Highlights from a chequered political career

Former Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera passed away yesterday (24) at a private hospital where he was being treated for Covid. The 65-year-old veteran politician had contracted the virus earlier this month and was receiving Intensive Care Unit (ICU) treatment at a private hospital. Despite reportedly being fully vaccinated, he tested positive for Covid-19 in August 2021.

Samaraweera held key portfolios in the Cabinets of former Presidents Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena.

He was an outspoken politician who decided to leave Parliamentary politics in 2020, focusing his abilities on forming a broader alliance of like-minded, independent liberal thinkers. He recently launched a new movement named ‘True Patriots’ and refused to be part of any of the major political parties in the country. In fact, as he believed that both main political parties, the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) are no different from each other terming them two sides of the same coin. 

Samaraweera was a crusader for minority rights and had come under severe criticism for standing for what he believed in. During his tenure as Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera was keen to engage all Diaspora groups including the Tamils in reconciliation efforts. “I have been spending all my time since becoming the Foreign Minister to build bridges that had been burnt during years of confrontations since the end of the conflict in 2009,” Samaraweera said in Parliament.

He had also come under heavy criticism many a time for his outspokenness. For example, Mangala publicly admitted his sexual orientation and despite being a Sinhala Buddhist, he criticised the Buddhist monks on many occasions and he was perhaps the only prominent politician so far to directly criticize Buddhist monks and even the Cardinal. However, Mangala did not merely point out others’ mistakes and he is perhaps the only politician to publicly admit to having made many mistakes during his 37 years in politics.

In November 2018, after homophobic comments made by then President Maithripala Sirisena, he wrote on Twitter, “I would rather be a butterfly than a leech Mr. President!!!” In May 2021, he featured in a YouTube video titled ‘Light Upali’ where he played the role of a warrior defending the social media video platform TikTok.

Hailing from a prominent political background, Mangala Samaraweera was the son of Mahanama Samaraweera, who was a Cabinet Minister of Local Government, Housing, Posts and Telecommunications in the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government, and Khema Samaraweera, a member of the Matara Urban Council.

Having received his education at Royal College Colombo, Mangala later obtained his degree in Clothing Design and Technology from the Saint Martin’s School of Art in London. He served as a design consultant to the National Design Centre of Sri Lanka prior to his political career. He first entered Parliament as a representative of the Matara District in 1989, and he was appointed as Minister of Posts and Telecommunications in the Cabinet of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 1994. He also served as the Minister of Urban Development, Construction and Public Utilities in the same Cabinet after a reshuffle and was later given the Deputy Minister of Finance portfolio. He led a telecom revolution in the country, opening up the fixed landline sector to the private sector.

Following the election defeat of his party in 2001, he was made the Chief Opposition Whip and the Treasurer of the SLFP. In 2004 he became the Minister of Ports, Aviation and Media in the new Cabinet of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. In June 2005, after conflicts with Kumaratunga, he dropped the Media Ministry, but remained Cabinet Minister of Ports and Aviation.

He then became the campaign manager for Presidential candidate and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. He became Foreign Minister in President Rajapaksa’s Cabinet. In late January 2007 Samaraweera was replaced as Foreign Minister, but remained Minister of Ports and Aviation. On February 9, 2007, he was sacked from the Cabinet together with Ministers Anura Bandaranaike and Sripathi Sooriyarachchi after differences of opinion with the President.

In October 2013, the Matara Magistrate’s Court issued a Court order to arrest him and 10 others for their alleged involvement in obstructing a peaceful protest march in Matara by UNP activists, to oust its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. On January 12, 2015 Samaraweera was again appointed as Minister of Foreign Affairs under newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena.

After the Presidential Election of 2019, Samaraweera joined the newly formed Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by present Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa. Mangala is reported to have played a major role in the break-up of the United National Party and also led the formation of the SJB. He resigned from the position of Finance Minister on November 17, 2019, hours prior to release of the Election results.

In June 2020, he announced that he would not contest the General Election 2020 which was held on August 5, 2020 and urged the public to not vote for his preferential number but revealed that it would be impossible to remove his name from the Nomination list. On June 9, 2020, he announced that he would step back and quit Parliamentary politics.

He said during an interview that while he had entered politics hoping that he could change the country to make it truly democratic, ensure freedom of speech and racial harmony, after over 30 years in politics, he realised that nothing had changed and it was pointless.

In 2019, Mangala Samaraweera celebrated 30 years in politics at a ceremony held at the BMICH under the theme, ‘Dare to Dream of a New Sri Lanka’.

In his welcome address Samaraweera said that when he entered Parliament 30 years ago in February 1989, his head was full of dreams. “I had dreams for my country, dreams for my people and dreams for myself. At the time, a war was raging in the North and an equally tragic youth insurrection was raging in the South. Therefore, I dreamt mostly of peace. Thousands of lives were lost in the country and I thought I could make a difference at the time. I have always been a dreamer from my early age. One of my earliest dreams was to become a racing driver, but I have never driven in my life and even today I do not have a driving licence. Later, I dreamt of becoming a designer and taking London and Paris by storm, but I decided to pursue my career in politics at home.”

Paying a special tribute to his parents, Samaraweera said his father was a dreamer but his mother was a realist and a very practical and grounded woman. “I am a dreamer like my father but my mother was a grounded and compassionate person. If the people of Matara respected my father, they loved my mother. Some of my better qualities I have inherited from her,” he said, adding that he has been referred to as ‘Khema’s boy’ and he considers it an honour, considering the woman his mother was.

Diplomat, academic and human rights advocate and Ambassador Samantha Power, who served the Barack Obama Administration for eight years, delivered the keynote address at Mangala Samaraweera’s celebration of 30 years in politics.

Power said that when she had asked Mangala what he wanted her to speak on, he had said, “The less spoken about me the better.” She noted that coming from a country where politicians want to be the centre of attraction at every event, it was surprising to hear Samaraweera wanting as little as possible spoken about him.

“The three things that I believe runs through Mangala’s extraordinary life’s works are dignity, modernization and democracy. The son of a remarkable trailblazing mother and a pioneer human rights lawyer father, Mangala thought maybe he could make a difference. Mangala, rest assured you have made one hell of a difference.”

– Daily News Sri Lanka

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