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Cases in Point

2011 begins with three major initiatives to exercise the right to self-determination: a referendum on independence in South Sudan, a resumed drive for self-rule by Iraq's Kurds and the Palestinians' moves for a unilateral declaration of independence. Notably, all three come after years of international intervention to produce peaceful and amicable agreement amongst the peoples in conflict. Most importantly, all come after equally prolonged intransigence and belligerence from the state concerned.

No two situations are exactly alike, it is true. But the cases of the Palestinians, Kurds and South Sudanese all underline the impossibility of producing an agreed, and thus lasting, peace when a people continue to suffer state-led aggression on basis of their identity. In all these instances, oppression has been ongoing for generations, undeterred by international appeals in recent years. In each case, the persecution has been pursued over decades not only through political and economic marginalization, but also annihilatory state violence - often with international acquiescence.

In recent decades, amid the expanding liberal world order, demands for self-determination have been routinely condemned and labeled as 'exclusive', 'ethno-nationalist' and 'extremist': as 'selfish' determination. In most cases, those being persecuted were expected to seek a future within the relevant territorial state on the basis of the supposedly self-evident interests of those peoples holding the levers of power in building an accommodative, liberal democracy. In every case above, the demand for self-rule was set aside in the interests of international demands for compromise towards a peacefully negotiated coexistence. To no avail.

The demand for self-rule is not made lightly or automatically, no matter what the critics claim. It is not identity per se, but exclusion or marginalization - or fear of these - that precipitates this course of action. In some cases, such as the Tamils in post-independence India, the demand has been  readily dropped as the state created genuine space for the people concerned to pursue their social, economic and political wellbeing. In the three cases above, however, the reverse has happened: compromise on self-rule led instead to more determined defense of the (hierarchical) status quo. The resumptions of these struggles was, thus, inevitable.

Sri Lanka is no different. For six decades, the Sinhalese have consolidated their dominance of the state through electoral majority and state power. The demand for Tamil Eelam only emerged in the seventies - a full two decades after independence from Britain - after protracted, peaceful, and ultimately futile campaigns by Tamil leaders for an equitable place in the country's governance.

Today nothing has changed. Having defeated the Liberation Tigers' armed struggle, the Sinhala-dominated state is today following Serbia and Sudan, amongst others, and seeking to entrench a racialised hierarchy of rule, justifying the project through the proven fragile doctrine of state sovereignty. The state's murderous policies of violence, humanitarian deprivation, demographic change and economic starvation will sustain, more forcefully than any theoretical exposition, the Tamil demand for self-determination. (Its infantile policies - on the national anthem and the country's name, for example - only underline the inherent logic.)

Notably, in the cases of Palestine, Iraqi Kurdistan and South Sudan, 'peace' agreements emerged long ago. Why they have been followed by disillusionment and intensification of resistance is easy to trace. These instances attest clearly to the irrelevance of constitutional tinkering - 'solutions' - when the overarching frameworks of domination and oppression by other peoples remain. Quite apart from avoiding any political accommodation of Tamil interests or aspirations, Sri Lanka today continues to systematically crush the Tamils: consider its conduct vis-à-vis humanitarian activities, development and economic revival in Tamil areas.

Which is why the Tamils, like the Kosovars, South Sudanese and others, will continue to resist, and pursue their right to govern themselves in their homeland. Of course, the Tamils, like other peoples seeking freedom from oppression through independent statehood, have long been told their demands are impossible 'pipe dreams'. Yet the unpredictable and changing international dynamics through generations of resistance have proven otherwise for many. It is not the possibility of statehood, but the impossibility of living under oppression that drives protracted struggles for self-determination. As both resolved conflicts and resumed struggles elsewhere in the world attest, oppression is not forever, but resistance to it is.