The Sri Lankan National Question and the People’s Right to Self-Determination



Post-war Sri Lanka has taken new directions in its political form with the LTTE militarily defeated and the liberation struggle of the Tamils facing a major setback. Against this backdrop, triumphalism of the Sinhala majoritarian chauvinism in its different forms is placing new constraints on the resolution of the Sri Lankan national question. Its impact has been almost instant.

The latest line of the NGOs and ‘civil society spokespersons’ is the idea of “non-devolutionary constitutional reform”. Newly coined terms are used to persuade the government that it could introduce constitutional reforms with little consideration for the rights and aspirations of the people. On the other hand the Tamil nationalists among the diaspora remain stuck to the mythical notion of Vaddukoddai resolution and claiming that separate state Tamil Eelam is the solution for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Both approaches contain their fair share of vested interests.

Although the thirty-year civil war is over, the causes of the conflict still remain to be addressed. The national question, remains the main contradiction in Sri Lanka, and unresolved. Chauvinistic oppression and denial of the basic rights of the minorities remain strong, the oppression being two-fold, political and military. The reluctance of the government to propose a political solution has serous long-term implications.

While a just solution to the national question should be based on ensuring the right to self determination of all the nationalities in Sri Lanka, the term ‘right to self determination’ itself is being interpreted by different political actors, each in a way to suit its own agenda. Thus there is a need to understand the concept of the right to self determination and examine its role in finding a solution to the Sri Lankan national question.

Right to self determination

The concept of the right to self-determination has its origins in the Russian revolution. The founding of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922 brought together more than 120 distinct peoples, each with its own language and culture, who had been oppressed by the fallen Russian Czarist Empire. This great achievement was made possible by the 1917 October Revolution. Elimination of national oppression and arriving at a correct position on what was then known as “the national question” would not have been possible without a profound struggle.

Marx’s analysis of the Irish question was a pioneering contribution to the understanding of self-determination for oppressed nations. Marx, who initially doubted the ability of the Irish nation to achieve independence on its own or even the need for it, expected that the Irish nation and workers would be liberated when the English working class overthrew the English bourgeoisie. His view was based on the idea that the English workers living in an advanced capitalist country were best placed to overthrow capitalism in the colonizing country of Britain. By the late 1860s, on recognising the virulent racism and chauvinism among the English workers themselves against the Irish people, he supported the right to independence of the Irish nation as the best means for the Irish workers to fight capitalism. He urged the English workers to stand up for Irish independence.

Marx further argued that an English workers’ party, representing workers of an oppressor nation, was duty bound to support an oppressed nation’s independence. This attitude became a central aspect of Lenin’s stand on the national question in relation to oppressed nations. Lenin was later to write: “The policy of Marx and Engels on the Irish question serves as a splendid example of the attitude the proletariat of the oppressor nations should adopt towards national movements, an example which has lost none of its immense practical importance”. Lenin, in upholding the Marxist approach, had to struggle repeatedly against other socialists who were opposed in principle to the right to national self-determination.

Lenin explained the right to self determination thus: “The right of nations to self-determination means only the right to independence in a political sense, the right to free, political secession from the oppressing nation. Concretely, this political, democratic demand implies complete freedom to carry on agitation in favour of secession, and freedom to settle the question of secession by means of a referendum of the nation that desires to secede. Consequently, this demand is by no means identical with the demand for secession, for partition, for the formation of small states. It is merely the logical expression of the struggle against national oppression in every form. The more closely the democratic system of state approximates to complete freedom of secession, the rarer and weaker will the striving for secession be in practice; for the advantages of large states, both from the point of view of economic progress and from the point of view of the interests of the masses, are beyond doubt, and these advantages increase with the growth of capitalism. The recognition of self-determination is not the same as making federation a principle. One may be a determined opponent of this principle and a partisan of democratic centralism and yet prefer federation to national inequality as the only path towards complete democratic centralism”.

It was after Lenin explained and defined the right to self determination that others, notably Woodrow Wilson, defined the right to self determination as the right of peoples to govern themselves. Right to self determination implies that no one can legitimately govern a people without their consent. Wilson promulgated the right to self-determination in his “Fourteen Points” speech. The fundamental difference between Wilson and Lenin was that the latter accepted the right to secede, if it becomes impossible to stay together so that self determination meant the right to secede but not necessarily the act of secession. Lenin illustrated this with the example of the right to divorce, which does not mean that every marriage should be dissolved but ensures that every person gets into the contract of marriage while reserving one’s right to divorce. Without the right to divorce, marriage does not guarantee the survival of marriage. The right to separate makes the relationship more equal and stable than without. Lenin thus argued that by giving the right to secession the nations or nationalities in a union explore possibilities to coexist.

In the later years, the right to self determination acquired political as well as legal meanings, with the political principle having a wider scope than the legal. Article 1 (2) of the United Nations Charter, drawn up in 1945, stipulates that the UN is to “develop a friendly relationship among nations based on respect of the principles of equal rights and self-determination of peoples and to take other measures to strengthen universal peace”. Further, the principles of self-determination were embedded in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); and in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) of the 1966. These covenants affirmed self-determination as a “right of peoples” and guaranteed it by treaty laws. The impact of these UN ratifications of the right to self determination were more political than legal; and for political reasons the right to self determination is being interpreted and explained in different ways.

Right to self determination in Sri Lanka

The Marxist Leninist position on the national question in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, has been unambiguous. It has historically identified the development of chauvinism and its development into national oppression, and recognised the development of the national contradiction into the main contradiction in Sri Lanka. Marxist Leninists have always maintained that ensuring the right to self determination of all nationalities in Sri Lanka should be the basis for the solution to the national question. Any proposal for a solution undermining the right to self determination of the nationalities in Sri Lanka is of dubious value.

The class and class interests that constitute the essence of the national question in Sri Lanka are not readily visible. Thus, limiting one’s search for solutions to the existing political framework, the executive powers of parliament within it, and to legislation will not permit one to appreciate the national and class aspects of the national question or the need to recognise the right of the nationalities in Sri Lanka to self determination. Hence claims of finding a solution within the existing framework will fail to address the root causes of the conflict and the issues involved. It has to be recognised that during the last thirty years, the contradictions among nationalities which constitute the main contradiction have grown and need to be addressed in a way that satisfies all the communities. Thus, when the government or the spokespersons for the “civil society” talk of non-devolutionary reforms, they implicitly declare that they are unwilling to accept the people’s rights as the cornerstone of the solution.

The Marxist Leninist position, to be valid, should look closely at the development of the national question, which has entered a phase where national oppression involves local and foreign elements. When a nation, a nationality or a community is oppressed as a social group, inevitably its struggle against oppression will be based on its identity. Marxist Leninists hold that to deny the right to such struggle is to support social oppression. It is on this basis that they have supported anti-colonial liberation struggles as well as liberation struggles of oppressed nationalities and social groups.

Tamil nationalism in all its forms and identities is a product of history. The evolution of Tamil identity into a Tamil national identity was due to various social, economic and historical factors. Tamil national identity itself has kept changing, and its form today is markedly different from the one that preceded it. In the 1970s Tamil nationalist leaders propagated the notion of a “separate state of Tamil Eelam” and passed the Vaddukoddai resolution in 1976 for opportunistic parliamentary political reasons. The solution for the problems faced by the Tamils cannot be based on that resolution. To be fair, any solution put forwarded on behalf of the Tamils should duly recognise the rights of the other minorities, especially the Muslims and Hill Country Tamils. But the Vaddukoddai Resolution calling for a separate state of Tamil Eelam failed to address the issues of the Muslims and Hill Country Tamils. Notably, until recently, Tamil nationalist parties have been reluctant to seek solutions based on ensuring the right to self determination for all the nationalities.

The concept of the right to self determination is not a product of bourgeois democracy but of the revolutionary ideology of the working class. The national question in the post-colonial era qualitatively differs from that in the colonial era; and self determination needs to be seen in a broader perspective than at the dawn of the 20th Century when the question mainly concerned an oppressor nation and an oppressed nation. One should also take a historical view of how imperialism has used session to advance its hegemonic interests. Tamil nationalists calling for secession, based merely on the right to self-determination, have their interests tied up with the imperialist agenda. While Marxist Leninists accept the right to secede, they do not see secession as a panacea for national conflicts. They have, in particular, warned against the prospect of imperialists using secession to serve their interests, the recent example being Kosovo. Thus seeking secession as solution for the Sri Lankan national question is not likely to be in the interest of any nationality.

The need of the moment is to ensure the right of all the nationalities in Sri Lanka to self determination. Sections of the Tamil Diaspora and Tamil media propagate the view that the right to self determination is merely a right to secession. This is misleading and harmful. The right to self determination is much more than the right to secession. Tamil nationalists as well as Sinhala chauvinists continue to mislead the masses on the principle of right to self determination. Meanwhile, some Tamil parliamentary politicians talk about “internal self determination” as a solution to the national question. This once again is an effort to dismantle the concept of self determination and in the process reject the right of the nationalities in Sri Lanka to self determination.

At this point it is important to reiterate the stand of the Marxist Leninists on secession. The use of secession as an imperialist tool does not make it right to oppose the right to secession. The right to secession is an integral part of the right to self determination and not a licence to secede at will. If at all, it is a proven way to avert secession and conflicts between nationalities. The vested interests of Sinhala chauvinism and Tamil narrow nationalism ensured that they always undermined people’s struggles for social justice. Their conduct in the past and present merely confirms their aim to retain their political power by dividing people and denying the rights of the nationalists.


The right to self-determination cannot be applied blindly or be imposed on a nationality or an ethnic group. A nationality struggles for its right to self-determination or for secession when its identity or its very survival is threatened. Struggles of oppressed nationalities are complex and continuously evolving, with no two struggles alike. In several instances, including Sri Lanka, issues have been made more complex by foreign intervention driven by hegemonic intentions. The situation in Sri Lanka is worrying, with rights of the nationalities under great threat, and upholding the rights of the minorities has become a momentous task. It is time for the progressive forces to unite and fight for the right to self determination of all nationalities, to ensure a just solution to the Sri Lankan national question.

Courtesy: New Democracy 35 – Theoretical Organ of New Democratic Party (Sri Lanka)


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