Mangala Samaraweera, an advocate of liberalism, dies

Sri Lanka’s former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera passed away on Tuesday at a private hospital here due to COVID-19 related complications. File   | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

Mangala Samaraweera, a former Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka and a notable advocate of liberalism from the country’s dominant Sinhala-Buddhist polity, passed away at a private hospital in Colombo after treatment for COVID-19-related complications failed. He was 65.

Earlier this month, Mr. Samaraweera contracted the virus amid Sri Lanka’s deadly fourth wave that on Friday forced the government to impose an island-wide lockdown. On Monday, a total of 4,355 new cases and 194 deaths were reported.

Raised in capital Colombo, Mr. Samaraweera hailed from the southern Matara district where he began his political career as a chief organiser for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). From the late 1980s, Mr. Samaraweera campaigned for women whose sons or husbands disappeared or were killed in the government’s crackdown against the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) that led two armed insurrections against the State. He was a co-convener of the ‘Mothers’ Front’ movement, along with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, his party colleague then, raising human rights violations during Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure as President.

Having built his political career in the SLFP, mainly under Presidents Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa, Mr. Samaraweera defected to the rival United National Party (UNP) in 2010, after he fell out with Mr. Rajapaksa.

Gaining experience in electoral and parliamentary politics over the years, Mr. Samaraweera rose to Cabinet rank during different dispensations, making a mark in key Ministries at challenging times for the country. He served as Foreign Minister twice, from 2005 to 2007 in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first term as President, and from 2015 to 2017 in the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe ‘national unity’ government, when he engaged closely with the international community, with Sri Lanka promising to fulfil several commitments towards post-war accountability and transitional justice. Despite his efforts, the ‘national unity’ government is widely criticised for failing to fulfil its commitments, especially those made to the war-affected Tamil community. He shared a special friendship with former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.

Call for U-turn

Mr. Samaraweera stayed out of the August 2020 parliamentary elections that saw the Rajapaksas consolidate power in the legislature. Slamming the culture of militarisation, ethnic and religious polarisation in Sri Lanka, Mr. Samaraweera called for “a radical centre”, with a “commitment to liberalism and centrist values”.

He remained a bold voice over the last few years, critical of the Rajapaksa administration’s domestic and foreign policy. He stood out, challenging the Buddhist clergy who wield great influence in politics, and consistently speaking for minority rights that are under frequent attack under the Rajapaksa administration.

In a social media post last month, Mr. Samaraweera indicated he was disillusioned with the country’s two main political parties — SLFP and UNP — of which he was part of at different times. Their latest versions — the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Front) of the Rajapaksas and the main Opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB, or United People’s Front) — were “two sides of the same coin”, he said. Sri Lanka is “desperately gasping for a total U-turn” in policy direction, he wrote on July 28.

Leaders pay respects

Issuing a statement, President Kumaratunga said Mr. Samaraweera took Sri Lanka to the world stage from a “dismal pit”. Referring to him as her “dearest friend, brother and comrade-in arms”, she said: “Your impeccable personal ethics will be hard to match in Sri Lanka’s political arena.”

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said in a message on Twitter: “I am deeply saddened to hear of the untimely passing of my friend & colleague Mangala Samaraweera. Today we have lost a great leader, a man who loved this nation. I thank him for his service to #lka.”

Senior parliamentarian and Tamil National Alliance leader R. Sampanthan said Mr. Samaraweera was a “Sri Lankan in the true sense of the word” who wanted all citizens to unite on the basis of equality, justice, and dignity to form a united Sri Lankan nation and take Sri Lanka on the path of progress and prosperity.

“By his death all Sri Lankans irrespective of ethnicity or religious differences have lost a genuine leader of very high principles,” he said in a statement.

Former Prime Minister and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said: “Mangala was an outstanding politician who always stood firm for his convictions which involved a Sri Lanka where all were free and equal and where human rights were upheld. He had an innovative mind that could think out of the box. Mangala was also a great communicator who championed reconciliation amongst all our peoples.”

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 8:44:01 PM |

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