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Self Determination & the 'Multi Ethnic Plural Society'
15 September 1993
In certain circles where a search is on for a solution to the armed conflict in the island, the oft repeated mantra is that Sri Lanka is a 'multi ethnic plural society'. It is a mantra which the Sri Lanka government has also found useful to chant from time to time. The mantra has a nice meditative ring to it. It conjures up the soothing vision of a society where all ethnic groups are equal and a plurality of view points is encouraged and secured. But mantras intended to resolve an armed political conflict, must fit the political reality on the ground.
The political reality is that there is nothing 'multi ethnic or plural' about the society over which the Sri Lanka government seeks to impose unitary rule. If nothing else, forty years of gross and consistent violations of the human rights of the Tamil people is proof of that. That these violations were no accidental happenings is evidenced by the statements of Sinhala political leaders and opinion makers during the past several decades:
The Tamils of Eelam are not simply an ethnic group. Their togetherness is not only a cultural togetherness. There are many reasons for this. The Tamils are a people who have lived within a relatively well defined territory for many centuries. It is here that, in the past, they established their own separate and independent state and defended it against alien invaders. It is here that they founded their families and it is here that they sought refuge, in more recent times, from attacks launched by Sinhala goon squads.
These historical memories are a part of their political consciousness today. The Tamils are a people whose feelings of togetherness have been consolidated by over 40 years of ever widening and deepening Sinhala oppression. It is a political togetherness which has been cemented through their participation in a political struggle against that oppression. Their willingness to suffer and if necessary die in that struggle serves to underline the poignant strength of the national political consciousness that they have acquired.
The words of Hugh Seton-Watson in Nations and States are apposite:
Fifteen Non Governmental Organisations put it succinctly at the UN Human Rights Commission in February this year:
By any and every test, the Tamils today, constitute a nation. But, ofcourse, definitions are not ends in themselves. In Tamil we say: ஏட்டுச் சுரக்காய் கறிக்கு உதவாது - Ettu Churakai Curriyuku Uthavuthu ('the word churakai written on an ola leaf cannot be used to make a curry'). Simply because, by definition, the Tamils are a people with the right to self determination does not mean that they will somehow be recognised as such by the international community, leave alone by Sri Lanka. Martin Woollacott's recent comments in the Guardian, on the Bosnian conflict offer food for thought about the real world:
The Tamils, too, were not born yesterday. They know that it is because the armed resistance of the Tamil people led by the Liberation Tigers has succeeded to the extent that they hold territory in the North-East that Tamil rights are on the international agenda.
They know that if that resistance fails, Sri Lanka will have no further use for Tamil quislings. They know that if that resistance fails, they will be left with the pleaders of the TULF rump whose efforts during the past forty years and more did little to stop the onslaught on Tamil rights and Tamil lives.
Territory, international legitimacy, constitutional provisions and human rights are, ofcourse, inter connected. Without human rights, legitimacy may be more difficult to achieve. Without legitimacy, it may be more difficult to hold territory over a period of time. But without territory, a people will cease to exist - and in the end it is this which is fundamental.
And it is this which the Sri Lanka government understands only too well when it prevaricates on the merger of the North-East, when it seeks to divide the Tamil homeland and when it launches its genocidal military operations in the North-East.
The sooner that informed sections of the international community openly recognise that Sri Lanka is engaged in a war for land in the Tamil homeland, that there is nothing 'multi ethnic or plural' about the society over which the Sri Lanka government seeks to impose rule by a permanent Sinhala Buddhist majority, the more quickly will the search begin for a political solution where Tamil Eelam and Sri Lanka may freely associate and cooperate with each other on equal terms. Self-determination is not a dirty word.
The words of PLO leader Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Palestine-Israel Declaration of Principles on 13 September bear repetition here: