ECONOMYNEXT – During his three decades of politics in Sri Lanka, Mangala Samaraweera, who died on August 24, led some of the nation’s most powerful ministries and was widely hailed as a rare politician who stood by his principles and respected liberal values treating all equally regardless of their caste, creed, ethnicity, and religion.
Samaraweera had tested positive for COVID-19 on Aug. 13 and had been in hospital since. He was 65.
Valued for his ability to build consensus among people ranging from leftists to right-wing politicians and capitalists to Marxists exerting his charm to bring together disparate groups, Samaraweera had not sought plum jobs such as presidency or premiership, despite decades of loyalty to the center-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
Fashion to Unfashionable Career
The late Samaraweera obtained a fashion and textile designing degree from Central St. Martins in London before entering politics in 1988.
Born on April 21, 1956 in Matara, Samaraweera hailed from a political family with his father was a former cabinet minister and mother was a local council chairwoman.
He represented the southern district of Matara in the parliament. He held more than a dozen ministerial portfolios between 1994 and 2019, ranging from Post and Telecommunication, Media, Ports, Urban Development, Construction and Public Utilities, Foreign and Finance.
Though coming from a leftist political family and party, he later became one of the most successful finance ministers who brought fiscal discipline into Sri Lanka’s government spending, achieving the first primary surplus since 1992, but was tripped up by activist monetary policy.
He was ridiculed by the current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa-led nationalist party for bring a formula to adjust fuel prices on a monthly basis.
Samaraweera entered parliament in 1989, following his father Mahanama Samaraweera, a former cabinet minister, through the SLFP led by Srimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman prime minister, as she steered the country on a sharp turn towards central planning, import substitution and import and exchange controls.
He rose under the mentorship of Sirimavo and then her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, who was the president of the Indian Ocean island nation from 1994-2005.
However, in 2007 he was sidelined by President Mahinda Rajapaksa who won the 2005 election, thanks to the campaign chief Samaraweera’s efforts in putting an unlikely, but winning coalition that included leftists and right-wing politicians, moderates and religious extremists, liberals and conservatives, as well Marxists, and capitalists.
He was sacked from the cabinet by Rajapaksa along with two others due to differences of opinion as the then government started a full-scale war against the terrorism. Samaraweera had favored a political settlement as war brings tragedy for the people.
However, Rajapaksa-led government won the 26-year war by militarily annihilating one of the world’s most powerful separatists in 2009. Sri Lanka, however, is still facing war crime allegations for human rights violations said to have occurred during the final phase of the war.
After being sacked, Samaraweera remained in the opposition, contested under the center-right United National Party (UNP) led byRanilWickremsinghe, a leader who he had once ridiculed as “Mr. Bean”.
Though becoming increasingly disappointed with politics according to his friends, towards the end 2013, he then played a key role in working a deal with all the likeminded people to bring in a change by backing common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena.
He contributed to the defeat of Rajapaksa, who was staunchly backed by Samaraweera to the SLFP leadership in 2005.
Samaraweera became one of Sri Lanka’s most influential politicians during the 2015-2019 regime led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.
As foreign minister from 2015-2017, he managed mend relations with the West and other countries after the Rajapaksa-led government disregarded the requests to address human rights violations in the final phase of the war.
Samaraweera worked with Sri Lanka’s key international partners in post-war reconciliation, a move politically opposed by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which is currently ruling Sri Lanka with a two-third parliament majority.
Unlike most of his colleagues, Samaraweera avoided using racism and religious extremism to win elections. He stood by his liberal policies. He also backed the small LGBTQ community in Sri Lanka.
When he appeared in his last media briefing while launching an apolitical movement called ‘Radical Centre’ by a group of multifaceted multi-ethnic youth calling themselves as “true patriots”, Samaraweera said he was proud of two legacies.
“The first one is that, through the Sudhu Nelum Mal Movement (a peace movement under President Kumaratunga in the 1990s), I was able to help and reconstruct the Jaffna library and hand it over to the people,” he told the reporters on July 25, exactly one month ago.
“I am also proud of privatising Sri Lanka’s telecom sector. Before 1997, everybody had to wait 10-12 years to get a telephone line.”
In a private television interview earlier in August, he revealed that an official from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration contacted him to help in bringing Moderna anti-COVID-19 vaccines to Sri Lanka using his US connections.
He said he contacted Samantha Power, former US Ambassador to the United Nations and the current Administrator of USAID via text message to facilitate vaccines.
“But Sri Lanka got Moderna not because of me. A country like US will never act on personal contacts,” he humbly said.
Samantha Power in a series of tweets, reacting to Samaraweera’s death, said she was “devasted by the passing” of the former foreign minister, who she described as “a patriot and statesman, advocate for democracy and human rights and a treasured friend.”
“Mangala fought for justice & for reconciliation. As Foreign Minister he pushed to create the Office on Missing Persons, & for reparations to war victims and survivors. As Finance Minister, he orchestrated the forgiveness of loans taken out by desperate families after the war,” she said.
Unlike other politicians, he asked the children worship only their parents and teachers and never any politicians. He was also critical on some Buddhist monks whom he said were spreading hate speech in the name of Buddhism against minorities and that it was against Buddhist values.
“He never used racism or religion for politics,” Marxists Janatha Vimukthi Peremuna (JVP) said in its condolence message.
“A visionary free from politics, he was able to stand by his policies even when he was politically disadvantaged. It is also worth recalling how he worked closely with us at certain crucial political moments.”
In a rare move, he also apologized from the public for being partly responsible for the country’s current political mess, through past actions, but vowed to correct his past mistakes.
“In my association with him for a short period, I saw him as a good human being,” R H S Samaratunga, former finance secretary told EconomyNext.
“He was unique and he stood by his own principles, no matter what the repercussions or consequence were.”
In 2020, Samaraweera resigned from parliament politics and withdrew from contesting in the general elections under the current opposition leader Sajith Premadasa’s party after submitting nominations.
He personally asked voters not to vote for him.
When he was the Minister of Telecommunications, he was accused to have used a credit card possessed by him to visit internet gay porn sites and spent 2,000 US dollars. Later, police detectives probing the scandal said it was done by computer hackers.
At a ceremony when he completed 30 years in the parliament on February 28, 2019, he said he had dreams, but those dreams have never fulfilled.
“In fact, one of my earliest dreams was to become a racing driver but I have never driven in my life,” he said in front of leaders who would never come together for any event, but Samaraweera’s, along with Samantha Power from the US who had become a personal friend of him by then.
“Thirty years later, I still remain a dreamer. Many of the dreams I dreamt for my country still are unfulfilled but I feel that I may have been able to make a little difference along the way thanks to some of the very special people whom I had the privilege of associating.”