3 July, 2022


Threat Of Separation: Possibility Or Hoax?

By Austin Fernando

Austin Fernando

Before and after the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) election we heard political orchestrations of a “separation threat” by the NPC. It was what the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) hoped, and echoed. Some totally believed it; some pooh-poohed it.

Here I am trying to understand what separation relating to Sri Lanka is, as an academic exercise, because of the comprehended threat the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Election Manifesto’s reference to ‘self-determination’ made, followed also by statements of its leaders and consequential Southern dialogue.


Self-determination has a history. World leaders after World War I realized that national peoples groups, with a shared ethnicity, language, culture, and religion, should be allowed to determine their fate, giving birth to the concept of self-determination. Later it was applied to colonial peoples, and by the sixties it was accepted that oppressed colonized groups ought to possess similar rights to auto-regulate to choose their political and sovereign status.

Courts and scholars introduced two different self-determination formats: “internal” and “external”. The former signified that all people should enjoy and deserve respect by mother state for their above-mentioned rights. As long as this happened, the “people” were not oppressed and need not challenge the territorial integrity of its mother state. If this is what TNA expects, the allergy the majority has against self determination will become redundant. Has this message gone down to the Southern majority?

The external self-determination applies to oppressed peoples whose above-mentioned rights are generally disrespected by the mother state and often subjected to heinous human rights abuses. In socio-political theory, such oppressed peoples have a right to external self-determination which included a right to remedial secession and independence.

I think only an eccentric would consider that the Tamils or Muslims in Sri Lanka are faced with such atrocity to demand external self-determination. The NPC Chief Minister (CM) C V Wigneswaran and TNA Leader R Sampanthan have openly disassociated from separation. It is encouraging. Nevertheless, has this message, in its true sense, been received by the southern majority?

When self-determination is publicized by the TNA or Tamil Diaspora, the immediate reaction by the majority is to declare that these rights are enjoyed by Tamils. The ordinary Tamil would not understand the theoretical qualifications for self-determination. But they “feel” for them psychologically: They feel for freedom, dignity, safety, respect, language, religion, places of worship, land etc. But, many authorities then rush to conclude that they are dealing with V Prabhakaran or V Rudrakumaran, self-declared Prime Minister of Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam or unruly Diaspora. They do not juxtapose ordinary Tamils’ ‘feelings’ and ‘rights’.

The separatist campaigners aiming to stratify them in the Tamil public eye do not think proactively on how reconciliation could be achieved. They demand the most vulnerable for immediate solution. It is assumed and presumed that CM Wigneswaran has intelligently and strategically opted to approach problems differently.

Occasional behavior of certain Southern groups also causes flaring up of minority group thinking. Some Southerners suspiciously speak in terms of Tamils/Muslims as groups awaiting secession. What they do not plan is to equate the majority enjoyed rights with that of minorities’ which may force them to even demand separation.

Applicable criteria for self-determination

The accepted view is that self-determination seekers need to meet four criteria in order to have their quest validated. They include showing by the relevant people that (a) it is oppressed, (b) its central government is relatively weak, (c) it is administered by some international organization or group, and, (d) it has attracted the most powerful state’s support.

Let us apply these four criteria to the Sri Lankan situation regarding separation. The GOSL considers the ‘oppression factor’ pursued by Tamil groups as historical past, defeated ‘humanitarianly’ in 2009, by wiping out terrorism and re-clinching the lost freedoms for everyone in the country.

The strength of the GOSL is the next issue. It is not weak and cannot be quoted as reason for separation. Its strength was seen by UNHRC’s Navi Pillay as showing “authoritarian” tendencies, which one may cynically call a weakness. History proves that Vladimir Lenin wished self determination to succeed though violence and Woodrow Wilson advanced the philosophy of self-determination through democratic means. V Prabhakaran attempted to gain self-determination through violence and incumbent CM Wigneswaran seems to follow Woodrow Wilson’s footsteps.

The third issue of administering by international organization or group is not applicable to Sri Lanka. I believe that the fourth criterion is the most crucial: i.e. support of the “Great Powers”. There had been the Tamil Diaspora and some Great Powers claiming the Tamils’ basic rights had been violated. Some internationals disagree on it. The former pins weaknesses in power-sharing, resourcing, operationalizing existing constitutional provisions, international covenants and sharing other freedoms enjoyed by the majority. Nevertheless, they appreciate development in the Region, but demand heart and mind winning by soft means. Incumbent GOSL has prioritized development but has been slow in the uptake of soft approaches. However, the corrections are also within the realms of the GOSL which should be noted when other criteria are weak to demand separation.

Plus status for GOSL

One great advantage for GOSL against secession lies in the fact that the international community views secession suspiciously. “Secession” means separation of a portion of an existing state, “whereby the separating entity either seeks to become a new state or to join yet another state, and whereby the original state remains in existence without the seceded territory.” The greatest / dogmatic external supporter for secession is Tamil Nadu, but it is not a separate state. Separation will be anathema to India and hence it cannot support separation in Sri Lanka and separatists will not enjoy the benefit of another state in proximity hugging the North and East as a strong force. But this need not isolate a seceded state, as will be apparent from later discussion.

Southern politicians (like the Tamil Nadu brethren who play power games) and GOSL make use of Tamil Nadu grumblings to oppose concessions (e.g. land, movement, livelihoods) given to the North and East on the pretext of threats of secession. This is possible because the Sri Lankan general public is less knowledgeable (like the Tamil public) on secession. CM Wigneswaran’s attitude expressed during the campaign asking Tamil Nadu to ‘mind its business’ would have been even a ploy to sedate this Southern negativity and to immunize the TNA.

Successful secessions have been rare because secession seems inherently at odds with the valued principles of state sovereignty and territorial integrity. Even the UN has never accepted and does not accept secession as a mode of self-determination, unless applied to people under colonial domination or oppression. Since colonial domination is inapplicable in our case, if the so-called State oppression of any semblance is alleviated to a satisfying extent, there cannot be any legal and conventional difficulty to stand against threats of secession. This approach is one that should attract the mind of the President.

Academics say that modern-day international law has come to embrace the right of non-colonial people to secede from an existing state, “when the group is collectively denied civil and political rights and subject to egregious abuses.” Is not this an avoidable pitfall for Sri Lanka, especially when the conflict is over? I rely on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission recommendations and selected UNHRC advice which could achieve this status.

International references

A frequent reference on internal and external self-determination evolves from a Canadian Supreme Court judgment. It says that when “the ability of a people to exercise its right to self-determination internally is somehow being totally frustrated,” only then does the right to external self-determination accrue. This distinguishing status between the two rights, internal self-determination from external self-determination, must be told to those who suspect the intentions of the TNA Manifesto (which focuses on internal self-determination) endorsed by the CM’s recent speech at the opening session of the NPC.

It is important to note that external self determination will not happen if the originally mentioned criteria are enjoyed by the “people”. It is not a difficult task to achieve. Secondly, the support the TNA/NPC could muster from the Great Power States and the UN may be restrained if proper steps are taken by the GOSL to step-up implementing the above-mentioned rights components. As one academic put across “…the right to separate is conditioned on the non-respect of the right to some form of provincial autonomy.” Is CM Wigneswaran genuinely trying to avoid this impasse or pushing to ensure failure by the GOSL?

Of course, there are certain issues that have been pointed out by the centre affecting devolution of Police and Land powers. But, these are issues for which solutions can be found through negotiations and institution building, and not by rhetoric from both sides. Of course, it has to be done with a constructive mind which is yet to be developed by the centre and the NPC.

Though the Canadian judgment says “When a people is blocked from the meaningful exercise of its right to self-determination internally, it is entitled, as a last resort, to exercise it by secession” one may, in the usual Sri Lankan fashion, argue that it is Canadian and ours is Sri Lankan. If one wishes to find solutions they must refuse thinking in narrow terms as these judgments contribute to decision making by the Great Powers.

Statehood and intervention

External self-determination can succeed with such support, with two other strengthened concepts: statehood and intervention.
According to the 1933 Montevideo Convention an entity can achieve statehood if it fulfills four criteria: a defined territory, permanent population, a government, and the capacity to enter into international relations.

Scholars have also elaborated additional criteria for statehood, including independence, sovereignty, permanence, willingness and ability to observe international law, and, in some cases, recognition. These are not easy criteria to satisfy. For example, Israel’s territory is disputed by its Arab neighbors; the two Koreas have battled over their border for decades. Take the criterion of population. Pacific island state of Nauru (10,000) and the city-state of San Marino (30,000) are states! For want of space, I do not discuss other criterion.

There are two theories of recognition: (a) the declaratory view (b) the constitutive view. The former is based on a purely political act; the latter depending on foreign recognition. The capacity to enter into international relations is closely linked to recognition. No state can exist in a vacuum. For example, when Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) decided to separate from Great Britain in 1965, most countries refused to recognize it. If our North and East secede it will be difficult to gain sovereign acceptance and recognition; if GOSL has done its part to satisfy the Great Powers and UN. Of course, a Tamil separatist might ask why care about recognition of statehood. The reality of cooperative existence dissuades such. I am certain these issues are well known to the TNA and CM Wigneswaran.

Intermediary view

The third ‘intermediary view’ seeks to combine the declaratory and constitutive view. This believes that outside states have a duty to recognize a new state if that state objectively satisfies the Montevideo criteria.

To this the new international theory of recognition was added in early 1990s, following the break-up of Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The EU Foreign Ministers developed guidelines on the recognition of new states in Europe based on respect for human rights, as well as the protection of minority rights. Under this, an entity applying for statehood within the EU had to prove that it treated minority groups fairly and that it respected minority rights in its territory. Brushing away these demands may convince acceptance of a seceded state. Who has the spoon to make sure things do not happen in the negative form? It is the Government.

The criterion is further evolving. For instance, there had been additional conditions laid, e.g. the Badinter Commission insisting that Macedonia undertake not to alter its frontiers by means of force (renouncing all territorial claims against neighbors). As one academic said “In other words, powerful decision-makers are telling new states that they will only be accepted as full players if they vow to respect the rule of law and to adhere to preserving regional stability and peace.”

Whether GOSL could find access to powerful nations to defend its cause will depend on its reconciliation actions and the failures of the minorities to harness support for secession and the failures of the TNA/NPC to win over the Great Powers.

Involuntary sovereign waiver

Some Great Powers have taken the liberty (e.g. US Presidents) to intervene even by attempting to stretch its contours by constructing a so-called “involuntary sovereignty waiver” justification. One such is the US “advancing the idea that countries constructively waive their traditional sovereignty shield and invite international intervention when they undertake to massacre their own people, harbor terrorists, or pursue weapons of mass destruction.” We may abhor this stance, but it has been practiced elsewhere.

Sane advice

As Milena Sterio says “The idea of self-determination, in the modern world, seems closely linked to state sovereignty and intervention. Because states are only “conditionally” sovereign, they may not suppress legitimate self-determination movements indefinitely. If states choose to oppress self-determination movements, then such movements may seek help from external actors, typically the Great Powers, which may intervene to help the struggling movement achieve some form of self-determination. As in the case of Kosovo, the Great Powers may intervene to assist the struggling movement in achieving the most drastic form of external self-determination, namely, remedial secession and independence.”

This is sane advice that can be remembered in dealing with challenges of internal self determination which, wrongly handled, would extend to external self-determination. The TNA Manifesto has taken secession off the clipboard. But, if they are pushed to the precipice, for life-saving they will do the most appropriate for them. This, and the fact that the influential Great Powers are watching us cannot be overlooked, though need not be over-rated. I believe that if internal self-determination is achieved successfully, the possibility of separation will become a hoax.

*The writer acknowledges an article on Right to External Self-Determination by Milena Sterio in writing this.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    “The GOSL considers the ‘oppression factor’ pursued by Tamil groups as historical past, defeated ‘humanitarianly’ in 2009, by wiping out terrorism and re-clinching the lost freedoms for everyone in the country.”

    But they lost every thing at the very first delyed ( delayed by 4 years) Poll to a Political Novice despite burning and looting at the NPC Polls.

    Please try and analyse from the Middle. Yours is not an analysis but a Statement from One Corner.. get to the middle of th Ring.


  • 0

    Another seemingly objective view propagating majoritatian view in disguise.

    After all as a Sinhalese he would want to white wash away all atrocities heaped on Tamils by the Sri Lankan state since independence.

    He even ignores the massacre of Tamils in Mullivaaikkaal in war crimes & genocide.

  • 0

    Seperatism was not the first option though. Their first option was preservation of caste culture that ensures Vellalar remains at the top. Seperatism means bloodshed, turmoil and devasataion. Tamils nationalists obviously knew the pitfalls.

    Altthough when it comes to choosing between giving up casteism vs seperatist campaingn even with all its pitfalls they choose the latter. The lower castes belive this is about preservation of thier culture. Although its far from the reality. The Vellalar politicians constanly whips up racism and xenophobia to “unite” all Tamils against a cause that is inherenltly not in their well being. This is why in Tamil politics whether SL or Tamil Nadu the biggest Tamil bigot wins really.

    The CHOGM campain in TN is the same thing. TN elections are on their way. Karunanidhi whips up racism against Sinhalese. Jayalalitha knows unless she match or tops him she cannot win. She also joins the bandwagon of the biggots. Douglous Devananda played with a straight bat but could not win. Next time in order to win he will have to become a bigger biggots than Sampathan to win the north.

    • 0

      I believe Vibhushana’s explanation.

      FOr me, Mr. Austin Fernando is just don’t understand it even though he was a ministry Secretary of a very important ministry in Sri Lanka and amidst all his achievements including his experience.

      It should be Tamils own thinking pattern or mentality. So, the Caste factor comes first. Then who and which political party refuse if they were given the option of a separate country ?. So, what TNA is talking about the separation is true. but, even they know it is just their imagination. Because, Sri Lanka, forget Sri Lanka, Even if Sri Lankans offer a separate country to Tamils, India would not allow it.

      Austin Fernando is just showing his hallucination, stupidity or he is just trying to fool the readers ?

    • 0

      Sinhala Buddhists have no caste because Buddha orderded them and Pakses and the Fonseka’s although having indonesian and Portugese blood still dont observe caste. Only tamils and indians observe all the bad things.

      Just like their claims of war crimes. we have been so sweet to the tamils since we made sinhala only in 1958….

      • 0

        That’s untrue, Sinhala Buddhists do have caste , it’s just not as pronounced and open like Hindus. There was an article here a few months back about a Sinhala Doctor chastising a Sinhala commoner for his lowly caste.
        I have an immediate family member who is Kandyan Sinhalese (upper caste Sinhalese), and while this family member does not recognize caste, I was told it is an artifact of Sinhala life too but is not as pernicious as Hindu casteism .

  • 0

    if you think its a hoax you are nothing but an educated idiot . learn form 30 years of HISTORY boy ,,

    • 0

      Boy learn from the 65 years of oppression of Tamils first.

      Don’t leave the first 35 years out conveniently and talk about so-called terrorism!

    • 0


      You are right Gotha from Detroit. We learnt from 33 years of Brutal History from 1950- 1983 and dont worry after March 2014 The Tamil Nadu Army ( TNA) are coming. Count down for smooth Landing for Tamils and Crash Landing for the 20 million Sinhalese Racists starts.
      Eelam is in the making.

  • 0

    So Tamil homeland is a hoax.

    We knew it all along.

    • 1

      Yes separation is possible.The trouble makers will be separated from the mainland.As in 2009,they can have their separation either at Nandikadal or the blue sea!

      • 0

        Max Silva

        “Yes separation is possible.”


        Expatriation of descendants of Kalathoni including Tamils and Sinhalese is possible and very likely.

        Prepare for the countdown.

      • 0

        Max you Moron,

        Yes you are right the Sinhalese trouble makers will be evicted from Tamil Land by the Tamil Nadu Army( TNA). If in doubt ask Dayan.

  • 0

    “But, many authorities then rush to conclude that they are dealing with V Prabhakaran or V Rudrakumaran, self-declared Prime Minister of Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam or unruly Diaspora”.====>The author sounded like he has never been out of Srilanka nor spoken to any Westerner, Last week, I was taking to one of the Canadian Labour Union Leader he hailed Tamils as very organised group that Tamils can organised a mass protest in a week, no other smiler Western groups have that disciplined and organised also Insiders of the party knows that the Tamils are well organised and disciplined people.It is good the “many authorities” thing that Tamil diaspora is “unruly Diaspora”. Has this author ever heard a single incident during any mass protest ?. The author has no clue of the structure and how TGTE was formed , there were election held in many parts of the world and Members were selected by ballots and the members in turn elected the Premier.The author have no idea about activities of Diaspora. F.I.Y : British labour party Leader Hon. Millband and PM Hon.Camaron both have/will meet diaspora before Commonwealth Conference.

  • 0

    External self determination is now totally out of the question because no country on Earth supports such a demand. However Tamils will relentlessly pursue the goal of internal self determination. There is nothing for the Sinhalese to fear in such pursuit as it will create greater harmony and peace the dividends of which could be reaped by all the people resident in the island the era of dynastic wars are far behind us. We all should look forward and think positively.

    Sengodan. M

  • 0

    For Fernando to say that “The ordinary Tamil would not understand the theoretical qualifications for self-determination,” is the same as one saying that occupants of their own home stolen from them do not understand the qualifications of owning a home. The author is an idiot to refer to us as ‘Unruly’ Diaspora. Like as though we are property and children of GOSL. Tamil Eelam has been in existence since before the British arrived and merged the so called island nation of Sri Lanka into one. GOSL is the new British Raj illegally occupying Tamil Eelam!

    • 0

      It is wrong to perceive that Sinhalese oppose to find a solution based on internal or external self determination because of fear. It is more of an election gimmick and opportunism played by the High caste Sinhalese political and religious leadership. What is the fear for Sinhalese about a separate state for Tamils? If that fear is true, Sinhalese have no power to stop that happening? You may think it is now out of question but if the oppression continuous and Sri Lanka become a murderous state ignoring the international conventions and follow a genocidal path as it follows over the past 65 years, the false fear created by Sri lankan leaders will take a sudden turn in favor of a separate state. Sri Lankan should remember that there was a direct intervention by India when the Sinhala state encouraged Sinhala people to massacre Tamils in 1983. No one in the world had the power to stop that intervention. We all know now China’s influence on Sri Lanka and some Sinhalese think that we can do whatever we like but we should learn from the experience of what happened in Irag, Libya, Syria, Kosovo and many other nations. China is now becoming a economic power but still not developed far enough to intervene or help militarily to any other small country like Sri lanka. The reality is the western world is soft in the Asian region and they do not want to focus on this region. India is the power that can make important decisions about its neighbors like Sri Lanka. The china guard is well studied in India and India wants to remove the hurdles to their security. If circumstances change against Sri Lanka, that is unavoidable disaster to Sinhala race. The choice is Internal self determination and improved relationship with Tamils and India or external self determination and continuous threat from India!

  • 0

    An excellent book, by a world renowned expert – in this case, a political scientist:

    The Break-Up of Sri Lanka: The Sinhalese-Tamil Conflict

    by A. Jeyaratnam Wilson




    – masquerading as Sri Lankan ‘multi – ethnic civic nationalism’



    Buddhism Betrayed?

    Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka

    By S.J.Tambiah

    Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah is emeritus professor of anthropology at Harvard University, and was a former chairman of that department.

    Front Cover of an earlier paperback edition by the same publisher:



  • 0

    Talking in theoretical platitudes will not take us anywhere. The realities on the ground are that the Tamil people through repeated acts of discrimination against them, xenophobia, attempts to change the demographic ethnic composition in the traditional Tamil speaking areas, regular demonstrations of state terrorism through Pogroms from 1956 to 1983, the advent of the 1978 Constitution, the burning of the Jaffna library in 1981 done with State patronage to mention a few had felt that they had been alienated in their own homeland by the acts of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists constituting what is called a democracy controlled by a numerical majority. This is the Sri Lankan democracy that we often talk about. This gave rise to Tamil militancy termed terrorism destroyed along with at least 40,000 innocent civilians.
    Currently there is army domination, the acts of compulsory acquisition of the private lands of the Tamil speaking peoples in the north and the east and the continuing abuse of women of all ages by the armed forces. Despite the facades of roads and railways but with the overall health of the people neglected, the Tamils by any token would like to live in a separate land of their own despite the attendant disadvantages but what can bring about a conciliatory change of mind is the acceptance of the concept of internal self- determination as envisaged by Wigneswaran.

  • 0

    A hoax in 70’s became a possibility in 90’s…….because of stupid JR.


  • 0

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy

  • 0

    “Thiru” did they massacre Tamils at Mullivaikal??
    I am of the view that they were human shields caught in a crossfire
    JUST AS those innocent lives are lost in Drone attacks on Taliban terrorists.
    Nothing deliberate.

    • 0

      Thiru does not acknowledge the human shield or any other atrocities committed by the LTTE.

  • 0

    Over 30 % of the Colombo inhabitants are Tamils.

    Most are Business owner, operators, and well paid employees.

    Some are high net worth individuals,and high profile lawyers, doctors, and even politicians who petition the Highest court challenging the legality of the CJ and the Govt Budget.

    Mrs Selliah sells LKR 576 Million worth of Lanka Tiles stock in one hit.

    Is there any Oppression here?.

    • 0

      K.A Sumanasekera

      “Over 30 % of the Colombo inhabitants are Tamils.”

      99.999999999999999% of the Lankies are stupid. Yet we put up with them.

      What is your problem?

      “Mrs Selliah sells LKR 576 Million worth of Lanka Tiles stock in one hit. Is there any Oppression here?.”

      Whom did she sell?
      Did she sell the business at market price?
      Who did arrange the deal?
      What rate of commission did the broker charge?
      Who did receive commission?
      Who did put pressure on her to sell her business?

  • 0

    AUSTIN Fernando He I think is the man responsible along with Eric Solheim to make the terrorist a sort of a regular army with Army Insignia like Colonels, Admirals, Generals, etc. in order for the Government representatives to sit with them peace talks held in different countries. That was the worst thing that one could have done to terrorists

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