“Some people are like shooting stars. They burst through our lives in a spectacular arc, but they don’t stay long. They just leave a trail,” said author Erica Orloff. Mangala Samaraweera, one of Sri Lanka’s most formidable political giants, is best described by these lines.
Samaraweera never truly found a political home in Sri Lanka. He was a misfit in any room which promoted ethnic, racial and religious bigotry. He was a man of honesty and integrity – a true liberal who believed in freedom and democracy when most within the country’s political spectrum are only now left to exist in extremes.
During his three decades in Sri Lankan politics, Mangala Samaraweera led some of the nation’s most powerful ministries and was widely hailed as a rare politician who stood by his principles. Samaraweera started out by obtained a fashion and textile designing degree from Central St. Martins in London before entering politics in 1988. He hailed from a political family, his father being a former cabinet minister while his mother was a local council chairwoman. 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.
He became one of the most successful finance ministers the country has seen by bringing fiscal discipline into Sri Lanka’s government spending, achieving the first primary surplus since 1992.
He had also spoken with pride about his achievements within Sri Lanka telecom. “I am also proud of privatizing Sri Lanka’s telecom sector. Before 1997, everybody had to wait 10-12 years to get a telephone line,” he said.
He rose under the mentorship of Sirimavo Bandaranaike and then her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, who was the president from 1994-2005. From here, they began a beautiful friendship, one which only ended with her tearfully looking out at the crematorium from the distance as he was cremated earlier week.
As foreign minister from 2015-2017, he managed to mend relations with the West and other countries by being sensitive to the calls to address human rights violations during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war. In a private television interview earlier in August, he revealed that an official from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 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.
Sri Lanka was moved to its very core on August 24 when the humility, kindness and compassion which embodied Mangala Samaraweera was taken away by the destruction caused by the Delta variant.
Speaking to The Friday Times, Aman Ashraff, son of the late M.H.M. Ashraff, a founding leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, remembers Mangala in the kindest words: “It is rare to find individuals with qualities of intelligence, compassion, wisdom and decency. Rarer still to discover such qualities imbued with political acumen. Such distinctive uniqueness is found amongst a select few, aptly described as ‘visionaries.’ Individuals who possess not just the ability to recognise potential, but also the courage and the conviction to dream of a better world; a better future for their country, their people and the tenacity to make those dreams come true. Such individuals make a difference. Mangala was one of them.”
Echoing similar sentiments, Heshan De Silva, former personal assistant to Sri Lankan Ex-Prime Minister Ranil Wickeramasinghe remembered his time spent with Mangala Samaraweera, said, “Having worked closely with him for over three years during his tenure as both the foreign minister and finance minister, I got to know Mr Samaraweera very closely. Not only was he very well read – it was his wit, brutal honesty, and desire to bring about meaningful change in this country that stood out every day. He had a good heart and was always very generous with his words and time. Even after he left public office, he was always available for a chat. To share his ideas and suggestions. A kind, good man. It was an honor to know him.”
Mangala Samaraweera was not known just for his intelligence and innovation, but also for being one of the most decent human beings in the Sri Lankan political sphere.
Talking to The Friday Times, Aritha Wickramasinghe, leading social activist and lawyer, said, “Mangala’s passing is not only a personal loss but a loss for Sri Lanka. His voice was often the lonely voice of reason and truth – no matter how unpopular- in a country that is often led by deception and lies. Mangala’s message resonated with everyone. Even those who publicly vilified him. Because they knew deep inside that he was telling the truth and not everyone had courage like him to accept it. He believed in Sri Lanka and the potential of our people more than any other leader. For him, our citizens were not sheep and he was not their shepherd. For him, every citizen was the shepherd of their own destiny. And as a leader it was his duty to create that space and freedom for each one of us to follow our own paths. That vision was often a threat to many politicians, who benefited from a system that created more sheep – not shepherds.”
When he appeared in his last media briefing while launching a movement called the ‘Radical Centre’ by a group of multifaceted multi-ethnic youth calling themselves “true patriots,” Samaraweera said he was proud of the direction in which this group were heading.
It is now up to those who are most shaken by his untimely passing to uphold the ideals he stood for. Mangala’s vision and values have been passed on to the people of Sri Lanka. He will live through them.