self-determination: Citizen vs. ethnicity
It is sad and extremely ironic that a mere ten years back,
talk of federal structures in any context would have aroused enough
outrage to raise our dead from their sleep. Things are vastly different
now. Our historical sense of outrage has been thoroughly defeated
by the inexorable sequences of war and an increasingly putrid political
leadership in the South. We have, in other words, reached a stage
where federalism rings more like music to our ears.
Given the whole,
one might very well be justified in throwing caution to the winds
in the wake of this week's agreement by the LTTE to a "federal
structure'' within the framework of a "united Sri Lanka."
But, a sense of caution persists for very good reasons. Reportedly,
the third round of talks between the LTTE and the government has
resulted in an agreement to "initiate discussions on substantive
political issues'' that would include "power-sharing between
the Centre and the region as well as within the Centre, geographical
region, human rights protection, political and administrative mechanism,
public finance and law and order.''
The fact that
human rights has been included as a substantive issue is to be welcomed.
The reasons are obvious. The past 11 months has seen continuing
and outrageous infringement of the basic rights of the people in
the North and East and the inability of the monitors to contain
these infringements in any significant manner.
In this respect,
we need to see, more than ever, a definitive agreement relating
to protection and observance of human rights applicable to the region
as well as the LTTE being held effectively accountable for its actions.
all this is undoubtedly exhilarating, the rider to the whole comes
in the persistence of the concept of internal self determination
in the formulae being held out as acceptable by the LTTE, as contained
both in its direct statements as well as through communiqués
issued by the Norwegian government.
of the Norwegian Government phrases it thus; "a solution founded
on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical
habitation of the Tamil- speaking peoples, based on a federal structure
within a united Sri Lanka.''
This, in a
sense, only echoes what the LTTE and its spokesmen have been saying
for the past so many months after all and underscores, in a vital
sense, what the LTTE leader said last week regarding "regional
self-rule'' as an alternative to a separatist state.
The LTTE demand
for self determination had traditionally collapsed the military
concept of an armed struggle and the legal right of a people for
self determination in a very fundamental sense. The armed struggle
was posed as effectively institutionalizing the political struggle
of the Tamil people. The latter in turn, was based on the argument
that the Tamil people constitute themselves as a people or a nation
and have a homeland (a well defined and contiguous territory) in
the Northern and Eastern Provinces. This, together with a distinct
language and culture, a unique economic life and a lengthy history
extending to over 3000 years, was argued as bequeathing all the
characteristics of a nation. It was from this position that the
inalienable right to self determination of the Tamil peoples was
articulated, or in other words, the freedom to determine their own
Up to now,
the sheer savagery of the LTTE struggle as well as the context of
its claim within a sovereign country had resulted in its claims
for self determination being dismissed by the international community.
However, one can envisage a vastly changed scenario in so many years
time, when a claim to self determination might not come across as
not being all that preposterous if made by a Tiger led administration,
bolstered as it were by separate law and order systems and cosmetically
rights conscious rule. This is more so if the Sri Lankan State is
seen as having acquiesced to such a notion at the time of the initial
content based agreeing on power sharing. This is, in effect, what
could justifiably be perceived as being dangerous.
The LTTE claim
to self determination could be usefully contrasted with a similar
right put forward on behalf of Tibet for example. Tibet has urged
the right to self determination of its people on two distinct lines
of reasoning. First, the right to territorial integrity and second
the right to self-determination. On the basis of both these rights,
separately and together, it has been argued that the Tibetan people
has the choice to determine their future political, economic, social
and cultural status. Their options include independence, an autonomous
arrangement or theoretically total integration into the Chinese
right or claim to territorial integrity rests on the argument that
Tibet was sovereign prior to the Chinese invasion quite unlike the
case of the LTTE demand within the state of Sri Lanka. However,
the second right of self determination is postulated to rest on
principles of international law, including the United Nations charter.
1, Article 1(2) of the UN Charter states that; "The purposes
of the United Nations are: .....To develop friendly relations among
nations based on respect for the principles of equal rights and
self-determination of peoples..."
UN General Assembly declaration on Principles of International Law
Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in Accordance
with the Charter of the UN) (1970) declared further that;
peoples have the right to freely determine, without external interference,
their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural
development, and every State has the duty to respect this right
in accordance with provisions of the Charter".
The Tibetans base their claim on the ground that they are a people
with a common historical tradition, a racial identity, a shared
culture, linguistic unity, religious affinity, a territorial connection
and a common economic life.
is in its whole, very different altogether from what the LTTE demand
has been, contextually speaking. The latter claim for self determination
has an overriding principle militating against its acceptance which
has been succinctly stated with regard to a conflict again of a
nature different from that of Tibet's. Thus, in reference to the
claims of the Quebec nationalists that Quebec should have the right
to secede unilaterally from confederation, it has been pointed out
that the use of ethnicity as a guiding principle of politics is
both outdated and dangerous (Bliss, The Chimera of Self Determination).
The basis of these arguments is that in modern democracies, it is
citizens that count and not divisions that rely for their legitimacy
on ethnic differences.
This is reasoning that the Sri Lankan government should stress at
a point of time, when the positions that it takes may well decide
the shape of what is to come for the future Sri Lankan State. Ignoring
what may be inconvenient from the perspective of political expediency
may be the worst choice to make.