Internal De-colonization, External Self-determination and State Formation:
Reflections on Theory

S Sathananthan

(a) South Asia: the making of omelet civilizations

Imagine the following scenario. About two hundred years ago, a non-European power from Asia or Africa invades England and subdues the English monarch and rules over the English people. It then conquers, one after another, the kingdoms of France, Germany, Spain and so on until the non-European imperial power establishes its colonial rule over most of the nations in the northern, southern, western and eastern regions of the European continent.

Imagine that the non-European colonial power lumped together the nations it conquered; that it arbitrarily drew a geographical line called the ‘border’ around them and gave them the name ‘Europe’; that it plonked one Parliament somewhere in the middle of, say, Germany, and told the nations that they are ‘ethnic groups’ which compose one ‘united’ country called Europe.

And imagine that the retreating non-European colonial power ‘granted independence’, that is, handed over effective power to Germany, the largest ‘ethnic group’ in the new country known as Europe. Imagine that Germany imposed the German language as the sole official language of Europe and insisted that all other ‘minorities’ (the English, French, Spanish, etc.) must accept German as their official language in the interest of ‘unity’, ‘harmony’ and ‘nation-building’ in Europe.

Given the history of incessant wars between European nations throughout the 19th century and up to the Second World War in 1945, it is not difficult to imagine the next stage. The different European nations would have generated national movements in their struggle for a share of power in the single ‘parliament’; and many groups excluded from access to power would no doubt have launched national liberation movements. The liberation struggles waged in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the resistance of the Basques (Spain), Corsicans (France) and Flemish (Belgian) - a few of the almost forty national movements within the European Community - demonstrate the relevance of the hypothetical scenario sketched above.

However, there is no need to imagine the irrational scenario. It in fact unfolded in South Asia as the non-Asian, European power - Britain - colonised the nations of the Indian sub-continent and the island of Lanka in the 18th and 19th centuries.

British India and Ceylon (re-named Sri Lanka in 1972) were creatures of British colonialism. The East India Company employed European, especially Swiss, mercenaries to defeat Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula at the Battle of Plassey in 1757; and the Company completed the conquest of Bengal in 1764 at the Battle of Buxar. Having obtained a base in the Indian sub-continent, the Company’s mercenaries and, after the Pitt’s India Act of 1784, the British Army over-ran successive kingdoms in the southern, western and northern regions of the sub-continent. The British Colonial State threw the different nations in the sub-continent together into one ‘country’, which it named ‘India’, and set up one ‘parliament’ in Delhi in the heart of the Hindi-belt.

In the island of Lanka, in 1831 the British colonialism incorporated the Sinhalese and Tamil nations into a new country named ‘Ceylon’, built a ‘parliament’ in Colombo in the Sinhalese Kotte kingdom.

British India and Ceylon could be described as omelette civilisations. Each State consisted of diverse nations arbitrarily thrown together, by the external (British) power, within a political border not of their own making. The external de-colonisation of the two countries in the late 1940s and the histories of internal de-colonisation through national liberation struggles which gave rise to Pakistan and, later, Bangladesh, and the ongoing struggles of Sindhis (Pakistan), Kashmiris and Assamese (India) and Tamils (Sri Lanka), are well known. Before examining the nature national liberation movements in progress, a brief digression into a discussion of the conceptual framework is in order.

(b) From external to internal de-colonisation

At a press conference in early 1997, on the eve of relinquishing his post as Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr Boutros Boutros Gali predicted that by the year 2020 the number of countries represented in the UN will increase by more than 100 per cent - from 186 in 1997 to 400 in 2020. At an international conference of Political Geographers held in mid-1997 in Washington DC, a panel of eminent Political Geographers concluded that the first decade of the next century would witness the radical redrawing of the world map, giving rise to an estimated 300 independent countries by the year 2010.

That new countries will continue to emerge is common sense. National borders are neither God-given nor immutable. Rather they are drawn by human agents and represent the balance of political power between nations within each State as well as between States. The impermanence of national borders is underlined by the growth of Scottish and Welsh national movements in Britain, perhaps the oldest of modern States. The national border of Britain is very likely to change soon: in two referenda - one in Scotland and one in Wales - held in 1997, the Scottish and Welsh people voted for the devolution of power to their respective nations. It is fairly certain that the political reform is a step toward an independent Scotland by the year 2007, the 300th anniversary of the annexation of Scotland by England; the independence of Wales cannot be far behind. Similar border changes could take place in Canada, if Quebec, as expected, votes for independence at the next referendum.

The borders of nations and kingdoms in South Asia were re-drawn brutally by European colonial powers, which carved out Portuguese, Dutch, French and British territories during the past four centuries. The borders were altered again when British India split into modern India and Pakistan at independence in 1947. Thereafter, the Indian State expanded to incorporate the Princely States (e.g., Hyderabad) and British Protectorates (e.g., Assam), the most recent acquisition being Sikkim. The Pakistani State absorbed the Kalat state (most of today’s Baluchistan) and tribal areas in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP); but Pakistani border contracted when Bangladesh won its independence.

Thus, the vast majority of the so-called ‘multi-national’ States in Asia are little more than bleeding remnants of the crumbling European empires. They had been carved out through colonial military conquest of nations and peoples, who were politically de-empowered by colonialism and lashed together in colonial territories. Within each colonial territory the numerically smaller, minor nations and peoples were redefined as ‘minorities’ and politically subordinated to the respective numerically larger, major nation called the ‘majority’. It is almost axiomatic that the borders of the newly independent territories will change over the next few decades.

The political developments discussed above could be presented schematically in two overlapping phases. The first phase of de-colonisation was external de-colonisation, that is, the dissolution of direct colonial rule through anti-colonial liberation movements, which set free the colonial territories and transferred political power to the major nation within each independent territory. The vast majority of the independent territories, called ‘States’, represented in the United Nations are products of external de-colonisation.

Whilst external de-colonisation is well advanced,- the most recent instance being the return of Hong Kong to the Peoples Republic of China - the independent territories have entered the second phase, that of internal de-colonisation. Internal de-colonisation is sought by the minor nations and peoples, who had been herded together within each former colonial territory and who suffered internal colonialism under the regime, controlled by the respective major nation. In the usual first stage of internal de-colonisation, minor nations and peoples launched national movements against their respective regimes seeking political re-empowerment through internal self-determination: typically the movements demanded the reform of the State, to facilitate access to State power through federal political structures. In essence it is a demand for political democracy, for power-sharing within the State. Where major nations rejected the demand for political reform, internal de-colonisation entered the second stage of external self-determination: based on pragmatic calculations of the prospect of victory, the national movements of minor nations and peoples escalated into their revolutionary variant - the national liberation movements - which sought the political re-empowerment of minor nations and peoples through the creation of new States.

(c) Ethnic conflicts vs national movements

The global scale of national movements is grossly understated by the semantic sleight of hand, which subsumed national movements within the all inclusive term ‘ethnic conflicts’ employed by mainstream social scientists. However, the first step to an appreciation of the principle of self-determination is to distinguish national movements from ethnic conflicts. Ethnic conflicts refer to inter-group confrontations between cultural units (linguistic groups, castes, etc.) which live within the borders of a State. They are issue-based and usually arise out of` the competitive interactions between the groups and are justified in part by differences in cultural attributes (of region, religion, language, caste, race, etc.). One type of ethnic conflict is the spontaneously and locally occurring communal clashes, which are invariably triggered by emotive confrontations that appear to be based on one or more subjective cultural attributes but more often than not are rooted in objective economic competition (over employment, land, entrepreneurial opportunities, etc.) between individuals from different cultural groups. Pogroms unleashed by one cultural group against another - which may or may not be aimed at ethnic cleansing - in which the State has a participatory or supportive role are another type of ethnic conflict.

In contrast, national movements are a form of struggle for State power. They are political struggles launched by nations or peoples against the State. The legitimating ideology of national movements is constructed around the right of national self-determination. In each instance, because the State is identified more or less with the major nation, the national movements of minor nations and peoples for State power superficially resembles an ethnic conflict between the major nation and the minor nations and peoples. The apparent similarity between national movements and ethnic conflicts is exploited by mainstream social scientists to de-legitimise internal self-determination as ‘atavistic’ communal agitation and to criminalise the demand of external self-determination as ‘separatism’.

A further distinction between national movements and ethnic conflicts is the different modes of their resolution. National movements seek political solutions, that is, access to State power to defend the collective or national rights of minor nations and peoples: the demand for the introduction of a federal system is a case in point. In contrast, ethnic conflicts are contained typically by institutional arrangements and legislative provisions to protect individual rights of members of each cultural group as individual citizens. Thus human rights organisations are formed and legislative safeguards are introduced to deal with ethnic conflicts.

The one often shades into the other. A given national movement may contain some elements of an ethnic conflict. For instance, a national movement may employ cultural attributes to mobilise its respective population; or the resolution of a national struggle through a restructuring of the State to facilitate power-sharing could include the adoption of anti-discriminatory legislation; or one ethnic group may claw for greater influence in the legislature in order to promote new legislation, which defend the rights of its members as against the members of another ethnic group. But the distinction between national movements and ethnic conflicts must be borne in mind for two important reasons. Firstly, national rights of a nation are greater than, and are qualitatively different from, the sum of individual rights of its members. The right to education, for instance, is the individual right of each citizen; but what is taught and how it is taught is the collective or national right of a cultural group, a right which crucially determines the capacity of a nation or people to reproduce their cultural identity. Secondly, the dimension of State power inherent in national movements but absent in ethnic conflicts requires attention be paid to the right of internal and external self-determination. These differences impose conceptually different sets of analytical demands in the two cases.

(d) Self-determination and geo-politicsWhile mainstream social scientists have preferred to slur over the right of self-determination and, instead, to focus on ‘conflict and integration’ and ‘identity formation’, political actors have recognised and, according to their interests, stoked or suppressed the demands for self-determination. Colombia opposed the demand of its northern territory, Panama, for external self-determination. But the United States (US) Government, which had already drawn up plans for the construction of the Panama Canal, promoted the external self-determination of the Panamanian people and served as the political midwife for the independence of Panama from Colombia in 1903. The actions of the United States Government had virtually nothing to do with professed altruism and almost everything to do with establishing direct control over the proposed Canal, through a client Panamanian State set up by, and subservient to, Washington DC. At the end of the First World War the British and United States governments undermined the Ottoman Empire by invoking the ‘principle of nationality’- that is, ‘each nationality its State, each State its nationality’- to promote the external self-determination of many nations and peoples ruled by that Empire.

Perhaps the most blatant instance where a national movement for self-determination was exploited for geo-political ends is the case of Eritrea. At first the United States government backed Emperor Haile Salassie of Ethiopia and rejected the Eritrean claim to external self-determination. The Soviet Union supported the Eritrean liberation movement as an important component of the African anti-imperialist struggle. When a pro-Soviet regime was installed in Ethiopia by Colonel Mengistu, Moscow switched allegiance, aligned with Addis Abbaba and rejected Eritrean external self-determination; whilst the United States came to the rescue of Eritrea claiming that the Eritreans were engaged in a struggle against communism.

Another instance occurred during the Gulf War. The United States government encouraged the Kurdist liberation movement within Iraq to strengthen domestic opposition and thereby temporarily weaken the capacity of President Saddam Hussain’s regime to wage war. But the United States scaled down its support for the Kurds after the War ended in order to ensure that President Saddam Hussain stayed in power and remained a credible challenge to Iran’s political ambitions of regional hegemony.

In South Asia, the Punjabi-controlled Pakistani regime repressed the Bengali demand for external self-determination in the then East Pakistan. But Indian Government, confident in the knowledge that the Indian Union was secure under the strong Centre, promoted the liberation movement in East Pakistan and engineered the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 in order to weaken Pakistan. Again, India supported the Tamil liberation struggle in Sri Lanka between 1983 and 1987 in order to bring to heel the Sri Lankan regime. But by the late 1980s the Central Government in India was considerably weakened by the decline of the Congress Party as an All-India political force and the growth of national movements, euphemistically referred to as ‘regional parties’. Consequently, the Indian Government came to view national liberation movements in countries on the Indian border as potential encouragement to Indian national movements and threats to the unity of India. So the Indian Government emphasised internal self-determination for the Tamil national liberation movement.

Thus the right to external self-determination is axiomatic. Whether or not the right is recognised or rejected in any given instance is a political question.

(e) Self-determination and the Left

Rosa Luxemburg had argued against external self-determination, emphasising that State-formation belonged to the early, infant stage of national capitalist development and was neither relevant nor feasible in the context of capitalist imperialism which had become dominant by the first decade of the 20th century. Her political agenda was principally to prevent bourgeois forces from weakening of the world socialist revolution by segmenting the workers into an increasing number of capitalist States. Luxemburg’s formulation was a sanitised version of the earlier denial by Engels of the national rights of the so-called ‘non-historic peoples’, relatively small nations which were seen as obstructions to the growth of States into political units large enough to possess internal markets, create conditions for the growth of productive forces and catalyse capitalist class differentiation. The lunatic fringe of the European Left extended Luxemburg’s argument to oppose anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa. The Left paid lip service to the colossal human and material costs paid, often in blood, by the colonised nations and peoples of Asia and Africa. But it was claimed by the extreme Left that the spread of European colonial empires and emergence of imperialism nevertheless are objective processes, which are economically integrating the working classes on a global scale and leading to the political unity among workers from different countries; and thereby creating the conditions for constructing the political superstructure of the world socialist revolution. Therefore, so the Left lunatic fringe asserted, anti-colonial movements for the independence of the colonised nations and peoples sought to reverse the global integration of working class, undermined worker’s unity and benefited largely the national and/or comprador bourgeoisie of the colonial territories and were, historically speaking, reactionary.

In contrast, Lenin sought to dismantle European colonial empires and weaken capitalist imperialism by striking at its weakest link - the colonial possessions - by encouraging external self-determination among the nations and peoples of colonial territories. However, while he in principle agreed with the right to self-determination including secession and incorporated it in the Soviet Constitution, he was less than enthusiastic about conceding in practice the right of external self-determination to the nations within the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Stalin was more forthright: he condemned national movements in USSR as bourgeois counter-revolution and repressed them with characteristic brutality.

Since the time of Luxemburg and Lenin, numerous new States have emerged on the world stage. Indeed, member-States of the United Nations increased from 26 in 1945 to 185 in 1997, an increase of 159 States (611%)! The empirical data had disproved Luxemburg and Stalin.

But, in the context of internal de-colonisation, almost all left-wing parties and activists buried their heads in the sand: they dogmatically opposed internal de-colonisation leading to external self-determination but pragmatically accepted the new States. Their ideological positions regarding national self-determination are variants based on the formulations of Luxemburg and Lenin. Those theoreticians loyal to Luxemburg typically invoked Stalin’s static and ahistoric definition of a nation in order to dismiss the demand made by a given cultural group for external self-determination as being invalid on grounds that the group did not constitute a nation and therefore was not entitled to an independent State. Others, who are the majority, relied on Lenin’s arguments: they formally recognised the right to national self-determination including secession but offered conditions in which the exercise of the right of secession would, they unilaterally asserted, become unnecessary.

The ideological stance of the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) in Sri Lanka is a case in point. According to its Politburo member Dr Sunil Ratnapriya, NSSP believes that ‘a unity can be preserved on the basis of the following principles.

  1. Equality of all citizens (all racial, religious and communal discrimination should stop.) Full citizenship rights to all permanent residents.
  2. Autonomy for regions (every distinct set of people have the right to govern themselves).
  3. Right of self-determination (acceptance of the right of every nation over its destiny, unity should be entirely on a voluntary basis).

On this basis we [NSSP] have put forward the following programme to resolve the N-E conflict.

  1. Right of secession be included in the constitution in order to make it absolutely clear that unity is based on [the] voluntary decision of both parties. That will express very clearly the inalienable right of Sri Lankan Tamils to a homeland in this country. Also, it means that no one dominates and that there is unenforced, uncoaxed and ungrudging unity.
  2. Equality and end of discrimination in citizenship, jobs, education, land allocation, etc. and particularly in the national armed forces. Granting of citizenship to all Kandyan Tamils.
  3. Autonomy for Tamil speaking areas with powers over regional security or police functions, colonisation and education, etc. Home guards or defence militias for minorities in other areas.
  4. Right to use Tamil in dealing with the Central Government.
  5. Fair share of national income to develop Tamil areas.’

The NSSP’s policy on the Tamil Question aims to establish ‘a unity’. It may be assumed that the NSSP, being a member of the Fourth International, is keen to unify the working classes of the Tamil and Sinhalese nations rather than unite the bourgeoisie of the two nations. But it is obvious that if the Tamil-Sinhalese workers unity is to be realised within an undivided Sri Lankan socialist State in the future, then it is necessary in the present to ensure that the two bourgeois classes stand together, either ideally as partners or more realistically under the political hegemony of the Sinhalese bourgeoisie, to preserve the existing Sinhalese-controlled State.

Consequently, it is in the interest of the NSSP to de-legitimise the Tamil national liberation movement. This was attempted by proposing ‘equality of all citizens’, offering ‘autonomy for regions’ and recognising the ‘right to self-determination’ as the three principles. It must be emphasised none of the three principles accepted the right of the Tamil nation to its own, independent State. Moreover, by using the conveniently vague term ‘autonomy’, the NSSP assured its chauvinist Sinhalese constituency that the party will not concede a federal or confederal system, which are pathologically opposed by the Sinhalese but consistently demanded by the Tamils as alternatives to an independent Tamil State. At the same time, by ‘autonomy’ the NSSP disingenuously implied the prospect of at least a federal alternative in order to satisfy its minority Tamil members and husband Tamil electoral support.

The issue of an independent Tamil State is dealt with in the first of the five-point programme: reference was made to the ‘right of secession’ not because it is the inalienable and unconditional right of a nation but, rather, as a means to achieve ‘a unity’. The ‘right of secession’ is to be included in a future constitution not to permit the Tamil people to secede. On the contrary, the provision is calculated hopefully to make the demand for external self-determination redundant: hence the first point refers to ‘a homeland’ rather than an independent Tamil Eelam.

Evidently to buttress what the NSSP believes is its hold on the moral high-ground, the first point promised ‘unenforced, uncoaxed and ungrudging unity’ between the Tamil and Sinhalese nations without domination of the former by the latter. The NSSP then blithely offered ‘autonomy’ - not federalism - for the Tamils in the third point.

The schematic alternative to external self-determination by Tamils was of course an abstract formulation constructed by the NSSP entirely on paper. It was used by the NSSP to legitimise its opposition to the ideology and objectives of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the cutting-edge of the concrete Tamil national liberation movement, on grounds that it is offering a progressive alternative to the LTTE’s demand for external self-determination, that it is the political rejection of, and not a chauvinist reaction to, Tamil nationalism. Through a circuitous route, the NSSP arrived at the same conclusion as that held by the Sinhalese bourgeoisie: that the nebulous ‘unity’ must be preserved.

What if the Tamil nation as a whole, including the vast majority of its workers and peasants, support the struggle for an independent Tamil Eelam? The Sinhalese bourgeoisie conjured up ‘threats’ to national sovereignty. The NSSP arrogated to itself the right to decide that the Tamil working classes are victims of ‘false consciousness’ - Tamil nationalism - which allegedly prevented them from realising the objective interests they have in common with Sinhalese working classes. To overcome false consciousness, the NSSP invited the Tamil working classes to be united with the Sinhalese working classes as equal partners and struggle together against imperialism. What if the Tamil nation as a whole, in exercising its right to self-determination, prefers instead a separate and independent Tamil State? The response of NSSP members is to imperiously mouth vacuous slogans that the Tamil working classes have nothing to gain by creating a Tamil bourgeois State. In this way the NSSP concurred with the Sinhalese bourgeoisie: that if Tamils do not voluntarily agree to unity with Sinhalese, the LTTE-led Tamil national liberation movement must be defeated.

What if the Tamil working classes believe, in the context of national oppression and class exploitation within a bourgeois State, that they suffer double oppression as Tamils and as workers? What if they consider that it is more realistic to form a national alliance with the Tamil bourgeoisie to resolve the national contradiction in order to eliminate national oppression, rather than attempt to re-build the class alliance with the Sinhalese working classes which was eroded by Sinhalese nationalism? These conditions induced the Tamil working classes to ally with the Tamil bourgeoisie to form a cross-class national alliance which is the class basis of the Tamil national liberation movement. This is an instance of ‘external class struggle’, the political struggle between the oppressor Sinhalese bourgeoisie external to the Tamil nation on the one hand and the national alliance of classes within the Tamil nation on the other hand. The concept of ‘external class struggle’ is the product of enlightened Marxist-Leninist analysis of class contradictions underlying the present-day processes of internal de-colonisation; it posits the progressive, general democratic content of the demand for external self-determination and underlines the crucial role the Left must play in supporting internal de-colonisation and facilitating external self-determination of nations and peoples.

But the NSSP’s seems blissfully unaware of the intensifying external class struggle between the Tamil national alliance and the Sinhalese bourgeoisie. The party’s explicit response to the demand for external self-determination made by the Tamil national alliance is to project a utopian socialist society devoid of national and class oppressions in which the demand would not arise. The party’s implicit position is that unity must be preserved; if the Tamil working classes refuse to be united with the Sinhalese working classes, they must be compelled - if necessary by the use of military force - into a union with the latter irrespective of the costs in loss of lives and destruction of property. It is a position which is not dissimilar to the cynical formulation employed by the United States government to defend the carpet-bombing of northern Vietnam: ‘better dead than red’.

The NSSP’s bankrupt political response to the Tamil national liberation struggle amply demonstrates the ideological straight-jacket donned by the Left in general, by dogmatically positing the inflexible primacy of the development of the forces of production. The Left in general reacted with considerable ambivalence to the processes of State-formation through external de-colonisation during the second half of the 20th century. The scale of State-formation through internal de-colonisation anticipated by Mr Boutros Boutros Gali and most Political Geographers, given that such predictions of the future invariably understate the extent of change, is likely to further marginalise the Left well into the 21st century.

(f) The task ahead

Recent manoeuvres by some sections of the Left to outflank national liberation movements are more sophisticated. The Left theoreticians formally conceded the right to external self-determination but have insisted that the national liberation movement must articulate a credible post-liberation political agenda of social transformation, which would combat gender oppression and class exploitation in the social formation within the new State. The tactic is to demand that the liberation movement commits itself to an almost utopian agenda and then withhold support for the movement on grounds that shortcomings in its agenda indicate that the movement’s victory will not significantly advance the interests of women and workers. However, support cannot be qualified by the post-liberation agenda for the obvious reason that the social transformation after liberation will be defined by the dialectic of class and gender relations and conditioned by historically given cultural parameters.

It is not uncommon to come across feminist arguments rejecting national liberation as a ‘male dominated, female served’ political project, which allegedly aimed to replace male oppressors of the external oppressing nation with male oppressors from within the oppressed nation. In short, Tamil women, for example, are expected to conclude that they stand to gain nothing substantial by way of relief from gender oppression by supporting the LTTE-led Tamil liberation movement. However the Sri Lankan armed are not know to display a nuanced approach to the Tamil population informed by the above feminist arguments: when the armed forces stomp into a Tamil village they do not target only the males claiming that national liberation is ‘male dominated, female served’. Rather the Sinhalese soldiers are more likely to rape the Tamil women in front of their men and then kill the men. Thus Tamil women in general are convinced that they are as much victims of national oppression as are Tamil men and insist on shouldering an equal share of the burden of the Tamil liberation movement.