provinces’ ethnic composition and political character have been well documented. [ ]To many observers this was a process of internal colonization to change demographic patterns and performed two important functions: to lend weight to the false argument that the Tamils never occupied any part of the island exclusively and to eventually alter electoral boundaries and create new Sinhala electorates for the rapidly increased number of Sinhalese settlers. The District of Trincomalee is a notable example. In 1881, 4.2 per cent of the population were Sinhalese and 89.5 per cent were Tamil-speaking. However, by 1981, the Sinhalese had increased to 33.6 per cent of the population, whereas the Tamil-speaking population had decreased to 62.8 per cent. [ ]The colonization of the Tamil homeland areas continues today.

In 1948, at independence, the Tamils had 33 per cent of the voting power in the
legislature. Upon the disenfranchisement of the estate Tamils (in 1950), however,
this proportion dropped to 20 per cent. The Sinhalese obtained more than a 2/3
majority in the Parliament, making it impossible for the Tamils to exercise an
effective opposition to Sinhalese policies affecting them. (Leary 1983, 11) [ ]

If the intention of the Sinhala Only Act had been purely to replace the colonial language of English, the genuine solution would have been to introduce both Sinhala and Tamil as languages with equal status—restoring the situation to that of the precolonial era. However, it was not only this Act but also the disenfranchisement legislation and the colonization process as a whole which were designed to marginalize the Tamils’ rights under the guise of democracy. [ ]

Given Buddhism’s presumed non-violent philosophy, the question arises, how could committed
Buddhist monks and their wider community in Sri Lanka actively take part in the political violence of the Sinhalese against the Tamils? The nature of the participation of monks in national politics became increasingly volatile from the 1940s. Some Buddhist monk ideologues have been seeking to establish an ‘ideal Buddhist-administered society’. In this, they refer to and rely on the ‘Myth of Re-conquest’, which eulogizes the ancient victories of the Sinhalese Prince Dutugemunu over the Tamil King Ellalan in which thousands of Tamils were killed, and makes a virtue of killing in defence of Buddhism. It also inculcates the belief that Sinhala Buddhists are racially superior to the Tamils. In the early 20th century, the leading proponent of these ideas was Anagaraka Dharmapala (1864-1933). In Dharmapala’s view, the Tamils and other non Sinhalese did not belong on the island. This exacerbated friction and contributed to riots as early as 1915 between Muslims and Sinhalese. It is this ideology that influences the policies and actions of the Sinhalese government.

As each new policy of discrimination was introduced, the Tamil people organized dignified protests based on satyagraha (non-violent civil disobedience in the Gandhian manner), inspired by the belief that it would bring forth positive change in the political arena. These non-violent actions continued for thirty-five years after independence and were invariably crushed with hostile and repressive measures taken by the police and army on the direction of the government. Often anti-Tamil riots would follow state intervention. For example, in the non-violent protests against the
Sinhala Only Act, some 300 Tamil protesters were attacked, and in some cases stoned, by a government-supported Sinhalese mob numbering in the thousands. [ ]

During the period between these agreements, over 500 Tamils were killed in political violence and anti-Tamil riots, and the Tamils’ socioeconomic structures were also damaged by government sponsored arson, vandalism and looting. By this time the Tamil civil society, non-violent movement and its political counterpart, the Federal Party, had started to consider that it was time to exercise their right to self-determination, as they had been consistently denied the right to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development as provided
for in international law in Article 1.1 of the ICCPR and ICESCR.

Although the UN Charter endorses the right to self-determination, one of the ironies of the 20th century is that such ‘peoples’ frequently suffer from the lack of an international mechanism that supports a people’s legitimate aspirations for the right to self-determination. Such a mechanism would clearly need to take into account the fact that countries where peoples seeking selfdetermination reside invariably circumvent negotiations. Tamil politicians were persistent in their
efforts to find a peaceful solution, although attempts to secure a federal arrangement through democratic processes have been shown to be futile, as described above. There is demonstrable evidence that the Tamils had exhausted all possibilities through dialogue before they were drivento demand their right to self-determination. In July 1977, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF),the representative party of the Tamils, declared in its election manifesto (which served as a form ofreferendum to the electorates in the Tamil areas),What is the alternative now left to the nation that has lost its rights to its language,rights to citizenship, rights to its religions and continues day by day to lose its traditional homeland; The Tamil Nation must take the decision to establish its sovereignty in its homeland on the basis of its right to self-determination … to establish the independence of Tamil Eelam … either by peaceful means or bydirect action or struggle.In the north-east, 86 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote in this election, of which 68 percent voted for the TULF. Overall, 65.9 per cent voted for candidates who stood for an independent Tamil Eelam.

Clearly, the Tamil people had voted overwhelmingly in favour, showing the majority of the Tamilpeople’s desire for self-determination to be defined by external self-determination. However, the government did not respect the popular mandate verified by this democratic and legal process. On the contrary, the government introduced the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited peaceful advocacy of independence. The constitution itself further denied Tamils an effective role in the decision-making process. This explains why most Tamils boycotted elections for many years
afterwards, as their views were simply not taken into account. There ensued heavy, welldocumented vote-rigging on the part of successive governments who encouraged discredited Tamil groups to stand for election.

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