Feature Article

Negotiating Tamil sovereignty

[TamilNet, Saturday, 21 June 2003, 00:52 GMT]
“Tamils have only had very compelling political and moral reasons for not acceding their sovereignty to the Sri Lankan state since Britain gave independence to this island. Therefore no road map to peace in Sri Lanka should be allowed to compromise the Tamil people’s sovereign and inalienable right to decide their political status in the land of their forebears," said Mr. Selvam Adaikalanathan, Tamil National Alliance MP for Vanni, reacting Friday to suggestions that the Liberation Tigers should agree to a peace road map in return for workable interim administration for the northeast.

“As long as the unitary Sri Lankan state system is in place, we cannot agree to anything in a peace road map drawn up by the Sinhala polity and its international backers that could directly or subtly diminish the free exercise of Tamil sovereignty. Tamils should negotiate from the position of their un-compromised sovereignty.

“The Tamil people have consistently refused to compromise their sovereignty and the right to exercise it freely – the right of self-determination - for very legally, politically and morally justifiable reasons," said Mr. Sivasakthi Anandan MP from the northern border town of Vavuniya.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) recognizes, in accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, article 1 of the CCPR, that all peoples have the right of self-determination. “The right of self-determination is of particular importance because its realization is an essential condition for the effective guarantee and observance of individual human rights and for the promotion and strengthening of those rights. It is for that reason that States set forth the right of self-determination in a provision of positive law in both Covenants and placed this provision as article 1 apart from and before all of the other rights in the two Covenants. Article 1 enshrines an inalienable right of all peoples as described in its paragraphs 1 and 2. By virtue of that right they freely "determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development." The article imposes on all States parties corresponding obligations. This right and the corresponding obligations concerning its implementation are interrelated with other provisions of the Covenant and rules of international law” (The right of self-determination of peoples –Article 1, 13/03/1983. CCPR General Comment)

There were three conjunctures of state formation in Sri Lanka. And in all three, the Tamils of the northeast refused to accede their sovereignty, on the grounds that the Singhalese were only intent on establishing a unitary system of government that would concentrate power over the affairs and wealth of the island solely in their hands.

The first conjuncture was in 1947 when Britain gave independence to Ceylon. In this instance the sovereignty of all the peoples of Sri Lanka was partly devolved back to them by the British Crown. The British introduced a unitary constitution to the newly independent colony.

At this conjuncture the manner in which the Tamils wanted to exercise their sovereignty in forging their political status in the newly independent island differed fundamentally from the unitary state system that the British had formulated for the newly independent colony.

The main and only Tamil political party at the time, the Tamil Congress, contested nine out of thirteen constituencies in the northeast in the first election to independent Ceylon’s first Parliament, which was established under the Soulbury Constitution, in 1947. The Tamil Congress fought the election on the platform that the Tamils should reject the constitution and won seven out of the nine constituencies in the northeast. The UNP, which stood for the unitary state, did not win any of the constituencies in the Tamil region.

On the basis of the results, the Tamil Congress claimed in a telegram to the Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies that the Tamil people of Ceylon had rejected the Soulbury Constitution in as much as not a single UNP candidate was elected to Parliament from the northeast and proceeded to demand that ‘in the absence of a satisfactory alternative’, the Tamil people should be granted the right of self determination.

Mr. Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, Tamil National Alliance MP for Jaffna who is the grandson of Mr. G. G Ponnambalam, the founder leader of the Tamil Congress, said: “in a democracy sovereignty is vested in the people and is inalienable. It is an indubitably true fact that the Tamils of Ceylon (and later of Sri Lanka) never acceded their sovereignty as a people in the forging of the Sri Lankan state. Instead they have consistently, at every conjuncture of state making in the island, asserted their right to self-determination - the right to exercise their sovereignty independently."

The Federal Party, which branched out of the Tamil Congress, also reiterated the Tamils’ right to self-determination when it was born as a political party in 1949.

When Tamils in Ceylon refused to yield their sovereignty in the formation of the unitary state of Ceylon, the Sinhala ruling classes that had acquired the sole control over the island’s resources and administration had no option but to rule them (the Tamils) through coercive and other means of internal colonialism. In this circumstance the Sinhala polity and its unitary state developed the inevitably endemic compulsion to assimilate the Tamils culturally and linguistically. The compulsion to assimilate also gave rise to systematic efforts at demographically overwhelming traditional Tamil lands in the northeast. The new state began to systematically plant Sinhala settlements in the east amid protests and armed resistance by Tamil farmers and the Federal party.

In the face of all this, the Federal Party had recourse to a token assertion of the Tamil people’s sovereignty by starting an independent Tamil postal service and by attempting to open a Tamil Police station.

Meanwhile, it was inevitable that negotiations on deceptively semi federal models of autonomy aimed at inveigling the Tamil people into acceding their sovereignty at least partially became a standard tactic in the strategic repertoire of the Sinhala unitary state. In addition Colombo pursued the parallel strategy of nurturing and promoting a political leadership among the Tamils capable of undermining their will to resist the unitary state’s military and non- coercive inroads on their sovereignty.

This approach to negotiating Tamil sovereignty became entrenched in the Sinhala polity over the years.

This is why when the second conjuncture in state formation came about in 1972, in the form of a constituent assembly, Sinhala leaders once again expected Tamils to accede and compromise their sovereignty to an inflexibly unitary state rather than including their (the Tamil’s) unfettered political will in forging the new constitution. The new constitution sought to realise Sinhala sovereignty fully by transforming Sri Lanka into a republic.

However, having clearly understood that the refusal of the Tamils (on whom also the 72 Sinhala Buddhist republican constitution had inalienably vested the island’s sovereignty) to accede to the reconstituted unitary state would detract from its legitimacy to rule over the northeast, Sinhala political leaders at the time sent feelers to the Tamil leader Mr. S. J. V Chelvanayagam through Mr. M. Thiruchelvam Q. C that in return for his party’s (Federal Party) involvement and participation in the constituent assembly of 1972 various unspecified concessions could be made to (him and) his community.

But Mr. Chelvanayagam refused to yield to the devious offer made by Mr. Thiruchelvam’s principals. He held fast to the view that the persistent attempts by the unitary state since 1947 to assimilate, overwhelm and oppress his people had proved beyond reasonable doubt that Tamils should not be party to a social contract based on the new constitution. He averred that Tamils should be in a position to legitimately claim that they did not surrender their sovereignty to the Sinhala unitary state at this conjuncture too. Furthermore, the new constitution was being made under a state of emergency under which many democratic freedoms had been suspended by the Sri Lankan government.

Only four out of 19 Tamil MPs voted for the new constitution. The FP argued that the new Sinhala Buddhist constitution was rejected 100 percent by the Tamils because of the four MPs who voted in favour, three had lost their representative character as they were expelled from their parties and the fourth won as an independent on an anti government platform.

Mr. Chelvanayagam resigned his seat in protest against the unilateral imposition of the Sinhala Buddhist constitution on the Tamils and sought re-election to reiterate the point that the Tamils won’t yield their sovereignty but would rather exercise it freely to determine their specific political status in Ceylon.

The point was driven home when he won with an overwhelming majority in the by election to the Kankesanthurai electorate.

In his victory speech, Mr. Chelvanayagam declared: “I wish to announce to my people and to my country that I consider the verdict at this election as a mandate that the Tamil Eelam nation should exercise the sovereignty already vested in the Tamil people and become free. On behalf of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), I give you my solemn assurance that we will carry out this mandate."

His assurance was formalised in the famous Vaddukkoddai Resolution, which, among other things, declared that the ‘restoration and reconstitution of the free sovereign’ state of Tamil Eelam based on the ‘right of self determination inherent to every nation has become inevitable in order to safeguard the very existence of the Tamil nation’ in Sri Lanka.

The TULF sought a mandate from the Tamils of the northeast at the 1977 general elections on the basis of the Vaddukkoddai Resolution for restoring their sovereignty fully by forging a new state. The party won an overwhelming majority of the votes in the northeast.

Jurists close to the TULF argued at the time that the exercise of Tamil sovereignty in the context of the clear mandate of 77 included the right to raise and deploy an armed force, levy taxes and engage in adjudication.

The third conjuncture was in 1978 when a new constitution, more rigidly unitary than what preceded it, was introduced by the United National Party, which had won enough seats among the Singhalese to replace the 72 constitution. It concentrated exclusively in the hands of the Singhalese powers over national wealth, adjudication, administration and legislation in an inalienable manner.

The introduction of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, the burning of the Jaffna Library and the pogroms of 1977 and 1983 reaffirmed the belief that there were no moral grounds at all to accede Tamil sovereignty to the unitary Sinhala state because the very basis of democracy in Sri Lanka– the rule of law- was suspended in the northeast.

Hence, in 1985 the five main Tamil militant groups and the TULF formulated three principles as the basis of any future negotiation Tamil sovereignty in the northeast. These came to be known as the Thimpu Principles.
  1. Recognition of the Tamils of Sri Lanka as a nation.
  2. Recognition of the existence of an identified homeland for the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
  3. Recognition of the right of self-determination of the Tamil nation.
(A fourth principle was formulated regarding the Tamils in the central hills of the island i.e. Recognition of the right to citizenship and the fundamental rights of all Tamils who look upon the island as their country)

The failure of the Northeast Provincial Council experiment in 1989, despite the backing of India, proved once more that compromising the Tamils’ sovereignty and right to self-determination within the inflexibly rigid unitary state cannot be a solution to the calamities experienced by them under Sinhala majority rule.

Since 1990, the inhumane economic embargo on Tamil regions, the ban on fishing and farming, indiscriminate arrest, detention and torture, systematic mass murders of civilians and rape of women as a tool of terror, occupation of hospitals, schools, places of worship and homes, deliberate terror bombing, forced labour, forcible evacuation of villages on grounds of a people’s ethnicity have further entrenched the belief that Tamils can lead a free, secure life only by exercising their sovereignty fully, TNA politicians say.


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