ECONOMYNEXT – In Sri Lankan political terms Mangala Samaraweera has done the unthinkable. After being a major player in the break- up of the United National Party (UNP) and the creation of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), he has withdrawn his candidacy from the forthcoming parliamentary election.
The much-delayed and deeply troubled Poll is now hazily visible in the distance, although masked and gowned against COVID 19.
But a key figure in the pantheon of the country’s leading politicians, Samaraweera, will be absent.
Samaraweera did not announce his decision at a media conference but at an apparently carefully arranged meeting with long-time supporters, drawn from Local Government Councilors and activists at his ancestral home in Matara.
“Don’t vote for me at the election as I am leaving Parliamentary politics, but this is not a retirement from politics,” was his core message to the faithful delivered on June 9.
Many are asking why anyone would be in politics except to be in Parliament where the pay, the duty free permits, pensions and perks are there for the taking.
Before his announcement Samaraweera had paid a courtesy call on the SJB leadership.
SJB General-Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara told EconomyNext that Samaraweera made it clear to Sajith Premadasa that he was retiring from Parliamentary politics and “not joining anyone else.”
In his address to his supporters, Samaraweera slammed the door on a possibility of joining President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s administration.
“Many people, even those who used to vote for us, believed that Gotabaya Rajapaksa could build this country. But that has not happened, in six months he has undone the good work we did,” he said.
However the long standing relationship with Mahinda Rajapaksa is still at the top of his mind.
He told the gathering that he “entered politics to advance Human Rights and a free media during the period of terror in the 1980s. During that period Mahinda Rajapaksa and I started the Mothers’ Front here in Matara. After that we launched the Free Media Movement.”
He reminded the audience that he was the campaign manager for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first Presidential campaign which was won by a whisker.
He said he parted ways with the current Prime Minister when he saw “Mahinda moving the Sri Lanka Freedom Party towards becoming fascistic and ultra-Right wing.”
He claimed to have sent a hand written letter to Mahinda warning him of the wrong direction the party was moving in and was sacked from the Cabinet of Ministers within a month.
Samaraweera also had a hand in another momentous happening in Sri Lanka’s political history. He was a prime mover in the breakup of the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led government in 2004 when President Chandrika Kumaratunga sacked several Ministers and then dissolved Parliament.
At that time the Sri Lankan government was backed by a powerful international coalition and was negotiating a contentious peace deal with the LTTE.
Kumaratunga’s precipitous actions torpedoed the peace efforts and led to a resurgence of Sinhala Right-Wing Nationalism which eventually brought Mahinda to power.
Samaraweera’s detractors say the main reason for him to give up Parliamentary politics is that there is every possibility that he could lose his seat, on August 5.
In the 2019 Presidential elections, the UNP-led NDF won less than 30 per cent of the votes, and even if incumbency eats into the massive majority the SLPP got that time, the SJB is not likely to win more than one seat.
That seat is likely to go to Buddhika Pathirana who beat Samaraweera in 2015 on preferential votes. Also snapping at the heels of the veteran are new and youthful politicians such as Chathura Galapatti and Reyhan Jayewickreme.
Samaraweera is a liberal democrat in every sense of the word and has not attempted to hide his sexual orientation. When former President Maithripala Sirisena used the word Butterfly – a Sinhala language euphemism for being gay – to describe him, Samaraweera’s riposte was that “it is better to be a Butterfly than a Leech.”
He has also, as an MP representing a mainly Sinhala Buddhist electorate been unafraid to call for reform in the Buddhist clergy. He has taken on Monks who are frequently interviewed by TV news channels calling them “Voice Cut” Theros.
Other politicians have not dared to address the subject fearing a backlash from the powerful Buddhist clergy that will seriously dent their chances of being elected.
It is no secret that Sajith Premadasa, the SJB leader, who has positioned himself as a Buddhist leader and been given awards and honorary positions in the Buddhists hierarchy is uncomfortable with what Samaraweera says about the Buddhist Clergy.
These attributes make him somewhat of a misfit in a conventional political party, a fact that he referred to in last week’s speech.
“If I go to Parliament I will have to join a party or a group and be confined. I want to be freer. There are many people in this country who want politics to be free of the parties” he said.
That opens up the tantalizing prospect of Samaraweera leading a Civil Action group that advocates for Human Rights and freedom of expression.
With his obvious oratorical skills, knowledge and wide range of connections he could become a real force as there are many young citizens in the country disgusted with the way politics is practiced and with the people in leadership.
So after 32-years Samaraweera will not seek the Matara seat again, although he does appear on the ballot paper.
It will certainly be a loss for the legislature, not having him in parliament.
But if he does emerge as a civil activist, he should infuse energy into the Rights community which has become fairly quiet since the Presidential election last November.
Last week he fired the first salvo, telling the meeting he detects a creeping militarization of the administration and comparing the Task Force to create a virtuous society to similar bodies in the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
He will be going back to his roots, which made him take to politics in the first place
(Colombo, June 14, 2020)