Democracy may mean acceding to the rule of the majority, but democracy also means governance 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. The practice of democracy in Sri Lanka, within the confines of a unitary state, served to perpetuate the oppressive rule of a permanent Sinhala majority. It was a permanent Sinhala majority that, through a series of legislative and administrative acts ranging from disenfranchisement and standardization 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 people of Tamil Eelam. These legislative and administrative acts were reinforced from time to time with physical attacks on the Tamil people with the intent to terrorize and intimidate them into submission.
It was a course of conduct that eventually led 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 the 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 civilized country’. In the 1980s 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.
The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: “Whereas it is essential if man is not compelled as a last resort to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.” The rise of the armed struggle of the Tamil people constituted the Tamil rebellion against continuing Sinhala oppression over a period of several decades. The gross, consistent, and continuing violations of the human rights of the Tamil people have been well-documented by innumerable reports of human rights organizations, as well as independent observers of the Sri Lankan scene. Walter Schwarz commented in the Minority Rights Group Report on Tamils of Sri Lanka, 1983, “The makings of an embattled freedom movement now seem assembled: martyrs, prisoners, and a pitiful mass of refugees. Talk of ‘Biafra,’ which had sounded misplaced in 1975, seemed less unreal a few years later.
As this report goes to press in September 1983, the general outlook for human rights in Sri Lanka is not promising. The present conflict has transcended the special consideration of minority rights and has reached the point where the basic human rights of the Tamil community – the rights to life and property, freedom of speech and self-expression, and freedom from arbitrary arrest – have, in fact and in law, been subject to gross and continued violations. The two communities are now polarized, and continued repression, coupled with economic stagnation, can only produce stronger demands from the embattled minority, which, unless there is a change in direction by the central government, will result in a stronger Sinhalese backlash and the possibility of outright civil war.” David Selbourne remarked in July 1984: “The crimes committed by the Sri Lankan state against the Tamil minority – against its physical security, citizenship rights, and political representation – are of growing gravity.”
“Report after report by impartial bodies – by Amnesty International, by the International Commission of Jurists, by parliamentary delegates from the West, by journalists and scholars – have set out clearly the scale of growing degeneration of the political and physical well-being of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. Their cause represents the very essence of the cause of human rights and justice, and to deny it debases and reduces us all.”
“A Working Group chaired by Goran Backstrand of the Swedish Red Cross at the Second Consultation on Ethnic Violence, Development, and Human Rights, Netherlands, in February 1985, concluded: ‘There was a general consensus that within Sri Lanka today, the Tamils do not have the protection of the rule of law, that the Sri Lankan government presents itself as a democracy in crisis, and that neither the government nor its friends abroad appreciate the serious inroads on democracy which have been made by the legislative, administrative, and military measures which are being taken. The extreme measures which are currently being adopted by the government inevitably provoke extreme reactions from the other side… The normal life of the (Tamil) population of the North has been seriously affected. People either have great difficulty or find it completely impossible to continue with their employment, and there is a severe shortage of food and basic necessities. Many Tamils are daily fleeing across the Palk Straits to Southern India.'”
“The continuing colonization of Tamil areas with Sinhalese settlers is exacerbating the situation… and the country is on the brink of civil war.” Senator A. L. Missen, Chairman, Australian Parliamentary Group of Amnesty International, expressed his growing concern in March 1986: “Some 6,000 Tamils have been killed altogether in the last few years… These events are not accidental. It can be seen that they are the result of a deliberate policy on the part of the Sri Lankan government.
Democracy in Sri Lanka does not exist in any real sense. The democracy of Sri Lanka has been described in the following terms, which are a fair and accurate description: ‘The reluctance to hold general elections, the muzzling of the opposition press, the continued reliance on extraordinary powers unknown to a free democracy, arbitrary detention without access to lawyers or relations, torture of detainees on a systematic basis, the intimidation of the judiciary by the executive, the disenfranchisement of the opposition, an executive President who holds undated letters of resignation from members of the legislature, an elected President who publicly declares his lack of care for the lives or opinion of a section of his electorate, and the continued subjugation of the Tamil people by a permanent Sinhala majority, within the confines of a unitary constitutional frame, constitute the reality of ‘democracy’, Sri Lankan style.”
“The reports speak for themselves, and that which emerges is a chilling pattern of a forty-year genocide attack on the Tamil people intended to subjugate them within a unitary Sinhala Buddhist state. Karen Parker of the Non-Governmental Human Rights Organization, International Educational Development, put it succinctly at the 42nd Session of UN Sub-Commission on the Protection of Minorities.
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all persons, including members of minority groups, have the right to the full realization of their human rights and to an international order in which their rights can be realized. The Sri Lanka situation has shown that for the past forty years, the Sinhala-controlled government has been unwilling and unable to promote and protect the human rights of the Tamil population, and the Tamil population has accordingly lost all confidence in any present or future willingness or ability of the Sinhala majority to do so. Are people in this situation required to settle for less than their full rights? Can the international community impose on a people a forced marriage they no longer want and in which they can clearly demonstrate they have been abused?
“We consider that in the case of Sri Lanka, forty years is clearly enough for any group to wait for their human rights. The inhabitants of the Northeast of the island of Sri Lanka constitute a ‘people’ and are thereby entitled to the right of self-determination. Since it has been recognized that the exercise of this right is not designed to dominate others but rather to escape domination by others, the international community, through the General Assembly Resolutions on Friendly Relations Among States (Resolution 2625) and on Definition of Aggression (act 7) and 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva convention of 1949 (Act 1 C4), declared that as a last resort, armed struggle can be used as a method of exercising the right of self-determination.
“The Sri Lankan government’s use of force in denying the Tamil’s right to self-determination is in violation of Articles 1 (2), 1 (3), 2 (4), and 56 of the United Nations Charter. The Tamil people have been subjected to brutal and crude personal, psychological, and institutional violence by the Sri Lanka government and its agencies. The Sri Lanka Government has built up a massive 70,000 member armed force constituted exclusively of Sinhalese and allocated immense funds for its support. The Tamils have resorted to arms to defend themselves, and the war being waged by the Liberation Tigers is a defensive war.
Unlike the measures adopted by the Sri Lankan government, this struggle is not aimed at domination; instead, it serves to protect the sovereign identity of the Tamil people. The armed struggle of the Tamil people is both just and lawful because the rule of law for the Tamil people had ceased to exist, because the Government of Sri Lanka had become a racist government, and because the oppressed people of that racist government were compelled to resort to arms to defend themselves against that oppression. Based on reason and international law and coupled with the absence of any internal or external machinery to realize the Tamil right to self-determination, the Tamil resistance evolved from peaceful agitation to armed struggle. As Professor Reisman of the Yale Law School states, “insistence on non-violence and deference to all established in a system with many injustices can be tantamount to confirmation and reinforcement of these injustices. In some circumstances, violence may be the last appeal of a group for some measure of human dignity.” The international community’s recognition of a “People’s” right to defend themselves and to use force to secure their legitimate political objectives is reinforced by the contemporary political discourse.
The formation of armed forces by Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia and the European Community’s Peace plan for Yugoslavia’s current crisis are all proof of the above-mentioned proposition. The legitimacy of the armed conflict of the people of Tamil Eelam was afforded open international recognition when the combatants in the armed conflict participated in talks with a specially appointed Minister of the government of Sri Lanka at meetings convened by the Indian Government at Thimphu in 1985. It was a legitimacy which was reinforced in February 1987 by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights when it adopted a resolution on Sri Lanka in which the armed conflict was discussed in terms of humanitarian law.
Again, it was a legitimacy which the Indo-Sri Lankan Agreement signed by the Prime Minister of India and the President of Sri Lanka in July 1987 recognized when it described the Tamil militant movement as ‘combatants’ in an armed conflict. Finally, in 1989/90, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam engaged in direct talks with the government of Sri Lanka and were accorded recognition as combatants. The statement made on behalf of the joint Front of Tamil Liberation Organizations at the Thimphu Talks in 1985 serves to underline the just and lawful nature of the struggle of the Tamil people: “We are a liberation movement that was compelled to resort to the force of arms because all force of reason had failed to convince the successive Sri Lankan government in the past.
Further, under conditions of national oppression and the intensification of state terrorism and genocide against our people, the demand for a separate state became the only logical expression of the oppressed Tamil people. Our armed struggle is the manifestation of that logical expression.” The future of that lawful armed struggle clearly falls to be determined in the context of the security of the Tamil people and their right to self-determination, and these are matters for resolution across a negotiating table, not in a vacuum.