“Our duty is to fight until the last minute for our country, for our planet and for humanity.”
– Fidel Castro, Feb 4, 2012, launching his memoir, ‘Guerrilla of Time’
As world class singers of Sri Lankan Tamil parentage go, MIA isn’t half as good as a new voice, Bhi Bhiman, an American singer of blues–tinged folk music with a voice as clear and mournful as the whistle of a lonesome train coming ’round the bend. MIA’s flair for the theatrical far outstrips her singing talent. Giving the finger at the Super Bowl this month seems however to be politically symptomatic, because Mr. MA Sumanthiran, a sophisticated lawyer-politician, has just done that to the 13th amendment and prospects of a moderate yet substantive degree of power sharing. In an interview given to Namini Wijedasa, ‘MAS’ (as the newspaper bills him) says:
“…The 13th is not a proper scheme. We have rejected it…The 13th Amendment was passed in 1987. If it was sufficient, we would not have had all this bloodletting…We have engaged with Global Tamil Forum… You have to ask the Tamil people whether they want to stay in the country or be separate. Everywhere it’s like that…A distinct people in international law have certain rights called self-determination. The right to self determination international law now says must be exercised internally in the first instance. But if that is consistently denied, then according to the Canadian Supreme Court judgment on Quebec, they might even become entitled to a unilateral secession. So, if Sri Lanka should remain as one country, and we think it should remain as one country, then to preserve it as one country you must grant that right to self-determination and have it exercised in an arrangement within one country. That must be given, that must be recognized. It’s not at the wish of the majority that it’s given. That is as a matter of right in international law…” (‘Sunday Lakbimanews’ & DBSJeyaraj.com, Feb 5th 2012)
If I didn’t know that this was Mr. Sumanthiran of the TNA speaking last week, I swear I would have identified it as Anton Balasingham speaking at Prabhakaran’s press conference in the Wanni in 2002 or during the rounds of negotiations in Oslo and Sattahip, during the wretched CFA years of appeasement. I am not exaggerating for effect, and any Internet search would confirm that this was indeed Mr. Balasingham’s argument. So we are currently in a strange place, a time-warp, in which the TNA’s most sophisticated spokesperson is echoing the argumentation of the LTTE’s most sophisticated spokesperson. What makes the TNA or anyone else think that the Sri Lankan state and citizenry, which resisted and rejected this nonsense and went on to fight and decisively win a war, will treat it with anything other than a combination of acute suspicion and scant disregard?
Mr. Sumanthiran must enlighten us as to how a judgment of the Canadian Supreme Court becomes ‘international law’. He must then tell us how ‘soft’ international law – even if one were to concede for the sake of argument that this postulate has entered the realm of ‘ soft international law — takes precedence over national Constitutions and state sovereignty. He should also be so kind as to tell us how Canada – or Scotland, for that matter– becomes ‘everywhere’. Can he tell us where precisely it is — outside of a militarily defeated, failed, fractured state (Mengistu’s Ethiopia, ex-Yugoslavia, Southern Sudan) — that ethnic groups preponderating in identifiable geographic areas are entitled to referenda as to whether they shall or shall not remain within existing state boundaries, and where it is recognized that if ‘internal self determination’ is not exercised, ‘external self determination’ i.e. secession is recognized as an option?
What would the planet look like if every ethnic group which numbered a few percentage of the total population of a state were able to exit that state at will, sundering the country and wrenching away part of its territory? This would not only mean the outright violation of a principle of democracy by privileging the wishes of a majority within a minority over the overwhelming majority of the citizenry as a whole, but also bloody disintegration, civil war, and the diminution of the size and strength of independent states thereby making them vulnerable to predatory neo-imperialist overlords.
The principle of sovereignty of the overall state and the right of self determination of the nation as a whole, the citizenry as a totality, i.e. national and popular sovereignty, cannot be subordinated to the right of self determination of an ethnic minority, national minority or minority nationality.
Mr. Sumanthiran does so much travelling that he is clearly unaware of which continent of the planet Sri Lanka is located. No state in Asia, including quasi-federal, democratic, secular India and liberal democratic Philippines, regards the judgment of the Canadian Supreme Court as having the slightest bearing on its domestic affairs or even gives it a second thought as constituting some norm in international law. One wonders if the Hon Member of Parliament has heard of Kashmir or Mindanao.
The TNA MP has flipped the bird in the direction of the 13th amendment, which was the best that India was able to obtain for the Tamil people at a time when the Tamil insurgency had not been crushed by the Sri Lankan state. Mr. Sumanthiran does not explain by which logic he expects it to be qualitatively superseded in the aftermath of a stunning military victory by the State. When the provincial devolution enshrined by the 13th amendment is being called into question as excessive, Mr. Sumanthiran’s rejection of it – as distinct from urging its upgrading and/or speedy implementation—is hardly helpful.
Mr. Sumanthiran’s argumentative assertion that “if it [the 13th amendment] was sufficient, we would not have had all this bloodletting…” is demonstrably nonsensical. If it was the insufficiency of the 13th amendment was responsible for continued bloodletting, how did that bloodletting stop in May 2009 without an improvement upon the 13th amendment in place or even the 13th amendment being implemented? It was not the insufficiency of the 13th amendment that led to the continuation of the bloodletting in 1987, it was the bloodthirstiness of the LTTE, which rejected that reform and spurned the space it opened up.
The TNA has yet to express regret or proffer an explanation over its rejection at the time, of those very proposals it is now bringing back to the table, namely the Mangala Moonesinghe formula, the CBK proposals of 1995, 1997 and 2000, and the APRC (which it boycotted). If its behavior was attributable to the LTTE’s threats it should come clean and say so now. Then again, the TNA has yet to criticize the LTTE for murdering Rajiv Gandhi– and its own leaders such as Appapillai Amirthalingam and Neelan Tiruchelvam. The failure to do so can no longer be attributed to understandable physical fear but to moral and ethical failure.
There seems to be an inability to grasp what it means to give the finger to all reform proposals, wage a war for three decades including against a peacekeeping force, and lose that war utterly. When you wager all and lose that kind of bloody wager, there is a political price to be paid for a considerable period. Your capacity to make demands is impaired. You cannot simply dust off proposals you rejected when you thought the going was good, brandish them and expect to be taken seriously.
Least logical and reasonable is the call for a referendum among only the Tamil people as to whether or not they wish to live within Sri Lanka. Contrary to Mr. Sumanthiran’s assertion, ‘internal self determination’ is not ascertained by a referendum which raises the issue of whether or not a people wish to live within a given state. If that question is on the agenda there is nothing ‘internal’ about such self-determination. What if the answer at the referendum is ‘no, we do not wish to be part of the existing state’? What, pray, is ‘internal’ about that?
Let’s think this issue through to its conclusion. Why should any administration take the risk of sharing power at a sensitive periphery of a state, a mere two and half years after a 30 year war, with a party that rejects the constitutional basis of that power sharing, i.e. the 13th amendment, and stands for a referendum on self-determination? Is it unreasonable to assume that such a party would use the territorially based council as a platform to call immediately for more powers and move on to hold or agitate for the holding of a referendum on whether to remain within or exit the state and its boundaries? Is this the TNA’s game-plan, or rather, is it the game-plan of the TNA-GTF? Isn’t this strangely similar to the playbook of Prof Steven Ratner (of the infamous Darusman panel), whose scholarly specialization is the study of the break-up of existing states along lines of pre-existing internal administrative boundaries? Is this not an alternative pathway to achieving that which the Tigers attempted through terrorism? Does the project of exit remain the same, except that it is now going to be in a two step sequence?
Every progressive or liberal minded party, political personality and commentator in the South welcomed the LLRC report and urged its expeditious implementation, while the TNA rejected it at quite considerable length. The gap between the reform-minded moderate centrists and progressives in the South, on the one hand, and the demands of the TNA on the other, do not seem to faze the latter, any more than this same chasm was of concern to its precursor, the Federal party, in previous decades.
Mr. Sumanthiran must now ask himself which Sri Lankan political party of any note, in or outside of government, be it the SLFP, UNP (‘Ranilist Royalists’ or Reformists), JVP or the radical breakaway Movement for Peoples Struggle, would consent to devolution that went qualitatively beyond the 13th amendment to the next level, countenance ‘self determination’ ascertained by a plebiscite purely of the Tamil people, and accept dismemberment of the country by ballot where bomb and bullet have failed. Where is the proposal that can act as a bridge? Is the TNA not interested in a bridge to the Southern majority? Is it uninterested in Southern partnership within the mainstream and unwilling to do what it takes to secure such partnerships? Where will you find takers outside of the Tamil polity, Mr. Sumanthiran, and if you do not have takers among the Sinhala majority, where do you expect to find them? Certainly not in the region or on our continent—so where might they be? Surely this is the wrong era and continent to await a Balfour Declaration? Mr. Sumanthiran must not make the standard error of ‘cosmopolitan’ Tamil nationalists, of taking the Sinhalese for fools.
Sherlock Holmes used to say that once the impossible has been ruled out, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the answer. If elements within the TNA are making it strategically imprudent to risk the transfer a provincial council and its powers to them, then the answer must surely lie in hoping for an evolutionary re-composition of Tamil politics, through which may emerge responsible, pragmatic partners in power-sharing at the periphery. The speedy implementation of the LLRC Report’s recommendations may create the conditions for such evolution.