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The Legitimacy Of The Armed Struggle Of

The Tamil People Essay, Research Paper

Democracy may mean acceding to the rule of the majority,

but democracy also means governments 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


It was a permanent Sinhala 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,

sough to establish its hegemony over people of Tamil Eelam.

These legislative and administrative acts were reinforced from

time to time with physical attacks on the Tamil people with intent

to terrorise and intimidate them into submission. It was a course

of conduct which led eventually to 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

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


“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 a 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

organisations as well as of 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

mow polarised 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


“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 colonisation of Tamil areas

with Sinhalese settlers is exacerbating the

situation… and the country is on the brink of civil


Senator A.L.Missen, Chairman, Australian Parliamentary Group

of Amnesty International, expressed his growing concern in

March 1986:

“Some 6000 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, 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 an 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 an unitary Sinhala

Buddhist state.

Karen Parker of the Non Governmental Human Rights

Organisation, International Educational Development put it

succinctly at the 42nd Sessions 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 realisation of their

human rights and to an international order in which

their rights can be realised.

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, 40 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 recognised 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 governments 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 realise the Tamil

right to self determination, the Tamils 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 the Ukraine,

Moldavia; 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 Right 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,

recognised 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


The statement made on behalf of the joint Front of Tamil

Liberation Organisations at the Thimphu Talks in 1985 serves to

underline the just and lawful nature of the struggle of the Tamil


“We are a liberation movement which 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

become 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 vacuum.