During the course of his address to the National Convention of the ITAK in Batticoloa on May 26th 2012, Mr. R. Sampanthan articulated an ideology that could seriously set back efforts to evolve a political solution and foster reconciliation. This ideology is no different to that which ignited the flames of Sri Lanka’s 30-year-long armed conflict. Considering the death, suffering and destruction occurred over 30 years, one would have expected a more chastened outlook from the Tamil leadership. Its absence indicates that the interests of the Tamil leadership are to continue the conflict through other means.
The essence of the ideology as stated by Mr. Sampanthan is:
1. “…the sovereignty of the Tamil people is based on a political structure…in which Tamil people have all the powers of government needed to live with self respect and self sufficiency. We believe that only within such a structure of government can the Tamil people truly enjoy the right to internal self-determination that is their inalienable right.”
2. “The position that the North and East of Sri Lanka are the areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking people cannot be compromised in this structure of government. We must have unrestricted authority to govern our own land, protect our own people, and develop our own economy, culture and tradition.”
3. “Our acceptance of this position (beyond the 13th Amendment) does not mean that we consider the 13th Amendment to be an acceptable solution, nor that, in the event our right of internal self-determination is continuously denied, we will not claim our right under international law to external self-determination”.
TAMIL PEOPLE and TAMIL SPEAKING PEOPLE
Thus, as declared, the right to Internal self-determination and if “continuously denied”, to External self-determination, is ONLY for the TAMIL PEOPLE. On the other hand, when it comes to claiming “the North and East (as) areas of historical habitation” the reference is to TAMIL-SPEAKING PEOPLE. It is apparent from this distinction that the Tamil- speaking Muslims and others who do not speak Tamil are excluded from the processes of self determination. That right is reserved for the TAMIL PEOPLE. By implication, the fate of others would be determined for them by the Tamil people.
Who would be the Tamil people claiming these special rights and privileges? They have to be ONLY those living in the Northern Provinces, because Tamils in the Eastern Province did not subscribe to claims of self- determination at the 1977 election, when an overwhelming 73% opposed the creation of a separate state on the basis of a right to self determination. Further polarization manifested itself during the war with the Eastern wing of the LTTE breaking away from the rest. As for the Plantation Tamils, they have not been associated with claims of self- determination and for the Tamils elsewhere in Sri Lanka, self- determination has no relevance. Tamils living outside the North constitute the majority of Tamils in Sri Lanka, and to them, self-determination has no appeal or relevance. Under these circumstances, the right to self determination would have relevance ONLY to those in the Northern Province. Thus, self determination is being sought by a minority of a national minority!
Considering the fact that neither the many Charters, Declarations and Covenants to which the world community committed nor the opinions of persons of international repute such as Antonio Cassese, Asbjorn Eide, John Chipman, Don Ronan, Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, et al, advocate the right to self determination for a minority, let alone such a right for a minority of a minority, it is inconceivable how the Tamil leadership hopes to garner the support of the International Community and India for their cause. If the latter did support such a proposition it would not be too long before minorities as well as minorities of minorities in every country, exploit the precedent created in Sri Lanka to justify claims to self-determination that would result in the dismemberment of states with serious consequences to global stability. However, Sri Lanka cannot afford to rely on the positions taken by the International Community because of their tendencies to alter position depending on how issues affect their respective self- interests. Therefore, Sri Lanka has to rely on its own resources and adopt strategies to protect its interests.
“UNRESTRICTED AUTHORITY TO GOVERN our own LAND…” etc.
The opportunity to govern only a part of Sri Lanka without restriction is constitutionally an unrealistic prospect as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, because the existence of such an asymmetrical arrangement would amount to endorsing two political systems within one country. Furthermore could Mr. Sampanthan name one country in the world where such an arrangement exists? On the other hand, the alternative arrangement where unrestricted authority is granted to all provinces to govern themselves for reasons of symmetry would cause Sri Lanka to cease to exist as a nation state. However, such a prospect could become real through external intervention with the assistance of Tamil Nadu in the context of Chief Minister Karunaidhi’s dream of a Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. Considering the increasing ability of India’s State Governments to influence the Union Government, a fact that manifested itself in the recently passed UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka, the “dreams” in Tamil Nadu and “soaring aspirations” in Sri Lanka should not be dismissed as ramblings of aging politicians. Instead, they should be treated as serious possibilities even though for the present the Union Government in Delhi may not want political arrangements in Sri Lanka to go beyond those in India. However, for the Union Government to yield to pressures from Tamil Nadu concerning Sri Lanka without disturbing the current political arrangements within India assumes the status of real possibility as a consequence of internal coalition political exigencies.
In this context, the developing relationship between the US and India has relevance to Sri Lanka. The statement by George Little, spokesman for the US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to the Indian leaders “underscores the link India plays between East and West and how the United States views India as a net provider of security” in the region (The Washington Post, June 6, 2012). A further factor is the personal relationships that are being nurtured by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Chief Ministers of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. It is this emerging nexus that the Tamil leadership is hoping to exploit. Sri Lanka has to prepare itself to meet the challenges from the collective influence of these emerging trends.
OPTIONS for SRI LANKA
The threat to Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity is the existing structural arrangement where the Province is the territorial unit to which power is devolved. It is not the extent of devolved powers that makes Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity vulnerable. It is the Province as the political unit that makes it so. The Province as the political unit would make the Northern Province a political unit with a Tamil majority, the Eastern Province a political unit with a Muslim majority and the remaining seven provinces political units with Sinhala majorities. Ethnic concentrations within territorially based political units have historically been associated with vulnerability; a recent example being Kosovo – the former province of Serbia that separated to become an independent State with the aid of NATO intervention. Other instances are the separation of East Timor following a referendum, and the creation of South Sudan also through a referendum. Ethnic concentrations in defined regions have been and would continue to encourage the fanning of conflicts in countries.
The tried and tested strategy to discourage such tendencies is to create smaller political entities out of larger units. A few instances where this strategy was followed is in the break up of former Empires in Europe; the break up of the political power of the Kandyan Kingdom by the British when they created the provinces; the break up of the Madras Presidency following separatist tendencies in the South India, and the reconstitution of India into smaller linguistic states. Sri Lanka too should preempt the temptation for the Tamil leadership to use precedents created to seek external self-determination with the aid of the International Community and India based on claims that their right to internal self determination has been “continuously denied”. This could be accomplished by reintroducing the District as the peripheral unit to ensure territorial integrity.
India’s Foreign Secretary has stated categorically that India’s security is dependent on the security of Sri Lanka. Therefore, despite the fact that it was India that introduced the Province as the peripheral unit during its foray at conflict resolution in 1987, Sri Lanka and India should jointly develop strategies to ensure the security and territorial integrity of both countries by supporting Sri Lanka to scaled back peripheral units from that of a Province to a District, as existed prior to Indian intervention; a choice made freely by all of Sri Lanka based on its inalienable right to internal self determination.
What was articulated in Batticoloa by Mr. Sampanthan is in content nothing new. In fact it is this same ideology that had precipitated the 30 year long conflict. The difference is that it is more explicitly articulated than before. However, such statements cannot be dismissed as idle rhetoric signifying nothing. Instead, such statements together with those in Tamil Nadu should be treated as a synchronized attempt to continue the war by other means. For decades the Tamil leadership had claimed the right to self- determination ONLY for the Tamil people while incorporating Tamil-speaking people to lay spurious claims to territory. To persist in repeating an ideology that is disingenuous reflects the moral deficit of the Tamil leadership. Their strategy to remain as isolated as possible from the rest of Sri Lanka should be prevented at all cost, because it would eventually lead to the dismemberment of Sri Lanka.
Holding Provincial Council elections for the Northern Province in this background would only set in place a politically empowered territorial entity that would become the genesis for the realization of their “soaring aspirations”. Therefore, the Government has to preempt such developments by constitutionally entrenching the District as the peripheral unit, not only to ensure territorial integrity but also for the equally compelling reason that the District is organically better suited that the Province for improved governance; a fact that would benefit all communities.
Such a move should be undertaken with the support and consent of India because as fate would have it ,restructuring Sri Lanka on the basis of the province that India set in place following intervention in 1987 could in the end be the very factor that would threaten the territorial integrity of both countries. If such a bold measure is not undertaken the conflict that was militarily concluded on May 19, 2009 would turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory.
Sri Lanka cannot afford to wait for the Tamil leadership to reset their aspirations. Instead, Sri Lanka has to take decisive steps to ensure that its territorial integrity stays intact whatever forces, inducements and influences are stacked against it, because this single issue is non-negotiable. The only safeguard against these forces is to make the size of the peripheral unit as small as realistically possible, which in the case of Sri Lanka is the District. In contrast, the larger the territorial unit the more vulnerable it is to threats of dismemberment in nation states; a lesson that historically bears out. It is by recognizing the importance and the urgency to revert back to the District as the peripheral unit, that Sri Lanka could consolidate politically the military gains realized at tremendous cost to blood and treasure. It is only then that Sri Lanka would be free to bring salvation to a nation yearning to develop and prosper. The rest would follow.