There is no right of  self-determination

By Izeth Hussain
 In theory the post-General Elections situation looks very propitious for a political solution of the Tamil ethnic problem. There has been a note of moderation on the Tamil side, both on the part of the TNA and the GTF. On the Sinhalese side the new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe has been famously a soft-liner on the ethnic problem, and his political record shows that he could be expected to show a reasonable pragmatic accommodativeness in approaching the problem. That is the situation in theory, but in practice our unconscionably protracted ethnic imbroglio could well continue into the indefinite future. There are two reasons for this. One is that there are ambiguities about the outcome of the recent General Elections. The other is that the Tamil insistence on a fundamental that has stood in the way of a solution up to now has not changed at all.
 As I have argued in my last article the UNP-led coalition won with a comfortable majority. It was not an outright victory but one that enables the UNP to run a stable Government with the help of cross-overs mainly from the SLFP. Therefore the new Government will not have to depend on the TNA for its survival and consequently it will be under no pressure to be particularly accommodative to Tamil demands. We must also bear in mind that the SLFP won in 1994 with just one seat less than the present UNP and formed a stable Government but lost at the next round of General Elections. It may be that that defeat was due to complex factors and not just due to Chandrika Kumaratunga’s accommodativeness towards Tamil demands. But obviously, with its long-term survival in mind, the new Government has to be wary about being seen as too accommodative towards the Tamils.
 I come now to the ambiguities about the outcome of the recent General Elections. It can be seen as a comfortable victory for the UNP in the sense that I have defined above. But it can also be seen as a narrow victory for the UNP, with 95 seats for the UPFA against the UNP’s 106. It was not an outright victory and certainly not an overwhelming one, but one that showed the formidable strength of the opposition to the UNP. A substantial number of SLFP Parliamentarians may cross over to the Government, but that does not diminish the strength of the opposition to it among the people. That strength came basically from the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, and the appeal behind that strength was racist neo-Fascism. It is expected that Mahinda Rajapakse will remain a formidable force in our politics, and it has to be expected that he will tap that racist neo-Fascist appeal to counter anything that might seem excessively accommodative to the Tamils. Racist neo-Fascism may not be the wave of the future but its present strength should not be under-estimated.
 The other reason why the ethnic imbroglio might continue is that the Tamil side continues to insist on what it regards as a fundamental, which in fact is the fundamental reason why there has been no political solution up to now. This fundamental is the right of self-determination. The argument is that the Tamils are not just another minority like recent immigrants in the West but a national minority. They are a nation in Sri Lanka because they are indigenous to a particularly territory consisting of the North and part of the Eastern Province, a concept that implies much more than an area of traditional habitation. Consequently the argument is that the Tamils have the right of self-determination. That right includes the right to set up a separate state, and also the right to internal self-determination meaning the right to a wide measure of devolution. Therefore the TNA, which is today the representative of the Tamil moderates, is asking not for a separate state but for a federal system.
 The core of the ethnic imbroglio is that on the whole the Sinhalese have been allergic to the idea of federalism because of an unshakeable conviction that it will lead by an ineluctable linear progression to a separate state. The right of self-determination does after all include the right to a separate state. I have argued in the past that fears about the danger posed by federalism are unrealistic. The problem is that fears may be unrealistic but they could be real all the same. On the Tamil side, the notion that they are a national minority is not a new-fangled one but something that goes back to the ‘twenties or even earlier. They can argue that the right of self-determination is inherent in their being a national minority, something that is inalienable and not something that they can jettison at will.
 How do we find a way out of this imbroglio? I believe that the first essential is that we recognize that there is no such thing as a right of self-determination in the contemporary world. Therefore, all the historical controversies in which we have been indulging for decades, about the duration of the Jaffna kingdom and the extent of its territory, are entirely beside the point. Let us assume that historians have established beyond dispute that the Tamils are even more indigenous to Sri Lankan territory than the Sinhalese because they have been here even longer, and let us also assume that the Jaffna kingdom lasted a thousand years and covered the entirety of the North and the East – none of that strengthens one whit the case for self-determination. The reason is that a case can be strengthened only if in the first place the case exists. My argument is that the case for the right of self-determination does not exist.
 When Woodrow Wilson first propounded the theory of self-determination during the First World War, the question quickly arose as to who were the "people" who were entitled to self-determination. There was a widespread view that Wilson was being wildly idealistic. After the Second World War the international consensus was that the "people" referred to the colonized peoples of the world. The principle of self-determination was seen as having validity only in a colonial context, and the reason for that limitation was not far to seek. If "people" is defined as an ethnic group and language is the criterion for determining ethnicity, there will be around 6,000 nation states in the world. If "people" is defined as an ethnic group with a valid claim to a homeland, in the sense that it is indigenous to a particular territory, there will still be hundreds of nation states. It is not necessary to labour the point that all that is simply not in the realm of practical politics. As for the right of internal self-determination, meaning devolution to the extent desired by an ethnic group, commonsense dictates that there can be no hard and fast rule about it, and that the extent of devolution has to depend on local contingencies.
 The right of self-determination might be defined as a "notional right", something that exists in the heads of people as a notion but has little or no correspondence with realities on the ground. It is a significant fact, surely, that no Government has been arraigned at Geneva or elsewhere for failing to allow self-determination as a right, not as something that has become desirable due to circumstances. Likewise no Government has been arraigned for failing to allow a wide measure of devolution. And it is for this non-existent right that the Tamil side has been jeopardizing the prospects for a political solution. When the Tamil side asks for federalism, it is understood that it is asking only for a second-best alternative to outright separation, to which it claims it has a right on the principle of self-determination. Therefore the Sinhalese side in agreeing to federalism would arguably be acknowledging a Tamil right to set up a separate state. I am not agreeing with these arguments. I am merely noting the way the Sinhalese psyche works, and can be expected to continue working, on demands for a wide measure of devolution. I suggest that it would be best for the Tamil side to forget about the non-existent principle of self-determination, and ask for a wide measure of devolution only on the grounds of equity and nothing else.
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