‘Self-determination’ or ‘mutualinterdependence’?

TNA Victory in North and UNF Victory in South:


The people of Sri Lanka have spoken, both on Jan. 08, and now on August 17. The North has backed the TNA while the South has supported the UNF and the UPFA to varying degrees. The country has apparently returned to the politics of the 1960s, with the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) holding the balance of power.

However, if the TNA lends a constructive hand, there is now a prospect of a governing party and a strong Opposition unlike during the previous decade. Furthermore, given the TNA leadership's ‘war crimes’ campaign against the leaders of the previous government, a better understanding should exist between the new UNF and the TNA. In fact, if the UPFA had come back to power, Jaffna and Colombo would have been on a collision course.

Although Chelvanayagam and his colleagues embraced the idea of ‘Arasu’ and ‘self-determination for the Tamils’ as early as the Maradana meeting in 1949, they became a force only after 1956. Yet, Chelvanayagam seriously attempted to find a ratio imperandi as seen from the Banda-Chelva pact and the Dudly-Chelva accords. However, the rank and file and the leaders could not overcome their own mistrust of each other. The B-C pact was rejected by the nationalists in both the North and the South. A golden opportunity presented itself when C. P. de Silva led the SLFP in 1960, when there was a hung Parliament. Silva had agreed to implement the B-C pact days before he was to meet Sir Oliver, in trying to form a coalition government while Dudley had declined. Sir Oliver, wanting a stable government for at least two years, asked Chelvanayagam if the Federal party (FP or ITAK) would back Silva at least for two years. If the latter had agreed to do so a remarkable political alliance between the SLFP and the FP leaders could have resulted. Two years of co-habitation under an utterly honest and competent leader like C. P. de Silva, a mathematician and civil servant turned politician would have been a rare treat for Ceylon. However, it was not to be. Chelva refused to back Silva. When Oliver called a new election, Sirimavo Banadaranaike came to power with a very strong vote. The previous accommodations with Chelvanayagam had become irrelevant.

However, it is recorded that Oliver offered to appoint C. P. de Silva as the PM if the FP would back him for two years. Today, Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremasinghe echo the political configuration of the C. P. de Silva-Dudley-Chelva era. They cannot avoid the so-called national question. One major difficulty is the great mistrust of many Sri Lankans regarding the attitude of the present leaders during the hey day of the LTTE.

The other difficulty is the TNA's continued call for ‘self determination for the Tamils’, based on the concept of ‘exclusive Tamil homeland’. The concept of ‘self-determination’ is actually alien to South Asian cultures. It is a part of political ideology forged in the West, idolizing the individualism of the Pilgrim Fathers and the American West. Marxist writers have also added their bit by twisting Lenin into this mould though the Indian Marxists and Sri Lanka's Karalasingham did not.

The Thesavalami law found in Jaffna is instructive from the point of view of the ‘self-determination’ doctrine. Thesavalami and its variants are found in the Malabar coast and in many Asian cultures. This requires that a land owner cannot determine the ‘fate’ of his own piece of land without consulting and obtaining the consensus of his neighbours. The principle here is not ‘self-determination’ but ‘mutual interdependence’. While this is partly a rule to keep the land within a ‘caste’ or an ‘elite’ group the principle behind it was that individual rights had to accommodate group rights. In fact, even today, Asian societies replaces individual rights’ by the concept of ‘duty’ to the family, clan, community and culture and even self-sacrifice. The latter was used by the Tigers in their ‘suicide-thyagyam’ doctrine. This strikingly contrasts with modern western interpretations of ‘human rights’ that ignore ‘duty’ and emphasise the ‘individual’.

The Northern peninsula cannot demand self-determination without the accord of those North of them (i. e. India) and those south of them (the Sinhala majority). The sensitivities of other neighbours, viz the Western powers, and the East, represented by China are also vital to the equation. This concept was already embodied in the power of the four ‘Guardian deities’ of Sri Lanka. These were God Saman representing the Sinhala hinterland, God Vishnu (Upulvan) representing India, Skandha (Iskander, i. e., Alexander) representing the power of the Hellenic West and the Persian empire, while Vibheeshana represented all the other powers linked to the legends of Ravana.

Leaving aside the cultural antecedents, a more populous North will have to get its water from the Southern hills. The taxes levied in the South and the economies of the Western, Southern and hill provinces have always sustained the North. This was true even under the LTTE where the ‘government servants’ were paid salaries by the state which also provided food to that part of the country during three decades of hostilities.

Clearly, the TNA and the UNF have to re-think their politics within the concept of ‘mutual inter-dependance’ instead of ‘self-determination’ for ‘exclusive’ Tamil homelands. Sri Lanka is the homeland of everyone, with no exclusive living apart (apartheid) possible. Can our leaders exploit a rare juncture in history for the common good?

Chandre Dharmawardana,


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