By Mohamed Harees –
‘True icons are larger than life, unforgettable with an elegance that’s mesmerizingly timeless’ – Francois Nars
Mangala Samaraweera, fondly referred to as Mangala, a former Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka and a notable advocate of peaceful coexistence breathed his last, in a Colombo hospital , after treatment for COVID-19-related complications failed. He was 65. Earlier this month, Mangala contracted the deadly virus amid Sri Lanka’s deadly fourth wave that forced the government to impose an island-wide lockdown. May his soul rest in peace.
Both local and global leaders paid glowing tribute to him, including his arch political foes – the Rajapaksas notably Sri Lankan President and the Prime Minister. Former President Chandrika K. Bandaranaike rightly referred to his ‘impeccable personal ethics which will be hard to match in Sri Lanka’s political arena’. Tamil political leader Sampanthan summed up one of Mangala’s prime missions in life when he stated in tribute, that he 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’. This was one aspect in his exemplary life which brought him closer to the minority communities, both Tamil and Muslims which became vulnerable, being the target of many racist majoritarian hate groups, specially in the Post war history of Sri Lanka. He was indeed a great communicator who championed reconciliation amongst all our peoples all his political life.
Hailing from the South, he built his political career specially under two SLFP Presidents – Chandrika and Mahinda. He created a stir in Sri Lankan politics when he was sacked as a minister by Mahinda Rajapakse in 2007, after which he formed a new political party called the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (Mahajana) Wing which merged into the United National Party in 2010. 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 Yahapalana government, when he engaged closely with the international community.
The decisive role he played in respect of ensuring post-war accountability and transitional justice, however did not go down well, both with the majority Sinhalese as well as the Tamil communities for different reasons. He consistently slammed the culture of militarisation, ethnic and religious polarisation in Sri Lanka, calling for “a radical centre”, with a “commitment to liberalism and centrist values”. Minister Mangala took a pivotal role in forming the Office on Missing Persons during the previous regime, which earned the admiration of the international community. He sought to assuage the majority community which harboured the view that it will be a witch hunt in order to prosecute war heroes, by stating, ‘it does not aim to benefit only one community and does not threaten another. It is merely a truth-seeking mechanism that aims to investigate and find out the truth about those identified as “missing” or who have disappeared during times of conflict’.
In the light of the adverse global publicity Sri Lanka had to face specially in the Rajapakse regime days, it could be said in the overall context, that Mangala was able to take Sri Lanka to the world stage from a “dismal pit” to a certain extent. In 2016, the International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) presented him a high award for “special contribution to the reconciliation and coexisting of different groups in Sri Lanka” and citing his signal contribution to the development of Sri Lanka into a successful and equitable multi-ethnic, multicultural, multireligious and multilingual country.
Mangala’s role in defending the dignity and rights of Muslims as equal citizens of Sri Lanka, at a challenging point during the Post war period, cannot be forgotten. He was among the first top level politicians who came forward to speak against the demonisation of the Muslims, when the notorious BBS was hunting down the Muslims in every quarter with State patronage. As an Opposition politician, he exposed the State funding to the BBS group through a defence Ministry sources during Mahinda’s regime. In 2017, Mangala also condemned the attack by a group of Buddhist monks on the hapless Rohingya refugees, describing it as a “shameful act,” and called for strong action against the perpetrators.
In the post Easter tragedy, he slammed a leading Buddhist monk’s controversial comments targeting Muslims and urged “true Buddhists” to unite against the “Talibanisation” of the religion. His message came days after a senior monk attached to Asgiriya accused Muslims of “destroying the country”, and called for their stoning and a boycott of Muslim-run shops and businesses. He was the only prominent politician then to directly challenge the Asgiriya-affiliated monk’s racially-charged comments, He tweeted ‘True Buddhists must unite NOW against the Talibanisation of our great philosophy of peace and love of all beings. No Buddhist can condone a statement to stone another human being to death, even if it emanates from the robed orders’. Mangala also challenged Rev Ratana who engaged in an opportunistic ‘fast unto death’, demanding that three Muslim politicians resign over alleged links to Easter suspects. He also courageously accused Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith too, of “fanning the flames of hatred and communalism, as he visited the fasting monk.
Mangala also slammed a Nazi-style boycott of Muslim businesses and mob violence unleashed by Sinhalese nationalists in 2019 who got a new lease of life in the wake of Islamist Easter Sunday bombings. He said that boycotts were being launched by nationalists against other Muslim-owned businesses, where an overwhelming majority of workers were Sinhalese. He cited Brandix, a top apparel firm, which employed 48,000 people, where 75 percent were Sinhalese and Timex Garmernts, where 90 percent of the 10,000-odd workers were Sinhalese.
His courage to stand upto his convictions was amply demonstrated during this government’s unfair and unreasonable decision to cremate the covid dead which affected the Muslim community whose faith prohibited cremation. He spoke out in bold terms and called out the regime for their open racist policy in the absence of any scientific basis. As the news of baby Shaykh being cremated became a symbol for what Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, as well as moderates, considered cruel and inhuman treatment of the Muslim coronavirus victims, many protesters started the ‘tying the white cloth’ campaign on the gates of Kanatte. When the government attempted to sabotage this campaign, Mangala tweeted, “The ghouls of Kanatte (cemetery) have removed overnight the white handkerchiefs tied in memory of the infant who was cremated forcibly against the wishes of the parents”
At a challenging period in Sri Lanka’s contemporary history when the nation needed courageous politicians in the calibre of Mangala, to counter the vicious campaign of the present day rulers to gain and stay in power by using racism as a political tool, his untimely demise will be a great loss to the wounded nation. However, his legacy to stand up against the scourge of racism and divisiveness and to promote inclusivity and peaceful co-existence, is bound to live.
Sri Lanka has been at the cusp of breakthroughs many times before. There were much expectations from Sri Lanka at the time we gained Independence. Since then, we have been permanently at a make-it or break-it cross-roads for decades. Peace and prosperity have always been in sight and within grasp; but these many moments when history was pregnant with opportunity ended in disappointment. Post Covid, Sri Lankan journey seeking the heights of progress, is still unfolding, with many steep hills yet to be climbed and many turns in the road. Much of the very hard work of reconciliation and justice which Mangala stood for with much determination, still lies ahead. In the past, Sri Lanka’s journey has had more than its fair share of darkness, division, and the devastation of war. But there is still light at the end of the tunnel. As what was remarkable was the resilience of its democracy, the determination of its people to seek out a new future for all of its citizens, and to refuse to remain mired in the past.
Mangala can at least rest in peace with the realization that greater sections of the people of Sri Lanka have now realized the evil machinations of the forces of racism which brought this government to power – a dream which he worked for with much commitment. That determination found voice in many moderate forces, thanks to the personality of Mangala who rejected the politics of fear and division and sought to give leadership to bring the country together. During the address at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture in August 2015, Mangala echoed, ‘Lakshman abhorred terrorism, he was a humanitarian. A realist but at the same time an idealist. He articulated his vision for Sri Lanka many times. I will quote from just one instance where he said: “I believe that all our peoples can live together, they did live together. I think they must learn to live together after this trauma is over. I see no reason why the major races in this country, the Tamils, Sinhalese and the Muslims cannot again build a relationship of confidence and trust. That is my belief. That is what I wished for and in working for that, I will not be deterred….”
Again , Mangala stated in an address in London in 2017, ‘Our history tells us that Sri Lanka was the marvel of the ancient world when she embraced multiculturalism, openness and trade. Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, at their heights, were home to people of all races and creeds. A spirit of celebrating diversity prevailed, and our civilization was enriched with ideas and practices from Rome, Persia, Egypt, Greece, India, South East Asia and China. We were a connected civilization proud of our position at the centre of Indian Ocean trade.The lessons and the choices of our history are clear to us today. We have a choice between impunity, conflict, corruption, extremism and poverty, or the rule of law, accountability, equality, multiculturalism, openness and trade. We have a choice between conflict and poverty, versus peace and prosperity.’ And finished his speech as ‘Breaking from the past, we will confine those who spin webs from the threads of ignorance to the dust-bin of history; finally put prejudice, ignorance, mediocrity and opportunism behind us once and for all, and build a truly united, democratic, multi-cultural and prosperous Sri Lanka where peace, justice, equality, dignity and freedom for all, prevail’.
May his dreams come true! RIP Mangala, the legend of humanity!