25 September, 2021

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Goodbye, Khema’s Boy! You Left Us But Not Your Ideology

By W A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

Khema’s Boy is no more with us

It is with deep sadness that I learned of the passing away of the liberal politician and former Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera. He made a heroic battle against COVID-19 that had infected him earlier. Despite the sad news circulating in the social media for some time, we still had the hope that he will eventually defeat his enemy. But like any other mortal human being, finally he had to give up and succumb to the deadly virus. He is not just one among many thousands of fellow Sri Lankans who have done so. He deserves a special appreciation on account of his contribution to Sri Lanka’s politics, economy, and the governance system. I would devote this appreciation to his contribution to economy and economic reforms.

The bold decision maker

I have had a good relationship with him for more than three decades while I was in the Central Bank and since my retirement from the Bank. He was one politician who had a patient ear to listen to others. He also made quick and bold decisions. One such instance was when he became the Minister of Posts and Communications under Chandrika Bandaranaike’s presidency.

Mangala Samaraweera

As the Minister in charge of the postal department, we brought to his notice the deteriorating situation in the department and the need for improving postal services. But the necessary funds had to be raised by increasing the postal charges since the department could no longer depend on Treasury funding. But the amount involved was a mega increase and we feared that as an up-and-coming politician he would not risk his popularity for a worthy cause. Hence, we suggested to him that it would be advisable to do it in stages.

His response was quick and straight. He said that if it were something that should be done, it should be done immediately. “If people wanted to blame me for a good thing, let them do it once and not every time when I increase the postal rates,” he announced and went for a single mega increase. In his boldness, I found Sri Lanka’s version of Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee of Singapore who too made such bold decisions.

Reforming telecom sector

Then came the reform of the telecommunication sector in the country. Since 1858, it had functioned as a government department which had been converted to a public corporation in 1991. With no new investment in fast changing technology in the sector, this outfit was the essence of inefficiency within Sri Lanka’s public sector operations. A Sri Lankan had to wait a minimum of four years in a waiting list to get a telephone connection. Even that would have happened had he known the right people in the corporation.

President Chandrika had decided to invite foreign capital and technology to make it a modern telecom company. This important task fell on Mangala as the Minister of Communications. But it was a hotbed of trade union action that could have paralysed the entire country had it been handled in the wrong way. Hence, it was a suicidal mission for a minister and any other person would have thought twice before agreeing to undertake that task. For Mangala, it was difficult and challenging and not impossible.

The reform-minded animal within him forced him to work day and night, negotiate with prospective foreign investors as well as trade union leaders, and deliver what President Chandrika wanted within years. That was how Japan’s Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation, popularly known as NTT, became a part-owner of the outfit that was known as the Sri Lanka Telecom. The militant trade unions were appeased by offering share ownership in the new foreign-Sri Lanka partnership. In the history of public sector reforms in Sri Lanka, this was a major achievement.

New technology and investment poured into the company, employees who now felt that it was their company began to work hard and smart, and Sri Lanka Telecom was able to expand its capacity beyond the demand for landline telephone services. Within a few years, instead of frustrated customers chasing after the Telecom for a landline connection, the Telecom was going behind citizens to take them as new subscribers. That was the marvel of Mangala’s achievement.

Recently, when I reminded him about it, the humble man within him corrected me quickly saying that it was a teamwork and not an achievement by him alone. But those of us in the Central Bank knew how hard it was for him to get even the support of his Cabinet colleagues to divest a part of telecom to NTT.

A man with hands-on experience in finance

After he became the finance minister in late 2017, there was a group of people who had started a slander campaign targeting him. Their claim was that he, being a fashion designer, was not fit to hold that post which required a knowledge of high finance. But he had a hands-on experience in the finance ministry during Chandrika’s time as her deputy. On top of this, he was a good listener, learner and a man of pragmatic disposition. Hence, I knew that he was the best choice in the previous Good Governance government to hold that post.

When he took over the ministry, Sri Lanka had been undergoing a mini version of the macroeconomic crisis which the country is undergoing today. The budget was in a precarious situation with a low revenue base and a stubborn high overall deficit.

The central government debt had been rising both in absolute terms and relative to the GDP. The country’s foreign reserves were falling, putting pressure for the rupee to depreciate in the market. Only a lip service had been paid by the Government to the needed economic reforms.

Growth was slowing down and it was obvious that the country would descend to the near zero or negative range. Despite the arrangement with IMF for an extended fund facility or EFF, the top Government leaders had not been fully convinced of its necessity. Thus, he had walked into a bed of burning coals and not that of roses. It seemed that he himself would get burned while driving the entire country to rising flames.

A listener willing to learn

It was in this background that he called me to a meeting at the finance ministry. It was a one-on-one meeting except for the presence of his deputy, Eran Wickramaratne. Mangala said that he wanted an independent opinion on the state of the country’s economy. We made an objective assessment of the precarious situation of the economy, the need for implementing the IMF program in all sincerity and not as a duty, and the priority to be given for economic reforms.

It was a fruitful meeting and Mangala showed his willingness to learn anew of the issues involved. We departed agreeing to meet again or contact each other whenever an issue needing his attention arose. He kept to his undertaking dearly.

The challenge of a new finance minister

I wrote in this series the Herculean task which the new Finance Minister faced under the title ‘The New Finance Minister has a Herculean Task Ahead: He will win only if he moves with foresight’. This is the advice I gave him in this article: “Countries that have faced worse economic crises have come out of them by using prudential policy packages aiming at future prosperity rather than short-term political expediency. For long-term economic prosperity, Sri Lanka has to make it easier for people to do business, improve its competitiveness, invest heavily in both human and physical infrastructure, improve productivity and efficiency in government services and have access to foreign markets.”

“All these require Sri Lanka to introduce economic reforms, but reforms are painful and costly. Hence, in the past, all finance ministers, including Samaraweera’s immediate predecessor, chose the easy path of seeking short-term political expediency sacrificing long-term growth objectives. Now Samaraweera has to make this hard choice which is politically unpalatable but necessary for long-term prosperity.”

“An important requirement for Samaraweera to do this job has been that all financial institutions should be correctly placed under him. Thus, institutions which have been listed under different ministries but legitimately should come within the Ministry of Finance should be returned to that Ministry.”

“The financial institutions involved are the Central Bank, state banks, Securities and Exchange Commission, Employees’ Trust Fund and the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation. Without them under him, it is unthinkable that he would be able to introduce the reforms which the Government expects him to do.”

Clipped wings given back to Mangala

This last comment was further elaborated in a subsequent article in this series under the title ‘Asking a Wings-clipped Finance Minister to Fly is a Classic Repeat of Dunna Dunugamuwe’. This was one of the follies committed by the Good Governance government when it was formed in 2015 and it continued without a change since then.

I argued in this article as follows: “This functional allocation was unorthodox and illogical. It was unorthodox because it was the first time that they were taken away from the purview of the Ministry of Finance. It was illogical because it violated the principle of categorising similar functions in a single ministerial portfolio. A Government observing that principle helps it to coordinate its interagency and intraagency work effectively, efficiently and smoothly.” Fortunately, sanity prevailed and before Mangala presented his budget for 2018, the error was rectified by the President.

Mangala’s Mangala Budget

When Mangala presented his ‘Mangala Budget’ for 2018, I appraised it in two articles in this series.

The following was a common observation of the presentation of the budget in Parliament: “When presenting the Budget, unlike his predecessors, Mangala exuded confidence in what he was reading. It did not appear to viewers that he was reading a text prepared for him by someone else. It was short and to the point. Both offensive bashing of the previous administration and colourful eulogising of the achievements of the present administration had been kept to a minimum.

“The entirety of the budget speech had been used to present the case for a new theme in budgeting, namely, the establishment of a ‘Blue-Green Economic System’ in the country. It also gives a different connotation. That is, the economy to be developed in Sri Lanka in the future is a joint effort by both the Green party and the Blue party.”

A politician determined to go for long-term reforms

I warned him in these articles that he should not savour in small gains like improving the revenue base or generating a surplus in the primary account of the budget but concentrate on introducing an economy-wide reform program to place the country in a long-term growth path. The country’s macroeconomic ailment was much more than what small, isolated gains could solve. A politician naturally tends to market such small gains to project his success to appease the angry voters, while the country’s problems begin to worsen day by day like a rolling snowball.

I warned that Mangala should avoid this pitfall and that was exactly what he did. He moved into full swing of the Extended Fund Facility or EFF which his government had embraced half-heartedly a year ago. The progress relating to the economic reforms had been lacklustre as highlighted repeatedly by the visiting IMF missions on the progress of EFF. Mangala along with Eran mobilised resources at the Ministry and the Central Bank to introduce tax reforms, fuel price formula to reflect the market prices, a new central bank legislation, and reform of the budget and state-owned enterprises.

Reversing Mangala’s reforms by present Government to its peril

It is these reforms which the present Government reversed at its very formation to its peril to reap a whirlwind of macroeconomic crisis today. It offered an unsolicited tax concession to income tax and VAT payers creating a huge hole in its revenue base as large as Rs. 500 billion a year. The resultant gap was met by borrowing from the banking sector which is commonly known as money printing and those borrowings amounted to Rs. 2.8 trillion during the 18-month period from January 2020 to June 2021.

The resultant money supply growth at 33% caused foreign reserves to flow out of the country creating an acute balance of payments crisis and putting pressure for the exchange rate to depreciate.

Today, Central Bank’s maverick attempt at fixing the rate at Rs. 203 per US dollar without supporting foreign reserves has created a shortage of dollars in the market, a thriving black market for dollars, and rent-seeking opportunity for those who have dollars to sell them unofficially to hungry importers at much higher rates.

Eventually when the system would be overstretched beyond its ability to hold-on, like Thailand in 1997 and the Maldives in 2009, the Central Bank will be forced to follow the market and allow the rupee to have a freefall. The abolition of the fuel price formula in a background of low international prices gave a temporary solace to CPC in 2020, but the bloom became a gloom in early 2021 when the international prices began to rise. The Government was eventually forced to increase fuel prices substantially, invoking a public outroar, in June 2021 to save both CPC and lending banks.

Mangala had agreed to provide independence to the Central Bank to conduct its policy for the sake of the nation by introducing a new Bill. But it was shelved by the new Government. Today, the charge is that the Central Bank is not an autonomous body anymore but a branch of the Ministry of Finance. Mangala, therefore, did not go for cheap popularity but bold economic reforms for the sake of long-term stability and growth.

Khema’s Boy no more but his ideology will prevail

His 30 years in politics was celebrated in 2019 and a special documentary titled Khema’s Boy was produced to bring forth his contribution as a politician. He invited me to speak on his contribution to economic reforms. Appraising his work, I said that his contribution will be felt by Sri Lanka not immediately but in the medium to long-term.

Mangala is no more with us. But the ideology which he left with us will continue to inspire us forever.

*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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  • 20
    1

    Appreciated this firsthand account of Dr. W.A. Wijewardena on Mangala Samaraweera’s accomplishments.

    Recounting of the positive leadership that was time and again demonstrated by Mangala, a unicorn in the SL political landscape, is a necessary exercise. –
    Hope a new breed of political representation has been inspired and continues its momentum!

    • 8
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      UNP Moderates like young Dr Harsha Silva, Eran Wickramaratne and few others will continue the Mangala’s ideaology.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHMrAk3PHbg

      Barbarians in power would NOT care much about “human values”. Any country with the death rates ( 400 deaths/day) would at once go for ” strict LOCKDOWNs”…. but criminals born to Medamulana cave would not care much about a life – their NOHAEKIYAWA/inability let innocient people fall dead.
      :

      • 1
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        Mangala, Samantha Power’s boy, who did what his foreign masters who used his Gay identity to their advantage asked him to do, was not fit to be the Finance Minister of Sri Lanka. He did not have the qualifications as a fashion designer and hair dresses.
        Nor was he qualified to be Foreign Minister and get Sri Lankan into the UNHRC noose. Mangy did great harm to Sri Lanka wearing his liberal stars and stripes coat!
        He should have never taken the job of Finance Minister or Foreign Minister and had the modesty know his limits and limitations. But he was a Sri Lankan politician!
        This is part of the sickening parade of praise for dead politicians by sycophants and this neocon economist!

        • 0
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          Also, Mangy died after 2 shots of the Ultra expensive and highly fashionable US Pfizer- Biontech mRNA Vaccine – a parting Gift from Uncle Sam?!

          Most people who die today die because of the vaccine, like Kili Maharaja, Gauri Thavarasa etc.
          The vaccines that were supposed to prevent people being hospitalized and dying of Covid-19 are killing people but the GoSL uselsss Health Ministry and GMOA does have any Vaccine Adverse Reactions Reporting mechanism. Meanwhile the data base of the National Drugs Authority has been wiped clean.

  • 14
    3

    Dear Dr Wijewardena,
    .
    This is a most perceptive tribute, and so is all that is said in the video, including what you say.
    .
    I didn’t ever know him, but I admired what he stood for. Far too many superficial people used to see in him a man who seemed to switch political allegiances; they did not want to face up to the fact that their own seeming “faithfulness” was only refusal to hang on to some leader at the cost of all polices and principles. He was guided by his overview of principles. This was why he joined “Yahapalanaya”, which subsequently let us down so badly.
    .
    Hardly anybody talks about his instinctive reaction to the nomination of Maithripala; he said “why not himself”. I remember telling myself that Mangala was mad, and I think that Mangala himself then realised that he would be defeated, but MY3 could just squeak through. This was congruous with his pulling out of the Parliamentary Elections last year. He was aware of the bigger picture, and could see that the majority of people whom he had to be with from that point on had petty ambitions.
    .
    There may have been occasions when Mangala stayed on in Cabinets of that were over-all disappointing. However, he himself, always bluntly told the truth.
    .
    The challenge now is for us not to tell convenient lies.

    • 8
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      Part I
      Thank you Mr Wijewardhana for this valuable tribute to Mangala.
      Kema’s koluwa was unique to his politics and his name would be among the highly corrupted politicians:
      No doubt Mangala Samaraweera is one of the greatest leaders of Sri Lankan soil. His words he added to a recent YT video, reechoe my ears as I am commneting today „ I prefer to call me as „ srilanken buddhist“ not as „ sinhala buddhist“.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NwoLay0AW_A
      He was a leading charactor of all recent turning points, however, his politics was not based on sinhala buddhism/racism.That is why he was a shining star among all Sri Lankan politicians.
      His political philosophy will never be forgotten by the educated people of Sri Lanka. Some pinguttharayas hidden behind „sanga costume“ keep attacking the good man yet today with MEDIA’s dead silence. However, the question would be „ who are the educated in our god punished country ?“, knowing that 50% of the voter eligible paved the way to the record breaking high criminals be the leaders, and consequences are obvious . They cant keep control on the prices of the „daily essentials“ today, let alone, how can they be able to contain the COVID virus and gurantee people s safety ?.

      tbd

      • 7
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        Part 2
        Mangala‘s political legacies will be in the minds of people for years to come. I thought srilanken youth would be able to differentiate it, being moderates, however, significant portions oft he voters for SLPP last time, were the youth. That is why I always, question – who react as the edcuated people in this country.
        ?
        Mangala will be remembered for his sincerity, dedication, honesty, patriotism, and loyalty to this nation. And not to forget, he had balls to call a spade a spade whenever he was given the chance. Those who attack him today, should be very clear, he was a loner with his own politics. He was born buddhist as many of us are, however, he could stand against „ SANGA KALLIYA“- that became the role in vicious politicians ‚ political parades, as decorative animals. The place given in the society, was just abused by the kind of cheevaradhariyas. People’s stupidity not to bel able to differentiate good from bad, ist he root cause of all various problems of the day.
        Mangala will be remembered for his diplomatic skills and bravery. He will be remembered for his sharp diplomatic attitudes to win the hearts and minds of international community.
        As we all know, in the aftermath post war in Sri Lanka, after the LTTE was defeated within the country, Sri Lanka encountered an international cry.

        • 6
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          Part 3
          Many western countries wanted to punish the government for some alleged war crimes in the war against LTTE and yet, it was Mangala with his discreet diplomatic skills managed to win the support and goodwill of many western countries at this crucial aftermath of war. No other Sri Lankan politician would have handled this difficult situation as Mangala did. But Mahinda Rajapakshe the the kind of crimes, never uttered a single word in that regard yet today. How mlechcha they should become even more clearer to you … alone looking at the issue. Mangala managed to protect the goodwill and reputation of Sri Lanka at these difficult times. He won the hearts and minds of many international political leaders eveat this crucial time after the war.

      • 5
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        Apologies.
        his name would be among the highly UN corrupted politicians:😐😐😐😐😐😐😐

  • 11
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    All you esteemed learned intellectuals have a propensity to see reality through your emotions ……. not your intellect ……..

    Yes, Managala did a few good things and did a few bad things ……… but the best thing he could have ever done for the country would have been to go out and get a real job.

    The true real-smart patriotic thing to do …… Instead of “trying to save the country” ……. is to go out and get a real job.

    If the Rajapakses, Ranil, Sajith, JVP (or whatever the crap they are now,) Suminatheran, Ganeshan, …… 225 in the parliament …….Mahanayakes, Cardinals, priests of all denominations ……. lackeys, hangers-on, minions …… go out and get real jobs ……. abracadabra ……. all the problems of the country will disappear overnight like magic.


    I have more respect and appreciate the true patriotism and honest labour of a single housemaid toiling in the Middle East to support her family and the country …….. than all the abovementioned cunning freeloaders put together ……..

    • 9
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      continued

      They have more class in the tip of their little finger than some of you bum-lickers (ball-carriers: Native’s term) would ever even know ….. and wouldn’t recognize even if it fell on your heads!

      You’ll read this and perhaps agree ……. and again tomorrow will write the same things you are conditioned to write …….

      And ……..Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace ………

      My only ambition now ……… to be a better poor-player than SJ ……..

      • 10
        5

        Of all the times that you’ve been burned
        By now you think you’d’ve learned
        That it’s who you look like,
        Not who you are —- Jackson Browne

  • 5
    5

    Mangala’s ideology died long before him.

    He could not get elected or win an election in an area he led after 2015.

  • 0
    1

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  • 2
    0

    MS had recently written that it was he who had convinced the boss lady that she should nominate the person from the south , and that he had worked tirelessly to ensure his victory . The Oxonian from the north I understand, had been her preferred choice . This would forever remain his legacy to our country.

  • 8
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    Thank you Dr.Wijeywardena. No doubt you had a ring-side view of Mangala and as such you knew his strengths.

    One thing that has baffled me is why Mangala could not see through the Rajapakses much earlier. Perhaps, it was difficult to fathom MaRa.

    Anyway, in the past 30yrs or so Mangala proved himself as a Liberal who had the courage to take unpopular decisions for long term benefits.
    This was Mangala as legislator.
    Above all a decent soul, Khemas Koluwa.
    His death has diminished a good many of us.

  • 0
    0

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  • 5
    0

    RIP Mangala.
    Thank you Dr Wijewardena

  • 4
    0

    Mangala’s murderers, who have a difficulty in looking people in the eye, are hiding these days.
    As it appears, the curse hadn’t started with the Easter Sunday Attack, but with the brutal killing of 7 pregnant tuskers (probably as a sacrifice to Kali), a few days before the Presidential election.
    Corona is used to silence people and cover up henious murders.

  • 0
    1

    Common sense farsight economics he tried to install, but Lankans via current rulers wanted to go BIG with with alternate capitalistic vistas in mind….. now all is ending in socialist frugality. Could it be high time we merged a bit more with the sub-continent as he suggested? Nowadays immigration and border patrol is very structured, and it won’t be the same as in Elara’s or colonists’ time. This will only boost up Sinhala Buddhist culture and prosperity.  Also his call for interaction with minorities will boost up the same. Indeed Sinhala Buddhism will thrive once the Tamil and Muslims confidently contribute their skills to the Motherland.

  • 2
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    Part I
    At the outset I must thank the author for writing this article, together with the appended YouTube video with the title translated to English as “Khema’s Boy” or “Khema’s Kid” although in the Colombo sense the Sinhala term “Koluwa” is derogatory but in the out of Colombo sense it has no derogation at all. This prompted me to make inquiries about Mangala from those who knew him, and they gave me vivid accounts. Considering the attribute of bold decision making the author’s comparison of Mangala with Lee Kuan Yew or Goh Keng Swee of Singapore may not be acceptable to those Singaporeans who know the story and uphold Singaporean values. In Singapore, politicians are expected to have a high standard of personal conduct, a requirement not legally mandated but socially. The sudden departure of Michael Palmer as the Speaker was such that he had even resign from his party membership. The opposition MP Yaw Shin Leong too was sacked from his party because of ‘indiscretions in personal life’ and thereby losing his seat in the Parliament. All this is not applicable to Sri Lankan politicians and hence a comparison with any Singaporean politician is inappropriate.

  • 2
    0

    Part II
    Mangala knew to separate his personal life from his public life although he was candid about the nature of his personal life. This frankness qualifies him to be honest with his mission and vision. His ability to separate personal and public life is further demonstrated in his interview published in YouTube in Sinhala follows: “Within my room I worship Lord Buddha. I value Buddhist philosophy. Although I am a Sinhala Buddhist within my house, I am a Sri Lankan outside”. Close associates vouch that he never distinguished any Sri Lankan based on ethno-religious considerations. The cruel carnage of burning a vehicle with an old lady and a driver inside in broad day light during black-July he witnessed, may have caused a profound impact on him. The appended video describes Mangala as a good teacher, a strict one but very cordial with the students, thus his determination to uphold principles and the art or science of a vocation to the letter while being human and humane. I surmise that despite his ideology not acceptable to the average person, he was acceptable to the voter of his District owing to humanity he displayed and the place better.

  • 2
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    Part III
    It goes without saying that he made changes for the better in whatever assignment he undertook, including the Finance Ministry and he made no bones about his initial trepidation in Parliament about being Minister of Finance. The article amply describes his performance and achievements, but Mangala never egoistically boasted about it. Mangala lead the Sri Lankan delegation to South America to study structural reforms prior to the privatization of Telecoms comprising of Pinsiri (Middle name of Mangla), Jayasiri, Dharmasiri, Hemasiri and Somasiri causing the Secretary of the Ministry to quip “Ah! Siri Tours”. Mangala posed the simple question “Why must the public come to a Minister for a telephone connection in the guise of an out of turn priority?”. Answers to that as the author states in his illuminating article is the commercialization of the incumbent monopolist and creating a better regulatory environment permitting competition. Mangala’s basic issue was solved But, the sector is not performing as it should simply because the original Presidential Committee on the sector liberalization recommendation of making the salary of regulatory staff being on par with those of service providers is continuously ignored making the regulator a puppet of the licensees.

  • 2
    0

    Part 4
    As a believer in amity of people in Sri Lanka, the highest respect should be accorded to Mangala, for rebuilding the Jaffna public library along with Lakshman Kadirgamar. I feel sad that not even today whether the political leaders in the North ever acknowledge that role of Mangala. While the leaders of the North are very keen in erecting monuments and making commemorations of all kinds will they ever pass a resolution in erecting a statue or a bust of Mangala within the premises of the library? It is yet to be see. I am sure, from what I hear, that Mangala is such a simple man that he would not like the aggrandization of his name to that scale. Nevertheless, he deserves it not only for that but his desire to reach and shake the hands of the citizenry of the Northern Province both in word and deed.

  • 1
    2

    Although a descriptive account of Mangala’s achievements, the writer did not seem able to divest himself of credit for Mangala’s successful ventures. It would have reflected better on the writer if he had concentrated only on the late minister’s achievements rather than his own involvement at almost every stage.

    • 1
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      Mr LP,
      .
      reason may be the writer is good at his own fields but not a political analyst.
      :
      To me, MS was one of rare politicians our motherland produced in recent times.
      :
      There are few good politicians, but they dont get chance to address the issues for some reasons. Besides, people are not yet grown to respect facts in our country. If some monks would be criticised for their public misconduct, the rest of buddhist monks join and attack the one who criticised those monks. The place being given to the monks in society – above the law – truly destroys the country. At least today, wise monks should break the silence. A tiny group off pseudo monks could destroy buddhist values in SL and also the society as a whole.

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