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The Tamil Diaspora in several Western states is presently conducting or planning referenda on the question of Tamil Eelam. Whilst the precise wording varies, in essence, Tamils are voting on the simple question: do we want an independent sovereign state of Tamil Eelam or not? Why, three decades after the Tamils voted overwhelmingly for the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) on the basis of its single issue manifesto - 'an independent Tamil Eelam' – are these referenda being held?


The answer is simple: ever since 1977, this collective demand and popular mandate has been studiously ignored and instead all kinds of voices - including the Sinhala state, marginal Tamil actors and important members of the international community - have simply asserted that 'the majority' of Tamils reject independence. Crucially, they have done so whilst simultaneously lending tacit or overt support to the systematic and forcible denial of any space for the Tamil people to freely express their views on this core issue.


In short, whilst being prevented from speaking openly, the Tamils have been spoken for. Those Tamil actors - such as the Liberation Tigers - who articulated the popular demand independence - and even those who talked about self-determination - were both denounced (as 'terrorists',  'nationalists', 'extremists', even fascists') and punitively targeted. The international community banned the LTTE and, having armed the murderous Sinhala state, encouraged it to attack - ostensibly so that the Tigers 'may be brought to the table' (it is worth noting, for those who point to the LTTE's violence, that this is no different to that of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the Jewish militants who created Israel or the host of anti-colonial liberation movements of the 20th century).


It is worth noting how, even during the Norwegian peace process, the abduction and murder by the Sinhala state of hundreds of journalists, writers, civil society and political activists advocating the cause of Tamil self-determination, drew little criticism from the international community - despite the investigative presence of EU ceasefire monitors.


Meanwhile, it is notable how the circumstances and results of the 1977 election are rarely taken up, let alone taken seriously, in the now voluminous, if largely not rigorous, academic, policy and media analysis of Sri Lanka's ethnic question, politics and conflict. This is despite the central Tamil demand for three decades being that of their right to self-determination. Instead, the strident assertion by most international actors has been that 'most Tamils' don't want independence. Whether this was genuinely felt by them, or cynically deployed to justify self-serving projects is irrelevant. For all the lecturing and moralizing about 'democracy' and 'pluralism', all those who called for Tamil Eelam were marginalized, pilloried and punished.


The space thus naturally opened for all manner of marginal Tamil actors to adopt the label of 'moderate' and ingratiate themselves into the structurally impossible, but what was for them wholly self-serving, international project of 'transforming Sri Lanka' into a liberal democracy. Even when the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) - amongst whose ranks are some of these 'moderates' - emerged on a platform of endorsing self-determination as well as the LTTE, and received a thumping endorsement in the 2001 and 2004 elections (which, in comparison to most Sri Lankan polls had a greater degree of being 'free and fair'), it was consistently dismissed as an 'LTTE-proxy'.


Meanwhile, the Liberation Tigers' assertion they were the sole, authentic representatives of the Tamil people -enshrined in the TNA's 2004 manifesto - was vehemently rejected, not only by the Sinhala ethnocracy, but also the international community and some Tamil actors. None of these critics engaged with the rationale behind the LTTE's assertion: that the majority of Tamils want Tamil Eelam and the LTTE was the only actor articulating this stance. Instead, on the assertion that the Tamils don't want Tamil Eelam, a catastrophic war was unleashed again on our people. In the name of our political preferences, our homeland was laid waste to, our people slaughtered and the entire population of Vanni incarcerated.


Since 1977, the Tamil people's views have only been sought through the tightly circumscribed, corrupt and murderously dangerous space of the Sri Lankan political system. During the last round of Norwegian-facilitated direct talks between the LTTE and the Sinhala state, the government challenged the movement's claim it spoke for the Tamils. In response, the LTTE's Political Head, S. P. Tamilselvan, challenged Colombo to allow a United Nations-run referendum of the Tamil people. He was met with silence. The referenda on Tamil Eelam being organized by the Diaspora are an effort by Tamils to speak over those speaking for us.

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