LIONS VS. TIGERS: DETERMINING THE LEGITIMACY OF THE TAMIL
SELF-DETERMINATION STRUGGLE IN SRI LANKA
Curtis Scott Gile
B.A., Colorado State University, 1990
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
This thesis for the Master of Arts
Curtis Scott Gile
has been approved
Curtis Scott Gile (M.A., Political Science)
Lions vs. Tigers: Determining the Legitimacy of the Tamil Self-Determination
Struggle in Sri Lanka
Thesis directed by Professor Glenn Morris
This study uses a holistic approach in determining the legitimacy of the Tamil
national liberation struggle. A variety of theories and topics are utilized in order to
achieve this goal. The study builds a case for the legitimacy of the Tamil self-
determination claim by systematically analyzing these individual theories. Aspects of
individual theories relating to ethnic-national studies, illegitimate regimes, state
interventions in other states, civil war negotiations, Holstis state-strength dilemma,
and international legal contexts for determining self-determination claims are all
analyzed and applied to the Sri Lankan conflict.
The study begins with a historical overview in order to put the current conflict in
the proper context. The study then examines the grievances of the Tamil population
in Sri Lanka. In addition, the study deconstructs the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam, hopefully offering insight into the workings of an organization that by its very
nature and necessity is secretive.
The Historical-Comparative method and realism are used as overall social science
theories for the research in Lions vs. Tigers. These methods are used because the
author believes they offer the most flexibility for analyzing a constantly changing
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I recommend
1. INTRODUCTION................................................. 1
2. LITERATURE REVIEW............................................ 7
The State and State System............................... 10
Self-Determination of Nations in International Law....... 11
Ethnic-National Theories................................. 12
Other Considerations and Topics Necessary for Discussion. 15
Social-Science Theories.................................. 17
Proposed Methodology..................................... 18
3. THE HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE.................................. 23
Antiquity and Sinhalese Ethnic Identification............ 24
The Colonial Period: The Sinhalese Response and the
Inadequacy of Constitutionally Guaranteed Minority
4. DO THE TAMIL PEOPLE IN SRI LANKA CONSTITUTE A
5. TAMIL GRIEVANCES AGAINST THE SRI LANKAN
GOVERNMENT: POST-1948........................................... 45
The Flag.................................................... 45
The Loss of Indian-Tamil Citizenship and Representation..... 46
Sinhala Only.............................................. 47
The 1956 Riots.............................................. 48
The 1958 Riots.............................................. 49
The Assassination of Prime Minister Bandaranaike............ 49
The Military Occupation of Jaffna........................... 51
Tamil Excommunication from Sri Lankan Life.................. 52
The Constitutional Codification of Sinhalese Discrimination. 53
University Standardization................................ 54
The Vaddukkodai Resolution and 1977 Riots................... 55
The Prevention of Terrorism Act............................. 57
The Burning of Jaffna....................................... 58
The Point of No Return the 1983 Pogrom.................... 59
6. TAMIL SELF-DETERMINATION IN INTERNATIONAL
The United N ations Charter................................. 66
General Assembly Resolution 1514............................ 69
General Assembly Resolution 2625............................ 72
General Assembly Resolution 2621............................ 76
General Assembly Resolution 3103
Universal Declaration on Human Rights.................. 80
The 1977 Additional Protocol (I) to the Geneva Conventions
of 1949................................................ 82
Other Modes of Legitimacy The Indian Intervention.... 85
7. THE LTTE VANGUARD OF THE TAMIL SELF-
DETERMINATION MOVEMENT..................................... 97
Velupillai Prabhakaran................................. 98
LTTE Force Structure.................................. 102
LTTE Fundraising...................................... 104
8. THE STATE-STRENGTH DILEMMA AND SRI LANKAS
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES...................................... 110
Horizontal Legitimacy................................. Ill
Vertical Legitimacy................................... 113
Missed Opportunities for Negotiation and the Structure of
Future Resolution Negotiations........................ 115
The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957........... 117
The Bandaranaike-Senanayake Pact of 1965.............. 118
Negotiations Hurting Stalemates and Ripe Moments.... 120
9. SUMMARY OF PREVIOUS CHAPTERS............................. 128
10. CONCLUSION POSSIBLE FUTURE OUTCOMES................... 133
1. Existing Literature..................................................9
2. LTTE Force Structure...............................................140
3. Scale of Success...................................................140
This study examines the seemingly intractable armed conflict between the majority
Sinhalese and the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka. For the purposes of this study it
must be remembered that the government of Sri Lanka, since its inception in 1948,
has been controlled by the Sinhalese; the largest ethnic group on the island which
comprises approximately 75% of the population in Sri Lanka. The other major actor
in the Sri Lankan conflict, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has been
controlled by Tamils since its founding in 1972. The Tamils comprise approximately
18 % of the population. The conflict is between organizations as well as ethnic
Consequently, in this study Sinhalese is interchangeable with the Sri Lankan
government, and the LTTE, or Tamil militants, is interchangeable with
Tamils. I have tried to be specific concerning which players are involved in a given
battle or grievance. I do not wish to condemn all Sinhalese or all Tamils for the
actions of their respective organizations. It is, however, sometimes necessary as well
as convenient to use the sweeping term Sinhalese or Tamil in explaining the
general sense of who the perpetrators and victims are in a given act. This has been
kept to a minimum, however, it is sometimes difficult to disassociate organizations
from the people they claim to represent.
The island itself has only been known as Sri Lanka, resplendent island, since
1972. Before 1972 and throughout Sri Lankas colonial history the island was known
as Ceylon. For the sake of consistency only the name Sri Lanka has been used,
although the majority of the islands history occurred when it was known as Ceylon.
Sri Lanka is used in this study in order to prevent the confusion that would be
generated by constantly switching back and forth between the two different names.
The name change, as will be shown later, did have political and chauvinistic
motivations. However, what this study is truly concerned with is the entity of the
island and the conflict raging on it today the name of the island notwithstanding.
To this war of every man, against every man,
this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust.
The reasons behind the war being waged today in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese
majority and the Tamil minority are multi-faceted and complex. Suffice it to say that
the reasons were deemed important enough, and the injustices were perceived to be
severe enough, for the Tamils to feel the need to attempt to create their own state to
be carved out of the existing Sri Lanka. This theoretical state, Tamil Eelam, is the
expressed goal of the Tamil national liberation struggle.
This study is limited in its task. It could not hope to address all the reasons the
Sinhalese and Tamils are currently at war jWith each other. This study is also
dangerous because the potential exists for there to be more questions at the conclusion
than at the beginning. This danger is also a blessing. The more questions asked
about the conflict, the greater the likelihood of increased discourse and understanding
of the war and what is at stake for the Sinhalese, the Tamils, and Sri Lanka as it is
This thesis seeks to answer one question that is central to the war in Sri Lanka: Is
the Tamil national liberation struggle based on a legitimate claim of self-
determination? The answer to this question will be discovered by asking smaller
questions. Like building blocks, these smaller questions will begin to take shape
when their answers are combined with each other. What should emerge at the end is a
definitive structure and answer to the central question. A variety of sources ranging
from international law to illegitimate regime theory will be used for this purpose.
By seeking to determine the legitimacy of the Tamil national liberation struggle,
another question is raised: legitimacy by whose standards? The Tamil struggle is
obviously legitimate to Tamils, and obviously illegitimate to the Sri Lankan state
government. Thus, when this study speaks of legitimacy, it speaks from the point of
view of acceptable and reasonable legal and moral standards. We can all reasonably
agree that discrimination, cultural obliteration, and genocide are evils which the
international community via the United Nations has condemned. This is acceptable
from both an international law perspective and a moral and ethical perspective.
Determining the legitimacy of the Tamil struggle may boil down to a personal level
and whether one values peace over justice or justice over peace. If one defines peace
as the absence of war and values peace over other concerns, then this study may be
difficult to comprehend. On the other hand, if one proclaims that there is no peace
without justice, then the facts presented in this study will be easier to swallow.
The goal of this study is to answer the central question and then attempt to predict
the possible future outcomes of the conflict. A yes or no answer to the central
question is necessary, but by itself is not necessarily useful. Predictions about the
possible future outcomes of the war is why the question is asked. Only by utilizing
the answer to the question does the asking of it, and this study for that matter, have
Why does this central question need to be asked? The answer is relatively simple.
In the battle to win the hearts and minds of world public opinion, the claims of
legitimacy by both sides have been greatly exaggerated and inflated. The Sinhalese
seek legitimacy for their actions against the Tamils by claiming that they were the
first inhabitants of the island and that the Tamils are simply invaders from South
India, where the Sri Lankan Tamils cultural brethren reside. Conversely, the Tamils
look back to 1948 as the year in which the Sinhalese began their attempt to
consolidate control of Sri Lanka by discriminating against Tamils in language,
education, and citizenship.
Sinhalese and Tamils have used their resources to convince the world of the
legitimacy of their competing claims. The Sinhalese, because they control the state,
seem to have qualitative and quantitative advantages over the Tamils in this endeavor.
The Tamils from 1948 until the mid 1980s had the sympathy of the world
community, but as will be discussed later, sympathy is a poor substitute for the power
of the state when it comes to determining legitimacy in the state-centric world. The
point of this discussion is this: it is difficult to determine the legitimacy of the Tamil
liberation struggle due to the exaggerated claims made by both sides. That is why
this study goes back to the basics and seeks to determine if the Tamil national
liberation struggle is based on a legitimate claim of self-determination. In addition,
Tamil militants fighting the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government have made
the mistake of targeting Sinhalese civilians in their campaigns. These actions have
resulted in the Sinhalese successfully labeling the Tamils as terrorists, this despite
the fact that large numbers of Tamil civilians have been killed by Sri Lankan defense
forces. This has had a net effect of de-legitimizing the entire Tamil movement. Now,
instead of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the primary Tamil militant group)
being judged as combatants fighting a just war, they are often seen as terrorists who
are out to destroy Sinhalese civilians and Sri Lankan infrastructure. Because of this
the government is currently winning the battle for world public opinion.
This study is comprised of ten chapters. Chapter Two reviews the existing
literature on the different theories used in this study and the current literature on the
Sri Lankan conflict. Methodology is also discussed in chapter Two. In order to
understand the context in which the current conflict exists, chapter Three discusses
the history of Sri Lanka from Dutch and Portuguese colonization efforts to Sri Lankan
independence from Britain in 1948. In order to answer the central question of this
study, a collateral question must be asked: Do the Tamils in Sri Lanka constitute a
nation? Do they constitute a nation worthy of self-determination? This is the topic of
Chapter Five outlines and discusses Tamil grievances against the Sinhalese-
dominated state of Sri Lanka. These grievances, dating from 1948 to the present,
form the backbone of Tamil self-determination claims against the government.
Chapter Six examines the legitimacy of the Tamil claims in the context of
international law and other modes of recognition, i.e. implied recognition and
legitimacy via outside state intervention in support of the Tamils. Theories on
whether or not the Sri Lankan government constitutes an illegitimate regime that has
lost the right to represent the Tamil people in a unitary Sri Lanka is also discussed in
Chapter Seven analyzes the vanguard of the Tamil national liberation struggle, the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. It will be shown throughout the study that the
LTTE has forced the Sri Lankan government to negotiate with, and therefore de facto
recognize, the LTTE, even though the government does not officially recognize the
movement as legitimate. Case studies of battles and examples of LTTE dedication
and sophistication will also be analyzed in order for the reader to understand exactly
what type of guerrilla organization the Sri Lankan government is dealing with.
Chapter Eight examines how and why the LTTE has partially succeeded in its
military campaigns against the Sri Lankan state. This will be accomplished via
Holstis concept of the state-strength dilemma. In addition, Zartmans theories on
civil war negotiation will be analyzed with case studies concerning how and why the
Sri Lankan government and the LTTE have missed ripe moments for negotiation
during the last 15 years. How Sri Lanka changed from a low intensity conflict to a
civil war will be examined as well.
Chapter Nine collates the previous six chapters and analyzes the conclusions of
each chapter to determine the legitimacy of the Tamil self-determination claim.
Chapter Ten uses the knowledge gained from the previous eight chapters to make
predictions of the possible future outcomes concerning the war in Sri Lanka. This is
the goal which was expressed earlier; using the knowledge gained from the study to
attempt to predict events and give suggestions as to possible solutions.
It is no secret that since the end of the Cold War more attention has fallen on
ethnic/self-determination wars. In the United States especially, more attention has
been given to these smaller wars which most Americans were unaware of during the
last three or four decades. The United States was so preoccupied with the thought of
a war with the Soviet Union that the media simply did not put the spotlight on the
locations and causes of the worlds real wars. That has all changed now. Ethnic
wars, whether fought for self-determination against the state, or simply because of
past historical antagonisms, are becoming increasingly internationalized. Analysts in
the U.S. are finally realizing that international instability most likely will not come
from conflict between industrialized first world states, but from less developed,
weak, and unstable states.
Although each conflict must be judged on its own merits, generalities may be
made about the nature of these smaller conflicts. The current struggle for self-
determination by the Tamils in Sri Lanka is such a conflict. Sri Lanka represents a
textbook example of how not to govern a newly independent state. This fact is most
profoundly stated in the literature of expatriate Sri Lankan citizens such as Satchi
Ponnambalam1, S.J. Tambiah,2 and A. Jeyaratnam Wilson.3 Other literature on the Sri
Lankan conflict is more general in nature, but still very informative. Alan Bullion4,
David Little5, and Edgar OBallance6 analyze the Sri Lankan conflict from historical
and regional perspectives. While all of these monographs are informative, most are
either too general (Little, OBallance) or too specific (Tambiah spends several pages
on the caste system in his book while Ponnambalam spends too much time on Marxist
class distinctions between the Sinhalese and Tamils). What is lacking from these
monographs is a framework which brings together accepted theories on international
law and international relations. Lions vs. Tigers pulls together various
interconnected topics which are applicable for studying the Sri Lankan conflict. The
end result will be a comprehensive analysis of the Tamil self-determination
The goal of this research is to add to the shallow pool of knowledge concerning the
Tamil fight for self-determination. To fully comprehend the dynamic nature of the
civil war in Sri Lanka, all aspects of the conflict must be analyzed.
Figure One shows where substantial research exists in this area, where there is an
adequate amount, and where more research is needed.
Figure 1. Existing Literature
As Figure One demonstrates, most sources emphasize the general history of the Sri
Lankan conflict and its cultural/historical roots. As the progression up the pyramid
shows, very little has been written about the legitimacy of the Tamil national
liberation struggle or the main combatants in the struggle, the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
This Literature Review will describe the existing literature that is being used for
reference in Lions vs. Tigers. Although the review is certainly not exhaustive of all
the available literature, it represents what I have found to be the best source material
relating to the expressed goal of Lions vs. Tigers, namely determining if the Tamil
national liberation struggle is legitimate. Included in the review are comments on the
relevant literature pertaining to the state and state system, self-determination,
ethnic/national theories, war, and social-science theories. The section entitled Other
Considerations and Topics Necessary for Discussion relates the literature available
on illegitimate regimes, state intervention to aid states or rebels, civil war
negotiations, the state-strength dilemma, and the international legal context of self-
The State And State System
The assumptions upon which the state-centric world system operates underpins
any conversation of ethnic conflict within a country. States in our world are
monopolistic holders of the legal use of coercive force. They are sovereign entities
who act according to their will via their monopoly on the means of coercion. The
consequences of state sovereignty are far reaching. Whereas states are reluctant to go
to war with each other for fear of losing and suffering the imposition of the victors
will, no such fear resides in the state apparatus concerning ethnic groups and their
demands for greater autonomy or civil and political rights. Sri Lanka provides an
excellent case study of this phenomenon.
The state as we know it today is dominant, answering only to itself. The state as
an entity is sanctioned by other states and by the instruments of states via
international law. This power is protected by positive law utilizing coercion which is
also sanctioned by other states. Scholars such as Anthony Arend and Robert Beck7,
Lori F. Damrosch and David Scheffer8, Morton Halperin9, Hurst Hannum10, and
Kalevi Holsti" have researched this subject extensively.
How a state is formed may affect how it treats its people. Sinhalese and Tamils in
ancient Sri Lanka were de facto divided by impenetrable jungle; two separate nations
living together in relative harmony for over 2500 years. Only after Britain colonized
Sri Lanka (after the Dutch and Portuguese) was Sri Lanka formed into one colonial
state for administrative purposes. After independence Sri Lanka retained the colonial
borders, while also retaining the basic form of the colonial government machinery. In
hindsight this was a terrible mistake, as will be discussed later.
Self-Determination Of Nations In International Law
Monographs which discuss self-determination and its relationship to international
law are numerous. Anthony Arend, Robert Beck, Morton Halperin, Hurst Hannum,
Christian Tomuschat12, and Umozurike Oji Umozurike13 afford many different
viewpoints on the subject. Some (like Hannum) believe that self-determination
should be narrowly defined and was meant to apply only to overseas colonies.
Others (such as Tomuschat) believe that the concept of self-determination should
include indigenous and minority populations and that states should not adhere to the
concept of territorial integrity at the expense of all other considerations.
Hannum, Damrosch and Scheffer, Arend and Beck, Tomuschat, and Umozurike
discuss self-determination, indigenous rights, and human rights and the way these
concepts apply to the U.N. Charter and General Assembly resolutions. Many of the
arguments used to justify the rights of indigenous populations or human rights
overlap. How states react to these concepts is also discussed in depth in these books.
Primary sources for the self-determination/intemational law relationship include
the U.N. Charter, General Assembly Resolution (GAR)1514, GAR 2625, GAR 2621,
GAR 3103, Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Convention, and the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights14. In addition, a petition put forth to the General Assembly and the
Commission on Human Rights by the Tamils in Sri Lanka will also be referenced15.
Much ethnic/nation research attempts to answer the question: what is a nation? Is
it language, religion, common economy, historic homeland, or culture? Or does a
nation simply constitute a group of people who proclaim themselves to be a nation?
Since the conflict in Sri Lanka is ethnic/nation based, including the ethnic question in
the analysis is necessary. Some researchers, while not underplaying the importance
of ethnic rivalries, question the origin of ethnicity. Anthony Smith states:
Most important, it is myths of common ancestry, not any fact
of ancestry (which is usually difficult to ascertain), that are
crucial. It is fictive descent and putative ancestry that matters
for the sense of ethnic identification.16
Colonialism produced a growing sense of Sinhalese-Buddhist identification in the
late 19thcentury, leading to popular discontent over colonial rule in Sri Lanka
throughout the first part of the 20thcentury. The next step in the process for the
Sinhalese, after identification, was chauvinism based on non-verifiable historical
records of their past. The Sinhalese majority, anxious to prove themselves after
hundreds of years of colonial rule, set out to claim the island of Sri Lanka for
themselves, to the detriment of the Tamil minority. This is a common theme in
former colonies. After the colonial power leaves, the majority ethnic group
consolidates the power of the state and forms the state in its image. What happens as
a result? Similar discriminatory practices once inflicted on the whole country by the
colonial power are inflicted on the minority population by the majority. For Tamils,
ethnic identification has been strengthened by the injustices perpetrated on them by
the Sinhalese. Violence is one manifestation of ballooning Tamil ethnic
The ruling Sinhalese regime is able to muster international aid in order to maintain
the territorial integrity of the Sri Lankan state. OBallance gives excellent accounts of
how the Sri Lankan government in the past has hired Indian, Israeli, and British
mercenaries to fight the Tamils. The latest cooperative effort, however, is coming
from the United States. U.S. Special Forces teams are currently training Sri Lankan
soldiers (Sinhalese) in their war effort against the LTTE17. Since the state has a
virtual monopoly on the means of coercion, insurgents must use creative means to
fight their battles. These means include hit-and-run guerrilla warfare, bombings of
city business centers, and large-scale military operations.
How the Sri Lankan conflict is actually being fought on the ground displays the
inherent advantages the state has over insurgents. Descriptions of major battles
fought between the LTTE and Sri Lankan government throughout the 1980s and the
early 1990s come from the two secondary sources of Alan Bullion and Edgar
OBallance. Other battle descriptions come from primary sources such as Sri Lankan
English-edition Internet newspapers and pro-Tamil Internet sites.
Another important aspect to analyze is the motivation of the individual combatants
and the way they initially became combatants. The LTTE accepts only volunteers,
the Sri Lankan armed forces are conscripted. LTTE fighters typically have only their
own lives to lose, the Sri Lankan soldiers have families in the south and west who
they would someday like to return to.
Even though the state controls the armed forces and has all the legitimate means to
acquire weaponry on a large scale, the psychological nature of the combatants cannot
be overlooked in a guerrilla campaign. The LTTE has kept the Sri Lankan armed
forces at bay for over 14 years, and even fought and defeated the Indian Peace
Keeping Force (IPKF) that was sent in 1987 to help stop the insurgency. That the
LTTE, a group of estimated strength between 6,000 and 10,000, can sustain itself for
so long against a force 100,000 strong is testament to its desire and ability.
Other Considerations And Topics Necessary For Discussion
Has the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government lost the right to represent the
Tamil population in a unitary Sri Lanka? What constitutes a legitimate regime?
What constitutes an illegitimate regime? When is international intervention allowed
to usurp a regime, if ever? Theories relating to these questions are plentiful. Anne-
Marie Burley18, Thomas M. Franck19 and Igor I. Lukashuk20 all have different
viewpoints on the subject. Burley lists the conditions necessary for a regime to be
considered illegitimate while Franck and Lukashuk argue that illegitimacy often is a
direct result of non-democratic regimes.
How regimes react when faced with an internal threat sometimes determines
whether or not a regime is legitimately serving the interests of the very people the
state is sworn to protect. Does the Sri Lankan government constitute an illegitimate
regime since successive democratically elected Sinhalese officials have all pursued
essentially the same racist policies towards the Tamils? Illegitimate regime theory
(and what constitutes an illegitimate regime) is an important topic to consider, since it
directly affects the consideration of whether or not a self-determination movement is
Another topic relevant to the war in Sri Lanka deals with what kinds of conditions
are necessary before a state decides to intervene to aid a state under siege from rebels
or insurgents, or conversely, before a state intervenes to aid a struggling self-
determination or national liberation movement. Anthony Arend and Robert Beck
provide substantial insight into this topic. What are the requirements before aid may
be rendered and received? What are the obligations of states intervening in other
states to aid or stop rebellion? What are the dangers of such actions? At what point
in the conflict may an outside state become involved? These are the types of
questions that will be answered throughout this study. Sri Lanka has direct
experience with outside state intervention. India played a major role throughout the
1980s in the conflict in Sri Lanka. India played both sides of the table, initially
giving aid and comfort to Tamil militants and then changing its policies and offering
aid and assistance to the Sri Lankan government. Because of the 1987-1990 Indian
intervention in Sri Lanka, the discussion of outside state intervention is important.
I. William Zartman2' explores negotiation in intrastate conflicts. At what point
should negotiations begin? With whom should the Sri Lankan government negotiate?
The Tamil United Liberation Front representing the moderate position of Sri Lankan
Tamils, or the more militant and deadly Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam? Will a
negotiated settlement with one anger the other to the degree that the agreement is in
no way workable? Zartman also discusses the asymmetrical nature of state-nation
conflicts, defining ripe moments for settlement, and the hurting stalemate which
often occurs in civil wars once the conflict has matured.
In the grand scheme of things, Sri Lanka is a weak state. Stronger than some but
weaker than most. Are weak states (meaning weak economically, socially, and
militarily) more susceptible to civil wars? Does the weakness of a state encourage
groups aspiring towards self-determination to enter into armed conflict to achieve
their goals? Governments are supposed to protect the health, safety, and welfare of its
citizens. By being unable to defeat the LTTE militarily, is the Sri Lankan
government partially responsible for the long, drawn-out nature of the Sri Lankan
civil war? This state-strength dilemma, as Kalevi Holsti calls it, will be analyzed
in detail and applied to the war in Sri Lanka.
The literature I have reviewed above can be applied to the several different types
of conflicts being fought in the world today. The general theories use themes
common to most ethnic/self-determination conflicts to determine potential outcomes,
while the monographs on Sri Lanka give specific examples of the roots of the
conflict. By blending the two, Lions vs. Tigers will determine the legitimacy of the
Tamil liberation struggle.
This study is structured by using the Historical-Comparative and Critical methods.
The idea to utilize the Historical-Comparative social-science research method and the
Critical social-science research method came from educational text of Lawrence
Neuman. As outlined in the section entitled Proposed Methodology, this theory
provides a suitable framework for analyzing the Sri Lankan conflict.
Realism as an international-relations theory is also utilized in Lions vs. Tigers.
Paul R. Viotti and Mark V. Kauppi22 provide the structural framework and theory of
realism which I apply to the state-nation conflict in Sri Lanka. Although realism
mainly concerns itself with state-state relations, I find its general tenets very
applicable to the Sri Lankan war. The same dynamic which occurs in interstate
relations also occurs in intrastate relations; both sides in a given conflict will define
their interests in terms of their power. After the actors undergo a cost-benefit analysis
to determine a course of action, the actors then pursue the action which provides them
with the highest utility. Realpolitik, or power politics, also occurs in state-nation
wars. In fact, after escalation occurs and an intrastate conflict erupts into full-scale
war, as in Sri Lanka, Realpolitik becomes the rule rather than the exception.
I propose to conduct this analysis utilizing the Critical and Historical-
Comparative methods based on the proposition that nation-state relationships are
motivated by power politics (realpolitik). I propose that the way the state system is
organized has contributed extensively to the Tamil national liberation struggle. I will
attempt to prove this point by critically looking at case studies inside Sri Lanka and
by giving examples of how the state system in conjunction with a chauvinist regime
can lead to the economic, spiritual, and physical degradation of a people. The Critical
approach is used because it represents the character of the Sri Lankan tragedy
The Sri Lankan conflict has many layers which must be pushed aside to get the
big picture. As Lawrence Neuman states:
The critical science approach argues that social reality has
multiple layers. Behind the immediately observable surface
reality lie deep structures or unobservable mechanisms.23
The Sri Lankan conflict is full of these deep structures and unobservable
mechanisms. Imagine a wall with a mural painted on its surface. The wall, like the
state, is not seen. The surface activity (the mural, or the war in Sri Lanka) is fully
noticed with little regard for the structure supporting it. The state, like the wall, is
taken for granted so often that it almost goes unnoticed. The Critical approach is
useful for this analysis for another reason. As Neuman again explains:
Because a critical approach tries to explain and change the
world by penetrating hidden structures that are in constant
change, the test of an explanation is not static.24
The conflict in Sri Lanka is not static. On the contrary, it is incredibly dynamic
and organic in nature. What the truth might be in my analysis, may not be the truth
tomorrow. It is the fluid nature of Sri Lankas tragedy which compels me to try and
explain it in a fluid and dynamic way. For this reason the Critical method is most
In addition to the Critical method, the Historical-Comparative (hereafter known
simply as H-C) method is also applicable. This method allows the writer some
flexibility because it ... is a collection of techniques and approaches25. The H-C
method is useful for several reasons. First, the H-C method ... is suited for
questions such as which combinations of social factors produce a specific outcome26.
This reflects the contingent nature of H-C research. The contingent nature of the H-C
method means that several random, non-related factors occur which lead to a specific
outcome. The factors may or may not have a positive correlation and do not
necessarily have to occur in a certain sequence.27 Second, the writer does not have to
extract him/herself from the writing. As Neuman states: . .. H-C research ...
recognize(s) that the researchers point of view is an unavoidable part of research28.
He goes on: It recognizes that a researchers reading of historical or comparative
evidence is influenced by an awareness of the past and by living in the present29.
Third, the H-C method also recognizes that what a researcher finds does not often
lend itself to replication. Each researchers interpretation of evidence leads to
different conclusions, especially when the data are not verifiable.30 Since the
interpretation of evidence is itself open to interpretation, the H-C method accepts that
such dilemmas will occur. Fourth, like the Critical method, the H-C method allows
the writer to .. grasps(s) surface appearances as well as reveal(s) the general,
hidden structures, unseen mechanisms, or causal processes31.
Now that the existing literature and methodology has been discussed, we now turn
to examine Sri Lankas history. Although Sri Lankas ancient past may not seem
particularly relevant to the current conflict, it is there where we find the beginning of
ethnic identification, colonial domination, and the roots of war.
1 Satchi Ponnambalam, Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil National Liberation Struggle.
(London: Zed Books Ltd., 1983).
2 S.J. Tambiah, Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy. (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1984).
3 A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, The Break-tJp of Sri Lanka. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988).
4 Alan Bullion, Sri Lanka. India and the Tamil Crisis 1976-1994. (London: Pinter, 1995).
5 David Little, Sri Lanka: The Invention of Enmity. (Washington D.C.: United States Institute for
Peace Press, 1994).
6 Edgar OBallance, The Cyanide War. (London: Brasseys, 1989).
7 Anthony Arend and Robert Beck, International Law and the Use of Force. (London: Routledge
8 Law and Force in the New International Order, ed. Lori F. Damrosch and David J. Scheffer, (San
Francisco: Westview Press, 1991).
9 Morton W. Halperin and David J. Scheffer, Self-Determination in the New World Order.
(Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1992).
10 Hurst Hannum, Autonomy. Sovereignty, and Self-Determination. (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1990).
11 Kalevi Holsti, The State. War, and the State of War. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
12 Christian Tomuschat, Modem Law of Self-Determination. (Dordrecht: Mortinus Nijhoff Publishers,
13 Umozurike Oji Umozurike, Self-Determination in International Law. (Archon Books, 1972).
14 Ian Brownlie, ed., Basic Documents in International Law. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967).
15 Luis Kutner and Ved Nanda, Petition of the Tamils of Sri Lanka Deprived of Their Internationally
Protected Human Rights for a Grant of United Nations Effective Remedy and Declaratory Relief,
Denver Journal of International Law and Policy 21 (Fall 1992).
16 Anthony D. Smith, National Identity. (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1991), 22.
17 Frederica Jansz, U.S. Troops to Help Counter LTTE, Mirror Magazine. 12 October 1997,
18 Anne-Marie Burley, Commentary on Intervention Against Illegitimate Regimes, in Law and Force
in the New International Order, ed. Lori F. Damrosch and David J. Scheffer, (San Francisco:
Westview Press, 1991).
19 Thomas M. Franck, Intervention Against Illegitimate Regimes, in Law and Force in the New
International Order, ed. Lori F. Damrosch and David J. Scheffer, (San Francisco: Westview Press,
Igor I. Lukashuk, The United Nations and Illegitimate Regimes: When to Intervene to Protect
Human Rights, in Law and Force in the New International Order, ed. Lori F. Damrosch and David J.
Scheffer, (San Francisco: Westview Press, 1991).
211. William Zartman, Elusive Peace: Negotiating an End to Civil Wars. (Washington D.C.: The
Brookings Institution, 1995).
22 Paul R. Viotti and Mark V. Kauppi, International Relations Theory. (New York: MacMillan
Publishing Company, 1987).
23 Lawrence Neuman, Social Research Methods. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1991), 75.
THE HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
Sri Lanka has a history spanning thousands of years. However, the current
conflict is not a result of thousands of years of animosity between the Sinhalese and
Tamils. On the contrary, the two ethnic groups fought wars only sporadically
throughout the centuries. As John D. Rogers states: It cannot be repeated too often
that the present tragic situation is the product of specific historical circumstances, and
not, as one often hears in Sri Lanka and the international press, the end product of a
2,500-year-old struggle between ancient enemies.1 This is why it is important to
understand where the ancient roots of the current struggle lie. As will be
demonstrated, the ancient roots of the conflict lie in myth and legend rather than in
In order to know where the conflict is going we need to know where it has been.
The conflict in Sri Lanka must be judged from a historical perspective. More
fundamental... is the idea that every social science or better, every well-considered
social study requires an historical scope of conception and a full use of historical
materials.2 It is because of this belief that this study includes that Sri Lankan history
which is relevant to the current conflict.
Antiquity And Sinhalese Ethnic Identification
Sri Lankas ancient history is verifiable from about the 2nd Century BC. Prior to
the 2nd Century, the history of the island is surrounded not so much by fact and
empirical evidence as by myth and legend. The source of these myths and legends is
found in two documents. The first, thought to have been written in approximately the
4th Century AD, is known as the Dipavamsa, literally The Story of the Island. The
second, known as the Mahavamsa, literally The Story of the Great Dynasty, was
written in approximately the 6th Century AD.3 For the purposes of this study the latter
is of more importance. Both the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa chronicles relate the
story of Prince Vijaya, the founder of the island and the man from whom all
subsequent Sinhalese are allegedly descended. According to David Little :
Significantly, the sacred history recorded in the chronicles (the
Mahavamsa) begins with a decision by the Buddha himself to
visit the island and to make it a fit dwelling place for men,
where his doctrine should (thereafter) shine in glory. He
accomplishes that goal by banishing the original inhabitants of
the island, disruptive and malevolent groups of subhumans
known as the Yakkhas and the Nagas. Buddha thereby makes
room for Vijaya, an immigrant from North India, who becomes
the founding hero and first king of Sri Lanka.4
According to the story, Vijaya was the son of a petty Tamil king, Sihabahu (the
lion-armed) and a lioness. Vijaya was banished from India by his father and arrived
in Sri Lanka with 700 men in 543 BC, the same day Buddha passed into nirvana. In
the Mahavamsa it is said:
When the Guide of the world having accomplished the
salvation of the whole world and reached the utmost stage of
blissful rest, was lying on the bed of his nibbana in the midst of
the great assembly of Gods, he, the great sage, the greatest of
those who have speech, spoke to Sakka who stood near him:
Vijaya, son of King Sihabahu, is come to Lanka from the
country of Lala together with 700 followers. In Lanka, Oh
Lord of Gods, will by religion be established; therefore,
carefully protect him with his followers and Lanka.5
Vijaya married a demoness named Kuveni and she bore him a son and daughter.
Vijaya soon thereafter banished Kuveni to the jungle with his son and daughter when
he decided that in order to rule Lanka he needed to marry a human princess. The
son and daughter of Vijaya had an incestuous relationship which resulted in many
children who, according to the tale, are the indigenous population on the island
known as the Veddas. Kuveni was later killed by demons in the jungle.6
Modem day Sinhalese use this story to lay claim to the island of Sri Lanka.
There is no historical evidence whatsoever for the arrival of Vijaya and the related
story,7 according to Satchi Ponnambalam. Ponnambalam also states that On the
basis of this legend, the present-day Sinhalese claim that they are the first settlers and
are of Aryan origin.8
Another significant aspect of the Mahavamsa lies in its disregard of traditional
Buddhist non-violent methods of achieving ends. This is best exemplified by the
story of the warrior king Duttagamani. Duttagamani was a king in the southern part of
the island who was disturbed by the presence of a Tamil king named Elara and his
Tamil kingdom in the northern and central part of the island. Duttagamanis war
against Elara was allegedly an epoch-making confrontation between the Sinhalese
and the Tamils and extolled as a holy war fought in the interest of Buddhism.9 This
story is unique in that the scale of violence is vast and the alleged numbers of victims
in the battle are vast as well; all done with the blessing of the Buddhist priesthood:
Duttagamani is described as carrying a relic of the Buddha into
battle, and he enlists hundreds of monks to fight in his ranks.
Most remarkably, when Duttagamani suffers remorse over his
responsibility for slaying millions of beings, he is reassured
by a group of monks that his offense was trivial....
Duttagamani stands in the grand tradition of defending the
faith, by violence if necessary, that was supposedly initiated by
Duttagamanis victory over Elara solidified Sinhalese-Buddhist ideological
hegemony over the island, if not the land. According to the story the north was still
inhabited by Tamils, only their Hindu religion had been subjugated. One conclusion
from these stories of historic significance is that, at the end of the epoch, the
Sinhalese were left as one race with one religion and one language with a parallel
consolidation on the northern areas of the Tamil people with their own language and
religion, Hinduism predominantly.11
Like the legend of Vijaya, the legend of Duttagamani is not verifiable. Legends
and myths such as these however, have a way of becoming fact if enough people are
dedicated to believing them. If myths and legends portray an especially wonderful
past of military victory and cultural enlightenment, they are more likely to be passed
on from generation to generation and used to justify actions and policies against
other ethnic groups. As Professor Gananath Obeyesekere states:
... the mythic significance of Duttagamani as the saviour of the
Sinhalese race and of Buddhism grew through the years and
developed into one of the most important myths of the
Sinhalese, ready to be used as a powerful instrument of
Sinhalese nationalism in modem times. Although the
justification of killing is unusual, the general message that
emerges is everywhere the same: The Sinhalese kings are
defenders of the secular realm and the sasana; their opponents
are the Tamils.12
These ancient myths and legends have had a powerful effect on the Sinhalese
mind. In fact, the Sri Lankan constitution codifies Buddhism by stating that it is the
duty of the state to protect and foster Buddhism. This is, of course, done at the
expense of the Tamils and their Hindu religion.
The Sinhalese cling to their myths because the historical facts do not necessarily
support their claims. The most accepted theory is that both the Sinhalese and Tamils
are of Indian origin. The Sinhalese emigrated from north India and the Tamils from
south India. Somewhere throughout the centuries the Sinhalese religious and
linguistic links with northern India were lost. The Sinhalese language . . has been
transformed through the centuries with the assimilation, possibly of many words of
the Dravidian languages, and the evolution of a script which appears to have been
influenced by the Dravidian scripts of south India.13
The lost link with India has left the Sinhalese alone in the world; they exist no
place else. The Sri Lankan Tamil religion and language is similar to that in the
southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu because their ancient cultural roots are in south
India. Over 50 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu are overtly sympathetic to the Sri
Lankan Tamil cause. Also, Tamil Nadu is only 19 miles from Sri Lanka across the
Palk Strait, causing worry among the Sinhalese. This has resulted in what Phandis
describes as a majority with a minority psyche.14 As P. Ramaswamy explains:
The break in the links with north India meant for the Sinhalese
a certain amount of cultural isolation. Now, their language and
their religion were their own to guard and to preserve without
any kind of backing from abroad. This situation tended to
produce signs of a back-to-the-wall syndrome which was
perhaps the early nucleus of Sinhalese nationalism.15
Cultural isolation has combined with a history of grand religious and cultural
myths to produce a country dedicated to preserving the land, the race, and the
faith.16 Unfortunately, Sinhalese self-esteem has had negative side effects. The Sri
Lankan Tamils have been the unwilling receivers of Sinhalese-Buddhist historical
chauvinism as described in the Mahavamsa.
Penetration by Portuguese, Dutch, and finally British colonization would further
ignite Sinhalese chauvinism and give them excuses to protect the land, the race, and
the faith from all unwelcome inhabitants, including Tamils.
The Colonial Period: The Sinhalese Response And The Inadequacy Of
Constitutionally Guaranteed Minority Protections
Sri Lanka has been occupied by three different colonial powers since 1505: the
Portuguese, Dutch, and British. Sri Lankas colonial past profoundly affected the
political and religious psyche of the Sinhalese and Tamils.
Portugal ruled over the coastal areas of Sri Lanka from 1505 to 1568 without a
desire to consolidate the entire island. Satchi Ponnambalam states that To them
conquest was to acquire a trading post and secure the sea route to the East. Expansion
of the realm, or colonization for settlement, was not their objective.17 Sri Lanka has
excellent natural ports along its coast. This combined with Sri Lankas geographic
location to make it a natural target for wealthy European traders. Since the
Portuguese did not have any settlement ambitions in their subjugation of Sri Lanka,
they administered the Sinhalese and Tamil homelands separately. The Christian
missionaries that followed the Portuguese traders were not as content as the traders to
leave well enough alone. The Portuguese attempted to convert the Sri Lankans to
Christianity . . almost to the point of the sword . ,.18 During Portuguese rule
Sinhalese and Tamil suffered equally from religious persecution.
After the Portuguese, the Dutch colonized Sri Lanka for a much longer period of
time. From 1568 to 1796 they ruled in much the same way as the Portuguese, and for
similar reasons. What was missing however, was the harsh religious proselytization.
Unlike the Portuguese, the Dutch were interested in conquering the entire island.
Most areas fell to the Dutch with the exception of the Kandyan kingdom. Kandy is
located in the central highlands, just slightly to the south of the islands center. Its
location, and the impenetrable jungle surrounding it, allowed the Kandyan Sinhalese
to remain free from the Dutch. During this time, for the Kandyan Sinhalese, the
monarchy became the focal point of loyalty and the sacred symbol holding society
together.19 In addition, Kandy is the location of the sacred Buddha tooth relic,
making it a focal point for Sinhalese-Buddhist culture and religion.
Britain was the last, and arguably most influential, European colonial power to
rule Sri Lanka (1796-1948). Under British rule the Kandyan kingdom finally
abdicated in 1815. In addition, for the first time in Sri Lankas history the island was
administered as a single entity. Done mainly for convenience without any thought to
the long term consequences, this single act of declaring Sri Lanka a united island
would have far reaching and profound effects.
Four attributes of British colonial influence and legacy will be briefly analyzed in
sequence, and the effect of these influences on the Sinhalese and Tamil populations
determined. The four influences are: 1) The Anglican and Methodist missionary
assault of Sinhalese and Tamil culture, 2) The subsequent anti-colonial and anti-
western backlash which galvanized and politicized Sinhalese-Buddhist leaders, 3)
Universal suffrage and the switch from communal representation to territorial
representation under the Donoughmore Constitution of 1931, and 4) The Soulbury
Constitution of 1947.
1) Like Christian missionaries under the Portuguese and Dutch, Anglican and
Methodist missionaries came to Sri Lanka under the British. These missionaries,
bolstered by vogue scientific theories of western, Anglo-Saxon superiority, attacked
Buddhism and Sri Lankan culture in general.20 The British colonial government
assisted the missionaries immensely in this endeavor. Colonial government schools
became the vehicle of choice for missionaries interested in converting Sri Lankans.
The British established a new system of government and church-run schools,
displacing traditional Buddhist education and thereby stripping the monks of one of
their primary functions in Sinhala society.21 The government continually increased
support for Christian schools while simultaneously decreasing support for traditional
Buddhist schools. Finally, as a result of pressure from missionary groups, the British
completely ceased funding for Buddhist schools. This ... became an important
source of resentment in the Buddhist community, resentment that caused continuing
agitation throughout the late nineteenth century for a more sympathetic British
2) The attack on Buddhism by Christian missionaries was kindling for a
Buddhist revival. Buddhist monks were generally accommodating at first, helping
missionary scholars translate Buddhist texts into English and generally being of
assistance. The missionaries did not follow suit. Christian missionaries continued
their verbal attacks for almost sixty years. By the latter half of the nineteenth century
the Buddhist monks attitudes began to change. Monks began purchasing printing
presses in order to print their religious propaganda and defend their faith. This was a
counter-attack response to the millions of pieces of Christian propaganda literature
circulating on the island.23
The Buddhist revival had two main spokesmen; Mohottivatte Gunananda and
Anagarika Dharmapala. These two men formed the backbone of the Sinhalese-
Buddhist age of revival and politicized the Buddhist monk community. Gunananda
is credited with beginning the revival of Buddhism.24 Gunananda participated in a
debate against a Christian missionary in 1873 and over 10,000 Buddhist monks
attended. Gunananda reportedly won the debate hands down. It is said that after the
debate, which lasted two days, ... the cultural tide turned decisively. Gunanandas
victory symbolized the beginning of the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, which would
gather strength during the rest of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.25
With Gunanandas victory the door was open for the Sinhalese counter-attack against
colonialism, Christianity, and western culture. Anagarika Dharmapala took
advantage of the trend started by Gunananda to become the single most popular
defender of the faith in Sri Lankan history. A skilled orator and writer, Dharmapala
also had the distinction of being Gunanandas pupil. Dharmapala coined the term
Sinhala-Buddhist which was also the name of a newspaper he founded. The father
of Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinism, Dharmapala used (and abused) the Mahavamsa
and its mythical history in his counter-attack on Christianity.26 Dharmapala states:
The lion-armed descendants are the present Sinhala, whose
ancestors had never been conquered, and in whose veins no
savage blood is found. Ethnologically, the Sinhala are a unique
race, inasmuch as they can boast that they have no slave blood
in them and never were conquered by either the pagan Tamils
or European vandals who for three centuries devastated the
land, destroyed ancient temples, burnt valuable libraries, and
nearly annihilated the historic race.27
Dharmapala believed in the unity of nation and religion.28 The Mahavamsa
provided the historical religious and cultural framework needed to defend Buddhism,
and by association, the Sinhalese. The missionaries were not the only victims of
Dharmapalas attacks however. All other inhabitants of the island were either
vandals, pagans, or invaders. Anti-colonial and anti-Christian rhetoric was
quickly transformed into Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinism which believed, as the
Mahavamsa dictated, that Sri Lanka was to foster and protect Buddhism. Although
it is doubtful that Dharmapala foresaw the current situation in Sri Lanka, clearly his
work had a tremendous effect on people. David Little explains:
. .. although he was not responsible for perfecting the crusade
against the Tamils that came to its climax in the 1950s, he
clearly laid the groundwork for that crusade. Dharmapala
provided all the essential premises: the racial and religious
purity and superiority of the Sinhala; their incontestable sacred
and historic right to rule; the need to contain and control the
always menacing, barely tolerable non-Sinhala minorities on
the island. It was just this mix of ancient myth and modem
resentment that could give authority to the impulse to create a
Sinhala ethnocracy in Sri Lanka.29
3) In 1931 a new constitution known as the Donoughmore Constitution, named
after the chair of the constitutional hearings, was implemented. Two sections of the
constitution would have negative long term consequences for the Tamils. First, the
new constitution affected how officials were elected to the legislative council in Sri
Lanka; the legislative council being a body of elected Sri Lankan natives who were
allowed some autonomy under the colonial government to administer local affairs.
The old system had used a communal representation system which favored the
Tamils. Although still a numerical minority in the council, their numbers were over-
represented when compared to their population percentage. The Donoughmore
Constitution introduced territorial representation which had the opposite effect of
communal representation.30 Under the communal system the Sinhalese-Tamil ratio
was 2:1. Under the territorial representation system that ratio changed to 5:1. By
abolishing communal representation altogether, the commission removed a delicate
and pivotal balancing mechanism built into the political system to mirror the
nationality structure in the country. This . . exposed the Tamil nation to the
overwhelming majority of the Sinhalese.31
Second, the Donoughmore Constitution introduced universal suffrage, making Sri
Lanka the first British colony to have the universal franchise. The number of voters
in each electorate increased from 5,000 to about 30,000.32 This combined with the
new territorial representation scheme to produce the 5:1 Sinhalese-Tamil
representative ratio mentioned above.
Ironically the two items mentioned in the Donoughmore Constitution were
designed to decrease the electors tendency to vote along ethnic lines. Britain
envisioned a unitary Sri Lanka where voters elected officials based on the value of
their ideas instead of their ethnicity. The opposite occurred. Ponnambalam again
The greatest drawback of the Donoughmore scheme was that
franchise and territorial representation were to operate at a time
when there were no political parties. The commission failed to
anticipate that, in the absence of political parties, the dominant
rallying point for candidates and constituents would be ethnic
or communal loyalty. Hence, as it turned out, territorial
representation, instead of rooting out the canker of
communalism, actually encouraged it.33
The stage was set. Tamils in the newly formed state council became a permanent
minority that relied on Sinhalese cooperation. The next constitution, the Soulbury
Constitution of 1947, retained these two attributes. Unfortunately, no adjustments
were made, or institutional safeguards put in place, which addressed minority issues.
4) Under the Soulbury Constitution of 1947, Sri Lanka gained independence from
Britain in 1948. The Soulbury Constitution is distinguished by its inadequate
safeguards against majority oppression. In fact, the colonial framers of the Soulbury
Constitution did not see a need for minority protections. The commission held that
there had been no proven acts of administrative discrimination against the Tamils and
was optimistic that there was not likely to be any in the future.34 One section of the
constitution dealing with basic rights, Section 29(2), . proved to be totally
ineffectual in preventing either individual discrimination or outright deprivation of
existing collective rights of franchise, citizenship, language, etc. Also, ... in the
face of the vigorous resurgence of Sinhala nationalism that was about to appear, this
section would prove a weak reed.35 Tamils themselves were more worried about the
territorial representation aspects of the Soulbury Constitution than minority rights.
Until 1948 the Tamils had not suffered at the hands of the Sinhalese majority. The
British colonial government had been an equalizer between the two nations. The
Sinhalese and Tamils faced a common enemy in the British, even though elite
segments of the Tamil nation thrived in colonial government under British
colonialism due to their willingness to learn English. After World War II however,
Britain ... was committed to a quick process of post-war dissolution of the
empire.36 Likewise, the Sinhalese and Tamils eagerly waited for their colonial
masters to leave. Only after Britain left and the Sinhalese were left to their own
devices would it become apparent that the hasty constitutional process and lack of
constitutional safeguards for basic rights had created a breeding ground for abuse by
the majority Sinhalese.
The combination of the above pre-1948 factors led to the current situation in Sri
Lanka. These factors are all individual moments in Sri Lankas history. Individually,
each factor could be dismissed as a natural component of Sri Lankas evolution.
However, when each factor combines with the next, the structure of the current
situation in Sri Lanka is formed. The combined effects of this structure were felt only
after independence from Britain in 1948.
With the conflict in Sri Lanka placed in historical context, it is now appropriate to
answer a common claim leveled against the Tamils in Sri Lanka; namely that they do
not constitute a nation, but are rather, a national minority. Sinhalese deny Tamil
claims of nationhood and seek to legitimize their actions in order to preserve the
territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. The Tamils have, quite naturally, claimed that they
constitute a nation with all the rights and privileges inherent in that status. Nations
have a more legitimate claim to pursue self- determination as compared to minorities.
The verbal battle of definitions and language in this respect has been as brutal as the
battles on the ground. Chapter Two clarifies this argument by asking and answering
the question: Do the Tamils in Sri Lanka constitute a nation?
1 As quoted in: David Little, Sri Lanka and the Invention of Enmity. (Washington D.C.: United States
Institute of Peace Press, 1994), 3.
2 C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 145.
3 Satchi Ponnambalam, Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil National Liberation Struggle.
(London: Zed Books Ltd., 1983), 16.
4 David Little, Sri Lanka: The Invention of F.nmitv. (Washington D.C.: United States Institute of
Peace Press, 1994) 27.
5 P Ramaswamy, New Delhi and Sri Lanka. (Bombay: Allied Publishers Private Ltd., 1987), 5.
6 Satchi Ponnambalam, Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil National Liberation Struggle.
(London: Zed Books Ltd., 1983), 16.
9 P Ramaswamy, New Delhi and Sri Lanka. (Bombay: Allied Publishers Private Press Ltd., 1987), 6.
10 David Little, Sri Lanka: The Invention of F.nmitv. (Washington D.C.: United States Institute of
Peace Press, 1994), 28.
11 P Ramaswamy, New Delhi and Sri Lanka. (Bombay: Allied Publishers Private Press Ltd., 1987), 6-
12 Cited in Ponnambalam, Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil National Liberation
Struggle, p. 24.
13 P Ramaswamy, New Delhi and Sri Lanka. (Bombay: Allied Publishers Private Press Ltd., 1987), 7.
14 As quoted in: Alan Bullion, India. Sri Lanka and the Tamil Crisis 1976-1994. (London: Pinter,
15 P Ramaswamy, New Delhi and Sri Lanka. (Bombay: Allied Publishers Private Press Ltd., 1987), 7.
16 A Jeyaratnam Wilson, The Break-Up of Sri Lanka. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988),
17 Satchi Ponnambalam. Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil National Liberation
Struggle. (London: Zed Books Ltd., 1983), 41.
19 Ibid., 42.
20 David Little, Sri Lanka: The Invention of Enmity, (Washington D.C.: United States Institute of
Peace Press, 1994), 15.
For more information on mid- 19th Century theories on white, European superiority see Stephen J.
Gould, The Mismeasure of Man. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981).
21 Ibid., 13.
22 Ibid., 14.
23 Ibid., 23.
24 Ibid., 18.
26 Ibid., 26.
27 Cited in: Little, Sri Lanka: The Invention of Enmity, p. 26.
28 Ibid., 27.
29 Ibid, 36.
30 Satchi Ponnambalam, Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil National Liberation
Struggle. (London: Zed Books Ltd, 1983), 54.
31 Ibid, 53.
32 Ibid, 54.
34 Ibid, 63.
35 David Little, Sri Lanka: The Invention of Enmity. (Washington D.C.: United States Institute of
Peace Press, 1994), 55.
36 Satchi Ponnambalam, Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil National Liberation
Struggle. (London: Zed Books Ltd, 1983), 64.
DO THE TAMIL PEOPLE IN SRI LANKA CONSTITUTE A NATION?
There is no universally accepted definition of the term nation. There is however,
a generally and widely accepted definition. This study will, ... adopt the distinction
drawn by political scientists, sociologists, and others . Anthony D. Smith most
accurately describes the generally accepted definition of nation.
Smith defines the level below the nation, the ethnic community,
An ethnie is composed of:2
A collective proper name
A myth of common ancestry
Shared historical memories
One or more differentiating elements of common culture
An association with a specific homeland
A sense of solidarity for significant sectors of the population
Smiths definition of nation ups the ante. A nation includes the attributes of an
A common economy
or ethnie to use his
Common legal rights and duties for all members
In addition, a nation must inhabit the territorial homeland it claims. As Smith
states: . whereas in the case of ethnies the link with a territory may be only
historic and symbolic, in the case of the nation it is physical and actual: nations
possess territories.4 It is safe to conclude that all nations are ethnies, but not all
ethnies are nations due to these three distinctions.
Other scholars and authors either add to or take away from this scope of definition
concerning the nation. Anthony Giddens states that the nation acts as . .. existing
within a clearly demarcated territory, which is subject to a unitary [and uniform]
administration, reflexively monitored both by the internal state apparatus and those of
other states.5 Compared to Smiths definition, Giddens is rather limiting. Benedict
Anderson, like Smith, argues that the nation is an imagined or abstract
community which made ... the transition from religious communities and dynastic
realms to the new, imagined national communities. .. .6 What Anderson calls an
imagined community, Smith would call a community bound by myths of common
ancestry. Andersons imagined community looks to Smiths historical myths to
justify a foundation for nationhood. As Smith, paraphrasing the work of Horowitz,
. . ethnic groups (are) super-families of Active descent
because members view their ethnie as composed of interrelated
families, forming one huge family linked by mythical ties of
filiation and ancestry. Such a linkage between family and
nation reappears in nationalist mythologies and testifies to the
continuing centrality of this attribute of ethnicity.7
The Sinhalese share these historical myths within the Mahavamsa. The Tamils
share common factual and mythical histories as well. Tamil literary texts such as the
Silapadikaram and Manimekhaiai date back to the 6th Century AD. The first Tamil
grammar, Tholhapiyam, was compiled as early as the first millennium BC.8
Sri Lankan Tamils match Smiths accepted criteria for being an ethnie, as well as a
nation. The Tamils have verifiably occupied the same territorial homeland since at
least the 2nd Century AD. Some scholars even claim the Tamils are the lineal
descendants of the pre-historic inhabitants, the Veddas.9 The Tamils share a common
culture in their religion and language, and a solidarity of what it is to be Tamil. Their
culture is unified. The common economy of the Tamils consists of fishing,
commerce, and when the land is able, farming.10
In meeting the last two criteria of Smiths definition of nation, two problems arise.
First, the common legal rights and duties of the Tamils exist in their historic culture
and religion. Codification of Tamil legal rights and duties has always been granted
by the colonial powers occupying Sri Lanka. Tamil territorial homelands have been
occupied since 1621. When have the Tamils had a chance in modem times to meet
that particular aspect of Smiths criteria? Second, although the Tamils have occupied
their traditional northern and eastern homelands since before history was recorded,
they technically do not own it because the state of Sri Lanka lays claim to the entire
Tamils meet all the accepted criteria of a nation, and where there is doubt it has not
been due to a lack of effort or authenticity on the part of the Tamils, but rather it has
been the imposition of restraints on the Tamils by colonial and state powers. It is
absolutely safe to say however, that Tamils do indeed constitute a nation.
It is worthwhile to note here that for the majority of Tamil history, the Tamils did
not necessarily think of themselves as a nation. The same could be said of the
Sinhalese. Sinhalese and Tamil identity and national sentiments were latent up to the
point of colonialism. It took the divisive and racist policies of the Portuguese, Dutch,
and British to turn Sinhalese and Tamil identity into a manifest expression of who
they were and what was inherent to their culture. The Sinhalese and Tamils
responded to European chauvinism by organizing and defining themselves according
to their factual history and their historical myths. At first they did this together and
formed a united front against the colonizers. Later, the same arguments used to
defend themselves against the colonial powers would be unleashed on each other.
Although the Sinhalese and Tamils did not define it as such, their reaction to the
colonial powers amounts to an effort at nation-building. As Smith says: . .. in
order to forge a nation today, it is vital to create and crystallize ethnic components,
the lack of which is likely to constitute a serious impediment to nation-building.11
The Sinhalese and Tamils recognized themselves as distinct and different from their
colonial masters. They created or rediscovered their ethnic components to defend
themselves against the colonizers. Over several hundred years this began to have an
effect. The ego of the majority, the Sinhalese, began to match that of the colonizing
powers. When Britain de-colonized Sri Lanka in 1948, the lines between the
Sinhalese and Tamils were clearly drawn. Each had looked to their own common
myths and ancestry to justify their moral assaults against the colonists. After 1948,
the Sinhalese and Tamil crystallization of ethnic composition emerged as it had
during colonial times. This time the results of the awareness were directed towards
each other. Unfortunately for the Tamils, numerical inferiority and territorial
representation in elections meant that while the Sinhalese were free to do as they
pleased, the Tamils had traded one master for another. Sinhalese discrimination and
chauvinism had the net effect of increasing Tamil social cohesion and led the Tamils
to further identify themselves as a nation. Tamils had ... developed a strong sense
of their distinctive identity based on separate historical mythologies, only to find the
door to political recognition locked.12
This study has laid the groundwork for understanding the roots of the conflict up
to 1948. Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinism, with legitimacy attained from the
Mahavamsa, has been shown to be a central part of the Sri Lankan conflict. The
manifestation of Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinism via the effects of colonialism on the
Sinhalese psyche are the foundation for many of the grievances of the Tamils in post-
1948 Sri Lanka. These grievances are the subject of chapter Five.
1 Hurst Hannum, Autonomy. Sovereignty, and Self-Determination. (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1990), 1.
2 Anthony D. Smith, National Identity. (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1991), 21.
3 Ibid., 40.
5 As quoted in: Paul James, Nation Formation: Towards a Theory of Abstract Community. (London:
Sage Publications, 1996), 12.
6 Ibid., 5.
7 Anthony D. Smith, National Identity. (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1991), 22. For Horowitz,
whom Smith paraphrases, see Donald Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Conflict. (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1985).
8 Satchi Ponnambalam, Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil National Liberation Struggle.
(London: Zed Books Ltd., 1983), 31.
9 Ibid., 28.
10 The traditional Tamil homelands are in the northern and eastern parts of the island, commonly
referred to as the dry-zone. Arable land in the dry-zone is not plentiful and that which does exist
does not produce much.
11 Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1986), 17.
12 Ibid., 224.
TAMIL GRIEVANCES AGAINST THE SRI LANKAN GOVERNMENT:
On February 4,1948, Sri Lanka became an independent state with D.S.
Senanayake of the United National Party (UNP) as the first prime minister. From the
moment of independence Senanayake and other Sinhalese leaders were eager to
consolidate Sinhalese hegemony on the island. Post 1948 Sinhalese government
policies and practices are what constitute the grievances of the Tamil people today.
This chapter illustrates Sri Lankan government policies and the consequences for
Tamils following their implementation. The net result of these government policies,
as will be shown, accomplished what over 400 years of colonialism could not; the de
facto separation of the two main ethnic groups on the island.
Three main events occurred in 1948 and 1949 which set the tone for the future of
Sinhalese Tamil relations. The first issue of contention dealt with the new national
flag of Sri Lanka. The flag that was adopted, much to the dismay of the Tamils,
pictured a lion (from the Mahavamsa mythical history) holding a sword. Two
colored stripes, saffron representing Tamils and green representing Muslims, are on
one side of the flag. The four comers hold leaves of a pipal tree . . under which
Buddha attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya.1 Aside from the stripes for the two
minority ethnic groups, the flag in actuality is a Sinhalese flag symbolizing Sinhalese
dominance on the island, hence the lion holding the sword. This issue represents a
missed opportunity for the Sinhalese to calm the majority/minority fears of the
Tamils. Tamil fears could have been lessened by making the flag more inclusive and
representative of the ethnic situation in Sri Lanka. Instead the Sinhalese chose to
highlight their symbols, religion, and culture for Sri Lankas flag.
The Loss Of Indian Tamil Citizenship And Representation
The first piece of legislation aimed at Tamils was the 1948 Ceylon Citizenship
Act. This act had the effect of making stateless close to one million Indian or
Estate Tamils. Indian Tamils are Tamils that were brought to Sri Lanka from India
to work Sri Lankas economically vital tea and rubber plantations under British
colonialism. The act states that only if a persons father or paternal grandfather was
bom in Sri Lanka could that person be a citizen. Ponnambalam says, The Sri Lanka
Citizenship Act is unique in that... Citizenship is not related to ones birth in the
country but to the birth of ones ancestors. This crude legal formulation was designed
to deny citizenship to the plantation Tamils of Indian origin, not only to those living
but those still to be bom.2 P. Ramaswamy theorizes that the Citizenship Act of 1948
and consequent legislation (the Ceylon Parliamentary Elections Amendment of 1949
which tied the franchise to citizenship) was designed to lessen Tamil influence in the
Kandy area where they had a strong presence. In fact, in the first elections under the
Donoughmore Constitution, these Indians won six seats in the State Council
representing predominantly Sinhalese constituencies... ,3 Ponnambalam argues
simply that Senanayake . .. entertained a xenophobic hatred of the Indian Tamils.4
The Ceylon Parliamentary Elections Amendment of 1949 was the final solution to the
Indian problem. After the 1949 Amendment, those Indian Tamils who were
stateless were now without any kind of electoral representation. Indian Tamil labor in
1948 and in the present is invaluable to Sri Lankas weak economy. In 1948, Indian
Tamils, without a state or representation, were still expected to pay taxes and use their
labor for the betterment of Sri Lanka. S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, a widely respected
Tamil politician throughout Sri Lankas history in the 20th Century, said in 1949:
Today it is the Indian Tamils. Tomorrow, it will be the Sri Lanka Tamils who will
The election of 1956 resulted in S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike of the Sri Lankan
Freedom Party (SLFP) becoming prime minister. Bandaranaike had resigned from
the UNP in 1951 due to differences with other members and had founded the SLFP.
In the 1956 election both the UNP and SLFP had campaigned on a platform of
Sinhala Only the buzzwords to describe how both parties would codify Sinhala as
the official language of the country. On October 5, 1956 legislation was introduced
by Bandaranaike to make Sinhala the official language of Sri Lanka. The bill passed
and became the Official Language Act of 1956 # 33.
The 1956 Riots
The Language Act had serious ramifications. Along with making Sinhala the
official language, the timetable for the complete implementation of the Act was set
for December 31, 1960. In effect, all Tamils in Sri Lanka would have to learn Sinhala
in four years or be shut out of participating in government at all levels, since
government would be run strictly in Sinhala. Impracticality aside, the Tamils saw this
Act as an outright assault against their language and culture. The same day the
Sinhala Only bill was introduced by Bandaranaike, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam and
about 300 Tamils staged a sit-in outside the parliamentary building in Colombo to
protest the bill. Chelvanayakam and the protesters were attacked and beaten by
Sinhala Only supporters. These beatings escalated into a full scale riot in which
approximately 150 people died, including women and children.6 The 1956 riot
marked an unpleasant precedent. For the first time ever, Sinhalese and Tamils killed
each other over policies which the Sinhalese believed strengthened the unity of Sri
Lanka by forcing the assimilation of her ethnic groups. The Citizenship Act of 1949
with the corresponding Amendment of 1949 and the Sinhala Only Act of 1956
ignored Sri Lankas ethnic and national realities. The Sinhalese believe that in order
to safeguard their language and culture, they must denigrate Tamil language and
culture. Thus, in 1956, ethnic fissures had begun to show.
The 1958 Riots
Only two years passed before Sri Lanka experienced more ethnic riots and their
accompanying death and destruction. In 1958 a Sinhalese ex-mayor was shot in
Batticaloa district, an area with a Tamil majority. This killing sparked a four day riot.
Sinhalese mobs went on the rampage, stopping trains and
buses, dragging out Tamil passengers and butchering them.
Houses were burnt with people inside, and there occurred
widespread looting in all areas where Sinhalese and Tamils
The 1958 riot, like the one in 1956, highlights the beginning of the end of
Sinhalese-Tamil relations. In 1958 only ten years had passed since independence and
already hundreds of people had died in communal rioting and numerous pieces of
property had been destroyed. The fissures in the ethnic landscape turned to fractures
The Assassination Of Prime Minister Bandaranaike
One event in post-1948 Sri Lanka clearly shows the extent to which Sinhalese-
Buddhist chauvinists were willing to go to make their agenda a reality. Although not
a grievance of the Tamils, it illustrates extremely well just how wide the division
between the two groups had become, and how far ultra-conservative elements among
the Sinhalese would go to protect and foster the Sinhala-Buddhist state.
Ever since the late 19th Century and the days of Anagarika Dharmapala, the
bhikkhus (Buddhist monks) took an activist role in Sri Lankan politics. The
influential and vocal bhikkhus were the impetus for many of the discriminatory
policies affecting Tamils. Bhikkhus, of all segments of Sinhala society, were most
interested in seeing the writings of the Mahavamsa realized. After the 1956 and 1958
riots, Bandaranaike realized how powerful, violent, and influential the bhikkhus had
become. As a response, and to lessen Tamil fears, the Bandaranaike government
decided on a compromise concerning the language issue. The Tamil Language
(Special Provisions) Act # 28 of 1958 allowed the prime minister to make regulations
regarding the reasonable use of Tamil in the majority Tamil areas of the north and
east.8 The Act did not allow the use of Tamil per se, but only allowed the prime
minister at his/her discretion to make allowances for the use of Tamil. In effect, Act #
28 was not an abrogation of Sinhala Only, it only allowed the prime minister to
make exceptions if he/she saw fit to do so. Act #28 infuriated some extreme
elements within the bhikkhu community. On September 25,1959, this infuriation
was manifested into action when a bhikkhu assassinated Bandaranaike on the porch of
the prime ministers residence. A bhikkhu high priest was also involved in the
conspiracy to kill Bandaranaike. The racist and discriminatory policy of Sinhala
Only with the reasonable use of Tamil clause installed was not satisfactory to the
extreme Sinhalese-Buddhist elements of Sri Lankan society. Ironically, Act # 28
remains to this day a dead letter. In fact, no regulations were put into effect until
1966 and even then ... the provisions of the regulations were never put into
operation.9 The assassination of Prime Minister Bandaranaike is explained well by
Here were Buddhist bhikkhus, sworn to nonviolence and to a
life set apart from worldly temptations, committing murder in
pursuit of earthly prestige and wealth. But just as ironic, the
very people who did Bandaranaike in were the sort of people
he himself had cultivated, whose ideals of religious nationalism
he had espoused, whose positions of political influence he had
The Military Occupation Of Jaffna
After Bandaranaikes assassination, his wife, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike,
contested and won the position of prime minister in 1960, becoming the worlds first
female prime minister. Sinhala Only was also to be fully implemented in i960.
When the Tamil-led Federal Party (FP) decided not to comply with the regulations of
Sinhala Only, Mrs. Bandaranaikes government declared a state of emergency and
sent government troops to the northern and eastern districts to force implementation.
With the army moving in, the Tamils for the first time faced military brutality in the
cause of Sinhala Only and became aware of the Sinhalese governments resolve to
use force to beat them into submission.11 In addition, as a result of not complying
with the Sinhala Only regulations, FP ministers of parliament were arrested and
held for over six months.12 All of this occurred in a country claiming to be
democratic, yet arresting and detaining the peoples representatives is the very
antithesis of democracy, as if the voices of the people themselves were being ignored
or brushed aside, as in fact they were.
Tamil Excommunication From Sri Lankan Life
The rest of the 1960s saw the FP continue to battle Sinhala Only regulations via
democratic methods in the parliament and fail. Mrs. Bandaranaike stated in 1967
that The Tamil people must accept the fact that the Sinhala majority will no longer
permit themselves to be cheated of their rights.13 Sri Lankan government machinery
after independence was molded around Mrs. Bandaranaikes statement. One example
of this could be seen in the composition of the armed forces. At independence Tamils
had been represented in the armed forces roughly equal to their percentage in the
country -18%. Today that is far from the case. S.J. Tambiah explains that . . the
armed forces today. .. are virtually filled by the majority Sinhalese, and the Tamil
minority are virtually excluded from serving in them.... Even more disconcerting
is that there has been virtually no recruitment of Tamils into the armed forces, and
very little into the police force, for nearly thirty years.14 Tamils have been overtly
squeezed out of mainstream life in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese argue that the Tamils
were not being singled out, they simply had to comply with government regulations
in order to be full-fledged members of society. To the Tamils, however, complying
meant giving up or limiting that which made them Tamil their language and dignity,
indeed their very essence. For Tamils the price of admission into Sinhalese-
dominated Sri Lankan life was simply too high.
The Constitutional Codification Of Sinhalese Discrimination
The next assault on Tamils occurred in the early 1970s. Mrs. Bandaranaike
returned to power in 1970 after having been defeated in 1965. In 1972, the
Bandaranaike government enacted a new constitution without the consent of the
people of Sri Lanka. . .. the constitution makers had done nothing to consult the
people of the country. There was no referendum or plebiscite on the constitution.15
This single fact is enough for Satchi Ponnambalam to warrant the 1972 constitution as
invalid and illegal.16 Can a constitution really be said to represent the people of Sri
Lanka if only Mrs. Bandaranaike and 125 ministers of parliament were allowed to
vote for it?
Illegal or not, the new constitution became the law of the land in Sri Lanka in
1972. The new constitution solidly embedded in law the anti-Tamil policies that had
been enacted since independence. Most disturbing were Articles 6,7, and 11. Article
6 stated: The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and
accordingly it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster Buddhism. Article 7
reaffirmed Sinhala Only. The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala as
provided by the Official Language Act, No. 33 of 1956. Article 11 dealt with the
implementation of Article 7. ... the language of the Courts and Tribunals shall be
Sinhala throughout Sri Lanka and accordingly their records, including pleadings,
proceedings, judgments, orders and records of all judicial and ministerial acts, shall
be in Sinhala.17 After the 1972 constitution, Sinhalese-chauvinist policies against
Tamils were incorporated into the law of the land with no method for Tamils to
address their grievances.
The 1972 constitution also changed the name of the island from Ceylon to Sri
Lanka. The name change was a fitting exclamation point for the new constitution.
Sri Lanka, with the adoption of the new constitution, declared itself a republic and
formally (except for diplomatic missions) broke all ties with the British
In 1971 the Department of Education under Mrs. Bandaranaike introduced
standardization of marks for entrance into universities. Tamil scores on entrance
tests had always tended to be higher than their Sinhalese counterparts. Therefore, in a
reverse affirmative action move, the government lowered the standards for
Sinhalese students while Tamil standards remained the same. For Tamils, university
education was not a luxury, it was a necessity. Tamils had for years considered
education as a way to enter either private or public life. Even during British
colonialism this had been the case. The dry-zone of the Tamil northern and eastern
areas precluded the land from absorbing Tamil employment in agriculture. As
Tambiah says: For the Sri Lankan Tamils, the application of equal and even-handed
criteria of merit and performance at entrance examinations was vital; indeed, it
constituted a lifeline for them. For the Tamils this Sinhala demand was a lunge at
their jugular vein, and the Sinhalese knew this to be a deadly truth.18
The Vaddukkodai Resolution And 1977 Riots
In 1976, only twenty-eight years since Sri Lankas independence was granted from
Britain, the situation became intolerable for Tamil leaders. The older Tamil political
parties disbanded in the early 1970s and had consolidated into a new party, the Tamil
United Front (TUF). In 1976, the TUF changed its name and agenda. The TUF
became the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). The TULF met at Vaddukkodai
and decided then that the only way to safeguard Tamils in Sri Lanka was to secede
from Sri Lanka and form a Tamil state. It was at Vaddukkodai that the first call came
for Tamils to form the separate state of Tamil Eelam, to be carved out of the existing
unitary Sri Lanka.19 Tamil Eelam would be comprised of the Tamil nations historic
homelands in the north and east. In the election of 1977, Tamil people in the north
and east voted overwhelmingly for the TULF position based on the contents of their
election manifesto. The TULF interpreted this as a mandate from the Tamil people to
pursue Tamil Eelam. Although the TULF manifesto indicated that direct action or
struggle would be used to realize Tamil Eelam, the TULF was composed of
members committed to democratic legal principles.20 They hoped that Tamil Eelam
would become a reality through the democratic process.
One consequence of the Vaddukkodai resolution, as it came to be called, was the
predictable Sinhalese reaction. Ponnambalam gives insight into the events:
For two weeks from 16 August (1977), Sinhalese thugs and
hooligans, instigated by the chauvinists, went on the rampage.
They attacked the Tamils wherever they found them, killed
hundreds of Tamil men, women and children, burnt Tamil
houses and shops and looted Tamil houses in broad daylight
and later set them ablaze.21
The 1977 riots were unique because the police and armed forces were indifferent
to the carnage around them. In 1956 and 1958 the police and armed forces had
attempted to stop the destruction, but in 1977 they simply watched and sometimes
participated. This must be seen as a sign of the decreased ethnic diversity in the
armed forces and police that had slowly been occurring since independence. In future
violence, the government, police, and armed forces would not merely be indifferent,
they would become active participants in the anti-Tamil violence.
While the TULF pursued democratic means within the Sri Lankan political body
to realize Tamil Eelam, younger Tamils in the north and east took a more direct and
militant stance. During the mid-to-late 1970s, Tamil militants were hardly more than
semi-organized street gangs. When these young Tamils were arrested they were
usually detained for a long period of time and sometimes tortured for information
concerning information about terrorists. Once in jail, Ponnambalam says, They
became familiar with police methods and who their perpetrators were.22 One of
these Tamil militant groups, known as the Tamil New Tigers (TNT, but soon to
become the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE), assassinated one
particularly cruel police officer. In April 1978 they cleverly snared and ambushed
the notorious Inspector Bastiampillai, and two others, and shot and killed them. Their
success in finishing off this notorious police torturer emboldened them to go on the
The Prevention Of Terrorism Act
J.R. Jayewardene (elected 1977) and the UNP government responded to growing
Tamil militancy in the north and east by enacting the Prevention of Terrorism Act
(PTA) of 1979. The PTA gives unrestricted powers to both the police and armed
forces. People may be held under the PTA without trial and incommunicado for
eighteen months.24 Any person ... connected with or concerned in any unlawful
activity. . can be held under the PTAs sweeping powers. The PTA also states that
any order written with PTA authority ... shall be final and shall not be called in
question in any court or tribunal by way of writ or otherwise.25 Worse yet,
Emergency Regulation 15A of the PTA states that security forces may cremate or
bury bodies of those killed without having to first identify the bodies.26 About the
PTA, Paul Sieghart states:
No legislation conferring even remotely comparable powers is
in force in any other free democracy operation under the Rule
of Law, however troubled it may be by politically motivated'
With PTA authority supporting them, the armed forces moved into Jaffna again in
1979 to carry out Jayewardenes orders to wipe out the terrorists. Like all
Sinhalese miscalculations in the past, this order was doomed to fail from the start.
The military occupation of Jaffna did not intimidate, nor did it deter, the militant
Tamil youth who had nothing to lose. In fact the occupation had the opposite effect.
Tamil youth became more organized and better armed while at the same time they
sought training from other groups involved in similar struggles. The goal of the
Tamil militants was similar to the goals of the TULF; Tamil Eelam. The youth,
however, had grown impatient of waiting so long for democratic methods to bear
fruit. For too long the Tamil youth had seen the TULF beating its head against the
wall with nothing to show for the pain.
The Burning Of Jaffna
On the heels of the enactment of the PTA and the military occupation of Jaffna,
the UNP decided to contest Jaffnas seats for the district development council
elections of 1981.28 This proved to be a serious mistake given the political climate in
Jaffna at the time. Assassinations of UNP supporters and police personnel by Tamil
militants resulted in the army and police rampaging and destroying Jaffna. During
the rampage over one hundred shops were burnt and looted and TULF headquarters
were destroyed. Worst of all however, was the burning of the Jaffna Public Library
which contained over 95,000 volumes and original Tamil historical manuscripts.
According to Tambiah:
The Public Library in fact contained irreplaceable literary and
historical documents, and this book burning by Sinhalese
police has come to signify for many a living Tamil the apogean
barbarity of Sinhalese vindictiveness that seeks physical as
well as cultural obliteration.29
Riots and violence spread like wildfire throughout the country in the wake of the
rampage. Hindu temples were burned and several hundred Tamils had to be relocated
to refugee camps. Speaking about the Jaffna rampage, even a Sinhalese minister of
parliament stated that ... these police officers have run berserk ... I am sorry for the
violence that was perpetrated in the Jaffna peninsula.30 The worst was yet to come.
The Point Of No Return The 1983 Pogrom
The turning point in Sinhalese-Tamil relations came in 1983. The events of that
year changed the Tamils from militants to insurgents, and then finally to belligerents
and combatants fighting a war of national liberation. The illusion of Sri Lankan
national unity was finally shattered in the pogrom of 1983.
From 1981 until 1983, the Jayewardene government and the Tamil militants had
both escalated their violent activities in the Jaffna peninsula. Both sides committed
several tit-for-tat reprisal killings. On July 23, 1983, one of these reprisal events
occurred. Tamil militants (most likely the LTTE) killed thirteen soldiers riding in the
back of a truck with a grenade attack. The army retaliated by killing thirty Tamil
civilians in Jaffna the same day.31 When news of the thirteen killed soldiers reached
Colombo on July 24, the worst riots in the history of Sri Lanka, with the complicity of
the government, began. In Colombo alone, according to government sources, over
350 Tamils were killed by organized mob violence. Tamils claimed a death toll
closer to 2,000.32 Tamil refugees in Colombo ranged from 80,000 to 100,000. A total
refugee population of over 200,000 was created, with the majority fleeing to the
Tamil dominated areas in the north and east and with over 70,000 escaping into Tamil
Nadu, Europe, and North America.33
The uniqueness of these riots pivots around one fact. The riots were carried out
with the complicity and knowledge of certain segments of the government, which
segments exactly is not known. Yet proof of government involvement in the riots has
been verified by several different sources.34 Mobs were armed with voter lists and
addresses of Tamil residences and businesses in Colombo. In addition, the mobs had
access to transportation. Tambiah states: ... they traveled in buses or were dropped
off at successive locations by the Colombo coastline trains.35 India Today (New
Delhi) also verified this report: The mobs were armed with voters lists, and detailed
addresses of every Tamil owned shop, house, or factory, and their attacks were very
The riots of 1983 accomplished what the Sri Lankan government had been trying
to avoid the separation of Sri Lanka into two entities, one Sinhalese, the other
Tamil. The majority of the Tamil population living in the south and central part of
the island (Sinhalese dominated areas) evacuated their homes and lost everything
during the move to the relative safety in the north and east.
Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural state with a majority ethnic group
and government that acts as though it rules over a mono-ethnic and mono-cultural
territory. Sri Lankas multi-ethnic composition has been routinely ignored since
1948. What is worse however, is that by enacting discriminatory legislation
concerning citizenship and language rights, the Sinhalese have actually tried to
reverse the islands multi-ethnic nature. The Sinhalese have been trying to relive the
glory days of Prince Vijaya, when sovereign Sinhalese kings ruled Lanka. This
formula does not work in a 20th Century full of pluralistic and multi-cultural forces.
The Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinists in the government, and the population which
repeatedly elected them into office, badly misjudged Tamil reactions to Sinhalese
assimilation efforts. Each time a discriminatory policy failed, instead of reversing the
policy or backing down, the government opted to use force to make Tamils comply.
After 1983, TULF calls to continue working towards Tamil Eelam through
democratic channels fell on deaf ears, or more precisely, the calls were drowned out
by the sounds of gunfire. Tamil civilians looked to the Tamil militants for protection
against the Sri Lankan police and armed forces. Tamil civilians gladly gave whatever
assistance they could to the militants in order to secure their safety from the
government and to ensure that discrimination against them would become a thing of
These grievances form the base of Tamil self-determination claims. This study has
shown the Tamil people to be a nation and has shown that injustices equivalent to
cultural genocide have been committed against the Tamils by the Sinhalese majority.
With these two facts in mind, this study now turns to analyze the international legal
rights of the Tamils in their claim and quest for self-determination.
1 Satchi Ponnambalam, Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil National Liberation Struggle.
(London: Zed Books Ltd., 1983), 73.
2 Ibid., 75.
3 P. Ramaswamy, New Delhi and Sri Lanka. (Bombay: Allied Publishers Private Ltd., 1987), 3.
4 Satchi Ponnambalam, Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil National Liberation Struggle.
(London: Zed Books Ltd., 1983), 77.
5 Ibid., 78.
6 Ibid., 106.
7 Ibid., 113.
8 Ibid., 114.
10 David Little, Sri Lanka: The Invention of Enmity. (Washington D.C.: United States Institute for
Peace Press, 1994), 72.
11 Satchi Ponnambalam, Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil National Liberation
Struggle. (London: Zed Books Ltd., 1983), 122.
13 As quoted in: Ponnambalam, 138.
14 S.J. Tambiah, Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy. (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1984), 15.
15 Satchi Ponnambalam, Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil National Liberation
Struggle. (London: Zed Books Ltd., 1983), 163.
17 Cited in: Ponnambalam, 165.
18 SJ. Tambiah. Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy. (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1984), 29.
19 Alan Bullion. India. Sri Lanka, and the Tamil Crisis 1976 1994. (London: Pinter, 1995), 24.
20 Cited in: Ponnambalam, 192.
21 Ibid., 194.
22 Ibid, 200.
24 A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, The Break-Up of Sri Lanka. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988),
25 Cited in: Ponnambalam, 202.
26 S.J. Tambiah, Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy. (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1984), 16.
27 Quoted in: P. Ramaswamy, New Delhi and Sri Lanka. (Bombay: Allied Publishers Private Ltd,
28 A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, The Break-Up of Sri Lanka. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988),
29 S.J. Tambiah, Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy. (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1984) 19.
30 Quoted in: Ponnambalam, 207.
31 Ibid, 225.
32 S.J. Tambiah, Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy. (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1984), 22.
33 Alan Bullion, Sri Lanka. India, and the Tamil Crisis 1976 1994. (London: Pinter, 1995), 32.
34 A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, The Break-Up of Sri Lanka. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988),
35 S.J. Tambiah, Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy. (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1984), 21.
36 Cited in: Tambiah, 21.
TAMIL SELF-DETERMINATION IN INTERNATIONAL LAW
International law instruments concerned with the rights of peoples to self-
determination are very paradoxical in nature. They are paradoxical because they
appear to grant rights with one hand while taking away, or severely limiting, them
with the other. There is a tension between the territorial integrity of the state and the
rights of nations within states to exercise self-determination. Territorial integrity and
state unity usually, but not always, take precedence in the documents designed to
protect peoples and nations from abusive state power. The issue of states rights vs.
self-determination movements is constantly evolving, each case being judged on its
Not voting for a General Assembly instrument does not grant a country immunity
from complying with the principles outlined in the resolution. If a consensus exists in
the international community concerning the actions of a state, states can be subject to
the international will as expressed in whichever vehicle the General Assembly
chooses, be it resolution, declaration, or covenant. Sri Lanka is a signatory to the
United Nations Charter.1 As such, Sri Lanka has voluntarily declared itself to be
subject to the guiding principles of international law.
The U.N. instruments most often cited by the Tamil national liberation struggle,
and self-determination movements in general, are: the U.N. Charter, General
Assembly Resolution (GAR) 1514, GAR 2625, GAR 2621, GAR 3103, the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, and the 1977 Protocol (I) of the 1949 Geneva
Convention. These documents are supposedly legitimate because they have the
endorsement of the United Nations. Often times however, and practically speaking,
these instruments are only followed and abided by via an individual states discretion.
In the case of Sri Lanka, the Tamil cause has found sympathy in the U.N. because Sri
Lanka has, according to Amnesty International, consistently violated the letter and
spirit of international law2. Tamils appear to have many legitimate claims if argued
from a human rights perspective. On the surface, Tamil self-determination claims
appear to be legitimate as well, although from its inception, self-determination in
international law has applied mainly to peoples under colonial rule. Modem
international law, however, has expanded drastically who may exercise their right to
self-determination, not limiting the right only to peoples under colonial domination.3
The world has not been able to turn a blind eye to sub-state actors willing to fight for
their rights within the state. This has led to an expansion of definitions concerning
what truly constitutes self-determination, as well as who is entitled to exercise the
This chapter examines the legitimacy of the Tamil national liberation struggle in
the context of international law. The U.N. Charter, General Assembly Resolution
(GAR) 1514, GAR 2625, GAR 2621, GAR 3103, the Universal Declaration on
Human Rights, and the 1977 Additional Protocol (I) of the 1949 Geneva Conventions
will be analyzed in turn and their significance to the Tamil struggle determined. Of
crucial importance to this analysis is the question of whether or not the Sri Lankan
government has lost the right, under international law, to represent the Tamil nation in
a unitary Sri Lanka. Another mode of recognition and legitimacy for Tamils will
focus on the Indian intervention in the Sri Lankan conflict between 1983 1990.
The United Nations Charter
At the time participating countries adopted the U.N. Charter, the general consensus
among scholars was that self-determination in the U.N. charter should be expressed as
a principle rather than as a right.4 As Hurst Hannum says, ... whatever its political
significance, the principle of self-determination did not rise to the level of a rule of
international law at the time the U.N. Charter was drafted.5 Subsequent U.N.
resolutions and International Court of Justice (ICJ) rulings expanded the principle into
a right. As Christian Tomuschat explains:
... the International Court of Justice felt entitled to give its
blessing to self-determination as a legal right. Both in its legal
opinion on Namibia as well as in the later opinion on Western
Sahara it clearly stated that self-determination was more than a
guiding principle to be heeded and promoted by the United
Nations, but a fell-fledged right that could be invoked by its
holders to claim separate statehood and sovereign
Professor Glenn T. Morris agrees with this argument stating:
... through the actions of the bodies of the United Nations and
the States themselves, and through the confirmation of those
actions in scholarly writings, the law of decolonization and the
right to self-determination exist as rules of international law.7
Further consensus also agrees that originally the term peoples in the charter
referred to colonies or non self-governing territories, rather than nations or ethnic
groups within states. This has changed as well. In current international law,
according to Morton Halperin, . .. whether a group is a people for the purposes of
self-determination depends on the extent to which the group making a claim shares
ethnic, linguistic, religious, or cultural bonds, although the absence or weakness of
one of these bonds need not invalidate a claim.8 The Charter holds hope for sub-
state actors and is looked upon as a letter of intent. The Charter, by acknowledging
the principle of self-determination, started a trend that it could not stop. People
looked to the spirit of the Charter with its lofty goals and ideals and saw the
potentiality in its words.
Articles 1, 55, and 76 of the Charter provide the best examples of the spirit of the
Charter when examined from a self-determination orientation. Article 1(3) declares
that the purposes of the United Nations are, and that its members must:
... achieve international co-operation in solving international
problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian
character. . (while) promoting and encouraging respect for
human rights and... fundamental freedoms for all without
distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.9
Article 55-C reflects similar values:
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 principle 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.10
Article 76 of Chapter XII outlines the basic objectives of the trusteeship system.
Article 76(B) says the objective of the system is:
to promote the political, economic, social, and educational
advancement of the inhabitants of the trust territories, and their
progressive development towards self-government or
independence as may be appropriate to the particular
circumstances of each territory and its peoples and the freely
expressed wishes of the people concerned11... (emphasis
Sri Lanka is a signatory of the Charter. Therefore, as mentioned, it has willingly
bound itself to the purposes and principles of the Charter. It is obvious from Chapter
Five in this study that Sri Lanka has not shown universal respect for, and observance
of, human rights... without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.12 On
the contrary, successive Sri Lankan governments have done little to promote the
purposes and principles stated in the Charter where the Tamil population is
concerned. The strict, generally accepted interpretation in the Charter of the term
peoples implies that former colonies like Sri Lanka consisted of one people. This
obviously is not the case. Article 76(B) of the U.N. Charter clearly reads that states
have an obligation to promote the political, economic, social, and educational
advancement of the inhabitants... as may be appropriate to the particular
circumstances of each territory and its peoples... ,13 (Emphasis added) The
particular circumstances of Sri Lanka are apparent. Sri Lanka consists of two
culturally distinct ethnic groups which have shared the island of Sri Lanka for over
2,000 years. Although the Soulbury Constitution was written before the United
Nations Charter, Britain is guilty of not installing stronger minority safeguards in the
Soulbury Constitution. After 1948, Britain was obviously powerless to impose a new
constitution with stronger minority safeguards. Tamils have been the victims of this
poor timing and misjudgment ever since.
General Assembly Resolution 1514
The U.N. General Assembly adopted Resolution 1514, the Declaration on the
Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples on December 14, 1960.
In part it declares:
The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and
exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights,
is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and it an
impediment to the promotion of World peace and co-
Like the U.N. Charter, Resolution 1514 is vague concerning the definition of
peoples. As David Makinson explains: .. the natural reaction of States has been
to avoid trying to define or clarify the concept of a people or that of self-
determination, but rather to insist that however the terms are understood their own
citizens form a paradigm example of one and only people, thus remaining on the safe
side of the norm.15 In a study prepared by Aureliu Cristescu for the Sub-
Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, Cristescu
points out that although different definitions exist, consensus is nowhere to be found
on a suitable definition of what constitutes peoples. Cristescu states:
The Charter and other United Nations instruments use the term
peoples. However, apart from the explanation given for this
term in the memorandum prepared by the secretariat of the San
Francisco Conference, it will be found that there is no accepted
definition of the word people and no way of defining it with
certainty. The Charter is of little help on this point because it
gives no details or explanations of the concepts of peoples.
There is no text or recognized definition from which to
determine what is a people possessing the right in question.16
U.N. documents have the unmistakable flavor of tip-toeing around the subject, of
trying to be inclusive and exclusive at the same time. Halperin explains that states
were . . united in their opposition to other self-determination movements, which
effectively ... rules out classifying a minority or ethnic group on a states territory
as a non-self-governing entity entitled to self-determination or self-government.17
Resolution 1514 does proclaim, however, ... the necessity of bringing to a speedy
and unconditional end colonialism in all its forms and manifestations. . . (emphasis
added) Tamils have claimed that they are victims of internal colonialism and alien
domination by the Sinhalese. The Sri Lankan government has placed Sinhalese
settlers in Tamil areas for economic purposes and to lessen congestion in the more
overly populated south and central areas. These settlement schemes along with
military occupation by the Sri Lankan armed forces have contributed to the Tamil
claim that they are the victims of alien subjugation.
Like the Charter, Resolution 1514 looked hopeful for future self-determination
movements. Yet the paradox existed. Section six states:
Any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the
national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is
incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of
the United Nations.18
This single section denies a whole category of potential self-determination
movements. A nation which has determined that the only way to safeguard its
identity and liberty is to secede from an existing state apparently has no legitimate
ground under 1514. Yet if all U.N. documents are applicable only to state-state
relations and not to nations or sub-state actors, then could it not be said that section
six does not apply to non-state actors? The U.N. is an exclusive club and the price of
admission is statehood. It seems that non-state actors, unless specifically identified,
should not fall under General Assembly resolutions since a non-state actor cannot be
a signatory to a U.N. document. If states are going to deny sub-state peoples the
alleged rights in G.A. resolutions, then why not free them of the restrictions as
General Assembly Resolution 2625
General Assembly Resolution 2625, the Declaration on Principles of
International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States,
was adopted on October 24, 1970.19 Resolution 2625 is the most expansive document
concerning self-determination. Unlike the Charter or 1514, 2625 provides a structure
for peoples seeking self-determination, although it does not provide a more expansive
usage for the term peoples. Resolution 2625 outlines three different modes by
which self-determination may be realized.20
1. The establishment of a sovereign and independent State
2. The association or integration with an independent State
3. The emergence into any other political status freely determined by a people
Resolution 2625 also states that peoples may seek outside support in their quest for
Every State has the duty to refrain from any forcible action.. .
In their actions against, and resistance to, such forcible action
in pursuit of the exercise of their right to self-determination,
such peoples are entitled to seek and to receive support in
accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter.21
The multi-ethnic nature of most countries is realized in what is perhaps the most
revealing paragraphs of 2625. What seems to be another paradox and affirmation of
territorial integrity ends with an exception:
Nothing in the foregoing paragraphs shall be construed as
authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember
or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political
unity of sovereign and independent States conducting
themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and
self-determination of peoples as described above and thus
possessed of a government representing the whole people
belonging to the territory without distinction as to race, creed
or colour.22 (emphasis added)
This paragraph conceivably opens a wide door. A regime in a state which is not
completely ... conducting themselves in compliance with the principle of equal
rights and self-determination of peoples. .and thus possessed of a government
representing the whole people without distinction... may be classified as an
illegitimate regime. Therefore, an illegitimate regime, by not complying with the
standards set in 2625, may give up the right to represent the peoples that it does not
treat with equal rights. Anne-Marie Burley lists three conditions of illegitimate
1. The establishment or maintenance of a regime by force, or the threat of force.
2. Economic and social conditions, such as poverty and illiteracy.
3. The long-term and systematic deprivation of fundamental human rights.
As outlined in Chapter Five, successive Sri Lankan governments have all met, and
been guilty of, Burleys three criteria. First, Sri Lankan regimes have maintained
their power in the Tamil homelands via the military occupation of Jaffna and other
Tamil areas. Second, the economic and social conditions of Tamils have been
harmed by loss of citizenship, disenfranchisement, and university standardization.
Third, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, since its inception in 1979 to the present day,
have deprived thousands of Tamils of their basic human rights.
Colonialism lost legitimacy after World War II. Tamils along with Sinhalese led
the efforts which accelerated the de-colonization process in Sri Lanka, only to have
the Sinhalese become their racist and chauvinistic masters. As Thomas M. Franck
Surely, the impetus that moved the world to demand collective
action to liberate colonies and called on nations to come to the
aid of the colonized cannot have had as its ultimate aim the
mere replacement of a French or British raj with an indigenous
Tamils would not have fought for the de-colonization of their country had they
known that the Sinhalese in the government would not represent their rights or share
power equitably. Sinhalese and Tamils exercised their right of self-determination
together. After Britain departed, the Sinhalese, by nature of their numerical majority,
frustrated Tamil self-determination by not allowing the Tamils autonomy in their own
homelands which they had occupied for over 2,000 years.
The Sri Lankan government de-legitimizes itself in the world community by not
adhering to the most fundamental civil liberties. Sri Lanka has ostracized itself via its
draconian PTA and brutal internal military occupations in Tamil areas. .. the main
point is that a state whose regime conflicts with the fundamental goals and principles
of the world community and with its standards cannot realistically be a member of
From this argument at least, it appears that the territorial integrity or political
unity of Sri Lanka is secondary since the government has not shown a willingness to
treat all the people within its territory equally, that is . without distinction to race,
creed, or colour.26 Tamils claim, and Sinhalese actions vis-a-vis the government
have confirmed, that the government is not representing the whole people. Rather,
the government represents the Sinhalese people and their fears and aspirations.
According to some interpretations of 2625, armed struggle to realize rights granted
in 2625 is explicit. Cristescu points out that while 2625 was being debated, several
representatives ... asserted that peoples under colonial rule and therefore unable to
exercise the rights inherent in the principle of self-determination, had the right to
overthrow colonialism by any means, including the use of force. In addition,
.. whoever possessed a right should possess the means of exercising it. 27 This
interpretation of 2625 is similar to the more overt language used in resolutions 2621
and 3103 which will be discussed shortly.
Resolution 2625 still, however, contains the paradox between territorial integrity
and self-determination. Towards the latter part of the document under the heading
The Principle of Sovereign Equality of States, sections A-F solidifies the
sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. These sections give the impression that
the writers of the document were not fully aware of the rights they had just granted
only a few sentences before. Makinson states of 2625: The descriptive constituents
are so vague, and the normative elements so self-referential, as to make unambiguous
application extremely difficult in contested cases.28 Rather than clarifying the issue
of who constituted peoples and who exactly had the right of self-determination,
2625 muddied the water by once again being paradoxical. ... to the two issues
raised above (the definition of peoples and the application of self-determination to
non-colonial situations), we find that the Declaration on Friendly Relations does
nothing to clarify the first and may, in fact, further confuse the second.29 The
ambiguity in 2625 notwithstanding, the spirit of 2625 is to end colonialism in all its
forms and manifestations, therefore the inconsistencies in 2625 tend to give the
benefit of the doubt to those seeking self-determination and the self-determination
General Assembly Resolution 2621
Resolution 2621 of October 12, 1970 grants colonial countries and peoples the
right to struggle against colonial regimes and governments ... in any of its forms or
manifestations.. ..30 The right of armed struggle is granted with the following
Colonial peoples have the inherent right to struggle by all
necessary means at their disposal against colonial Powers
which suppress their aspiration for freedom and
In addition to the right of armed struggle, 2621 makes it clear that peoples fighting
for self-determination are to be treated in accordance with international law. 2621
All freedom fighters under detention should be treated in
accordance with the relevant provisions of the Geneva
convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, of 12
Tamils see Sinhalese as an internal colonizing power which uses the force, power,
and coercion of the state to impose its will on the separate and distinct Tamil nation.
Tamils would be the first to argue that it was not always this way. Events since 1948
have proven however, that Sinhalese regimes act as though they are a colonizing
power. Military occupations of traditional Tamil homelands since 1960 reinforce this
view. Although the Sinhalese do not constitute a colonial power in the traditional
sense, their actions and the violence they have perpetuated on the Tamil people equal
any policy of terror imposed on colonies by external European colonial powers.
General Assembly Resolution 3103
Even more striking is the language used in resolution 3103, Basic Principles of
the Legal Status of the Combatants Struggling Against Colonial and Alien
Domination and Racist regimes (emphasis added). 3103 proclaimed the following
1. The struggle of peoples under colonial and alien domination and racist regimes for
the implementation of their right to self-determination and independence is
legitimate and in full accordance with the principles of international law.
2. Any attempt to suppress the struggle against colonial and alien domination and
racist regimes is incompatible with the Charter of the United Nations, the
Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and
Co-operation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations,
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on the Granting of
Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples and constitutes a threat to
international peace and security.
3. The armed conflicts involving the struggle of peoples against colonial and alien
domination and racist regimes are to be regarded as international armed conflicts
in the sense of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the legal status envisaged to
apply to the combatants in the 1949 Geneva conventions and other international
instruments is to apply to the persons engaged in armed struggle against colonial
and alien domination and racist regimes.
4. The combatants struggling against colonial and alien domination and racist
regimes captured as prisoners are to be accorded the status of prisoners of war and
their treatment should be in accordance with the provisions of the Geneva
convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, of 12 August 1949.
5. The use of mercenaries by colonial and racist regimes against the national
liberation movements struggling for their freedom and independence from the yoke
of colonialism and alien domination is considered to be a criminal act and the
mercenaries should accordingly be punished as criminal.
6. The violation of the legal status of the combatants struggling against colonial and
alien domination and racist regimes in the course of armed conflicts entails full
responsibility in accordance with the norms of international law.33
Resolution 3103 widens the scope of whom a self-determination movement may
struggle against. According to 3103, a struggle may be against alien domination,
colonial domination, or a racist regime. Do Tamils view the Sinhalese as colonizers
and military occupiers of traditional Tamil lands? Yes. Do Tamils feel they are
under alien domination because the Sinhalese are of a different cultural, linguistic,
and religious background? Yes. Have successive Sri Lankan regimes been racist?
Yes. Does this legitimize the Tamil movement since 3103 explicitly states that a
struggle against racist regimes is legitimate and fully in accordance with major
international law instruments? The facts point to the affirmative.
As Chapter Five discussed, many Tamil grievances against the Sri Lankan state
deal with their ethnicity. It was Tamils who were disenfranchised with the
Citizenship Act of 1948 and it was the Tamil people and language that suffered when
Sinhala Only became law in 1956. Even the Sri Lankan flag, a powerful symbol
which should have unified the country upon independence, was a reminder of
Sinhalese cultural, spiritual, and religious dominance. Because of these policies
successive Sri Lankan regimes have been overtly racist, therefore giving legitimacy to
the Tamil national liberation movement under resolution 3103.
Universal Declaration On Human Rights
Adopted December 10,1948, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights is not a
binding instrument, but it is an important document nonetheless because it provides
guidelines as to how states should behave concerning human rights. The Preamble
states what Tamils have known for years: Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be
compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and
oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,.. ,.34 This
document is important because it represents the potential of human rights what
every country should strive to achieve. As Brownlie says:
More important is its status as an authoritative guide, produced
by the General Assembly, to the interpretation of the Charter.
In this capacity the Declaration has considerable indirect legal
effect, and it is regarded by the Assembly and by some jurists
as a part of the Taw of the United Nations .35
Sri Lanka endorsed the Declaration, although it is difficult to tell by the empirical
evidence which would make one believe the contrary. The Sri Lankan government
has not been inclined to follow the spirit or the letter of the Declaration. Articles 8, 9,
and 15 provide excellent examples of Sri Lankas unwillingness to abide by the
Article 8. Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national
tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the
constitution or by law.
Article 9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Article 15(2). No one shall be deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to
change his nationality.36
As was shown in Chapter Five, the PTA does not allow anyone arrested under the
PTAs powers to come before a tribunal to have his/her case heard. Judicial review,
at least under the PTA, does not exist. Of course, most Tamils are arrested under
PTA provisions. This is a clear violation of Article 8. Similarly, the PTA violates
Article 9. Under the PTA, suspects can be detained for up to 18 months without a
trial. Arrests of Tamils, especially young male Tamils, is almost always arbitrary.
Tamil militants easily blend into populations when they are not fighting. To counter
this, the Sri Lankan armed forces in the past have simply rounded up all the young
Tamil men in whichever town or village they suspect may be harboring terrorists.
Innocent civilians are usually arrested along with legitimate suspects. Finally, the
Citizenship Act of 1948 violates Article 15(2). Indian Tamils were made stateless by
the Citizenship Act. By right of birth Indian Tamils are Sri Lankan, yet the
government deprived them of their birthright and subsequently their franchise. It is
clear that Article 15(2) was designed specifically to prevent the kind of power abuse
that the Citizenship Act of 1948 represents.
Sri Lanka is also a signatory to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a
legally binding exension of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.37 The same
reasons which apply to Sri Lankas defying the spirit and letter of the Declaration
apply even more so to the Covenant. For example, because the Prevention of
Terrorism Act allows persons to be detained incommunicado without the benefit of
judicial inquiry, it is in violation of Article 2, Section 3(b) which states that .. any
person... shall have his right... determined by competent judicial, administrative, or
legislative authorities.. ..38 Article 9, Section 3 follows the same thought and logic.
Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be
brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by
law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial
within a reasonable time.. ..39
The Prevention of Terrorism Act, because it allows exceptions to international
judicial norms and allows Sri Lankan security forces to be judge, jury, and
executioner, is an excellent case study for how the Sri Lankan government has, and is
currently, violating international law.
The 1977 Additional Protocol (I) To The Geneva Conventions Of 1949
Protocol (I) of the Geneva Conventions is another document the Tamils look to
when arguing the legitimacy of their national liberation struggle. Protocol (I) seeks to
help ease the burden of proof for movements which may not readily fit the strict
definition of an army. Michael Reisman claims that the Protocol . .. challenged
conventional views as to the norms that govern the conduct of insurgent conflict.40
Tamils advance the idea that Protocol (I) ... declared that as a last resort armed
struggle can be used as a method of exercising the right of self-determination.41
Articles 43 and 44 of the Protocol relax the internationally adhered to norm of
combatants wearing fixed insignia and openly carrying arms. These developments
favor the irregular soldier,42 according to Reisman.
Compared to the restrictive language in other General Assembly documents,
Protocol (I) opens the door a bit more for non-state actors or at least grants them a
degree of legitimacy not found elsewhere. But Protocol (I), GAR 2621, and GAR
3103 are the exceptions. The majority of international law implementation favors
states at the expense of human rights and self-determination movements.
The most maddening aspects of international law are the inconsistencies and
paradoxes found in the documents. While the documents discussed in this study are
very persuasive, international law does not tend to favor the Tamil national liberation
struggle. All of the documents mentioned in this study have the best of intentions, yet
practical facts in Sri Lanka bear witness to their failure. However, these documents,
even with their territorial integrity and state sovereignty clauses, are better than
nothing. Tamils have utilized the documents when doing so has suited them, but have
not relied on them as their only hope.43 International law and the United Nations do
not have a standard operating procedure for every conceivable situation. That is why,
international law or not, Tamils have always reserved the right (especially since 1983)
to resort to armed struggle. This reserved right has been held by other armed national
liberation movements as well.
In a case analogous to the Tamil struggle, Eritrea, during its 30 year war of
national liberation against Ethiopia, had a very strong case in international law. In a
deal struck with the United States via the United Nations, Ethiopia ceded Eritrea in
exchange for the U.S. being allowed the use of certain ports and other geo-politically
important and sensitive in both Ethiopia and Eritrea. This occured even though in
1949 roughly 75% of the Eritrean people supported the Eritrean Independence bloc
party which, as the name implies, wished for a free and sovereign Eritrea.44
Ethiopia in 1962 fully annexed Eritrea into Ethiopia, thereby annulling the semi-
autonomous relationship that had existed between Ethiopia and Eritrea to that point.
No vote or plebiscite was held to ask the Eritrean people if they wished to be a part of
Ethiopia. It was then that the Eritrean people via the Eritrean Peoples Liberation
Front and Eritrean Liberation Front began their armed struggle for self-determination
and independence. Eritreas incorporation into Ethiopia was in clear violation of the
wishes of the Eritrean people. The subsequent adoption of GAR 1514 and GAR 2625
confirmed that Ethiopias annexation of Eritrea was in fact illegal.45 The International
Court of Justice in 1980 argued that the Eritrean self-determination claim was
legitimate and that even if Eritreans had given their informed consent affirming a
desire to become part of Ethiopia, nothing precluded them from changing their minds,
... if the federal state concerned denies its democratic rights to the people who have
opted to join it.46
This same idea is applicable to the Tamil situation in Sri Lanka. Like the Tamils,
Eritreans were called secessionists and terrorists. Like the Tamils, Eritreans were told
that the territorial integrity of the state was paramount over self-determination. And
like the Tamils, Eritreans were told that their struggle was not legitimate, yet now,
after having defeated the Ethiopian Army on the battlefield, Eritrea has a seat in the
United Nations. What kind of a message does this send? Will the LTTE have to
overthrow the government of Sri Lanka in order to gain legitimacy and their seat at
the U.N.? Will the state of Sri Lanka cease to exist entirely, or will the international
community come forward and recognize the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil
nation? Even though Tamils agreed, through their democratically elected
representatives in parliament, to be included in a unitary Sri Lanka, this agreement
was predicated on the assumption that no harm; political, economic, or civic, would
occur to them. Had Tamils in 1948 known what kinds of racist and discriminatory
policies were to occur at their expense after independence, it is highly doubtful they
would have given their consent.
Other Modes Of Legitimacy The Indian Intervention
Even though the Tamil national liberation struggle does not yet find an overly
sympathetic ear in the international arena via the United Nations, it did find one in
India from 1983 to 1987. Sympathy and assistance was found in Prime Minister
Indira Gandhi and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran.47 Faced with
tens of thousands of Tamil refugees fleeing across the Palk Strait after the 1983
pogrom, and familiar with the past anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka, India after 1983
concluded that some form of Indian intervention would occur to stop the bloodshed
on the island. Indira Gandhi at this time was also upset with the Jayewardene
governments new found relationship with the United States and his . increasingly
pro-Western stance on foreign policy issues.48 This relationship with the U.S. grew
out of Jayewardenes liberalized free-market economic policies initiated in 1977. The
goodwill visits of U.S. naval ships to inspect Trincomalee harbor in 1983 and 1984
infuriated Indira and her successor, son Rajiv Gandhi.49 Add to this Indira Gandhis
and Jayewardenes personal dislike for one another and Indian intervention designed
to put Sri Lanka in its rightful place in the region was destined to occur.
To Indira Gandhi the Tamil militants were pawns in a realpolitik chess game.50
To strengthen Indias regional hegemony, India had to prove that it could handle
mediation efforts between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil militants. First,
of course, the militants had to prove that they constituted a legitimate threat.
Therefore, after 1983 India began training and arming Tamil militants on Indian soil.
There is even evidence that India was arming and training Tamils as early as May
1982, well before the 1983 pogrom. India was determined to turn the Tamil militancy
into a full-scale insurgency so that India could come to the rescue and save Sri
Lanka from herself.51
For Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Ramachandran the decision to aid, arm, and assist
Tamil militant groups, especially the LTTE, was not predicated on Indias regional
influence aspirations. Ramachandran was bom in Kandy, Sri Lanka but had
emigrated to India at age two with his family. It was through such intimate
connections that MGR (Ramachandran) built up an affinity with the Sri Lankan Tamil
separatist cause that would turn him into ... a vociferous supporter of the Tamil
Ramachandran, with the knowledge and support of Indira Gandhi, established
training camps in the jungles of India and gave sanctuary to Tamil militants in
Madras, the capital of the Indian state, Tamil Nadu.53 The militants were also
provided, and trained in the use of, telecommunications equipment, small arms, and
surface-to-air missiles.54 Before 1983, Tamils militants were trained in the middle
east by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). After 1983, Tamil militants
were trained exclusively by Indias foreign intelligence service; the Research and
Analysis Wing (RAW).55
The pro-Tamil stance taken by India lasted until 1987 when India changed its two-
tiered strategy and in essence double-crossed the Tamil militant groups by negotiating
and signing the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord. The militant Tamil groups knew
negotiations were occurring, some of the groups had even been invited to participate,
yet the accord was signed without the consent or full participation of the LTTE. The
LTTE in 1987 was emerging as the most powerful Tamil militant group. This was
partly because its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was a close and personal friend of
Chief Minister Ramachandran. For Rajiv Gandhi, who became Prime Minister after
his mother was assassinated by a Sikh bodyguard in 1984, the elaborate scheme and
Tamil militant groups his mother had created were becoming too unwieldy to control.
In 1987 it looked as though the Tamil militant groups were close to realizing their
goal of Tamil Eelam. Tamil militants had consolidated control over Jaffna and the
majority of the north. In fact, in early 1987 the LTTE announced that a civil
administration run by the LTTE was going to be set up in Jaffna. The administration
was to be ... organized into 20 divisions based on towns and major village areas,
and embracing the police, taxation, transport, education and public health.56 India
and the Sri Lankan government thought that a unilateral declaration of independence
would follow shortly thereafter. This situation was too much for Rajiv Gandhi. India
had always expressed a desire that Sri Lanka should remain united. What is more,
Rajiv had never been as sympathetic as his mother when it came to helping Sri
Lankan Tamils. Were the Tamils to realize Tamil Eelam, Punjab and Kashmir
separatists in India would get the idea that they could secede as well.
Success was at the LTTEs fingertips in 1987. When success became apparent,
India pulled support from the Tamils and rushed through the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace
Accord which would be guaranteed by Indian troops. The Sri Lanka armed forces
could not guarantee the Accord because .. his (Jayewardenes) armed forces were
too weak to beat Tamil insurgents into surrender.57 For Prabhakaran the writing was
on the wall. Before the Accord was signed he moved his entire operation into the
northern jungles of Sri Lanka and Jaffna.
By aiding, arming, and training Tamils, India de facto recognized the legitimacy of
the Tamil National Liberation Movement. In fact, according to 2625, India had
broken international law to do so. Resolution 2625 clearly states: Every State has
the duty to refrain from organizing or encouraging the organization of irregular forces
or armed bands, including mercenaries, for incursion into the territory of another
State.58 By arming and training Tamil militants for an insurgency in Sri Lanka, India
violated both the letter and spirit of 2625 and the U.N. charter. But as was discussed
earlier, 2625 itself states that peoples may seek ... and receive support... in their
.. .pursuit... of self-determination.... The paradox in 2625 suggests that either
side may argue its case when paraphrasing the language of 2625. The Sri Lankan
government could have argued the illegality of pre-1987 intervention because India
had encouraged the ... organization of irregular forces.... Likewise Tamils could
have argued under 2625 that they had the right to seek and receive support from India
for their self-determination struggle. Ironically, according to the language of 2625,
both sides would have been correct. Legality for Indias intervention to assist the
Tamils is found, however, in resolution 2621. 2621 states:
Member states should render all necessary moral and material
assistance to the peoples of colonial Territories in their struggle
to attain freedom and independence.. ,.59
As we have seen, resolution 3103 expands the scope of whom a struggle may
struggle against by including racist regimes. Although 2621 does not include racist
regimes in its language, widening the definition of 2621 to include racist regimes
does not seem outrageous because 3103 explicitly states that struggles against racist
regimes ... for the implementation of their right to self-determination and
independence is legitimate and in full accordance with the principles of international
The conflict inherent in 2625 and between 2625 and 2621 is obvious. The point to
be made is this: Irrespective of international law, India chose a path which it regarded
as providing the highest utility for itself. This is realism and rational actor theory
personified. India as a sovereign state chose to intervene and thereby legitimize the
Tamil national liberation struggle, 2625 and other international law instruments
By immersing itself into the Sri Lankan conflict, the nature of the conflict evolved
from a two party dynamic to a three party mixed conflict dynamic, the rules and
norms of which vary considerably.61 India followed what Anthony Arend and Robert
Beck call The Self- Determination Rule. This rule is summed up by two simple