Delegations meet at the first phase of the Thimphu peace talks. Tamil delegation seated on the left and the Sri lankan delegation seated on the right. Photograph: Sahajeevana Centre
“We had many reasons to decide in 1976 that an independent Tamil Eelam is the only solution to our problems. But today, 29 years later, we have many more reasons” - Dharmeratnam Sivaram, 2005
On the 13 July 1985, the initial draft of the Thimpu principles was read aloud during “peace” negotiations mediated by the Indian government. Whilst the supposed peace negotiations have themselves come under criticism as merely being a ploy by the Sri Lankan government to stall the armed conflict and rearm themselves, this was a defining moment in the Tamil liberation struggle. It was the first time that a coalition of Tamil political organisations had unanimously agreed on a set of basic principles which centred on the right to self-determination.
In Sivaram’s 2005 essay, written shortly before he was assassinated, he warned against political apathy, against Tamil political leaders accepting concessions which fall far beneath these basic demands. He reminds us that the Sri Lankan government has proven that it has never been willing to give Tamils “anything meaningful”.
Over three decades have passed since the Thimpu principles and close to four decades since the Vaddukoddai Resolution which first affirmed the Tamil demand for self-determination. Yet, despite the passage of time, and overwhelming military occupation of the North-East, a fervent desire for this basic democratic right remains. Indeed, October of last year, Tamil political parties unified to reiterate this basic demand and to call for an end to the on-going occupation of the Tamil homeland. This demand derives not from a political leadership all too willing to pay lip-service to those in Colombo, but rather the Tamil people.
It is hence worth recounting the declaration reached by the TULF, LTTE, EROS, TELO, EPRLF and PLOTE, in full.
The four cardinal principles were as follows:
- recognition of the Tamils of Ceylon as a nation
- recognition of the existence of an identified homeland for the Tamils in Ceylon
- recognition of the right of self-determination of the Tamil nation
- recognition of the right to citizenship and the fundamental rights of all Tamils in Ceylon
The delegation further stated:
Different countries have fashioned different systems of governments to ensure these principles. We have demanded and struggled for an independent Tamil state as the answer to this problem arising out of the denial of these basic rights of our people. The proposals put forward by the Sri Lankan government delegation as their solution to this problem is totally unacceptable. Therefore we have rejected them as stated by us in our statement of the 12th of July 1985. However, in view of our earnest desire for peace, we are prepared to give consideration to any set of proposals, in keeping with the above-mentioned principles, that the Sri Lankan Government may place before us.
The final statements made by the Tamil delegation are also reproduced below:
“We, the Tamil delegation, consisting of six organisations, unanimously rejected these proposals because it was our considered view that any meaningful solution to the Tamil national question must be based on the four cardinal principles enunciated by us.
More than 50 years have passed since 1928 and we have moved from Provincial Councils to Regional Councils and from Regional Councils to District Councils and now from District Councils back to District/Provincial Councils. We have had the 'early consideration' of Mrs. Srimavo Bandaranaike and the 'earnest consideration' of the late Dudley Senanayake. There has been no shortage of Committees and Commissions, of reports and recommendations but that which was lacking was the political will to recognise the existence of the Tamil nation. And simultaneous with this process of broken pacts and dishonoured agreements, the Tamil people were subjected to an ever-widening and deepening national oppression aimed at undermining the integrity of the Tamil nation.
The four basic principles that we have set out at the Thimphu talks as the necessary framework for any rational dialogue with the Sri Lankan Government are not some mere theoretical constructs. They represent the hard-existential reality of the struggle of the Tamil people for their fundamental and basic rights. It is a struggle which initially manifested itself in the demand for a federal constitution in the 1950s and later in the face of a continuing and increasing oppression and discrimination, found logical expression in the demand for the independent Tamil state of Eelam or Tamil Eelam. It is a struggle in which thousands of Tamils have died and many thousands more have lost their properties and their means of livelihood - they have died and they have suffered so that their brothers and sisters may live in equality and in freedom.”
Sri Lanka in 2020
Today the situation is bleak.
Jaffna-based Attorney, academic and civil society activist, Kumaravadivel Guruparan, has said that the November election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa signifies a further consolidation of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism "to an extent that we have never seen before”.
Indeed the establishment of all Sinhala Presidential Task Forces headed by war criminals with the purpose of 'disciplining' society should worry us all. Tamils journalists have been attacked and threatened; Sinhalisation and land grabs in the North-East have been streamlined, and the Rajapaksa’s are calling for a two-thirds majority to further entrench their rules and silence the other nations on the island.
The return of the Rajapaksa’s has shifted the overton window to the right, with the UNP abandoning any pretence of liberalism and openly pandering to Sinhala Buddhist nationalists. Tamil leadership has also, disappointingly, acclimated to the new political climate by meeting with the Rajapaksa’s whilst paying lip service to the Tamil struggle.
At a cursory glance, Sivaram’s concerns continue to be well-founded; Tamil political leaders appear to be accepting concessions well beneath the foundations laid out by the Thimpu principles. And as talks of constitutional reform and progress towards a political solution continue to meet dead ends, Tamils themselves have expressed increasing dissatisfaction with the lack of clear leadership. For them, the vision of self-determination continues to endure. Despite the traumas and horrors endured Tamil people, they continue to take to demand basic principles set forth in the Thimpu talks. Those principles continue to play a driving role in Tamil nationalist politics today.
35 years on, Tamil politicians should take heed.