Self-Determination as a 21-C Concept

Justice Wigneswaran and Dr Jayatilleka use outdated categories


BY Kumar David

Justice CV Wigneswaran (CV) made a splendid presentation at the Bernard Soysa birth centenary commemoration and Dr Dayan Jayatilleka (DJ) responded in newspaper and web. The polemic is about one aspect of CV’s address, Self-Determination. I have the temerity to wade into this clash of giants with a correction; both these mighty intellects are stuck with concepts, which unless refined for modern times, have outlived the1ir usefulness. Concepts like Self-Determination and Secession should be used in current discourse, taking into account both their methodological origin (mostly in Leninist discourse) and also accompanied by an exercise in lateral thinking that adapts them to globalised 21st Century reality.

CV’s use of the terms State and Nation (capital S and N) is impeccably Leninist.

"A State with a capital ‘S’ may mean a self governing political entity recognized by the international community as a distinct state or a division of a federal entity. In the first sense it can be used interchangeably with ‘Country’.  But a Nation is a tightly knit group of people who share a common culture and perceive themselves as such. A Nation State is a Nation, which is coterminous with the borders oaf a State. Nations are groups of people having relatively greater cultural homogeneity, and perceive themselves to be distinctive.  They are generally larger than a single tribe or community, and share a common language, institutions or religion or religions, and historical experiences".

This is classic Lenin; the absolutist Tsarist State, versus, for example, the Georgian people struggling against oppression, feudal remnants and primitive social structures. Lenin stood firmly with National Liberation, notwithstanding its bourgeois leadership. It represented historical progress and was a potential ally of the revolutionary proletariat. Morally for the former reason, and strategically for the later, he was glad to recognise the right of Nations to Self-Determination including the right to Secede. CV falls short of Lenin; he demurs, I guess for tactical reasons, and refrains from mentioning the right to Secede. I understand; it’s wise.

DJ, I know not why, now eschews the Leninism he was wedded to in his more consistent and I dare say more respected salad days, bursts of youthful testosterone notwithstanding. What is the meaning of a passage like this from an avowed Marxist? (I not sure if he calls himself one any longer). It is so theoretically wrong, and so at odds with the times.

"The problem with the Chief Minister’s assertion is that the ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ are slightly under 4% of the island’s population, while the Sinhalese are roughly 74%. (The CIA World Factbook, a source with which the TNA can surely have no problem, says the Sri Lankan Tamils are 3.9%). There would be chaos if every country were to accord the status of nationhood to every ethnic group which is 4% and above, not least because the status of nationhood brings with it the claim of the inalienable right of self determination up to and including political independence".

DJ carelessly quotes an incorrect statistic, the 4% should be about 12%, but methodologically that’s beside the point. It could be 4%, 14% or 40%; Self-Determination is not graduated. One big State or six smaller ones, what does it matter, what’s the skin off his back, or mine? Isn’t this the sort of thing that Lenin in his day called Great Russian Chauvinism? DJ’s error is that he raises the wrong, the non-Leninist, and the non-21st-Century objections. I will return to a rational element in what he is saying before signing off, but first the barebones of Self-Determination and Secession.

The Right to Self-Determination including Secession

The simplest statement of the principle is this: If a cohesive group of people X, inhabiting a territory Y as a majority, can establish a credible separate State Z, and the group wants to secede from State W and constitute itself as State Z, it has the moral and political right to Secede and to establish State Z. (The alternative is to retain them by force). There is an equally fundamental second part to the principle: Anyone who accepts this principle (say KD) has an absolute right to campaign among people X, for or against secession, depending on what in his view is better. Nevertheless, if X eventually insists, one way or the other, that decision stands.

A few clarifications will be useful. Lanka’s Muslims (too dispersed) and Upcountry Tamils (too intermingled) are examples of an X without a Y; most linguistic states in India possess X and Y, but have no aspiration to quit W (India) and form their own Z. The Ceylon Tamils have X and Y but whether they want Z, at the present time, is debatable.

While bowing to people’s eventual right to secede, whether, say KD, should in the interim campaign for or against secession varies case by case. Facing a secessionist choice one needs to judge the prosperity of the hypothesised State (democratic prospects, economic outlook, international relationships) and whether its birth will be peaceful (Slovenia, the Czech-Slovak velvet divorce, Crimea, maybe Scotland) or blood soaked (East Timor, ex-Yugoslavia except Slovenia, South Sudan). It should be a thought out, carefully weighed and politically intelligent decision, not an emotional one.

Secession in modern times

Lenin’s approach is fine, but a century has passed since the Lenin-Luxemburg debates and a lot of water has passed under the bridge. First and very significant is that X no longer need be a Nation in CV’s sense of cultural homogeneity. If hypothetically, it is OK for Scotland to secede, would it not be OK, even if the people north of Gretna Green spoke three languages and worshiped four different gods, to jointly establish their Z-Scotland? Of course there is no problem. The requirement would be that X be cohesive, not homogeneous in culture or Nationality, but cohesive only in that they wish to secede and create their own separate State. In modern globalised times this is the sole measure of identity that can be imposed in validating X. Globalised supply-chains, collapsing trade barriers and universal digital connectedness have erased ‘economies of scale’ in State size; there is no optimum.

Taiwan is a thriving example; it consists of four groups with not at all a common history except after the fall of the KMT in China; there is not all that much cultural homogeneity except that created by modern capitalism (which is exactly my point); but they share one cohesive marker of identity – they wish to remain a separate State. OK, whatever the facts, grant this hypothetically. Then eureka, you have your X! These peoples (note plural) Hoklo, Hakka, Mainlanders who came with the KMT, and the Originals, are entitled to their post-secession State. The PRC should bow to their right to continuing Self-Determination.

Numbers and sizes are irrelevant; DJ is way off the mark. Take Singapore; it was kicked out of Malaysia by the stupid Malays in 1965 and has prospered gloriously ever since. This is not exactly a case of secession by self-determination but by expulsion (Lee Kwan Yew described it as "The only instance in modern history where a country was formed because it was kicked out"). But it would not have made the slightest difference to the prosperity of non-homogeneous Singapore or Malaysia if it had been the other way round. So dear DJ, in some things size does not matter; and your Honour, nor does homogeneity.

A few more examples of small, independent and economically viable States that contradict DJ’s obsession with size. Latvia and Lithuania are each the size of Lanka and have populations of 2.2 million and 3.2 million, respectively, while Estonia is 70% of our size and has a population of 1.7 million. Rwanda and Burundi are each 40% of Lanka’s size and have populations which are each half ours. There are more examples of viable small states, provided the near-abroad is supportive.

Latvia and Estonia contradict the thesis of cultural homogeneity as a necessary condition to secede and form a stable State. Latvia is ethnically mixed, 60% Latvians, 27% Russians and 13% others, while Estonia is 69% Estonians, 26% Russians and 5% others. To put it bluntly, X is any cohesive group that desires to constitute itself into a State so as to benefit in modern times from a globalised ethos; bugger homogeneity and culture!

Valid concerns

Given a cohesive X, living in preferably a contingent territory Y, and desiring a separate State Z which will be viable, that’s the end of the Right to Self-Determination story; that’s the easy part. The hard part starts now. Shall we tell them to secede or not? The answer has to be sought in the rational not the emotional part of the cerebrum. It depends on whether X will be better off afterwards and how high the cost of secession. Let me repeat myself, it bears repetition; one must consider the stability and prosperity of the hypothesised State; in particular its democratic and constitutional prospects, economic outlook for the mass of the population, and the international atmosphere, especially the near-abroad. This has to be comparative; the alternative is the status quo. The other crucial concern is whether the birth of Z will be relatively peaceful or soaked in blood and conflict.

This last point is the rational element in what DJ is saying but getting all back to front. Had he said "Yeah sure, you guys have the right to secede but don’t be bloody fools, the cost is too high; see what happened to Prabakharan. Let’s give it a fight within this State and get devolution, let’s get international support, let’s work on it, it’s not hopeless yet" he would be half right. The other half is to campaign among the Sinhalese masses (not the Tamils, they know what they lack) for minority rights. Actually DJ has a consistent record on this last matter in the English language media. Now he must take on the real task; proselytising in Sinhala and among JVPish types. Instead, he is wasting his time preaching to the Rajapaksas.

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