17 April, 2024


Wiggie Vs Dayan And The Self-Determination As A 21-C Concept

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Wigneswaran and Dayan need to update their categories. Justice CV Wigneswaran (CV) made a splendid presentation at the Bernard Soysa 100-th birth anniversary commemoration and Dr Dayan Jayatilleka (DJ) responded in newspaper and web. The polemic is about one aspect of CV’s address, Self-Determination. I have the temerity to wade into this clash of giants with a correction; both these mighty intellects are stuck with concepts, which unless refined for modern times, have outlived their usefulness. Concepts like Self-Determination and Secession should be used in current discourse, taking into account both their methodological origin (mostly in Leninist discourse) and also accompanied by an exercise in lateral thinking that adapts them to globalised 21-st Century reality.

CV’s use of the terms State and Nation (capital S and N) is impeccably Leninist.

“A State with a capital ‘S’ may mean a self governing political entity recognized by the international community as a distinct state or a division of a federal entity. In the first sense it can be used interchangeably with ‘Country’.  But a Nation is a tightly knit group of people who share a common culture and perceive themselves as such. A Nation State is a Nation, which is coterminous with the borders of a State. Nations are groups of people having relatively greater cultural homogeneity, and perceive themselves to be distinctive.  They are generally larger than a single tribe or community, and share a common language, institutions or religion or religions, and historical experiences”.

This is classic Lenin; the absolutist Tsarist State, versus, for example, the Georgian people struggling against oppression, feudal remnants and primitive social structures. Lenin stood firmly with National Liberation, notwithstanding its bourgeois leadership. It represented historical progress and was a potential ally of the revolutionary proletariat. Morally for the former reason, and strategically for the later, he was glad to recognise the right of Nations to Self-Determination including the right to Secede. CV falls short of Lenin; he demurs, I guess for tactical reasons, and refrains from mentioning the right to Secede. I understand; it’s wise.

DJ, I know not why, now eschews the Leninism he was wedded to in his more consistent and I dare say more respected salad days, bursts of youthful testosterone notwithstanding. What is the meaning of a passage like this from an avowed Marxist? (I not sure if he calls himself one any longer). It is so theoretically wrong, and so at odds with the times.

“The problem with the Chief Minister’s assertion is that the ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ are slightly under 4% of the island’s population, while the Sinhalese are roughly 74%. (The CIA World Factbook, a source with which the TNA can surely have no problem, says the Sri Lankan Tamils are 3.9%). There would be chaos if every country were to accord the status of nationhood to every ethnic group which is 4% and above, not least because the status of nationhood brings with it the claim of the inalienable right of self determination up to and including political independence”.

DJ carelessly quotes an incorrect statistic, the 4% should be about 12%, but methodologically that’s beside the point. It could be 4%, 14% or 40%; Self-Determination is not graduated. One big State or six smaller ones, what does it matter, what’s the skin off his back, or mine? Isn’t this the sort of thing that Lenin in his day called Great Russian Chauvinism? DJ’s error is that he raises the wrong, the non-Leninist, and the non-21st-Century objections. I will return to a rational element in what he is saying before signing off, but first the barebones of Self-Determination and Secession.

The Right to Self-Determination including Secession

The simplest statement of the principle is this: If a cohesive group of people X, inhabiting a territory Y as a majority, can establish a credible separate State Z, and the group wants to secede from State W and constitute itself as State Z, it has the moral and political right to Secede and to establish Sate Z. (The alternative is to retain them by force). There is an equally fundamental second part to the principle: Anyone who accepts this principle (say KD) has an absolute right to campaign among people X, for or against secession, depending on what in his view is better. Nevertheless, if X eventually insists, one way or the other, that decision stands.

A few clarifications will be useful. Lanka’s Muslims (too dispersed) and Upcountry Tamils (too intermingled) are examples of an X without a Y; most linguistic states in India possess X and Y, but have no aspiration to quit W (India) and form their own Z. The Ceylon Tamils have X and Y but whether they want Z, at the present time, is debatable.

While bowing to people’s eventual right to secede, whether, say KD, should in the interim campaign for or against secession varies case by case. Facing a secessionist choice one needs to judge the prosperity of the hypothesised State (democratic prospects, economic outlook, international relationships) and whether its birth will be peaceful (Slovenia, the Czech-Slovak velvet divorce, Crimea, maybe Scotland) or blood soaked (East Timor, ex-Yugoslavia except Slovenia, South Sudan). It should be a thought out, carefully weighed and politically intelligent decision, not an emotional one.

Secession in modern times

Lenin’s approach is fine, but a century has passed since the Lenin-Luxemburg debates and a lot of water has passed under the bridge. First and very significant is that X no longer need be a Nation in CV’s sense of cultural homogeneity. If hypothetically, it is OK for Scotland to secede, would it not be OK, even if the people north of Gretna Green spoke three languages and worshiped four different gods, to jointly establish their Z-Scotland? Of course there is no problem. The requirement would be that X be cohesive, not homogeneous in culture or Nationality, but cohesive only in that they wish to secede and create their own separate State. In modern globalised times this is the sole measure of identity that can be imposed in validating X. Globalised supply-chains, collapsing trade barriers and universal digital connectedness have erased ‘economies of scale’ in State size; there is no optimum.

Taiwan is a thriving example; it consists of four groups with not at all a common history except after the fall of the KMT in China; there is not all that much cultural homogeneity except that created by modern capitalism (which is exactly my point); but they share one cohesive marker of identity – they wish to remain a separate State. Ok, whatever the facts, grant this hypothetically. Then eureka, you have your X! These peoples (note plural) Hoklo, Hakka, Mainlanders who came with the KMT, and the Originals, are entitled to their post-secession State. The PRC should bow to their right to continuing Self-Determination.

Numbers and sizes are irrelevant; DJ is way off the mark. Take Singapore; it was kicked out of Malaysia by the stupid Malays in 1965 and has prospered gloriously ever since. This is not exactly a case of secession by self-determination but by expulsion (Lee Kwan Yue described it as “The only instance in modern history where a country was formed because it was kicked out”). But it would not have made the slightest difference to the prosperity of non-homogeneous Singapore or Malaysia if it had been the other way round. So dear DJ, in some things size does not matter; and your Honour, nor does homogeneity.

A few more examples of small, independent and economically viable States that contradict DJ’s obsession with size. Latvia and Lithuania are each the size of Lanka and have populations of 2.2 million and 3.2 million, respectively, while Estonia is 70% of our size and has a population of 1.7 million. Rwanda and Burundi are each 40% of Lanka’s size and have populations which are each half ours. There are more examples of viable small states, provided the near-abroad is supportive.

Latvia and Estonia contradict the thesis of cultural homogeneity as a necessary condition to secede and form a stable State. Latvia is ethnically mixed, 60% Latvians, 27% Russians and 13% others, while Estonia is 69% Estonians, 26% Russians and 5% others.  To put it bluntly, X is any cohesive group that desires to constitute itself into a State so as to benefit in modern times from a globalised ethos; bugger homogeneity and culture!

Valid concerns

Given a cohesive X, living in preferably a contingent territory Y, and desiring a separate State Z which will be viable, that’s the end of the Right to Self-Determination story; that’s the easy part. The hard part starts now. Shall we tell them to secede or not? The answer has to be sought in the rational not the emotional part of the cerebrum. It depends on whether X will be better off afterwards and how high the cost of secession. Let me repeat myself, it bears repetition; one must consider the stability and prosperity of the hypothesised State; in particular its democratic and constitutional prospects, economic outlook for the mass of the population, and the international atmosphere, especially the near-abroad.  This has to be comparative; the alternative is the status quo. The other crucial concern is whether the birth of Z will be relatively peaceful or soaked in blood and conflict.

This last point is the rational element in what DJ is saying but getting all back to front. Had he said “Yeah sure, you guys have the right to secede but don’t be bloody fools, the cost is too high; see what happened to Prabaharan. Let’s give it a fight within this State and get devolution, let’s get international support, let’s work on it, it’s not hopeless yet” he would be half right. The other half is to campaign among the Sinhalese masses (not the Tamils, they know what they lack) for minority rights. Actually DJ has a consistent record on this last matter in the English language media. Now he must take on the real task; proselytising in Sinhala and among JVPish types. Instead, he is wasting his time preaching to the Rajapakses.

Related posts;

Brother Bernard And The National Question by C.V. Wigneswaran

Wigneswaran’s ‘Two Nations’ & The State’s Two Blunders by Dayan Jayatilleka

Reading Against The Grain: Notes On Wigneswaran’s Speech On The National Question by Mahendran Thiruvarangan

Response To Mahendran Thiruvarangan On The CM’s Chinthana by Dayan Jayatilleka

Should Minorities Remain Minority Forever? A Response To Dayan Jayatilleka’s Response by Mahendran Thiruvarangan

Minority As Nation: The Politics Of Collective Delusion – Rejoinder To Mahendran Thiruvarangan by Dayan Jayatilleka

Bernard, Doric, MD Banda Centenaries And Wigneswaran’s Commemoration Speech By Rajan Philips

Tamil Perspective: Dangerous And Genocidal Dayange Chinthanaya By Usha S Sri-Skanda-Rajah 

Recognition Of Sinhalese, Tamils And Muslims As Equal Cultural Nations Might Be A Solution By Laksiri Fernando

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 5

    One of the best pieces ever written on the topic of right of self determination with so much clarity and sensibility!

    Sengodan. M

    • 2

      A””h.So superb.

      No words to describe such erudite writing!
      It is a pity that it is all going to waste.

    • 0

      “If a cohesive group of people X, inhabiting a territory Y as a majority, can establish a credible separate State Z, and the group wants to secede from State W and constitute itself as State Z, it has the moral and political right to Secede and to establish Sate Z.”

      Come again, Dr David? CT readers don’t understand Apabhramsa, sorry.

  • 2

    With a tone of clarifying the matters for everybody, Pro.David is putting argument to Tamils that they have to rethink of their goals and objectives. In an Ideal to normal situation, his argument goes very well.

    I have seen not all the intelligent kids at schools in our time was allowed to continue their education by parents. It is not that they were not fit to continue the education. But the parents can not lose the land they were cultivating by allowing the child to study. To feed him, they have to keep the land. To keep the land they need unpaid labor. So he/she need to be stopped from continuing studying. This is what the current Tamils situation.

    If you elect to stay with Colombo, you may get an employment at Colombo. But that’s it. No other benefits. No economical developments, no education, no foreign loan, no internal investments from Tax money…. (Basil is threatening to stop Indian housing projects if CV is not meeting him. He is not the Rehabilitation minister. The American offer to rebuild schools is rejected. ADB Iranaimadu project has to be halted as the water is going to diverted to Army camps only. Tamils will not be able to do anything at all, independently) In return for that, from the start of 1956, The colombo, Ampara communal troubles to yesterday’s 4 people death, with the name of suppressing the non existing LTTE, has to be put up with. DS to to King, there was no leader of GOSL had been honest to Tamils on their promises for a solution to their rights.

    Instead of letting the boy die at school and they lose land they cultivate and their home, the small hut, the parent stop the child from the school, even it was the most intelligent kid in the class room. When running the cost of the factory is much more than dismantling and selling it to scram metal. that is what a businessman would do. He would not like keep running the factory any more. His experience with it is he had enough of it. He like to sell off it finally. This is the Tamils position now. Tamils are not in situation of considering the cost of separation only. The most important element for them is the social cost of staying together.

  • 1

    Yes Sengodan but I wish David had explicitly mentioned one point that is only implicit in his write up.

    (i) While now a days new nations usually arise from non-homogeneous collections of minorities/cultures provide they are able to form a viable and better state of their own;
    (ii) It is also possible that this group (David’s X) MAY BE AN OLD STYLE HOMOGENEOUS NATION.

    Both are possible.

    I guess it’s obvious but better mention it.

  • 2

    “..“Yeah sure, you guys have the right to secede but don’t be bloody fools, the cost is too high; see what happened to Prabaharan. Let’s give it a fight within this State and get devolution, let’s get international support, let’s work on it, it’s not hopeless yet” he would be half right. The other half is to campaign among the Sinhalese masses (not the Tamils, they know what they lack) for minority rights…”

    Send the bloody racist Rajapakshas to hell with the support of all and support RW to form a democratic govt. where HR, law and order, constitutional reforms, devolution of power to Minorities are guaranteed as per international norms, let the country and peoples to prosper and grow goodwill, respect and faith among each other, let the peoples be given proper education and help them to transcend ethnic religious and divisional boundaries as hate-each-other. No one would ever speak of secession. This is where all this travail ends. Show me an alternative if you can!

  • 3

    “it was kicked out of Malaysia by the stupid Malays”

    At least the Malays did not bestialize themselves like the Sinhalese and don’t have innocent blood screaming to high heaven from their land! I do not know how the educated friends of MR like DJ and Rajeeva and Dr. Carlo Fonseka sleep at night anymore.

  • 1

    Well said David,

    Your view is objective, clear and pragmatic without slanting towards Sinhala imperialism or Tamil nationalism.

  • 2

    A very logical and an almost mathematical contribution to a critical national debate at this point in time.

    Dr. Dayan Jayatileke has referred to the Sinhalese and Tamils as tribes in his recent article. He is probably implying that both communities are behaving like primitive tribes. He would have been more accurate if he had said that both the Sinhalese and Tamils are / were led by persons with primitive tribal attitudes- like the head hunters of old in parts of Africa and the Papua New Guinea in days long past. Even such tribes had values. Albert Schweitzer, recalled how head hunting tribes in Gambia, were appalled by the indiscriminate deaths in their thousands in Europe during the First World War! He confessed that he had to bow his head in shame! What are our values and our sense of national shame?

    Further, coming back to Chief Minister Wigneswaran reference to nations, and the logical inference that there are several different nations and nationalisms existing within Sri Lanka, the question is what brand of nationalism is our government peddling? Is it a Sinhala nationalism, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism or a Sri Lankan nationalism? If it is either of the first two, tribalism has been enthroned as never before by this regime. Whatever sentiments MR has been expressing disingenuously over nine years, the facts on the ground indicate he is waving the tribal flag to retain and perpetuate his hold on absolute power. He has demonstrated over time that he is a pompous, shameless and lying dictator, who will stoop to any level to hold onto power. HE IS OUR PROBLEM AND OUR NATIONAL BURDEN.

    Only the Sinhala people , particularly the Buddhists among them, can put an end to the ‘action and reaction’ tribalism in this country. Is this too much to expect, considering how MR and his cohorts are effectively hood winking and scaring the Sinhala masses and the Sinhala intelligentsia? All communities in Sri Lanka are the victims of the malfeasance of this government. It is time we wake up to this truth.

    Dr.Rajasingham a Narendran

  • 1

    Brother CV Wigneswaran is a much sought after speaker among the elite circles nowadays. Last year he delivered a SJV Chelvanayagam lecture.Now,he presented Brother Bernard Soysa memorial lecture in Colombo.Of course, during the last provincial election he sort of delivered Prapakaran memorial lecture in Valvettiturai and praised him as a great hero. If the JVP invites him for Rohana lecture, then the list will be complete.CVW is now the darling of the right and what is left of the left.Srilanka is now in so pathetic condition that we cannot have any discussion on any matter without the contribution of theoretician CVW.
    However,brother CVW has not spoken the truth ,the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He is complaining that Tamils are losing their nationhood by the Sinhala settlement. At the same time, he says that Canada is made of two nations(English and French).The learned CV should tell us where do the native people of Canada fit in .So,in Canada, European settlers have two nations while the native people have nothing. We have to bear in mind that European colonialists went to Americas and decimated the people ,culture etc.Now ,these white supremacists come to our countries to teach us human rights,good governance, democracy etc. We have local cheer leaders for these white supremacists who are always willing to dance hysterically to the western music .The fair judge CVW should not forget that the Tamils who were settled in the upcountry, completely changed the demography and doing injustice to the local Sinhalese.
    When he referred to the 1965 government, he conveniently hide the fact that the Federal Party(IATK)was part of the government.By the way,where does the Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils come into his nation theory. We can go on and on about the lies and inconsistencies in his speech.
    We must not forget that what dean of the NGO s Pakiyasothy Saravanamuthu discussed with the American ambassador is more important than what Professors KD and Laksiri Fernando write on nationhood. What the IC,NGO,Western governments think on a country that mattes most than what Lenin wrote several years ago.By the way,comrade KD should organize and invite brother CVW to deliver comrade Annamali(killed by the Tigers) lecture on the topic of “killing Marxist- Leninists”.
    Comrade KD, first of all, if you are a follower of Lenin,why are you keeping mum on Ukraine, where statues of Lenin are being demolished under the watch of American imperialism.Will you write something on this relevant matter.

  • 1

    Fine viewpoint lucidly explained by Kumar David. I agree totally.

    I have always advocated that the Tamil politician must address the Sinhala public and not the government or the governing party with a view to turning the majority mindset. This is a difficult task but one that must be tried despite the racism in the ruling government parties and the obvious counter propaganda that will ensue from the state media. This must be the first step in establishing trust. As for secession the cost is far too high to contemplate.

    • 1

      Your right the Tamil politician must directly address the Sinhalese public over the heads of their Sinhalese politically leaders..
      In fact it was with that purpose and intention in mind that the ‘Saturday Review’ was started in the 1980’s in the North ito be followed up with a Singhalese sister paper along with a Tamil version. But that purpose got deflected and bogged down for various reasons.
      Now there is new technology in the form of internet and the mobile phone which can be used and the possibilities are many.
      Tamil politicians and media people must sit down and discus with technical experts form both sides of the communal divide and arrive at a decision.

  • 0

    An excellent response to Dayan,But why you praise Dayan for advocating minority rights! And why among JVPers and not among JHUers?

  • 0

    What the Learned Professor KD has put together (X, Y and Z) is like an economic theory. My hero late Professor Ronald Coase claimed these as “Blackboard Economics” given the irrelevancy of such theories to the reality. What is the question that KD trying to solve with this lucid theory? Is it “Tamil national Question”(put bluntly this question would be that the aspirations of Ceylonese Tamils have been systematically deprived through the government administrative mechanisms, I called this Q1)? Or solving problems of Northern province Tamils by entertaining the idea of establishing a northern Tamil separate state (Z)? I called this Q2. These Q1 and Q2 are two very different in nature and answers to these questions have to be fundamentally different. Let us start with KD’s theory for separate state Z. In the present ground reality, Z is only valid for the Northern Province where: “cohesive group of people X (Ceylonese Tamil), inhabiting a territory Y as a majority (only in the Northern Province), can establish a credible separate State Z (so called Tamil Elam)”. Of the total Ceylonese Tamil, as far back as in 1911, the northern province had only 66% of the total and in 2012 (I have some reservation on this number) this dropped to 43.5%. Using KD’s logic, if you answer Q2 , your Q1 is still not solved fully because 56% of the Ceylonese Tamil who “suffer” from Q1 will continue to suffer even if Z is established.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.