"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
 
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Selected Writings by Nadesan Satyendra
- நடேசன் சத்தியேந்திரா

Thimpu Declaration: The Path of Reason

"Two nations may agree to live together by force of reason.
They cannot be compelled to live together by force of arms"

15 February 1987

[including Note on 17 August 2005  - 20 years after the collapse of the Thimpu Talks on 17 August 1985]

[see also The Thimpu Talks - July/August 1985 ]

Summary: "...a 'genuinely federal Constitution', will not come as a by-product of a political horse deal. It will come only when an honest and open answer is found to the preliminary question: who will federate with whom? Who are the two peoples who will federate to form a 'genuine' federal union? It was to this basic question that the Thimpu declaration addressed itself. Because it is this which goes to the root of the conflict in the island of Sri Lanka. All else is secondary....Two nations may agree to live together by force of reason. They cannot be compelled to live together by force of arms. It is the rejection of reason by successive Sinhala governments which also constitutes the rationale for the continued armed struggle of the Tamil people for an independent Tamil Eelam...The Thimpu declaration which represented the unanimous will of all six Tamil Liberation Organisations was not an exercise in rhetoric. Too many lives had been lost and too many lives were at stake to have permitted that particular luxury. The Thimpu declaration was founded on reason and time will testify to the validity of that reasoning. Because reason, even if it be denied, will continue to influence and direct and to give coherence and legitimacy to the aspirations of the Tamil people."

At Thimpu, in July 1985, all six Tamil Liberation Organisations, consisting of the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS), the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Peoples Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), and the Parliamentary Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), jointly and unanimously declared:

"It is our considered view that any meaningful solution to the Tamil national question must be based on the following four cardinal principles -

1. recognition of the Tamils of Ceylon as a nation

2. recognition of the existence of an identified homeland for the Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka

3. recognition of the right of self determination of the Tamil nation

4. recognition of the right to citizenship and the fundamental rights of all Tamils who look upon the island as their country.

"Different countries have fashioned different systems of governments to ensure these principles. We have demanded and struggled for an independent Tamil state as the answer to this problem arising out of the denial of these basic rights of our people... However, in view of our earnest desire for peace, we are prepared to give consideration to any set of proposals, in keeping with the above-mentioned principles, that the Sri Lankan government may place before us."

The Thimpu declaration continues to represent a watershed in the Tamil national liberation struggle because apart from anything else, it was the expression of the joint and unanimous will of all six Tamil Liberation Organisations engaged in the struggle and it therefore served to crystallize the political issues of that struggle.

Sinhala chauvinism's denial of Tamil nationalism

But, the negotiating process initiated at Thimpu floundered and continues to flounder because of the continued refusal of the Sri Lankan government to recognise the existence of the Tamil nation in the island of Sri Lanka. The stand of the Sri Lankan government was enunciated by Dr. H.W. Jayawardene, the leader of the Sri Lankan government delegation to the talks:

"...it is clear that a political settlement of the Tamil question cannot be made either on the basis of the claim to be a separate nation or nationality distinct from other racial groups that are citizens of Sri Lanka or on the basis of a claim to be heirs to a territorially demarcated area styled the 'traditional homelands of the Tamils' transcending the provincial boundaries of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, since both such claims are inconsistent with and contradictory to a united nation"

And, ten months later, in presenting the so called 'peace proposals' of the Sri Lankan government to the Political Parties Conference on the 25th June 1986, President Jayawardene reiterated that 'the proposals of the Sri Lankan government have to be examined within the framework of the principles to which the Sri Lankan government subscribes' and these included, not only 'the maintenance of the unity, integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka', but also 'the maintenance of the unitary character of the Sri Lankan constitution'.

and, pragmatic approach?

Recently, Lord Avebury, a member of the International Emergency Committee on Sri Lanka has been moved to comment:

"...I may be wrong in my interpretation, but it is not helpful for either side to lay down, in advance of negotiations, conditions which are absolute...If there is a genuine willingness to negotiate, the fairest solution would seem to be one that demands equal concessions, however that can be measured. On the other hand, there has been so much bombastic rhetoric about 'legitimate expectations' on the Tamil side, and so much bloodshed in the struggle for 'liberation', that some elements would find it emotionally impossible to accept anything less than unconditional surrender from the government..." (Lord Avebury: Keynote Speech of the International Alert USA Seminar on Sri Lanka, Los Angeles, 25th October 1986)

The view that it is not 'helpful for either side to lay down, in advance of negotiations, conditions which are absolute' and the further view that 'given the willingness to negotiate, the fairest solution would seem to be one that demands equal concessions' are views that do have a certain pragmatic appeal. It is a pragmatic approach which may also be described as the 'shopkeeper's approach' to the resolution of conflict - that which is fair is the bargain that is struck. But it may not always be easy to determine where pragmatism ends and the slippery path of expediency begins. The negotiating process may then descend into a political horse deal, which at best may serve the immediate self interest of some of the negotiators, but will be unrelated to the central issues of the conflict. Again, political horse deals quickly become unstuck.

A political negotiating process is concerned with securing the interests of large numbers of people and that which is fair and therefore acceptable to large numbers of people, cannot be determined without crystallizing, beforehand and with some care, the central matters that are in issue. Strange as it may seem to some, the Tamil Liberation Organisations took the view that an open discussion about the framework for the negotiating process would help, rather than thwart, the negotiating process.

Thimpu Declaration: rhetoric or path of reason?

Be that as it may, comments such as those made at the International Alert Seminar and the continued refusal of the Sri Lankan government to accept the framework suggested at Thimpu focuses attention on the need to examine the rationalities of the Thimpu declaration.

Did the Thimpu declaration represent bombastic rhetoric or did it seek to concretise the political reality which had moved both the Tamil guerrilla movement and the Sri Lankan government to 'peace talks'?

Did the Thimpu declaration prescribe 'absolutist' pre conditions to the negotiating process or did it set out a principled framework intended to advance the negotiating process?

Was the Thimpu declaration a reflection of an 'emotional' attitude which would not 'accept anything less than unconditional surrender from the Sri Lankan government' or,

on the contrary, did the declaration recognise that 'different countries have fashioned different systems of governments' to secure the principles set out in the declaration and did the declaration therefore seek to construct a rational basis for discussions about an acceptable political solution?

what does reason show?

Reason shows that a political resolution of the conflict between the Sinhala people and the Tamil people should, after all begin by recognising the existence of the Sinhala people as a people, and the Tamil people as a people. Otherwise we shall all be engaged in an exercise in cuckooland. And central to the Thimpu declaration was the claim for the recognition of the Tamils as a nation. And it was this which led the representatives of the Tamil Liberation Organisations to declare at the Thimpu Talks on the 17th of August 1985:

"...we say, very respectfully, please understand that we too are a people and please deal with us on that basis, or not at all. Please do not give us the niceties of legal interpretations. Please tell us straight: do you regard us as a people or not? We are here because we seek to engage you in the serious business of talking about the problems that have arisen between the Sinhala people and the Tamil people. And that is why, as a reasonable people, we say at the beginning, please tell us with whom do you say you are talking with?... And for our part, we declare here at Thimpu, without rancour and with patience, that we shall speak at Thimpu, or for that matter any where else, on behalf of the Tamil nation or not at all..." (Statement made by Nadesan Satyendra at Thimpu on behalf of the Tamil Liberation Organisations on the 17th of August 1985)

a nation is not a state

What, then is a nation? It is useful to begin by recognising with Professor Seton-Watson that the belief that every state is a nation or that all sovereign states are 'national' states has done much to obfuscate understanding of political realities:

"The belief that every state is a nation, or that all sovereign states are national states, has done much to obfuscate human understanding of political realities. A state is a legal and political organisation, with the power to require obedience and loyalty from its citizens. A nation is a community of people, whose members are bound together by a sense of solidarity, a common culture, a national consciousness..."(Professor Hugh Seton-Watson: Nations & States - Methuen, London 1977)

The continued assertion of the Sri Lankan government that the demand for the recognition of a 'Tamil nation was inconsistent with and contradictory to a united nation' is an attempt to obfuscate an understanding of political realities. It is an assertion which confuses by using the term 'nation' in two different senses at the same time. It is an assertion which prefers to cloud the reality that not 'every state is a nation' and that not 'all sovereign states are national states'. And it is an assertion which refused to face up to the question whether Sri Lanka today is a multi national state consisting of both the Sinhala nation and the Tamil nation.

the political force of Tamil nationalism

But, perhaps, more than matters of constitutional or international law (though, these are not without relevance and do have their place) that which must be confronted in a search for a political solution, is the political reality. What is the political force of Tamil nationalism today? Again, what does reason show?

Reason shows that the Tamil nation is a deep and horizontal comradeship which exists amongst the Tamil people - deep because it is rooted not only in their cultural identity but also in their suffering: horizontal because it prevails despite the inequalities amongst them. It is a stubborn togetherness born out of a process of differentiation and opposition. Distress has bound the Tamils of Ceylon together. Suffering is a great teacher. That, after all, was the lesson that was taught by Gautama, the Buddha.

And the suffering of the Tamil people, appropriately enough in Buddhist Sri Lanka has served to educate them about their identity - that it did not matter whether they were Jaffna Tamils, or Colombo Tamils, or Batticaloa Tamils or Trincomalee Tamils or Badulla Tamils or Indian Tamils - that it did not matter whether they were Hindu Tamils or Christian Tamils or Muslim Tamils - that it did not matter whether they were so called 'high caste' Tamils or so called 'low caste' Tamils - that it did not matter whether they were public servants, professionals, teachers, students or farmers, employees or employers, well educated or ill educated, qualified or not - that which did matter to the environment in which they lived was that they were Tamils.

And, it was the political force constituted by this togetherness which took the representatives of the Tamil people to Thimpu in July 1985. A nation is an idea - but it is more.

And they err who conceive the nation as a mere intellectual platform. On the other hand, they also err who see the force of nationalism as simply the thrust of a people to better their material conditions of existence. These latter fail to recognise that ideas too have a material force. And 'work without ideal is a false gospel'.

A nation is an amalgam of the 'ideal' with the 'material' and it is this interplay, evidenced in the cultural identity of a people, which gives nationalism its strength in the political arena - its power to influence and direct the conduct of millions. To fail to understand this is to fail to understand the well springs of human action. It is also to fail to understand that which has made possible the colossal sacrifices so willingly suffered by so many thousands of young Tamils during the past several years.

linked to the Tamil homeland

And, nations do not come into being in the stratosphere. It is land which constitutes the physical base of the life of a people and it is around land that the togetherness of the Tamils of Ceylon has grown. The homeland of the Tamils in the North and East of Ceylon did not come into existence overnight. The togetherness of the Tamils of Ceylon has grown, hand in hand, with the growth of their homelands in the North and East of Ceylon where they lived together, worked together, communicated with each other, founded their families, educated their children, and also sought refuge, from time to time, when subjected to physical attacks elsewhere in the island of Sri Lanka.

Without an identified homeland, the Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka would not have become a people with a separate culture and a separate language and without an identified homeland, the Tamils of Ceylon will cease to exist as a people in the future. And, these were the rational concerns which found expression in the second claim at Thimpu - the claim for the constitutional recognition of an identified homeland for the Tamils in the North and East of Ceylon - a claim which, after all, the 1978 Sri Lankan Constitution had itself, by implication, partially recognised when it made provision for the use of the Tamil language in the Northern and Eastern provinces.

the right of self determination

And, the third claim at Thimpu - the claim for the recognition of the right to self determination of the Tamil nation was intended to secure an open recognition of the equality of the parties to the negotiating process. The Tamil people do not deny the existence of the Sinhala nation in the island of Sri Lanka. The question is whether the Sinhala people are ready and willing to recognise the Tamils of Ceylon as a nation and to deal with them on that basis.

On the answer to that basic question, depends not only the political status of the negotiating parties, but also the nature and content of any political solution, and the political will of both the Tamil people and the Sinhala people to work for the implementation of that which may be agreed.

The concerns of the Tamil people for their 'physical security, employment and education' cannot be resolved by a negotiating process unless the Sinhala people recognised the Tamils as a people and the two people, together fashion a constitutional structure on the basis of such recognition. It will be idle to pretend that equity will be achieved through a negotiating process which does not itself commence on an equitable footing.

exaggerated Sinhala nationalism

Sufficient, perhaps, has been said to establish the rationalities of the Thimpu declaration. But, there are none so blind as those who refuse to see. And, the Sinhala political leadership refuses to see the existence of the Tamil nation. They refuse to see the existence of the homeland of the Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka. They refuse to acknowledge the right of the Tamil people to sit as equals with the Sinhala people and negotiate a political solution to the conflict between them. They continue to compete with each other to nurture an exaggerated Sinhala nationalism, which claims that it is the Sinhala majority who should rule.

which has sought refuge in the 'Constitution'

And, if patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, then, the Sri Lankan Constitution has today, become the first refuge of Sinhala chauvinism.

"...Under our Constitution...the powers of government inhere in all the People of Sri Lanka and this sovereignty is itself declared to be inalienable. A federal system which implies a divided sovereignty is therefore inconceivable in Sri Lanka..."

It is true that in a democracy, sovereignty is vested in the people and is inalienable. The people are sovereign and they rule. But people do not rule anyhow. They rule through the instrumentalities of a constitution. They exercise legislative power through an elected Parliament. They may exercise executive power through a directly elected President or through an indirectly elected Prime Minister and a Cabinet. They exercise judicial power through judges appointed under laws enacted by Parliament.

The circumstance that a people exercise power through a number of different instrumentalities does not have the result that their sovereignty is 'divided' or that their sovereignty is eroded. On the contrary, it is the checks and balances between the different instrumentalities which secures for a people their true sovereignty. And so too, the checks and balances in a federal system of government, secures for a people their true sovereignty.

A federal constitution does not somehow 'divide' the sovereignty of a people - on the contrary, it enhances their sovereignty, by helping them to exercise their power and their influence more effectively, and by helping them to cooperate and work with each other on an equitable basis. And in the end, a federal constitution, when enacted by a people, will itself be the expression of their sovereign will.

But, the Sri Lankan government would have the Tamil people and the world believe that the federal constitutions of the U.S.A., the U.S.S.R., India, Australia, Canada and Switzerland are all instances of a 'divided sovereignty' and, for that reason, 'inconceivable' in 'democratic' Sri Lanka.

and 'democracy' to Sri Lanka means rule by a permanent ethnic majority

To the Sri Lankan government, democracy means rule by a permanent ethnic majority within the confines of an unitary state.

"The Tamil United Liberation Front cannot be unaware of the long standing opposition of the two major political parties of the Sinhala people, who represent nearly 74% of the population, to a federal form of government.."(Statement of Observations dated the 30th January 1986 by the government of Sri Lanka on the Proposals of the Parliamentary Tamil United Liberation Front)

Whilst democracy may mean acceding to the rule of the majority, democracy also means government by discussion and persuasion.

It is the belief that the minority of today may become the majority of tomorrow that ensures the stability of a functioning democracy.

But in the island of Sri Lanka, where a unitary state, has sought to govern a territory inhabited by two peoples, the arithmetic of democracy has resulted in the continued and permanent dominance of one people by another.

The reality of democracy in Sri Lanka is that no Tamil has ever been be elected to a predominantly Sinhala electorate and no Sinhalese has ever been elected to a predominantly Tamil electorate. And so the practise of democracy within the confines of a unitary state has inevitably resulted in rule by a permanent ethnic majority.

It was a permanent ethnic majority which through a series of legislative and administrative acts, ranging from disenfranchisement, and standardisation of University admissions, to discriminatory language and employment policies, and state sponsored colonisation of the homelands of the Tamil people, sought to establish its hegemony over the Tamils of Ceylon. These legislative and administrative acts were reinforced from time to time with physical attacks on the Tamils of Ceylon with intent to terrorise and intimidate them into submission. It was a course of conduct which led eventually to the rise of Tamil militancy in the mid 1970s with, initially, sporadic acts of violence.

The militancy was met with wide ranging retaliatory attacks on increasingly large sections of the Tamil people with intent, once again to subjugate them. In the late 1970s large numbers of Tamil youths were detained without trial and tortured under emergency regulations and later under the Prevention of Terrorism Act which has been described by the International Commission of Jurists as a 'blot on the statute book of any civilised country'.

In 1980 and thereafter, there were random killings of Tamils by the state security forces and Tamil hostages were taken by the state when 'suspects' were not found. Eventually, in the eyes of the Sri Lankan state all Tamils were prima facie 'terrorist' suspects. And in 1983, the Tamils were deprived of the effective use of their vote by an amendment to the Constitution which the International Commission of Jurists has declared to be a violation of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and which has rendered vacant the Parliamentary seats of the elected representatives of the Tamil people.

It is to this democracy that the Sri Lankan government refers, when it invites the attention of the Tamil United Liberation Front to the views of 'the two major political parties of the Sinhala people, who represent nearly 74% of the population' and who have expressed a 'long-standing opposition' 'to a federal form government'. And it this 'democracy' which the Sri Lankan government seeks to preserve - by armed force, if necessary.

a Sinhala chauvinism which denies the existence of the Sinhala nation!

The Thimpu declaration sought to question openly and directly the claims of an exaggerated Sinhala nationalism - a Sinhala chauvinism which has sought to feed on the latent fear of the Sinhala people of the Tamils of neighbouring Tamil Nadu and which has sought to encourage the belief that a 'Sinhala identity' can be secured only at the expense of erasing the identity of the Tamils as a 'people' in the island of Sri Lanka if not now, at least at some future date - a Sinhala chauvinism which has sought to subjugate the Tamils of Ceylon by attempting to 'assimilate' and 'integrate' the Tamil people into a so called 'Sri Lankan nationality' within the confines of an unitary state whose official language is Sinhala, whose official religion is Buddhism and whose official name was itself changed to the Sinhala 'Sri Lanka' without the consent of the Tamil people.

It is a Sinhala chauvinism which in pursuance of its objectives, has logically, sought to deny the existence of the Tamil nation in the island of Sri Lanka and which, in addition, seeks to masquerade as a 'Sri Lankan nationalism' by denying the existence of the Sinhala nation as well. And, nothing, exemplifies the intellectual dishonesty of the Sinhala political leadership more, than its continued denial of the existence of its own constituency namely, the Sinhala nation in Sri Lanka.

the basic question

In this context the comments of Lord Avebury in his key note speech at the International Alert seminar may not be irrelevant:

"...Would the Sri Lankan government be prepared to go as far as a genuinely federal Constitution, and would the majority of the Tamil community settle for something less than total independence? The outsider might be attracted to the idea, on the grounds that it would lie somewhere in between the positions taken up by the parties." (Lord Avebury: Keynote Speech of the International Alert USA Seminar on Sri Lanka, Los Angeles, 25th October 1986)

But, though it may be true that an 'outsider' might be attracted to the idea of a genuinely federal Constitution because it would hopefully lie 'somewhere in between the positions taken up by the parties', a 'genuinely federal Constitution', will not come as a by-product of a political horse deal.

It will come only when an honest and open answer is found to the preliminary question: who will federate with whom? Who are the two peoples who will federate to form a 'genuine' federal union?

It was to this basic question that the Thimpu declaration addressed itself. Because it is this which goes to the root of the conflict in the island of Sri Lanka. All else is secondary. It is to this question that agencies such as the International Emergency Committee on Sri Lanka may also usefully address their minds. Hopefully, they will also attend to the comments of Professor Leo Kruper in 1984 - comments which have today, assumed an urgency and an immediacy:

"...genocide continues to be an odious scourge on mankind... there are also at the present time many immediate issues related to genocide which call for the most urgent action... (such as) the communal massacres in Sri Lanka...some of these genocidal massacres arise out of struggles for greater autonomy, and might be regulated by recognition of the right of self determination..

...there is a great need for delegations of member states with a strong commitment to human rights, and for non governmental organisations with consultative status, to continue their efforts to recall the UN to its responsibilities for international protection against genocide and consistent violations of human rights. These efforts would include. attempts to develop norms for humanitarian intervention, for the exercise of the right of self determination..."(Minority Rights Group Report: International Action Against Genocide)

It is not enough to continue to report, ad nauseam, on the 'gross and consistent violations' of human rights in Sri Lanka without at the same time openly recognising that a threatened genocidal situation has arisen out of a struggle for greater autonomy.

Informed liberal opinion which is not content with 'bombastic rhetoric' should, perhaps, also see the need to act on the reports of Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, the Lawasia Human Rights Standing Committee, the International Human Rights Law Group, and the United Kingdom Parliamentary Human Rights Group, on the 'gross and consistent violations of human rights' in Sri Lanka and to recognise the underlying reasons for these violations. A reluctance to be seen as espousing the division of a sovereign state should not lead to a refusal to recognise that Sri Lanka today is a multinational state.

Two nations may agree to live together by force of reason. They cannot be compelled to live together by force of arms. It is the rejection of reason by successive Sinhala governments which also constitutes the rationale for the continued armed struggle of the Tamil people for an independent Tamil Eelam.

The Thimpu declaration which represented the unanimous will of all six Tamil Liberation Organisations was not an exercise in rhetoric. Too many lives had been lost and too many lives were at stake to have permitted that particular luxury.

The Thimpu declaration was founded on reason and time will testify to the validity of that reasoning. Because reason, even if it be denied, will continue to influence and direct and to give coherence and legitimacy to the aspirations of the Tamil people.

Time will show that Tamil nationalism will not be easily snuffed out. It will not quietly and obediently go away and disappear from the political scene. Faced with the continued intransigence of the Sinhala political leadership, it will inevitably seek broader channels for expressing itself.

In the end, it will be around reason that peace will come - not only for the Tamils and Sinhalese of Ceylon, not only for the peoples of the Indian region but also for people, everywhere - and, in an increasingly small world it will be increasingly difficult to separate the so called 'insiders' from the so called 'outsiders'. The words of Lila Watson come to mind: "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time... But, if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."


Note - 17 August 2005  - 20 years after the collapse of the Thimpu Talks on 17 August 1985:

Today, 18 years after this article was written and 20 years after the Thimpu Talks in 1985,  Sri Lanka President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her alliance partner, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) continue to regard genuine  'federalism' as the unmentionable F word.  The stand of the current Sinhala political leadership is no different from that which was enunciated by Dr. H.W. Jayawardene, the leader of the Sri Lankan government delegation to Thimpu::

"...it is clear that a political settlement of the Tamil question cannot be made either on the basis of the claim to be a separate nation or nationality distinct from other racial groups that are citizens of Sri Lanka or on the basis of a claim to be heirs to a territorially demarcated area styled the 'traditional homelands of the Tamils' transcending the provincial boundaries of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, since both such claims are inconsistent with and contradictory to a united nation"

In the years since Thimpu, thousands of Tamils have died for no crime other than that of resisting Sinhala occupation of their homeland. Many have been tortured and raped for no reason other than that they were Tamils. Thousands have simply disappeared and many thousands more have been rendered homeless. We as a people have suffered and each Tamil family, without exception, will have their own particular experience of that suffering - to a lesser or greater degree. It is a pain and suffering that has  served to consolidate Tamil togetherness. It is a pain and suffering that has strengthened the will of a people to resist the occupation of their homeland by an alien  Sinhala army. And, it is a strength which prompts them to continue to say with patience and without rancour, that 'we, too, are a people' and that two nations may agree to live together by force of reason but they cannot be compelled to live together by force of arms.

The Thimpu declaration was founded on reason. After 20 long years, it continues to remain the path of reason - and therefore, the path to peace. Those who reject it, reject both reason - and  peace.

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