by Dayan Jayatilleke
The keynote speech by Mr. R Sampanthan, the leader of the main Tamil parliamentary party at the recent congress of that organization is in many respects a landmark event. It sheds light on a number of key strategic issues and should make clear to the international community that the matter of political dialogue leading to ethnic reconciliation is, has become or is becoming rather more complex and fraught than is customarily thought.
The senior political leader of the Tamil community in the island’s strategically sensitive Northern Province reconfirms the political aim and goal of his party. Perhaps more importantly he clarifies the international strategy that is being, and is to be, adopted in furtherance of that political project, as well as the interconnection between the international strategy and domestic tactics in support of the project. It is not so much a strategy for breakthrough as for ‘breakout’.
Mr. Sampanthan’s speech not only states clearly that the political project lies outside the parameters of both the 13th amendment as well as the structural form of a unitary state, it also provides considerable evidence that the goal of a sovereign state of and for the Tamils, one in which they enjoy absolute rather than shared or devolved authority, remains the goal. The terms ‘devolution’ and ‘power-sharing’ do not appear in the speech.
Perhaps the key segment of Mr. Sampanthan’s speech is that the adopted strategy is to prove to the international community, especially India and the USA, that a solution for the Tamil people is not possible within a united Sri Lanka. The repeated use of the term ‘united’ rather than ‘unitary’ reveals that the strategy is not merely to convince the international community that a solution cannot be found within the unitary form and framework, but rather within a united Sri Lanka, i.e. Sri Lanka as a single, united country. Despite several references to a ‘united’ Sri Lanka elsewhere in the text, this strategic perspective reveals a latent commitment to a secessionist goal by other means.
This interpretation is confirmed by a passage in which it is stated that the softening of the political stand of the main Tamil party is merely tactical, does not indicate a shift of political goal and is intended to dovetail with ongoing and emerging international trends and leveraging those international trends and factors in favor of that political goal.
Key extracts of the speech follow:
“…We gather here following our victory in the passage of the recent Resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, a condemnation against the Sri Lankan government by the international community, which has recognized that the Sri Lankan government has committed the crime of extermination against our people, and that it continues to deny them their political rights…”
“…Up to 500 years ago, the Tamil people established their own governments, and governed themselves. Our party symbolizes a time in history, until the entire country was, for administrative convenience, ruled as one Nation by colonial powers, during which our people had their own sovereign Tamil governments. The symbol of our party chosen for us by our founder – the House – also symbolizes this. This House is the Home of our community; our community’s historical habitat; our community’s sovereignty. Our fundamental objective is to regain our community’s Home, its historical habitat and its sovereignty. The symbol of the House symbolizes this unshakeable aim…”
“… Today, the only hope it has is the interest and involvement of the international community in the reasonable demands on which our struggle is based. It is this that stands as a force for us, from outside our community, today. We must not forget the lesson history taught us, of the difference of opinion we had with India that not only caused it to distance itself from us for the past 20 years, but even caused it to work against us. We want to ensure that we do not act such a manner again, and thus alienate ourselves from the international community.
The softening of our stance concerning certain issues, and the compromise we show in other issues, are diplomatic strategies to ensure that we do not alienate the international community. They are not indications that we have abandoned our fundamental objectives.
Our expectation for a solution to the ethnic problem of the sovereignty of the Tamil people is based on a political structure outside that of a unitary government, in a united Sri Lanka 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.
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. Powers must be allocated under this structure based on the understanding that meaningful devolution should go beyond the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1987. This position has been accepted by our party. Our acceptance of this position does not mean that we consider the 13th Amendment to be an acceptable solution, nor that, in the event our right to internal self determination is continuously denied, we will not claim our right under international law to external self determination. It only means that this is the only realistic solution today.
The above solution is also one that is likely to be acceptable to members of the international community including India and the United States, whose support and assistance is necessary in order for us to succeed in our struggle for political autonomy today.
Further, since the thinking today is that whatever political solution that is arrived at must be one within a united Sri Lanka, the above solution is one that those in Sri Lanka cannot oppose as unreasonable….”
“The world has recognized that the Tamil people have faced continuous political persecution, and that this persecution has begun to manifest itself in new ways in recent times. The world has recognized that great destruction took place during the final phase of the war. The international community that supported the government diplomatically and militarily during the war, has now begun to exert pressure on the Sri Lankan government to fulfill the promises it made to them. This includes the promise to arrive at a political solution acceptable to the Tamil people on the conclusion of the war. Exasperated by the failure of the Sri Lankan government to fulfill its promises three years after the conclusion of the war, the international community has begun to exert diplomatic pressure on the government.
During this time, in which the international community is greatly involved in the ethnic problem involving the Tamil people, we must work in co-operation with them; we must consider their advice to us, and we must give advice to them.
If we behave in a manner that results in the international community getting embroiled in problems or controversy it is our community that will face the consequences. Our priority now is to expose the Sri Lankan government that for so many years in the past attempted to describe the ethnic problem and a ‘terrorist problem’. We must clearly prove to the international community that the Sri Lankan government, which has delayed for so long in giving the Tamil people their rights, has never made any genuine effort to do so. In other words – we must prove to the international community that we will never be able to realize our rights within a united Sri Lanka. We must be patient until the international community realizes for itself that the effort we are involved in is doomed to fail. To put it more strongly, the international community must realize through its own experience, without us having to tell them, that the racist Sri Lankan government will never come forward and give political power to the Tamil people in a united Sri Lanka. (My emphasis- DJ)
“…The international practice prevalent during the mid eighties, when the intervention of India occurred, has now changed. Although the issue at hand is the same, the prevailing conditions are different. The struggle is the same, but the approaches we employ are different. Our aim is the same, but our strategies are different. The players are the same, but the alliances are different. That is the nature of the Tamil people. Although we still have the same aim, the methods we use are now different. In the past the United States and India stood against us. However in the favorable circumstances that have now come about, the United States and India are to a great extent supporting our position. The Sri Lankan government continues to maintain friendships with those standing against them. India’s vote in support of the Resolution presented by the United States at the UN Human Rights Council was an astonishing international development in our favor. This can only be seen as indication of future developments…The current practices of the international community may give us an opportunity to achieve, without the loss of life, the soaring aspirations we were unable to achieve by armed force.” ( my emphasis-DJ)
“…Our patience however, will not be everlasting. Our patience too, has its limits. Once we have reached that limit, we will move onto the stage of our effort. We will not hesitate to gather our people together and with the support of progressive forces in our country, and the international community, even engage in a non-violent struggle. We will decide on specific deadlines and when the time comes for such action, we will act…”
This speech provides a glimpse of future tactics inasmuch as it speaks of a non-violent campaign which it fears will be met with violence, at which point the international community should act decisively. The stances of the party until then can be understood as setting the stage and positioning itself for such an endgame.