The principles behind the Tamil quest for freedom from the Sri Lankan state – and the call for international assistance to help them secure it – are gaining general recognition in open discussions. Until recently, ‘secession’ as a possible solution to ‘conflicts within states’ was something no one was willing to consider, let alone discuss. The struggles in the former Yugoslavia and East Timor, and the international involvement in them, have paved the way for greater understanding of the nature of similar conflicts elsewhere, and a certain willingness to look at the secession option.

Two notable public discussions on this issue in recent times are articles that appeared in TIME Magazine [22 May 2000] and The Economist [4 January 2001].

The TIME article, titled ‘Will You Become Your Own Nation?’, was quite direct in its suggestion.

“… [It’s] worth recognizing that the efforts of the U.S. government and others to get people to live in multinational and multiethnic communities are more often than not exercises in futility. Instead, it is often wise to accommodate those pushing for ethnic separation, segregation and homogenization – even if that means partitioning entire nations to reduce violence…”

This weeks’ The Economist article, titled ‘Why and when to go in’, is on ‘wars of external intervention in internal conflicts’ by the international community, mainly the US and Europe. Although this piece is about military interventions, the ideas generated are relevant to other forms of persuasion as well. The article is essentially about countries that do not conform to certain standards of behavior, and when and how to intervene to change such behavior.

It delineates scenarios where such intervention is warranted.

“The first ground for intervention is when a clearly definable people in a clearly definable geographical area is being violently denied the right to govern itself by another stronger lot, who say that the smaller group is part of their own ‘sovereign’ territory.”

One couldn’t have a more apt description of the conflict in Sri Lanka than this.

This lengthy, in-depth analysis begins by tracing the origins of the concept of ‘sovereignty.’

“The conventional idea of sovereign inviolability goes back to the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which said that cuius regio, eius religio – the ruler decides his country’s religion – and to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, when the powers of continental Europe wound up the Thirty Years War with a pledge to let each participating country be ruled the way its ruler wanted.”

One of the reasons why the idea of inviolability of sovereignty stuck, the article says, was the lack of awareness of what went on within the borders of states.

“It was easy enough to tell outsiders to stay outside when they knew very little of what was going on in most of the rest of the world…Back in those days, though, and for centuries afterwards, it was hard to know what a ruler was doing to the people he ruled… As late as 1938, Britain’s Neville Chamberlain could get away with calling Czechoslovakia a far-off country of whose people ‘we know nothing’…”

This is no longer true, says The Economist.

“That is a vanished past. Now, except for a few sealed-off corners of Africa and Asia, what a ruler does to his people is swiftly revealed by camera, satellite and Internet to a large, interested and reasonably well-informed audience; and, if what he does is outrageous enough, the audience is likely to want something done about it.”

It goes on to discus at length the wide and varied circumstances under which intervention would be demanded, and then attempts to narrow them down to fewer scenarios where action would be desirable.

“…[You] must have clear rules about when it is permissible to intervene and when it is not. Otherwise chaos will set in… If wars of intervention are to be a serious part of tomorrow’s agenda, they will have to be based on a simple, straightforward and more or less universally accepted set of rules…

There are, however, at least two grounds for intervention, which pretty clearly pass the tests described above. Both of them have been made easier to understand by what has happened in the Balkans in the past couple of years...

The first ground for intervention is when a clearly definable people in a clearly definable geographical area is being violently denied the right to govern itself by another, stronger lot who say that the smaller group is part of their own ‘sovereign’ territory.

The second ground for intervention described in the article doesn’t apply to Sri Lanka. It is about dictators who refuse to step-down against the people’s will. E.g. Milosevic, who refused to accept the election results. However, a point raised in this context namely, ‘The Will of the People’, is relevant to the Sri Lankan situation.

 “Of course, a great deal depends on being able to know the ‘clearly expressed wishes’ of the people involved…”

The will of the people of Thamileelam is well established. The 1977 mandate, where people of the north and east of Sri Lanka voted overwhelmingly for secession, at the last ‘free and fair’ elections, is undeniable. Even if one were to contest its appropriateness based on the time elapsed, a plebiscite in the northeastern province (Thamileelam territories) is something the Tamil people would, most likely, be willing to accept.

On this subject the article states –

“These days, not many governments will either refuse to hold an election at all… The rulers of most countries are now willing to have elections in which people who disagree with them can take part… There are still some countries where this is not the case; but here the United Nations can lend its special hand.

Sri Lanka is one that not only doggedly refuses to accept the 1977 mandate, but also wouldn’t, in all probability, entertain the idea of a referendum in the future.

India receives admiration in this article for its secularism and good governance of its varied nationalities.

“There are plenty of countries where a rich variety of different people live intermingled with each other (India is the most spectacular example) and where it would be nonsense to say that each of these component elements, even if they quite often grumble about one another, ought to have its own separate government.”

In this context, it worth quoting another source, to make the distinction between what goes on in India and Sri Lanka. The 1999 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report titled ‘Human Development in South Asia 1999’ had the following statement about the two countries –

“Between 1954 and 1994, there were approximately fifteen thousand communal riots in India, which resulted in 13,301 casualties. Around fifty five thousand people have died so far (1983-1999) in the civil war in Sri Lanka.”

Thirteen thousand deaths in a country of one billion people over a 40 year period, as opposed to 55,000 deaths in a mere sixteen years in a country of only 17 million, says it all.

The Economist further argues for a standard set of rules to be applied everywhere.

“There remains the awkward question of consistency. After Kosovo and East Timor, a lot of unhappy places will be proposed as suitable cases for intervention... Obviously, not all of these proposed interventions can be taken on… though some applications for help will doubtless be accepted, others will have to be turned down; and it needs to be convincingly explained why. The more or less honourable explanation ought to be that the distinction is being drawn not because Candidate A suits the interests of the interveners better than Candidate B – which would blow a hole in the idea of a principle-based policy…”

Henry Kissinger posed the question differently, but with particular reference to Sri Lanka, when the NATO and US decided to intervene in Kosovo.

“[The] suffering in Kosovo is so offensive to our moral sensibilities that we will use force to end it even absent traditional considerations of national interest… this leaves open the question of why we do not intervene in East Africa, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Kashmir and Afghanistan - to name just a few of the places where infinitely more casualties have been incurred than in Kosovo...” [Newsweek; 5 April 1999]

The recent Norwegian efforts, the statements emanating from Britain, the US and India, the Aid Consortium meeting in Paris, etc., show that the horrible events in Sri Lanka have, at last, caught the attention of the world.

The question is will the international community play fair?


Related Stories:

1. TIME magazine [22 May 2000]

2. The Economist [4 January 2001]

3. Will Tamil Nadu Secede if Eelam is born [Sunday Leader - 14 May 2000]

Sangam Research [9 January 2001]