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Commentary (April 7, 2005)

Dealing with Splittists - Look to Canada, not Sri Lanka

Yash Ghai  (Professor, University of Hong Kong)

There are broadly two strategies for dealing with "splittists": suppression or negotiation. Sri Lanka was, for many years, an example of suppression. In the 1950s, the Sri Lankan government adopted policies to establish the dominance of the Sinhalese community, its language and its predominant faith, Buddhism. This resulted in massive discrimination against the Hindu, Tamil-speaking minority and, predictably, led to a bitter civil war. There were horrendous ethnic massacres, mostly of Tamils, in the early 1980s, which the government was believed to have instigated.

This produced a mild secessionist move among a section of the younger Tamils. People of all communities were appalled by the violence and searched for a return to peaceful and fair politics. The government, however, was in no mood to negotiate a peaceful settlement and set about marginalising moderate Tamil leaders and repressing the militants. It amended the constitution in 1983, making it an offence to support secession. Parliamentarians and senior public officials were required to take an oath that they would not advocate or support secession; refusal or violation resulted in loss of office.

The result was the resignation of all Tamil MPs (who would, undoubtedly, have been slaughtered by the militants if they had taken the oath), and the demise of the largest opposition party. The vacuum was filled by the militant Tamils, led by the Tamil Tigers. This prompted the emergence of hardliners on both sides, a terrible civil conflict which has claimed more than 80,000 lives, torture, internal displacement and emigration, which is still continuing.

This law was the start of a process in which peaceful politics was replaced by the culture of violence. Moderation, and support for a negotiated settlement, was vigorously denounced. Armed fighting ended only three years ago when both sides agreed to negotiate a settlement based on federalism.

Canada exemplifies the other strategy. A substantial section of the French-speaking community in Quebec for a long time resented the dominance of the English-speaking Canadians, and what they claimed was the marginalisation of the French language and culture. There have been occasional violent incidents but, on the whole, the "splittists" have pursued their objectives peacefully. The Quebec government has conducted periodic referendums on secession, which have come close to a majority for separation. The Canadian government, and other provinces, negotiated with the Quebec government over a number of years, and even reached a settlement, which however, was defeated in a national referendum.

To put some kind of closure to the issue, the Canadian government requested an advisory opinion from the Supreme Court on whether Quebec was entitled to secede. Although Quebec formally boycotted the hearings, a team of lawyers was appointed to argue its case, and the federal government, as well as all provinces, was represented by leading lawyers. The court advised that secession was not legal under either national or international law. However, it went on to say that principles of democracy and fairness required that if a community was unhappy with Canada and wished to secede, clearly expressing this in a referendum, the federation and provinces had an obligation to negotiate with that community to resolve the differences, by secession if necessary. The national government accepted this advice and passed the Clarity Act, setting out criteria for a clear expression of support for secession and the procedure for negotiations.

Together with favourable economic and social factors, the opinion of the Supreme Court and the government's acceptance reduced tensions. Quebeckers seem to be settling down to a positive and constructive relationship with the rest of the country.

(Originally appeared in the April 6, 2005 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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