...the Tamils of Ceylon by virtue of their great language, their religions, their separate culture and heritage, their history of independent existence as a separate state over a distinct territory for several centuries ... and above all by their will to exist as a separate entity ruling themselves in their own territory, are a nation distinct and apart from the Sinhalese.
from the ‘Vaddukoddai Resolution’ of the first National Convention of the Tamil United Liberation Front, 14 May 1976
The longest struggle for self-determination in post-independence Sri Lanka is that of the Ceylon Tamils. It began in earnest in the mid-1950s as a response to discriminatory language policy and was fuelled by further discrimination in access to state employment and higher education. Between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s, the Ceylon Tamil national movement sought self-determination within the framework of the existing state. The principal objective was to establish a federal government structure through which the Ceylon Tamil nation could defend its rights in a power-sharing arrangement with the Sinhalese.
At this stage, the Ceylon Tamil national movement focused on non-violent resistance and launched a series of satyagrahas (peaceful protests) in the Gandhian tradition. The coalition government (1960-1965), led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), struck the first violent blow against the Tamil national movement when the predominantly Sinhalese armed forces were deployed in the Jaffna peninsula in 1961 to repress these peaceful protests. Thereafter, state violence against Tamil activists escalated. To add insult to injury, the SLFP-dominated United Front government introduced a new constitution in 1972 which categorically rejected the Tamil demand for internal self-determination. This constitution confirmed Sri Lanka as a unitary state and forbade Parliament to ‘abdicate, delegate or in any manner alienate its legislative power nor ... set up an authority with any legislative power other than the power to make subordinate laws’.
The reaction of the Ceylon Tamil national movement to these developments was two-pronged. On the one hand, it increasingly articulated a demand for self-determination within an independent state of Tamil Eelam. On the other, an armed liberation movement emerged, adding a revolutionary dimension to the national struggle.
In 1976, a new parliamentary party of Tamils was formed, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which sought to make political capital out of the changing aspirations of the Tamil movement, committing itself to the goal of Eelam through its founding ‘Vaddukoddai Resolution’. The Ceylon Tamil people endorsed the resolution at the 1977 parliamentary elections and voted en masse for the TULF. In subsequent years, however, the TULF abandoned its radical mandate, collaborated in a half-hearted and ill-resourced government decentralisation scheme and lost significant popular support.
Meanwhile, a new generation of young Ceylon Tamils, economically marginalised by discrimination in employment and higher education and brutalised by state repression, saw no way forward without armed resistance. The militants formed five major guerrilla organisations in the middle to late 1970s, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and launched their campaign to establish Eelam throughout the Tamil-speaking majority districts of north and east Sri Lanka.
In response to the militants' agitation, the United National Party (UNP) government (1977-1988) escalated state repression of the Ceylon Tamil national movement. It also tolerated, and even encouraged, sustained mob violence against Tamils in 1977, 1979, 1981 and, most notoriously, in 1983. Simultaneously, the regime locked the door to self-determination for Tamils within Sri Lanka. Its 1978 constitution retained key provisions on the unitary state and the unique legislative powers of the Colombo Parliament, vindicating the strategic decision of the Ceylon Tamil national movement to pursue secession.
National rights in Sri Lanka
National rights can be seen as distinct from individual or aggregate rights in that they cannot be subordinated through the exercise of state power. In Sri Lanka, the 1956 ‘Sinhala Only’ Act denied the individual and aggregate rights of Tamil citizens to use their language in certain circumstances. It also undermined Tamils’ national rights, however, relegating the Tamil language to a subordinate position within the state. Under the 1972 constitution, Buddhism, the religion of most Sinhalese, was granted ‘the foremost place’ in the life of the state. While the individual and aggregate right to practice other religions was not put in question, the national rights of Tamils were further undermined by this provision, as their religions were categorised within the state as hierarchically subordinate.