Justification for Self-Determination

Tamils in the North & East of Sri Lanka

by Kumarathasan Rasingam, October 20, 2020

When the United Nations was created after the World War II, one of its purposes was spelt out in Article 1 [2] of the UN Charter as: “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principles of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”  And Article 55 of the UN Charter provides that, “With a view to the creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principles of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, the United Nations shall promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”.

The systematic violations of human rights by the Sri Lankan Government over a period of 72 years are well documented and are clearly no accidental happenings. They constitute evidence of the resolute and determined efforts of alien Sinhala governments to subjugate and assimilate the people of Tamil Eelam within the framework of a unitary SINHALA BUDDHIST  STATE. The people of Tamil Eelam have suffered long enough and have waited long enough for their human rights. Today, they are a people who can never be denied their right to SELF-DETERMINATION.

Indigenous Tamil people have lived for more than 2,500 years in the northern and eastern parts of present-day Sri Lanka [North-East] as the Tamil hereditary area. In pre colonial days there was the Tamil Kingdom in the North-East {Jaffna Kingdom] and two Sinhalese Kingdoms in the south, called Kotte and Kandy. Drawings and maps from the time of the Greek explorer Ptolemy, and later from the period when the British came to the island, show how the areas of the Tamils and the Sinhalese were recorded separately from antiquity.

Sir Hugh Cleghorn in a report to the British colonial secretary in 1799 stated the following:

“Two different nations from the ancient period had divided the Island. First the Sinhalese with Southern and Western parts from the river Wallawa to that of Chilaw. Secondly the Malabas [Tamils] in the Northern and Eastern district which extended from West coast of the Island from Puttlam to Mannar and in the East Southwards up to the limits of Kunana or the river Kumbukkan Oya that separated Batticoloa from the Southern districts of Matara.”

“Sir Emerson Tennent in his book “Ceylon – Page 413-415 states “Malabaris were inhabitants of Jaffna before Christ, a belief which existed among Tamils , Malabaris also inhabited Vanni, Mathoddam, Mannar and the majority are descendants of Malabaris.”

Although Sri Lanka [formerly Ceylon] was historically comprised of two distinctive nations, the country’s history has been written or represented as if it were one nation. However, two nations, namely Sinhalese and Tamil, have existed in Sri Lanka continuously from historic times, each with its own distinctive religious, linguistic, cultural, social, economic and political values. Both ethnic groups ruled in Sri Lanka from the historic period and even prior to the medieval period they each established their separate Kingdoms based on their traditional homelands. However, there is still contention among Sinhalese people who argue that Tamils do not have a legitimate right to their claim for self-determination.

Scholars in the fields of history, archaeology, anthropology, sociology and linguistics have convincingly proven that the Tamils of Sri Lanka have the same rights as the majority Sinhalese community to inhabit and share power as a fully fledged society in every respect.

Dr. K. Indrapala, formerly Professor of History at the University of Jaffna, in his recent book, ‘Tamils in Sri Lanka’ [Evolution of an Ethnic Identity] this well-researched and scholarly work is highly recommended to anyone who wishes to understand and gain clear knowledge of the true historical situation. The scholarly world and in particular, politicians, need to pay careful attention to the above study and reassess their views. This could ensure a better future for their respective communities and provide an opportunity for ethnic animosity to be dispelled and the principles of brotherhood and mutual understanding between the communities to be re-established allowing the country to once again prosper.   .

The state sponsored colonization of Sinhalese from the South into the Tamils traditional and historical homeland changed the demography of Tamils Traditional homeland.

Judicial experts have repeatedly asserted that the political violence and killings directed against the Tamils constitute genocide. The ICJ stated “the evidence points to the conclusion that the violence of the Sinhalese rioters on the Tamils amounted to acts of genocide” The allegations of genocide is based on the following points:

  1. The Tamils represent a clearly defined group and those who kill the Tamils do so with the intent to wipe them out as a group.
  2. The killers are encouraged or implicitly supported by state authorities and
  3. The acts of violence and mass killing inflicted upon Tamils are criminal and systematic.

Over 80,000 civilian Tamil people, including women and children, have been killed or disappeared since 1983; more than 12,500 Tamil women have been raped and killed, torture is routinely committed against the Tamils.

The idea of Tamil Eelam has taken firm roots in the Tamil consciousness. What might yet convince the alienated Tamil population that they have a future within a united Sri Lanka is the reconstitution of Sri Lanka as a highly decentralized multinational state of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims which would entail major institutional restructuring of the state.

Are Sri Lankan Tamils a “People”?

The UNESCO meeting of Experts on further study of Rights of Peoples [Paris 1990] proposed that the following criteria be used to determine a people:

  1. Cultural homogeneity
  2. Linguistic unity
  3. Religious ideological affinity
  4. Common historical tradition
  5. Racial and ethnic identity
  6. Territorial connection
  7. Common economic existence of life

If this test is applied to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, even the most ardent objector to the granting of autonomy must admit that they would qualify as a ‘people’ in international law and thus be entitled to at least the right to internal self-determination. But the claim of the Tamils to self-determination is also based on the fact that prior to the arrival of Portuguese in the 16th century there were distinct groups of people, who had control of their political destinies, exercising sovereignty over a defined and separate territory.

However, it must be remembered that the Tamils in Sri Lanka did not demand a separate sovereign state at the time of independence from colonial rule. The demand at that stage was for parity of status. Within 10 years of independence, the demand for a federal state intensified. It was only after a series of repressive measures by successive governments, and broken agreements that the demand for a separate state as an expression to their right to self-determination emerged.

The Tamils charter of self-determination, issued at Thimphu in 1985, demanded that Sri Lankan Tamils be recognised as a distinct nationality, that the North and East be recognized as the historical homeland of that nationality.

Ethnic claims to the right to self-determination occur in three main types of situation. The first instance can be found in the democratic West often labelled as the “First World” where an “ethnic revival” has taken place: a development characterized by a newly discovered assertiveness among various minority groups. These include amongst others, the Basques and Catalans in Spain, the Welsh and the Scots in the United Kingdom, and the Quebecans in Canada. The second instance can be located in the “Third World” where states that inherited artificial frontiers that did not reflect pre-existing ethnic divisions are increasingly experiencing claim of ethnic self-determination and services inter-ethnic violence as they struggle to adjust to a post-colonial political process. Such inter-ethnic conflicts seem to have proliferated since the start of the 1960s when the process of decolonization was at its peak.

Though successive Sinhala governments in power since independence continue to deny the reality of the Tamil Nation, it has demonstrated that the Tamils do constitute a distinct nation under the accepted criteria. And as people with a different language, culture and ways of life and inhabiting a defined area, their traditional homeland, the Tamil nation has the right of self-determination to decide their own destiny.

The United Nations Charter of 1945 supports the view that the right of self-determination is a legal principle and as such this right of self-determination and as such this right is placed crucially in the first article of each of the two major human rights Covenants of 1966 viz the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICOPR] and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [ICESCR]

This recognition of self-determination rights was first applied in the 1960s to countries hitherto ruled by colonial powers, for example countries like Africa. But since then it has been applied to the rights of several other peoples and most recently to the peoples of East Timor and South Sudan. Despite the fact that this right is firmly established in international law, consideration of the Tamil people’s right of self-determination and importantly the outright denial of this right in the discourse pertaining to ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka by the International Community and the United Nations is incomprehensible Although the UN Charter endorses the right of self-determination, one of the ironies of the 21st century is that such peoples suffer from the lack of an international mechanism that supports a people’s legitimate aspirations for the right of self-determination.and its exercise.

Despite the sustained attacks of Sinhala dominated governments over a period of several decades, the territorial integrity of the Tamil “homeland”: in the North and East of the Island has remained. The Tamil population in the North and East. Who have lived for many centuries within relatively well defined geographical boundaries, share an ancient heritage, a vibrant culture and a living language which traces its origin to more than 2500 years ago. A social group, which shares objective elements such as a common language and which have acquired a subjective consciousness of togetherness by its life within a relatively well defined territory, and its struggle against alien domination [Sinhala Buddhist]

From the early 1980’s successive Sinhala governments intensified the persecution and oppression of the Tamil people. In 1981, the Public Library of Jaffna was burnt to the ground by Sinhala policemen in an act of cultural genocide. In July 1983 the government orchestrated the holocaust of the Tamils where over 3000 Tamils were killed, some burnt alive. The Sinhala Police and Army encouraged the killings judicial experts have repeatedly asserted that the political violence and killings against the Tamils constituted genocide. The International Commission of Jurists stated that “The evidence points clearly to the conclusion that the violence of the Sinhalese rioters on Tamils amounted to acts of genocide.

Documentations and evidence of widespread attacks against the Tamil civilian population over several decades have been collected by International Human Rights Organizations and the UN bodies. For instance, as corroborated by Amnesty International on 11-2-1996, the Sri Lankan soldiers raped and killed two young women during an army mass killings of 24 villagers in Kumarapuram/ The court case of Krishanthy Kumaraswamy a 17 year old girl who disappeared on 7th September 1996 and was gang raped and murdered by Sri Lanka Army led to the revelation of the mass graves at Chemmanai, in Jaffna where some 600 bodies are believed to be buried.

The disturbing feature of Sri Lanka’s post independence is the organized violence in the form of anti-Tamil riots and pogroms periodically unleashed on the Tamil people in 1956, 1958, 1961, 1977, 1981 and 1983, The last in 1983 referred as ‘Holocaust’ or: Black July 1983” witnessed over 3000Tamils killed and billions of rupees worth of their properties and business establishments destroyed.

State-aided colonization with Sinhalese settlers in the North and East of the country has since independence; this is intended to change the demographist in these two provinces and to break the contiguity between them so as to deny the Tamils’ demand for a separate state for them. The Sinhalese population in the Eastern province which was mere 4% at the time of independence is today estimated at 26%.

Tamil villages have been taken over in the Eastern and Northern Provinces by driving away the Tamils who have lived there for generations. This has been followed by changing the Tamil names to Sinhala names. The foremost example is the Manal Aru, today known by its Sinhala name of Weli Oya. Weli Oya has now been designated and gazetted as a Sinhala Divisional Secretariat in the Mullaitivu District. The creation of Weli Oya has also helped to break the continuity between Northern and Eastern Provinces. This is pure and simple an example of ethnic cleansing.

Post war Sri Lankan politics is driven by majoritarian Sinhala-Buddhist triumphalism. Even after eleven years after the war’s end, the oppression has intensified and the notion of the “victor takes all ” is the Government’s strategy Whatever the Government might say the ground realities in the North and. East speak for themselves.


The Tamil people in Sri Lanka have been subjected to discrimination within the model of a unitary state where majoritarinism reigns. They have been denied the opportunity to express their right to self-determination through an internal political arrangement, such as a federal government. In such a situation the denial of the existence of the right to self-determination itself will give rise to the right to unilateral secession as an expression of that right.

Therefore the recognition of the right to self-determination of the Tamil people will no way erode state sovereignty, which according to the Sri Lankan Constitution, vests anyway with the people. In point of fact, if the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka is to be preserved from claims to the right of secession, it is a sine qua non that the right of self-determination of the Tamils is recognized and the nature of the state is restructured to enable meaningful exercise of internal self-determination.

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