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TNA Manifesto is not Secessionist but it Unlocks the Door and Keeps it Ajar for Secessionism


Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka


The TNA manifesto is not secessionist. It does however unlock the door and keep it ajar for secessionism.

I do not know whether Mr Sumanthiran ever bowled spin for my father’s old school, Royal College, but he is certainly doing so for his party the TNA and the Tamil nationalist project.

The TNA is not a secessionist party, but as the best informed and most authoritative commentator on Tamil politics DBS Jeyaraj has revealed, it has not broken with the secessionist paradigm and even flirts with dangerous secessionist discourse and symbolism. (‘Why and How Ex- SC Judge CV Wigneswaran Praised LTTE Leader Prabhakaran as a Great Hero’, http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/25697#more-25697)

The TNA manifesto is not secessionist. It does however unlock the door and keep it ajar for secessionism. It does so NOT by calling for federalism or identifying the North and East as a homeland. Federalism and the idea of a Tamil homeland are entirely debatable but legitimate, as are a call for a measure of ‘self-rule’, ‘self-government’ or ‘self-administration’ within a united (not necessarily unitary) country and the demand for the full implementation of the existing provisions for a measure of self rule within a unitary state, as enshrined in the 13th amendment.

What is tricky is the manifesto’s notion that the Tamil people, rather than the citizenry of the Republic as a whole, are the ultimate repository of sovereignty, with the unqualified claim of the right of self determination.

The TNA identifies its political solution as one of shared sovereignty among the peoples of this island. The TNA must grasp that in Sri Lanka which is a democratic republic, power may be devolved from centre to periphery but sovereignty is not ‘shared’ by constituent peoples. Sovereignty is vested in the citizenry as a whole. The manifesto states that “the TNA firmly believes that sovereignty lies with the People and not with the State. It is not the government in Colombo that holds the right to govern the Tamil People, but the People themselves.” This is a strange sleight of hand. The term ‘people’ in the first sentence slides into ‘Tamil people’ in the second one. Sovereignty does indeed lie with the people but that does not mean it lies with the people of one ethnicity; it means the people taken as a totality; the people as a whole.

Those of us who live in South Asia know exactly what this claim of a particular group to sovereignty, taken together with the claim to the right of self determination can mean, because this was the basis on which Jinnah seceded, and more pertinently, the basis on which the struggle for secession is waged in Kashmir. This is why India does not accept any right of self-determination of peoples within a country’s borders. Within India, self-determination is one of the red lines of the central Government and therefore it remains a red line in diplomatic forums where Kashmir is mentioned.

The TNA’s leaders are sufficiently educated to be aware that it is perfectly possible to call for a federal system without embedding or invoking the right of self determination and that hardly any federal system (with exceptions that you could easily count of the fingers of one hand) recognises the right of self-determination. This is truer still of systems of devolution and regional/provincial autonomy.

The TNA leaders also know that without explicit and unambiguous qualification to the contrary, the right of self determination per se extends to the right to political independence.

In his attempt to sanitise the TNA’s manifesto Mr Sumanthiran has completely omitted any reference to the explicit, uncritical and deceitful references to the LTTE.

The references in the TNA manifesto to the LTTE are morally repugnant. With no criticism of the LTTE at all, the manifesto simply says that “While no progress was being made on the political front to solve the burning national issue, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) continued its armed struggle.”

To put it politely this is nothing less than a lie. What does the TNA call the Indo-Lanka accord and the North-East Provincial Council? What of the Interim Administration of September 1987 which granted the LTTE 7 out of 11 seats including the chairpersonship? The Tigers resumed their armed struggle despite the existence of alternatives such as these, and proceeded to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi. What also of the dialogue between President Premadasa and the LTTE? The Tigers unilaterally resumed the war while the talks were ongoing. What of the Mangala Moonesinghe proposals of 1993? Premadasa was assassinated despite these political efforts. What of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s advanced political reform packages of 1995, 1997 and 2000? Did the Tigers stop their war or did they continue despite the availability of reformist political options?

The TNA manifesto then says that “Though initially there were several military outfits, since 1987 the LTTE emerged as the sole military force in pursuing the struggle.” How pray did the LTTE ‘emerge’ as the sole military force? Did that emergence have anything to do with the murder of Sri Sabaratnam of TELO and the burning alive of TELO cadre in the streets of Jaffna while shopkeeper served soft drinks, on April 30th 1986 by the LTTE? Was the miraculous emergence linked in any way to the massacre of EPRLF captives who had been rounded up in late 1986, also by the LTTE? Was it in any way connected to the burning alive on the beach of Vasudevan the political leader of PLOT in the Eastern province, by the LTTE?

The TNA manifesto then laments the fact that the “Ceasefire Agreement…did not last and hostilities broke out between the government forces and the LTTE with the military confrontation coming to an end on 19th May 2009.” This mealy-mouthed statement omits to mention that during that CFA the Tigers murdered dozens of police and armed forces personnel and demonstrated its striking commitment to the CFA by shooting the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, Lakshman Kadirgamar.

The TNA manifesto should either have avoided any reference to the LTTE or if reference had to be made it should have included a denunciation of internal executions, lethal attacks on unarmed civilians , the murder of Tamil intellectuals such as Rajini Tiranagama, the savage slaughter of the EPRLF central committee, the assignation of Rajiv Gandhi (thanks to whom the TNA has a Provincial Council to contest, enter and complain about) and the liquidation of many Tamil political leaders such as Appapillai Amirthalingam, and Neelan Tiruchelvam.

The failure to do any of this and the references to the LTTE entirely without disapproval show that the TNA is either susceptible to the pro-Tiger sentiment of sections of the Tamil Diaspora and Tamil Nadu or to such sentiments within its own ranks or support base. It also shows that the TNA is dangerously interested in profiling the LTTE as part of the narrative of the Tamil struggle rather than a deviation/aberration. The TNA also seems ready to place itself on a political continuum with the LTTE’s ‘struggle’.

It is not always the case that secessionist sentiment is the result of harsh ethno-national oppression. Often it is simply a case of the awareness of a separate identity and the desire to manifest it in the form of independent political existence or the retention of an option for secession. Scotland, Catalonia and Quebec are examples.

The space for tolerant accommodation of such secessionist sentiment is strictly contingent on geographic, demographic and historical realities. What if France had been the neighbour of Quebec instead of an ocean away? What if Scotland possessed a giant neighbour of co-ethnics and English been spoken only in England rather than near-universally? What if Catalonia had a large neighbour who spoke Catalan while Spanish was not a global language? Surely the response on the part of the state and the majority of citizenry to secessionism however peaceful would not have been what it is today.

Given the realities of the demographic composition of post-war Sri Lanka, the Tamil question in Sri Lanka must not be lodged in the paradigm of self determination but in the paradigm of the rights of ethnic minorities— including that of provincial autonomy— and equality of citizenship. The Tamil nationalist insistence on the Tamils as a distinct people with the right of self-determination is a diversion from the struggle for minority rights, equality and anti-discrimination. Every effort must be made to struggle for these as essential to a just, sustainable post-war peace.

[The author was Minister of Youth Affairs and Planning of the North-East Provincial Council 1988-89]