Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Mangala Samaraweera, thirty years in public life – A reflection

Posted by harimpeiris on March 6, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 6th March 2019)

Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera is the man of the moment, as the first budget of the UNF government, sans its UPFA partner is presented as the basic policy framework of the UNP and its allies before the decisive year end presidential elections come upon us. Last week, Minister Samaraweera celebrated thirty years in public life, with a series of events, the highlight of which was a lecture by the former Obama Administration cabinet rank Ambassador Samantha Power. In a welcome development and maturity of Sri Lanka’s political ethos, the event was bi partisan with high level participation with President Sirisena and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse attending along with Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe and UNF front liners. This was similar to the wedding celebration of the youngest Rajapakse offspring recently which was also a celebration sans political difference and partisan divides.

My earliest encounters with Minister Mangala Samaraweera was when he was then, the newly appointed Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and Media in the CBK Administration of 1994 and I, a consultant in the Public Enterprise Reform Commission (PERC) tasked with implementing state sector reforms, including telecommunications of which Mangala Samaraweera was minister. The Minster had inherited a telecommunications sector, which was at that time, still a government owned monopoly of Sri Lanka Telecom, where getting a land or fixed phone line was still considered a political favor, with a waiting list of over two hundred thousand. Mangala took on the huge task of reforming Sri Lanka’s Telecommunications sector, which required implementing a regulatory framework of the TRC, attracting a foreign investor in Japan’s Nippon telco NTT and most importantly perhaps as a left of center government, handling the Telecom unions, which were adamantly opposed to the privatization. Mangala handled this all with great skill, both politically and professionally and the results are evident today where Sri Lanka has 21 million people and 22 million phone connections.  If Sri Lanka has South Asia’s most advanced telecoms infrastructure, the credit must then surely go to Mangala.

Mangala first entered Parliament in 1989, at a youthful thirty-three years, when the country was in the throes of the second JVP insurrection. Fortune favored his bravery, in that the then SLFP strongman in Matara, Ariya Bullegoda succumbed to JVP threats and intimidation to boycott the 1989 general elections and did not contest, keeping the SLFP field more open for the relatively new youthful human rights activist. When Mangala Samaraweera launched his first parliamentary election campaign, it was the old-fashioned way with his mother carrying the posters and Mangala the bucket of paste to publicize his preference number in the first parliamentary elections to be held under the proportional representation system. Mangala’s commitment to human rights and pluralism was born in the crucible of Sri Lanka’s brutal second JVP uprising of that period and has remained consistent and steadfast, even at a personal and political price.

Mangala has always been a great believer in political alliances and coalitions. Elected an opposition MP in 1989 and despite being a newcomer to parliament, politics and the party and he threw himself in to what might have been thought of as the near impossible task of modernizing the SLFP after its abysmal defeat of 1977. This required among other things, an easing upstairs of the iconic Madam Sirimavo and enabling a younger, more dynamic and fresh thinking leadership to takeover. Mangala was arguably one of the most influential in persuading the widowed and single parent Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to return to Sri Lanka and take over the reigns of the SLFP.

Mangala was instrumental in the formation of the People’s Alliance (PA), that alliance of the SLFP and the traditional left parties which swept the polls in 1994, beginning in fact with the SLFP’s shock win in the Southern Provincial Council elections in 1993. Interestingly Mangala’s father Mahanama Samaraweera who was also MP for Matara was first elected from the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and the Communist Party’s only electoral base in Sri Lanka even today, sufficient for parliamentary representation, continues to be in Matara, with MP Chandasiri Gajadeera, flying the CP’s sole insignia in Parliament from Matara, in tribute to Mahanama Samaraweera’s groundwork for the CP in the South.

However, in keeping with the times, Mangala was then and now, a political centrist and modernist. His favorite political author and theorist has been neither Karl Marx nor the neo liberal Friedrich Hayek but rather the Anthony Giddens and his arguments for a third way. A radical center, which was reformist and pragmatic.

Mangala Samaraweera together with the late Lakshman Kadirgama were the two Ministers who were the then President Kumaratunga’s brain trust on national reconciliation, together with GL Peiris.  It was Mangala who organized both the “Sudu Nelum movement” and the thavalama street dramas which took the message of conflict transformation and reconciliation to the village level, in the form of drama and open forums. Consequently, by even the year 2000, opinion polls and surveys showed a clear and significant majority in favor of a political accommodation and reforms to ensure that the Sri Lankan state reflected the real diversity of her society.

In recent times and especially post war, as a front bencher of the UNF, to which he now belonged, having previously crossed over in principled opposition to Rajapakse rule, Mangala has been a strong advocate of both reconciliation and economic development. I was privileged to have served as Advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, during Mangala’s tenure as Foreign Minister. Unlike many in public life Mangala is not ego centric and certainly not insecure. He can distil professional advice, accepting the good, while ignoring the bad and is inclusive and consultative in his decision making and policy formulation.

Minister Samaraweera was responsible for bringing Sri Lanka back from the brink of near pariah status to which we had almost descended during the disastrous China centric, no post war reconciliation policies of the Rajapakse second term. It was he who rebalanced and repaired Sri Lanka’s relationship with India and led Sri Lanka in the UN to commit to her own domestic accountability and reconciliation process, believing and arguing what the Rajapakse era LLRC Commission Report had clearly spelt out, that every nation engaged in a brutal civil war needed healing through addressing the effects, causes and conduct of the conflict to ensure non-reoccurrence.

As the 2019 election season moves into high gear, Mangala Samaraweera, together with his deputy Eran Wickramaratne has the enormous task of laying out the economic framework that would lay the foundation for the re-election of the centrist and pluralist political forces in the country. Somehow one feels, that as significant as Mangala’s past thirty years in public life has been, it is only set to increase post 2019. Khema’s boy has done her proud and, in the process, served the people of his native Matara and indeed the whole of Sri Lanka well.

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