Is Sri Lanka Truly Sovereign?
4 February 2004
Sri Lanka is not a sovereign state. Firstly it does not enjoy
sovereignty over its external affairs. Secondly, it cannot exercise
its sovereignty over the full extent of territory over which it
claims a sovereign right. Thirdly, a section of the people in whom,
according to its constitution, this sovereignty is vested say they
did not accede their sovereignty to the Sri Lankan state when it was
reconstituted and promulgated as a sovereign republic in 1972 and
However, as we can see, it is perfectly possible to carry on like
the naked emperor, insisting that Sri Lanka is a sovereign state
A sovereign state should have the sovereign will and right to enter
into any relationship with any other sovereign state in its best
national interests. This is one of the fundamental aspects of a
sovereign state that defines it as one in the comity of nations.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (ready reference suite) defines sovereignty
also as "freedom from external control".
In a perceptive analysis of the 1987 Indo Lanka Accord written two
months after the signing of the treaty, Dr. Amal Jayawardene very
correctly and boldly observed that the legally binding exchange of
letters that accompanied the agreement gave "India a supervisory
role over Sri Lanka's foreign policy, at least in the areas covered
by the Letter" (The Island 14 October, 1987, quoted in John
Gooneratne's 'A Decade of Confrontation', the only sensible book on
Indo Lanka affairs published to date). Dr. Amal Jayawardene put it
quite mildly as its were. The Indo Lanka Treaty clipped Sri Lanka's
sovereign right to freely enter into military or intelligence
relationships with any external power other than India.
Hence all the military/intelligence relationships that Sri Lanka
enjoyed since the Indo Lanka Accord have been at India's pleasure.
It is India, and not Sri Lanka, that is legally entitled to draw the
line regarding Sri Lanka's external military/intelligence
When President Jayewardene signed the Indo Lanka Accord, Sri Lanka
lost its sovereignty over its internal affairs too. Article 2.16 (e)
of the treaty states, "The governments of India and Sri Lanka will
co-operate in ensuring the physical security and safety of all
communities inhabiting the northern and Eastern Provinces".
Dr. Amal Jayawardene has noted that, in this respect, the Indo Lanka
Accord circumscribes Sri Lanka's sovereignty more comprehensively
than what the Indo Bhutan Accord does to Bhutan's sovereignty.
Fools who have no clue as to the nature of international treaties
will, not doubt, continue to indulge in their ranting about Sri
Lanka's sovereignty; and in so doing erode it by alienating more of
its people from whom that sovereignty should flow voluntarily. Here
I shall not go into an undertaking that the Sri Lankan state appears
to have given India as the unwritten part of the treaty because it
is unwritten. (It continues to be honoured by Sri Lankan heads of
state much to the puzzlement and chagrin of Sinhala nationalists)
This was not the first time that Sinhala leaders bartered away their
nation's sovereignty without compunction to look after their selfish
Why did the Soviet Union consistently veto Ceylon's application for
membership in the United Nations as a sovereign state until 1955?
Every time Colombo made an application for membership, the Soviet
Union wanted to know 'how sovereign was Ceylon'. Why? Independent
Ceylon had handed over its sovereign right over all its "naval and
air bases and ports and military establishments and the use of
telecommunications facilities" to the United Kingdom in terms of a
defence treaty that D. S Senanayake had signed with Britain at
independence. It should be noted here that the treaty was first
proposed by D. S Senanayake in his discussions with the Colonial
Office in London in 1945. The treaty gave Britain a say over Sri
Lanka's external affairs too.
Soviet Union's taunt about Ceylon's sovereign status appears to have
had little effect on the acute Sinhala nationalist sensibilities of
J. R Jayewardene, which he set out to display so well in his
agitation against the Banda-Chelva Pact. In 1983 he wanted to
revive the defence treaty with Britain. He claimed the treaty was
Sri Lanka's leaders did not fight for their nation's independence.
They shed neither blood nor sweat to fight for their country's
freedom. This possibly may explain their attitude towards the value
and meaning of sovereignty and national honour.
Now let us look at the second aspect of a nation's sovereignty -
unchallenged and unqualified control over all parts of its
territory. There is no need for us to go over this in detail.
Today, the Sri Lankan state retains only a legal claim over that
part of its territory which is controlled by the LTTE in the
northeast. Kuranguppanchan (Maniarasan Kulam) was a clearly an
instance to check the Sri Lankan state's sovereign will to act on
that legal claim. This is not all. The Sri Lankan state has no
sovereign claim over one of its most valuable possessions -
Trincomalee. This island's territorial sovereignty is circumscribed
by the India Lanka Treaty, which, among other things, stipulates
that Sri Lanka cannot unilaterally decide what it wants to do with
its ports - particularly Trincomalee and its tank farm. And the main
aspect of the Letters of Exchange is that Sri Lanka has no sovereign
right to freely do whatever it may want to do on its sovereign
territory in terms of its national security interests. And finally
to the most important aspect of a nation's sovereignty - its people.
Article 3 of Sri Lanka's constitution states "sovereignty is in the
people and is inalienable". Now the basis of the Tamil demand for
self determination is based on the argument that the Tamil people of
the northeast never acceded their sovereignty to the independent Sri
Lankan state ever since it came into being. Thousands of very clever
counter arguments can be launched against this position. But they
would all be beside the point. All such counter arguments cannot do
away with the fact that this position has been consistently
articulated by politically important segments of Tamil society in
1972, 76' (Vaddukoddai), 77' (general election), in 1985 (Thimpu)
and 2003 (LTTE's ISGA proposal).
The best exposition of the Tamil stand on sovereignty is to be found
in the arguments of G. G Ponnambalam, S.J.V Chelvanayagam, M.
Thiruchelvan, S. Nadesan etc., in the Trial-at-Bar proceedings
against the TULF hierarchy.
To reiterate the point I made earlier - this is not at all about
arguments whether the position that the Tamils have every reason to
exercise their sovereignty independently of the Sri Lankan state is
right or wrong.
The point is that it is an indubitable fact that a segment of the
people from which also the Sri Lankan state derives its sovereignty
is consistently, and at least on the basis of one general
plebiscite, claiming that it did not accede its sovereignty in
forging the Sri Lankan state.
It is also a fact that a segment of people say it has sufficient
reasons such as the denial of opportunities in education and
employment, Prevention of Terrorism Act, mass evictions, pogroms,
massacres, economic embargoes etc., not to accede its sovereignty to
the Sri Lankan state because it perpetrated all of this
systematically against the Tamils.
Ultimately the erosion of Sri Lanka's sovereignty can be traced to
the desire to define this country's sovereignty in terms of Sinhala
Buddhism. I am not saying this is not possible. But it requires
genocide and assimilation of non-Sinhala Buddhists.
Anglo-Saxon protestant whites massacred and assimilated native
populations in North America and Australia to define the sovereignty
of the nations they forged in terms of their Caucasian/Christian
identity. This as we all know is not possible in Sri Lanka. In
attempting to define Sri Lanka's sovereignty purely in terms of a
Sinhala Buddhist identity through various non-consensual means,
Sinhala nationalists have bartered away the island's sovereignty as
we saw in July 1987 and as we see today.
Sinhala Buddhist nationalists should understand they are slashing
their nation's nose to spite its beautiful face.