By Kusal Perera –
The Resolution by the US, supported by the EU and just 02 countries – India and South Korea – out of 13 in the Asian bloc voting in favour at the UNHRC sessions in Geneva brought to an end, the much hyped issue of “war crimes” accusations against the Rajapaksa regime, some in the Tamil Diaspora and most in Tamil Nadu (TN) were very vociferous about. Adopted with 25 votes, the resolution has a procedural binding on the SL government and it is now left to be seen, what outcome this would have, in favour of war victims.
Slogans carried by TN student agitations and protests were very much distant from what the Geneva UNHRC sessions and resolution were about. These student agitations were triggered by small extremist groups and the stance taken by the two main political rivals in TN, each trying to outdo the other. This led the two iconic leaders to compromise with extremist groups that have no political responsibility to what they agitate on. This irresponsibility was very apparent by physical attacks against Sri Lankan pilgrims going through Chennai and attacks on Sri Lankan institutes in Chennai. Worst were mainstream political parties and human rights groups and activists, who dodged condemning these goon attacks, thinking they would lose ground in Tamil Nadu.
That defeatist attitude of most such human rights activists was displayed by my good friend Pon Chandran from Chennai, who laments writing to CT, the international community is not responding to the “JUST” voice of the Tamil students. He is writing about those students in Tamil Nadu, who do not know the “A.B.C of Tamil politics in SL”. Therefore, these “riffraff” in political agitations think it is necessary to back the appeal for the demand to end “genocide against Tamils in SL through a UN sponsored Referendum” to establish a “Tamil Eelam”.
This writer tried to engage TN human rights and Tamil activists including Pon Chandran, on this issue of a “referendum for a separate Tamil State” in North-East Sri Lanka, as requested by Tamils for Obama in the US, now shouldered by TN fringe groups, compromised by even opportunists like Karunanidhi. Following are excerpts from that essay titled “Referendum Call for ‘Thamil Eezham’; Could It Serve SL Tamils in Sri Lanka ?”, circulated among TN, Bangalore and New Delhi contacts in the human rights and civil liberty groups.
Excerpts from essay –
This paper is an attempt to politically dissect the call for a “Referendum” in establishing a “Sovereign Thamil Eezham State” in North – East Sri Lanka (SL), that is being campaigned and lobbied for via internet and of late is being picked up by some groups and political parties in neighbouring Thamil Nadu in projecting themselves as very much concerned about Tamil people in SL and also as their rallying call for TN politics. What prompts this political intervention in seeing through this call for a “Thamil Eezham” from outside Sri Lanka, is the total “disconnect” with and its irrelevance to Tamil politics in Sri Lanka.
Right to Self Determination – What Does It Mean ?
“Right to self determination” in Marxist formulation, accepts the right of a nation of people under “oppression” to secede from its earlier formation of a State, to form its own separate State.
For Marxists, a “nationalistic movement” demanding its own “right to determine” how its people as a society would live within a multi linguistic, multi cultural nation State, is about supporting increased and improved functional democracy of the State, that allows all oppressed social segments and classes to have their own cultural and class identity within modern capitalist development of that nation State. As Marx enlarged on the right of Ireland to secede, Irish people can remain federated as an autonomous nation with England, if the Irish people can have a democratic nation State of their own, accepted by the dominant class of the English society. And that can not be ruled out.
The reason for such complex formulations on the “right to self determination” of a nation is the duality in how a “nation” and a “State” is defined and identified. A “Nation” is not necessarily a “State”. The Australian “nation” and the Australian “State” can politically coincidence. It is the single expression of political power of that single nation and that coincides. But in most countries like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, there is contradiction that makes the political expression of the dominant majority nation, refusing or reluctant to accept other smaller nations in its expression of political power, as the State. The refusal or reluctance is about who would own capitalist development and its benefits through State power.
This is what generally is termed “marginalisation” of minorities, in the current context in our part of the world, where capitalist development in a “nation State” becomes the main political debate and life. This is precisely what was written into the DMK programme in 1963, when it gave up on its demand for a separate Dravidian State. The ability and the possibility to remain as “political equals” within a State, is also what Dr. Anton Balasingham interpreted as “Internal self determination”, when the LTTE agreed to work out a “federal system” of governance. It was based on that conceptual democratic space, the LTTE signed the Oslo Declaration in 2002 December.
Background To “Referendum” Appeal
On 02 January, 2009, the Sri Lankan army waging war against the LTTE, walked into an empty, abandoned Kilinochchi town that was “the hub” of the LTTE for well over a decade and a half. A week later on 09 January, the SL army stormed through Elephant Pass, after 23 years of complete LTTE control of the A-9 road. From Adampan to Kilaly to Kilinochchi and then Elephant Pass, it was only a story of the LTTE retreating, holding the ordinary people as their buffer and the SL army advancing.
While the LTTE was facing defeat at every crucial location, a new Tamil group in the US that calculated Democratic presidential candidate Barak Obama’s victory at the US presidential elections, came together as “Tamils for Obama” (sounds pretty opportunistic) and on 07 March, 2009, two months after Elephant Pass fell, wrote to President Obama, requesting a US initiated resolution to have an “East Timor type referendum” in North-East Sri Lanka, supervised by the UN. They also wrote to all UN members asking for support for such a referendum, referring to South Sudan as well.
Their timing in asking for such a UN Resolution, confuses all logic in accepting it as pragmatic and realistic, for many serious reasons. Month of March 2009, was when news started percolating about the political and military sections in the LTTE contradicting each other and moving apart, in deciding how they could “face defeat” at the hands of the SL security forces. By end April, the two sections had two very clear, different and opposing approaches in facing a military defeat. While the political group led by Pullidevan and Nadesan decided to surrender (and may be thought, they could later develop as an open political group like how the JVP came round after heavy repression and defeat of the 1971 insurgency), the military wing led by Prabhakaran was going to “fight till death”. This contradiction in the LTTE was eventually proved, at the closing of the war.
In such context of political and military defeat, for a small Tamil group in far off US to ask for a separate “Thamil Eezham” was more than eccentric. The last concluding sentence in that appeal by “Tamils for Obama”, is also quite amusing. “Tamils for Obama is comprised of Tamils who have settled in the U.S. or who were born in the US”[emphasis added] they said.
Disconnected arguments on referendum
The letter sent out by “Tamils for Obama” has a two part argument put forward. One is to say, a referendum as in East – Timor would end “genocide of Tamils” in SL. The other is that there is “genocide” continuing in SL. It says,
“While you are certainly familiar with the U.N.’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, let us remind you that this document defines any of the following acts as genocide:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Items (a), (b), and (c) are well documented as on-going events in Sri Lanka. Many impeccable sources refer to the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka.”
The major qualifying explanation that had been left out by “Tamils for Obama” in their appeal reads as, “Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:…..” (emphasis added)
The East – Timor’s referendum is therefore briefly sketched as follows.
East-Timor’s ground for referendum –
The referendum for East – Timor was requested from the UN, by the Indonesian President and Head of State, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie in January 1999, after he replaced General Suharto in 1997 and NOT by East Timoreans or their powerful political group, “Fretilin”.
The request for the referendum by Habibie came during his re democratising programme in post Suharto Indonesia.
President Habibie publicly accepted that it was not economically beneficial and profitable for Indonesia to hold on to East Timor
A large part of East Timor including its highlands was under Fretilin and controlled by them in 1999, when Habibie invited the UN to hold a referendum for East Timor.
- Since declaring East Timor an independent State in November 1975, Fretilin went ahead in establishing a de facto government within East Timor, with an organisational structure put in place for implementing its social development programmes in all areas under their control.
Fretilin was therefore recognised as the legitimate political representation in East Timor, that would effectively campaign for the referendum, mobilising people to vote and stand with the people against all violations.
South Sudan referendum is another that is being touted as proof for a referendum that should be held for N – E Sri Lanka to help Tamil people to decide on a Thamil Eezham. The run up to South Sudan referendum in brief, is as follows.
South Sudan referendum
- For all but 11 of the 48 years since its independence in 1956, Sudan has been engulfed in civil conflict. More than two million people died, four million were uprooted and some 600,000 people sought shelter beyond Sudan’s borders as refugees and brought misery and insecurity to the region.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was thus under pressure by Heads of States of the Inter-governmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGADD) to negotiate a cease fire and work out a permanent solution to the conflict.
IGADD initiated negotiations, a long process that led to signing 06 agreements called “protocols” between the government of Sudan and the South Sudan warring alliance, the “Sudan People’s Liberation Movement” (SPLM) beginning in July 2002 and ending in December 2004.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in January 2005, between the government of Sudan and the SPLM in Naivasha, Kenya and included all protocols signed previously.
A “National Unity Government” was thus formed till the scheduled referendum in January 2011.
In October 2007, the SPLM withdrew from the National Unity Government, accusing the Khartoum based Unity government, dominated by the National Congress Party of President Omar al-Bashir for not honouring the agreement to pull out 15,000 soldiers from Southern oil fields. But said, they would not wage war.
SPLM rejoined the Unity government on 13 December 2007, after reaching agreement with Khartoum to withdraw troops across the border by 08 January 2008 and funds to be allocated for the census required for the referendum.
Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir accepted the southern region had a right to choose to secede and the referendum was helpful, because unity, he said “could not be forced by power”.
Agreement was also reached to have at least 60 % of the 3.8 million voters to validate the referendum and a simple majority vote of 50% plus, in favour of independence of South Sudan, to be valid. Should the turnout be insufficient in the first referendum, a second was to be held within sixty days. The referendum was finally held from 9 to 15 January 2011. SPLM cadres were accused of rigging and was proved so with 10 of the 79 counties exceeding 100% of the voter turnout. On 7 February 2011, the referendum commission published the final results, with 98.83% voting in favour of independence.
The Ground Truth
- The recent beginnings –
The war which ended in 2009 May, officially declared as victorious and over, by HE the President Rajapaksa on 19 May, had two distinct political factors that to date dominates politics in Sri Lanka and an uneasy dormant Tamil life in Jaffna, Vanni and the East, caught in between.
The Sinhala Buddhist dominance in governance
The war against the LTTE was not fought as a simple military battle. Over many decades, the long protracted war had given space for hardened Sinhala Buddhist sentiments and that was capitalised by the Rajapaksa regime. In fact his election platform brought all Sinhala extremist parties, groups and individuals together and into a dominant social force against any attempt at negotiations with the LTTE and the CFA signed in February 2002. Such Sinhala ideology turned into official government thinking and obsessed with the idea of a Sinhala “Unitary State”, justified all violations of human rights in the name of “eliminating Tamil terrorism”. Young Sinhala peasant stock from poor, rural families raised into an army and battle trained, the youth themselves were Sinhala Buddhist campaigners in their villages, fighting against Tamil “terrorists”.
The war therefore provided justifications for military dominance in society. The campaign for war against “Tamil terrorists” was turned into a Sinhala – Buddhist “patriotic” campaign and entrenched the military in a political role. SL is thus seeing the military entering into urban planning and development, coast conservation and regulation, non governmental activities, university student training and encroaching into schools and even economic activities like the hospitality trade and sports recreation.
SL has thus ended up as a quasi military regime, living on a Sinhala Buddhist ideology. The recommendations by the LLRC in requesting the elected government of Rajapaksa to effect “rapid de-militarisation” of North – East areas and the State, is proof of the military playing a seriously important role in governance.
Dismantling of North-East Tamil society and Tamil politics
The war left over 280,000 Tamil people in the Vanni and adjoining areas, completely uprooted and displaced as refugees, conveniently called IDPs. The war also left a legacy of war crimes and crimes against humanity accusations against the Rajapaksa regime, from many international and regional civil society and human rights organisations and campaigners. The need for independent investigations have become more and more evident and important, with passage of time and surfacing of claims for proof in especially mainstream international media. Most claims are of little doubt in giving credence to the call for an independent international inquiry, and is different to the slogan and the need for a “Tamil Ezham”
Mainland Vanni area –
On the ground, the Tamil people have been left with no social fabric that could accommodate people’s organisations and civil society activities. No legal social entities like non governmental organisations were even allowed free access to those areas. Even fisheries co-operatives that survived in some coastal areas, were brought under Naval supervision and control. The only organised entities that could not be wiped out were schools and the Catholic / Christian Church, apart from State departments and agencies, that now operate under military supervision and the government’s coercing political power.
Security forces have also resorted to land grabbing and in some areas have established new security complexes and also agriculture farms. Most infrastructure construction have brought in Sinhala labour and by now into permanent living in some instances. There is a concerted effort in colonising that could negatively effect the demographic pattern in some Tamil areas.
Vanni had 266,975 registered voters at the 2010 parliamentary elections with a turn out of 43.9%. The TNA won 03 out 06 parliamentary seats at this elections.
Jaffna peninsula –
In the whole “Eezham” war spanning over 25 years, the lobby was Jaffna centred. But the LTTE was never able to have total control of the Jaffna peninsula, though it was isolated from the mainland, after LTTE took control of the A-9 land route. Concentration of SL security forces in the peninsula with other para military organisations like the EPDP, kept the Jaffna society wholly under control, not allowing any political or social activities that could challenge the authority of the security forces. Life in Jaffna is reduced to day to day living and nothing more.
With the opening of the A-9 route after the war, the security forces themselves have moved into small scale economic enterprises like cafes and salons in townships along the A-9 route. Sinhala traders and civilians are consciously promoted to visit Jaffna and some have been offered opportunities in trading in the Jaffna peninsula.
Jaffna provincial media is under military surveillance. There are numerous reports of continued attacks against Jaffna media personnel, who try to stretch their journalism beyond what the security forces and para military groups would want.
Jaffna’s voting strength in 2010 parliamentary elections was 721,359 with only 23.3% turning out to vote, that saw the TNA winning 05 out of the 08 parliamentary seats.
At the LG elections, the TNA won 24 out of the 32 LG bodies for which elections were held in 2011 in the districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.
The Eastern province –
East is a mixed province that had seen Sinhala colonisation from as early as 1950. The present demography in the province according to the 2012 statistical sheet put out by the Department of Census and Statistics is – Tamil 40.2%, Sinhala 22.3% and Muslim 36.5%. Batticoloa district has a majority Tamil population of 72.6%.
This population mix with Trincomalee and Ampara dominated by Sinhala and Muslim populations, did not allow any Tamil armed group to dominate its local politics. By 2001 the LTTE had managed to control a small linear patch – Kokkadicholai area – along the coast of Batticoloa district. There were also small groups of LTTE cadres that moved around in Tamil majority areas and penetrated into other areas, on and off.
The 2002 CFA allowed the LTTE an open presence in Tamil areas, as long as they moved around without arms and gave them the opportunity to have “political” offices. This gave them space to influence Tamil people and businesses in Eastern province, especially in Batticoloa district.
The Rajapaksa regime in its war strategy, first moved into East and in 2007 cleared the East of all LTTE presence that by then was halved, with Karuna Amman defecting to government ranks. Heavy civilian damage in the East was not given due attention. The lobby as earlier mentioned, was not so much about casualties in East, but Jaffna and Vanni. The military remained very conspicuous, with para military groups helping them with intelligence and surveillance of the province.
Therefore when the Rajapaksa regime held elections to the then bifurcated Eastern PC in May 2008 with much hype and Karuna Amman’s dissenting ally Chandrakanthan alias “Pilleyan” contesting with the government party (UPFA), the TNA could not even contest, with the LTTE still dictating terms. The Rajapaksa regime was then compelled to accommodate Pilleyan as the EPC Chief Minister.
The post war situation changed the East considerably and in 2012 September, the TNA became the largest opposition party in the EPC, with 11 councillors elected as against the government coalition that managed 15 councillors.
Tamils outside North – East
Contrary to what the Diaspora and the TN politicians prefer to project, the SL Tamil population is not only restricted to Jaffna, Vanni and the East. They have a sizeable concentration in the city of Colombo and its adjacent municipality area, the Dehiwala-Mt. Lavinia area, with traditionally rooted economic and social life.
The city of Colombo with its population of close to 753,000 in 2011, had almost 29% SL Tamils residing within its municipal area and another 2.2% Tamils of Indian origin. In the Dehiwala-Mt. Lavinia Municipality area, the Tamil population is 10.84% of a total 209,000 population. What needs to be noted here is the fact that out of a 2.27 mn SL Tamil population as recorded in the 2012 census, almost 10% (207,000 plus) live in Colombo city and Dehiwala-Mt. Lavinia alone.
This population, or the larger majority of them, have lived in these areas for many generations and they have their businesses, their investments and their property too, in these areas. Their social and economic life is rooted in the city culture and some in the Diaspora have invested in property within Colombo since the 2002 CFA and the conclusion of the war in 2009 May.
Passions & Ignorance in TN
There is apparently no logical reason for TN politics to take up a call for a “Separate Tamil State” in Sri Lanka, after giving up on their own demand for a separate “Dravidian State” in India. The movement for a Tamil nation State in India, commonly called the “Dravidian” movement goes back to 1916 when the “South Indian Welfare Association” was formed against the economic and political power of the Brahmins.
In 1949, with C.N. Annathurai breaking off from the DK and forming his own Dravida Munnethra Kazhagam (DMK) with many young, fire brand speakers, the Dravidian movement in South India got radicalised and grounded with a pride in Tamil language and culture.
Its call for a separate “Dravida Nadu” though emotionally fired against Hindi speaking, Aryan and Brahminic Northern India, lost ground in 1953 when Nehru had the “States Reorganising Committee” deflate the concept of a separate Dravidian Linguistic State, by carving out 03 new linguistic States out of the old Madrasi province. Kerala, Andra and Karnataka was redefined with “Tamil Nadu” made a lone Tamil linguistic State that left the larger “Dravidian” concept a mismatch.
In 1960, the DMK dropped the slogan “Dravida Nadu”, found it gained more support among Tamil voters and tripled its State Assembly representation to 50 in 1962 elections. In 1963, the DMK officially gave up the slogan for a Dravidian State and rewrote their party programme. A militant and a leading figure then in the DMK, Murasoli Maran was quoted as saying, “I am Tamil first but I am also an Indian. Both can exist together, provided there is space for cultural nationalism.” A leading theoretician in DMK, Era Sezhiyan who co-authored the new DMK programme in 1963 was also quoted in similar vein. He had said, it was more practical to demand a higher degree of autonomy for Tamil Nadu, instead.
Possibilities & Necessities
This brief coverage of Tamil or Dravidian history on either side of the Palk Strait, allows for a few conclusions on possibilities of resolving the political conflict of the SL Tamil people within a democratic capitalist State and on the necessities for such resolving of the political conflict in establishing a profitable shared future.
First, in drawing parallels with East-Timor and South Sudan, the most important conclusions are,
- The call for separation needs a strong, structured lobby within people living on the ground. In both East – Timor and South Sudan there were such strong political organisations for campaigning on the ground that had recognition and credibility among the people. In SL, that is a total absence, as even the TNA does not heed such a call.
- The major opponent in both countries, Habibie and al-Bashir for their own reasons, were willing to work out a process for a referendum. But not in Sri Lanka.
- In East-Timor, Habibie got the UN to run the referendum and in South Sudan, al-Bashir agreed to work with IGAAD and its donor countries. SL is far away from such a situation.
On Dravidian nationalism and separatism in South India, leaders learnt through praxis that to live together in a united country with adequate and effective mechanisms for power sharing, is more worth and economically profitable than fighting for a separate Dravidian State.
Therefore, the use of the much abused word “genocide”, that is promoted as reason for separatism for SL Tamils, now has to be seriously proved before calling for a “referendum” and those who call for such a referendum would have to explain,
how over 10% of the SL Tamil people in post war SL continue to live in and around Colombo, in the Western Province, invest and do business without serious accusations of crimes, abductions, arbitrary arrests and extra judicial killings, that even the Sinhala South is now complaining of.
how in post war SL, the TNA campaigned against the ruling UPFA and won majority number of parliamentary seats from the North at the 2010 April elections.
how in post war SL, the TNA contesting against the ruling UPFA in LG elections in Northern districts was voted in large scale to gain control of the vast majority of the LG bodies
“Genocide” can only be bandied about in the Diaspora and in TN, but will not be proved under a State, how ever undemocratic and racist the State is, when Tamil people participate in open electoral campaigns and elect their own representation for different tiers of governance. When they can invest and indulge in trade and business and have representations in business chambers as well. That is reason why democratic political parties of Tamil people in SL do not take up the call for a “referendum” and do not talk about “genocide” like those in the Diaspora and in Tamil Nadu.
What then is the alternative ?
The alternative for the SL Tamils living in SL, is NOT a separate State in North – East, though “Tamils for Obama” and other such alien Tamil groups would want to live with romantic answers for them.
The answer for the Tamils living in SL is to have democratic space as with Dravidians in Karnataka and Kerala and Tamils in Tamil Nadu, to live with their own cultural identity and a share in capitalist development (in this era), they are being denied for now. This requires serious and far fetched constitutional reforms that would give them the right to have their political expressions within the “new” State. The important question is, how such reforms could be effected, with a Sinhala government that is not prepared to accept such reforms that could undermine the dominant role it plays in the name of the majority Sinhala society.
A formulation that has majority Sinhala – Buddhist consensus in accommodating minority political aspirations was arrived at the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), that came out with its Final Report after continuous deliberations from July 2006 till April 2009 agreeing on power sharing that goes beyond the Delhi crafted 13th Amendment, with a bi-cameral parliament.
Unfortunately, this proposal is not campaigned for dialogue and asked for as a basis for negotiations by the Tamil organisations. They would not, as this contradicts their romantic idea of a separate State. It is not made public by the Rajapaksa regime, as this goes beyond their Sinhala political project. For the Tamils outside SL, living with a romantic slogan of a “separate” State, it pays to have Rajapaksa shelving the APRC Final Report and for Rajapaksa, it pays to have the Diaspora and TN fringe politics pushing their slogan of “genocide” and a “separate” State, for that would never have space for any negotiations. But none would pay to have a democratic, power sharing solution to the Tamil political conflict. That political conflict needs to be resolved for the Sinhala South also to have a democratic State and shared development for both nations.
Recommend reading – APRC Final Report and could be accessed here