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I have not thus far talked about what is described as a political settlement, a consummation that figures largely in the discourse of agencies in Sri Lanka, and indeed elsewhere, concerned with conflict resolution. The reason is that I feel that consensus in the past was prevented by excessive concern with forms and structures, without adequate attention to the other factors that politics necessarily involves. After all the claim for self determination was put forward in the seventies not as an end in itself, but rather as a means towards focusing attention on problems of the sort I have described above. It was only subsequently that it turned into an end in itself, a goal that grew in the imagination until it culminated in the intransigence of the LTTE, unwilling to settle for anything except a separate state.

I feel the more qualified to discuss this issue, because it was only the Liberal Party that in the eighties argued for devolution, but on the basis that that was the best way of empowering individuals in units that were otherwise neglected. In short our argument was based on the principle of subsidiarity, ie the idea that decisions should be made by the smallest possible unit of relevance, personal questions by individuals, community problems by the community and so on. What we did not want was the majoritarianism of one unit, the country, being replaced by another sort of majoritarianism. That is why indeed for a long time we were favourably inclined to the District as the unit of devolution, though the games the Jayewardene government played with the District Development Councils made us realize that the sense of disappointment felt by the Tamils could only be assuaged by Provincial Councils.

However we were totally opposed to the merger of the North and East, because that introduced a completely different dimension to the whole question. It was based on the concept of a homeland and, whilst initially we could sympathize with a unit for Tamil speaking people in a context in which the national language policy was discriminatory, later it became obvious that to treat Tamils and Muslims as a single entity on this basis was inappropriate. The establishment of Tamil as an official language in 1987 reduced the need for a different sort of unit based on language, and already tensions between Tamils and Muslims had begun, culminating in the expulsion of the Muslims by the LTTE in 1990, making clear the dangers of an exclusivist majoritarianism such as we had feared for any unit in which power is exercised. We must after all be wary of what Prof Pratap Mehta described recently as the ‘tyranny of compulsory identity’,

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Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2010
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