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Selected Writings by Nadesan Satyendra
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Sathyam Commentary
24 March 2001

The Singer Error

[see also Sri Lanka-Tamil Eelam: Getting to Yes]

"The struggle for Tamil Eelam is about giving effect to the will of the Tamil people expressed by the mandate that they had given the Tamil United Liberation Front in 1977.  It is also about reversion of sovereignty. It is about the democratic right of the people of Tamil Eelam to govern themselves in their homeland - nothing less and nothing more.  (It)  is not about securing benevolent Sinhala rule....The struggle for Tamil Eelam is not about 'very moderate devolution' or 'modest devolution' or 'significant devolution'. It is not about devolving power from the higher to the lower. It is not about devolution. Period. It is about freedom from alien Sinhala rule. At the same time, the struggle for Tamil Eelam is also about how two free peoples may associate with each other in equality, in freedom and in peace..."


In 1992,  Professor Marshall Singer presented a paper at the 44th Annual Meeting for Asian Studies, at Colombo titled  'Alternative Solutions to the Tamil, Sinhalese Ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka'.  It was published in the Sinhala owned Sri Lanka Sunday Island on 26 July 1992. He concluded his paper by saying with some detachment:

"The point of this paper has been to review all of the theoretical alternatives and then to dismiss those which will remain only in the realm of theory. If the combatants want a solution they will have to abandon theory and deal with reality. The sooner they do that the sooner there will be a solution."

Nine years later, the conflict in the island of Sri Lanka continues - and the pain and suffering of a people who asserted their democratic right to govern themselves continues. And those of us who are Tamils, may find it difficult to summon the same detachment that Professor Singer displayed at Colombo in 1992. For many Tamils, the words of the Joint Secretary General of the Tamil United Liberation Front in July 1976, may continue to have the same resonance as they did a quarter of a century ago:

"...The resolution for a separate, free secular sovereign socialist state of Tamil Eelam was adopted at the delegates conference of the Tamil United Liberation Front in the course of the first National Convention held at Vaddukoddai on 14th and 15th of May 1976. This resolution was endorsed at a public meeting attended by more than 50,000 people.  Therefore the demand for a separate Tamil State is not that of a single political party but that of the Tamil United Liberation Front which is as much - if not more - representative of the Tamil people of Ceylon as your Government is of the Sinhala people. We wish  to state further that we are prepared to face any known method of gauging public opinion on this matter and accept their verdict. If this test is to be any use you  must be prepared to accept the verdict. It is also reported that you described the campaign launched by the TULF as anti social and subversive. All colonial masters have described freedom movements in this way. But history's verdict has always been different..."

That Professor Singer should regard the expression of the will of the Tamil people in 1977, as somewhat theoretical is understandable, because he makes plain that by 'reality' he refers to the political and military balance of power between the Tamil and Sinhala people. He says:

"... The problem for the Tamils is that they are not in any position either militarily or politically to impose a solution to their liking... I submit, given the fact that they are so splintered both politically and militarily, they would be lucky if they could get the Sinhalese to agree to some very meaningful devolution of power within the framework of the Provincial Councils..."

It was from this real politick vantage point, that Professor Singer was at pains to detail, the "theoretical options" as he saw them in 1992, so that the "combatants may abandon theory and deal with reality". He says:

"Whatever alternative is finally agreed upon to end the fighting in Sri Lanka, there is no question but that it will include devolution of some political power to some Tamil region/s. The questions are: How much political power, and to which region or regions?... One can envision thinking about devolution as points along a continuum, depending on how much power is actually transferred to a governmental unit at a level lower than the central government...At one end would be a unitary state with virtually no local autonomy, except perhaps for garbage collection and the like. At the other extreme end of the continuum would be a completely independent Tamil Eelam, with no ties whatever between it and what was left of Sri Lanka. In between range a virtual endless variety of options..."

And, then Professor Singer proceeded to set out a figurative representation of "some of the possible points along the continuum that have been tried in various places around the world":

- the box -

Totally
Independent
Commonwealth
of Independent
 States
Federation
like
Canada
Federation
like US
  Significant
Devolution
to Provincial
Councils
  Regional
Development
Councils
Complete
Unitary
State









British
Commonwealth
of Nations
Confederation
like
Switzerland
Federation
like India
Modest
Devolution
to Provincial
Councils
Very moderate
Devolution
like UK
 

But, herein lies the Singer Error. The error was to place 'totally independent' and 'complete unitary state' at the two ends of the continuum, with associations of independent states, such as the British Commonwealth and the European Union, somewhere in between

For one thing,  no state is 'totally' independent. Even the sole remaining super power, the USA is constrained by treaty obligations and, for instance, by NATO and NAFTA. We live in an inter-dependent world. In the memorable phrase of a former UK Foreign Secretary, sovereignty is not virginity. 

For another thing, associations such as the British Commonwealth of Nations and the European Union (and for that matter NATO) are associations of independent states. Inter-dependence comes after or with independence from alien rule, not before. Professor Singer was wrong to place such associations of states to the right of 'independent" states in his figurative continuum. Such associations do not represent a stage before independence and, therefore, they rightly belong to the left of "independent" states in the Singer continuum.  A figurative representation more in accord with reality would have been:

- outside the box -

- the box -

Commonwealth of Independent States
European Union
(Totally)
Independent
Federation
like
Canada
Federation
like US
  Significant
Devolution
to Provincial
Councils
  Regional
Development
Councils
Complete
Unitary
State









British
Commonwealth
of Nations
Confederation
like
Switzerland
Federation
like India
Modest
Devolution
to Provincial
Councils
Very moderate
Devolution
like UK
 

The Singer Error was perpetuated at the Christian Michelsen Institute Conference, sponsored by the Norwegian Government in 1996. A document prepared by the sponsors with the assistance of Bendigt Olsen, affiliated with the Michelsen Institute declared:

"Given the separatist nature of the original conflict, full recognition of the LTTE as representing the "Tamil nation" is not the issue. If that were accorded as a procedural issue in the negotiations, substantive negotiations would not be necessary since LTTE would have obtained its principal aim..."

Statements such as these obfuscate the central questions about the conflict and about  the negotiating process.

The struggle for Tamil Eelam is about giving effect to the will of the Tamil people expressed by the mandate that they had given the Tamil United Liberation Front in 1977.  It is also about reversion of sovereignty. It is about the democratic right of the people of Tamil Eelam to govern themselves in their homeland - nothing less and nothing more.  

The struggle for Tamil Eelam is not about securing benevolent Sinhala rule. After all, the British too offered to rule fairly and justly (and even benevolently) but this did not prevent those on whom the British sought to impose their alien rule, struggling for freedom. 

The struggle for Tamil Eelam is not about 'very moderate devolution' or 'modest devolution' or 'significant devolution'. It is not about devolving power from the higher to the lower. It is not about devolution. Period. It is about freedom from alien Sinhala rule. At the same time, the struggle for Tamil Eelam is also about how two free peoples may associate with each other in equality, in freedom and in peace. 

A meaningful negotiating process will need to address the question of working out a legal framework for two free and independent peoples to co-exist - a legal framework where they may pool their sovereignty in certain agreed areas, so that they may co-exist in peace. 

The demand for Tamil Eelam is not negotiable. But an independent Tamil Eelam will negotiate. And there will be everything to negotiate about. A meaningful negotiating process will  need  to telescope two stages in the Singer continuum - independence and beyond independence. Yes, beyond independence

Therefore, the question whether  the parties to the conflict enter the negotiations on an equal footing is not a procedural question. It has everything to do with the substantive matters in issue. It will be idle to pretend that equity will be achieved through a negotiating process which does not itself commence on an equitable footing. 

Conceding equality to the negotiating parties, does not render negotiations on substantive matters unnecessary, and to suggest that it does, is to display the simple mindedness of the naive or the trickery of the knave. 

What ever else the Thimpu Talks failed to achieve, it did recognise the equality of the parties to the conflict. At Thimpu, Sri Lanka was represented by a specially appointed Minister and the parties sat across the table facing each other.  As the Vietnam negotiations about table arrangements in Paris showed, form and content do go together.  

The questions that may arise during a negotiating process may (though, not necessarily)  include some of the matters to which Professor Singer alludes:

Is (Tamil Eelam) going to have its own police force and/or army? 
Will (Tamil Eelam) have its own court system? 
Who will decide questions of land and land settlement? 
Will (Tamil Eelam) have commercial representation abroad? 
Will it have diplomatic representation? 
Will it have a separate currency? 
Will it be tied economically in some way to (Sri Lanka)?

But to suggest that the negotiating process is about reaching a compromise somewhere between a 'unitary state' and 'independence' is to perpetuate the Singer error. Agreements that are not principle centered have a way of unraveling - sooner rather than later. Here, the words of US Congressman Brad Sherman in his letter to the US Secretary of State on 1 September 2000 are helpful: 

"....The United States has an opportunity to make Sri Lanka a model and help it to evolve, by negotiating, two autonomous democratic political structures within a system acceptable to both parties, where ethnic communities can coexist peacefully on the Island ... in the absence of a negotiated settlement, the Tamil people could determine whether they want a confederation or a separate state as endorsed by the Tamil people in the last democratic elections held in 1977 in the north and east of Sri Lanka...." 

And so, too, are the words of Velupillai Pirabaharan which provided the theme for the IFT Conference "Towards a Just Peace" in London in 1992:

"It is the Sri Lankan government which has failed to learn the lessons from the emergence of the struggles for self determination in several parts of the globe and the innovative structural changes that have taken place."

Professor Singer was right to make plain that by 'reality' he was referring to the balance of political and military power between the Tamil and Sinhala people. But he may be on less sure ground when he suggests that options unrelated to that 'reality' are 'theoretical' and should, therefore, be abandoned.  'Reality' does not lie in concrete material conditions alone. Ideas too have material force. Theory is  not without power to influence, and 'reality' lies in the dynamic interplay between the ideal and the material. There may be a need to think out of the box - a box which some would prefer to confine us in. 


  "...Sometimes, an important factor in changing the course of an international negotiation may be the introduction of a creative perspective, a new understanding of what may have seemed to be intractable conflict. Such a fresh idea will often provide the kernel of a new question that can be asked of someone who, up until now, has been saying 'no'... (Roger Fisher from Harvard Law School, Andrea Kupfer Schneider from Marquette Law School, Elizabeth Borgwardt from Stanford Center on Conflict and Negotiation and Brian Ganson in Coping with International Conflict, 1997)

 

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