In talking critically of those who now believe that we need to fall in line completely with the West, following the defeat in Geneva, I realize that there are those who think that I myself am a fervent proponent of a Western perspective. I would like to believe that they do not really think this, but use it as a stick to beat me with. However, given the way people trust their emotions rather than reason, it is quite possible they genuinely believe I too am in thrall to the West.

The reasons for this include my familiarity with Western philosophy, and particular Western political thought, as well as my facility with English and the fact that this makes it easy for me to get on well, whether I agree with them or not, with Western interlocutors. Ironically those elements in the Ministry of External Affairs which are committed to a purely Western agenda claim that I have in fact alienated the West. This is obviously not true, except for characters such as Paul Carter who tried to subvert our army officers into betraying their country. But people generally believe what they want to believe.

I suppose I should take comfort from being attacked on both sides as it were, but I have to accept that the criticism from the other side, misplaced as it is, can be quite damaging. Some of it springs from the confusion that prevails in Sri Lanka about Liberalism, which is generally confused with the Neo-Liberalism that dominated Western thinking when it finally triumphed in the Cold War. The privileging of market forces alone, without the provision of safety nets and welfare measures that enhance opportunities, is not Liberalism at all. Unfortunately, when excessive statism led to the Thatcherite reaction, the grand centre ground of British Liberal thinking was overwhelmed.

It remained a dirty work in America which had in any case never subscribed to welfare measures on European lines. But in Europe and countries following European traditions of political thought, it became synonymous with capitalism. That was what the young Pakistanis for whom I did workshops on Liberalism told me, when they admitted to finding it a welcome creed, that previously they had thought Liberalism was capitalism. Conversely the Afghans, dreading other perspectives, said they had thought Liberalism was Communism.

In Sri Lanka, as in Pakistan, Liberalism is still considered a dirty word by those brought up on socialist dogma. It is used then to denigrate the reforms we so urgently need in areas such as education, where the prevailing state monopoly has destroyed the advantages we had built up when Kannangara used the state to extend opportunities rather than restrict them.

More worryingly, Liberalism is tainted in the eyes of statist purists with the idea of pluralism. Its critique of a centralized state is therefore used now to suggest that it has sympathies with separatism. Thus what should be the generally welcome assertion that more power should be given to the people is seen as an insidious attempt to break up the country.

My view that the 13th amendment should not be abolished then is seen as springing from some sort of Western perspective. The fact that the Liberal Party, long before any other party, advocated devolution on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity – thus sharply distinguishing itself from the ethnic based parties that were thinking in terms of homelands and ethnic enclaves – is forgotten, and all those asserting the need to swiftly fulfil the President’s commitment to 13 plus are seen as traitors.

That type of discourse will do us no good internationally. It is not only the West that sees the need for increasing people’s participation in government. This requires not only decision making powers, but greater accountability and the entrenchment of consultation mechanisms.

The days in which government could be imposed from above are over. Unfortunately the combination of colonialism and the attractions of statism in the middle of the last century have dominated what passes for political thought in this country, This was aided by the system of rote learning that our universities have fostered, so that, as I found a decade ago, reading lists stopped in the sixties, after which language skills deteriorated so that more modern thinking was ignored.

What we should be thinking of is empowerment that will also overcome fissiparous tendencies. This means strengthening of local government and community organizations that will limit the power of provincial politicians as well as central government. That is the model being followed by the Third World countries we should emulate, but we are unwilling to learn. Despite the great opportunity offered us by South Africa, to study how they pursued reconciliation as well as empowerment, I see no outcome. The seminal local government reforms they put through after the dismantling of apartheid should be a model for us, but I suspect the team that went there saw the visit as a chore rather than a learning experience.

A couple of years back, before the defeats in Geneva, I was told by an Indian journalist that Dayan constantly consulted our allies in the United Nations. After he left, we ignored them, and simply asked them for their votes when a crisis loomed. This is no way to win friends and ensure protection from the predators.

We should then be studying best practices in other countries, that will help us to develop a better model of government. This should allow all our citizens participation and fulfillment, even while we guard our sovereignty and prevent separatism and even irreparable divisions. But far from trying to do better, we seem stuck in a conservative mindset that can be presented as fundamentalist. Reacting to perceived threats and being dogmatically defensive will not help in the real world of power politics. If we do not realize this soon, the consequences will be horrendous.

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