Justification for a Referendum for Tamils in Sri Lanka

June 29, 2018 Asia , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS

Reuters photo



Thambu Kanagasabai



The current situation affecting Sri Lanka’s Tamils fairly and justifiably needs a referendum to decide their fate and guarantee their existence in Sri Lanka, if they were to avoid their gradual extinction in a country being the original inhabitants that existed in Sri Lanka from before BC 500.


Independence from British rule in 1948 heralded the process of Sinhalisation and later Buddhisiation to make Sri Lanka an exclusively Sinhala Buddhist state which was also the ambition of the late Anagarika Dharmapala who sowed the first seeds of nationalism, racism and Buddhist supremacy during his lifetime [1864-1933], including a hate campaign against other religions and races.


The Sinhala politicians and leaders, from the late D.S. Senanayake to the present President Maithripala Sirisena, including the Prime Ministers who ruled Sri Lanka, gleefully embraced and exploited this agenda as a convenient ladder to climb and capture the seats of power and also to accelerate this agenda.


In this process, the Sinhala leaders unleashed legislations, state terrorism including pogroms and massacres, colonization of Sinhalese in the North and East [Traditional and Historical Homeland of Tamils], construction of Buddhist Viharas and Buddhist statutes, state discrimination in employment, and allocation of funds for development in the North and East, seizure and occupation of civilian lands by the Security Forces in the North and East, permanent residence and involvement of Security Force in the daily lives of Tamil civilians, prevalence of a climate of insecurity and fear among the civilians, employment of Sinhala Officers and Employees in Government Offices in Tamils homeland [North and East], for instance ninety percent of Sinhala Police Personnel are serving for the Tamils in the North, and of the 434 Police Personnel in the Jaffna district only 67 are Tamil Police Officers.


Another instance is the Sinhala settlements sponsored and assisted by Sri Lankan Governments in the North and East particularly in Amparai and Trincomalee which have resulted in drastic demographic changes as can be seen below:




1963                                                      2012

Sinhalese             29.3%                   Sinhalese             39.7%

Tamils                  23.8%                   Tamils                   17.4%




1953                                                    2012

Sinhalese             18.2%                    Sinhalese             27.0%

Tamils                   44.7%                   Tamils                   32.3%



To counter the chauvinistic policies of Sri Lanka Governments, the Tamils waged struggles first choosing non-violent and later armed struggles to remedy their grievances within a united Sri Lanka calling for a Federal System or Regional Autonomy and, as a last resort, separation. The above resistances were crushed brutally by the Sri Lankan Security Forces with the assistance of its friendly countries totalling more than twenty two which swept the injustices meted out to Tamils under the carpet, and even branded them as terrorism while encouraging and condoning State Terrorism unleashed by the state against its own citizens, which is now only drawing the attention of the United Nations and International Community as war crimes against humanity, etc.


The Tamils now have no hope of living as equal citizens with equal rights, dignity, respect and being able to manage their own affairs in their traditional homelands – [North and East of Sri Lanka] as recognised by India in the Indo-Ceylon Accord of 1987.


The only option for the Tamils now is Self-Determination with a right to hold a referendum. A referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is invited to vote on one or more questions or a proposal.


Referendum can be mandatory as prescribed in the laws of a constitution or voluntarily initiated by the legislature or Government or even initiated by citizens who petition directly to put a proposal for popular vote. A proposal can be even referred to the legislature which then refers it to popular vote for adoption in the legislature if and when approved by a majority.


Referendum also means a vote in which all the people in a country or an area are asked to give an opinion about or decide an important political or social question”. [Cambridge English Dictionary] A referendum proposal can also be initiated by a head of state, who can refer it for approval or rejection, like a President of a country.


It is to be noted that since 18th century more than hundreds of national referendums have been organized and executed in the world. For Example:-


Referendums for Independence were successfully held in:


Montenegro                      2006

Eritrea                                1993

East Timor                         1999

Slovenia                            1990



Referendum for particular proposals was held in the following countries:


Scotland                          Proposal for devolution in 1997

United Kingdom              Proposal to quit European Union in 2016

South Africa                    1992 referendum ended its apartheid system

Canada                            Quebec referendum in 1980 and 1995 rejected secession from Canada.



It is to be noted that in some countries like Canada and Switzerland, the constitution allows the right to hold referendum by Quebec in Canada or Cantons in Switzerland. Recently referendums held in Catalonia in 2017 and in North Kurdistan by Kurds in 2017 calling for independence from Spain and Turkey were not recognised as they were held without the approval of the respective Central Governments.


In so far as Tamils are concerned, there are justifiable reasons to call for a referendum confined to the areas where they have been historically and habitually residing for more than 2500 years.


The reasons can be listed as follows:


1 – Tamils in Sri Lanka are living as a majority community in the North and East of Sri Lanka for more than 2500 years as such they are eligible to conduct a referendum as residents of this Area.


2 – Tamils have been treated as second class citizens since 1948 and this unsettling position is continuing with no sign of redemption but only signs of their gradual extinction are only discernible to erase their existence in Sri Lanka.


3 – Tamils are entitled to hold a referendum on the basis of the right of self-determination as prescribed in the United Nations Covenant on Political and Civil Rights Article 1 which states as follows: “All peoples have the right of self-determination by virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status and thereby pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” Tamils possess this universally recognized right as a people to determine their political destiny to preserve their existence, identity, language, culture, religion and traditions, besides their chequered historical records.


4 – The call for a referendum under this right is not an infringement of the provisions of the sixth Amendment which only prohibits demands and agitations for a separate state. The referendum can include one or more proposals for the vote of Tamils living in Sri Lanka and abroad. It could be:


i – Federal system of Government as in USA, and Australia

ii – Confederation like Canada

iii – Regional autonomy like Scotland or even secession.



The initiative to hold a referendum in Sri Lanka lies only in the hands of Tamils living in Sri Lanka and Diaspora Sri Lankan Tamils who number about four million out of a world total population of about 80 million Tamils. The petition has to be submitted to the United Nations Security Council, UN Human Rights Council and other human rights groups and activists.


A public and media campaign through local organizations in countries, specifically which allow referendum, is important to utilize their support to canvass other countries for their endorsements.


Since Sri Lanka’s constitution does not allow referendum for the North and East Provinces to choose their political status, the Tamil political parties, leaders, civic groups, local organizations have to organize and mount a mass non-violent campaign to obtain the approval of Tamil voters. A nationwide referendum to deal with the options of Tamils will surely be defeated by the majority Sinhalese voters. Even a proposal to hold a referendum to decide an option like Federation is also unlikely to be approved by the Parliament of Sri Lanka due to the majority of Sinhala members of Parliament who will all unite to defeat it while rising above party differences.


In short, Tamils have to be supported by the United Nations and International Community to resort to the right of Tamils for self-determination and calling on Sri Lanka to hold a referendum in the North and East allowing them to choose their political status.


The following brief reasons more than justify their right to call for the intervention of the United Nations and International Community:


1 – Sri Lankan Government policy and practice of communalism coupled with majority hegemony.


2 – Several breaches of promises, agreements, pacts, understandings with Tamil Leaders since 1958.


3 – Total absence of accountability and justice to the affected Tamils victims since 1958.


4 – The embedded and enshrined culture of impunity to armed forces which mutilates the hopes of justice for Tamils, who live with festering wounds of anger and frustration. The Government’s rejection of international investigation and protection of Security Forces alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, etc., shows the culture of impunity.


5 – State supported, encouraged and organized killings and torture committed against Tamil civilians and their properties.


6 – The agenda of militarization and Sinhalisation which was initiated in 1948 is continuing in acceleration supported by the Army of occupation in the North and East.


7 – The process of hidden genocide is being actively carried out since 1948 along with structural genocide [POGROMS in 1956, 1958, 1971, 1977, 1981, 1983, 2006-2009 and 156 massacres confirm the hidden agenda. Viewing the above ground situation prevailing in Sri Lanka, the United Nations and the International Community are duty bound to take cognisance of the above inimical factors which are targeted to erase the existence of Tamils in Sri Lanka.


8 – Complete lack of political determination and sincere commitment by the Sri Lankan Governments to offer and implement a just and permanent political settlement.


9 – Dominant role and final say of Buddhist Clergy and ‘Maha Sanga’ who make detrimental political decisions affecting Tamils which have to be heeded by the ruling Sri Lankan Governments.



The Tamils are calling for the right of self-determination and referendum to preserve their existence in Sri Lanka in order to stop and avoid their extinction, unlike the referendums in some states which are calling for secession while already enjoying self-rule and/or regional autonomy like Quebec in Canada, Scotland in England and Kurds in Turkey.


In this respect, the initiative and worldwide campaign launched by the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam [TGTE] calling for a referendum is timely, just and wise to ascertain the final option and approval of Sri Lankan Tamils worldwide as to the solution they prefer, before agitating for a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka.





Thambu Kanagasabai

Thambu Kanagasabai LL.M (London) – Former Lecturer in Law, University Of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Editor review


  1. kumarathasan July 04, at 04:08

    The hidden plan f the Sinhala Buddhist Government, Buddhist Clergy, Maha Sanga and Sinhala Buddhist extremist to make Sri Lanka a BUDDHIST SINHALA COUNTRY is exposed. The pogroms against the Tamils in 1956, 1958, 1961, 1971, 1977, 1981, 1983 and until now shows very clearly the mindset of the Sinhalse leaders and Buddhist Clergy. In Sri Lanka the Maha Sanga is in supreme power. Even the Prtesident cannot go against them even if they promote racism, hated against the Hindu/Christian/Muslim Tamils. The international Community and UN now understand this and the Sri Lanka cannot get away without implementing the UNHRC Resolution of 30/1.

  2. Aru July 01, at 22:35

    Any efforts to regain the dignity and rights of tamils living all over the world is welcome. A full autonomous federal system may be the way to start this process (and eventual self governance) and could be acceptable to all national and international leaders and governments.

  3. K.Anaga July 01, at 08:53

    The 1977 general election was almost a' referendum' where the Tamils over overwhelmingly voted for a separate state for them. But the JR's Government created a communal riots immediately after the elections and there after 1983 which shook the world. But the world did not do anything tangible to restore the rights of the Tamils at least in a federal form. There after when the LTTE almost reached some form of separation of powers, the word governments including India, America UK and others backed the Lankan government and was partly responsible for the murder and mayhem of the Tamils. UK in particular was responsible for the Tamils plight as they did not restore the status quo of the Tamils who had a separate kingdom of their owns until the invasion by them. Hence, even though a referendum is a peaceful way of feeling the pulse, will the world support it. Hippocratic approach is the order of the day, whether it is Palestine or Kashmir. While not being negative if it could be done well and good.

  4. Suntha July 01, at 02:20

    It has been a real master plan by the Govt. to make it a Sinhala Buddhist country since Independence , the resistance by the LTTE delayed the final implementation, after the defeat of the LTTE they are now in the process of accelerating the implementation. The only resort left for the Tamils is to beg for mercy having tried non violent and violent methods to safeguard their rights and land

  5. S Siva June 29, at 12:06

    An interesting article with full of facts of Eelam and global ground situation of many legitimate freedom struggles and people's struggle for autonomy, freedom and sovereignty through referendum in order to live in peace and harmony as regimes failed to uphold rule of law. Colonial blunders are abundance that deprived many races' freedom, dignity, respect, identity, human rights and sovereignty. Colonial mockery resulted in majority race to commit crimes against humanity on minority races and enjoy culture of impunity. Rogue regimes commit war crimes, state terrorism, genocide and human rights abuses as they accuse/blame legitimate freedom struggles as terrorism. Western nations' and International community's inability, incompetence, inaction or collaboration to many rogue regimes resulted mass human sufferings of minorities and those who demand for Justice, Equality and Rule of Law. While illegal invasions by powerful nations not only destroyed invaded nations but also created massive exodus and movement of people as refugees. World is witnessing a massive refugee crisis in EU, Australia, US and Canada and likely to change these nations and politics in the future. Dissatisfied citizens voters are isolating politicians who are incompetent, insensitive and failed to act in the best interest of the nation and cast their vote to leaders who has extreme views and Right wing policies. World is changing rapidly due to mass movement of millions of victims as refugees due to failure of UN, International Community and their governments. Instead of put an end to oppressive regimes that commit crimes against humanity and/or separating nations like it was prior to Western colonialism or illegal occupation, UN and International Community just watching the refugee crisis including many deaths in sea. UN formation is a failure, biased, mockery and undemocratic as it does not represent all races equally and veto powers to five nations expose that without powerful nations support, nothing can be achieved or no Justice to victims. Many long struggles for Justice, accountability and Rule of law going on for several decades as UN continues to fail and it's importance and respect is diminishing. Nations should have scientists and secure Nuclear weapons if they want to protect them from bullying and powerful countries. We see the respect and importance was given to North Korean young leader due to its possessing Nuclear Weapons although it is poor and isolated by many nations. No wonder that recently Indian federation has been rated as the worst for women by Globally recognized Reuters Thomson survey and International Community must force Indian federation to dismantle it's powers by allowing autonomy referendums in Tamil Nadu, Manipur, Punjab, Kashmir and other states. Indian forces are allegedly committing one of the worst human rights abuses on earth in Kashmir including blinding people by spraying steel pallets, commit sexual abuses, rape and murder of women and children while boasting it as the largest democracy on earth. Indian federation and Malayalee mafias allegedly collaborated to the Sri Lankan regime to commit genocide against Tamils. When we look at the crisis in many nations, failure of UN and International Community to ensure Law and Order, Accountability, Justice, one may wonder whether we live in a civilized world. This all result in simply due to incapable, corrupt, inhuman, power greedy and incompetent leaders making decisions. Citizens are impatient, losing confidence in current leaders and this may result in casting their vote to leaders with extreme views that can be detrimental not only to their nation but also to the world. Many failed world leaders and politicians are in shock when frustrated US voters preferred, voted a non-politician, self-made billionaire as their leader. Only time will tell us about voters decision. Civilized world has to unite and put an end to 70 Years of state sponsored oppression, terrorism, human rights abuses, war crimes and genocide by holding a referendum in Tamils' homeland Eelam that was merged with Sinhala land by the British colonialists for easy administration. Britain should plan a pivotal role in holding this referendum and that hopefully end Sinhala Buddhist hate crimes, abuses, denial of rule of law and justice!


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