The demise of former Minister MangalaSamaraweera removes from Sri Lanka’s political stage an actor of many talents and an individual capable of single-handedly changing the nation’s destiny.

Samaraweera succumbed to complications of being infected with the corona virus earlier this week. The news came as a shock because, although he was initially taken severely ill with the infection and spent time in an intensive care unit fueling rumours on social media that he had died, he then seemingly made a good recovery before suddenly passing away.

At the time of his death, Samaraweera held no political office. He had planned to contest the 2020 general election under the then newly formed Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and submitted nominations. However, two months before the poll, he withdrew from the contest saying he was ‘retiring’ from politics for personal reasons.

Since then, he has been expressing his discontent with Sri Lanka’s political climate, noting that it had descended to racism and offering cheap incentives to gain power and remain in office, taking the country backwards with each step, particularly in recent decades.

At the outset of his political journey in the early ‘80s, Samaraweera was firmly with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). He was following in the footsteps of his father MahanamaSamaraweera who had served in the governments of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Sirima Bandaranaike. Having returned from England where he trained as a fashion designer, he opted for a career in politics instead.


This was a time when the SLFP was in turmoil, reeling from the defeat it suffered under the juggernaut of J.R. Jayewardene’s United National Party (UNP) which in 1977 had recorded what is still the country’s most one-sided electoral victory. Samaraweera entered parliament in 1989 when the SLFP was in midst of a tug-of-war between the Bandaranaike siblings, Chandrika and Anura. Samaraweerasided firmly with Chandrika.

That was the ticket to his meteoric rise. When Chandrika Kumaratunga ascended to the Presidency in 1994, Samaraweera was her right-hand man and the face of the government at many media events. Later on, he also held the Media portfolio. At the time, Samaraweera was not averse to playing parochial politics to browbeat his opponents.

Samaraweera remained with Kumaratunga when her government was defeated in 2001, only to return to power in 2004. However, despite Kumaratunga’s reservations, he sided with Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, being his campaign manager for the presidential election that year which he narrowly won against Ranil Wickremesinghe, following a boycott of the poll in the North and East.

Maturing politically, Samaraweera became increasingly disenchanted with the Rajapaksa government’s nationalistic ideology and its strategy of promoting Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism to win elections. Along with Anura Bandaranaike and SripathiSooriyarachchi, he defected to the opposition in 2007.

Briefly, he toyed with the idea of forming his own political party, naming it the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (Mahajana) faction. Knowing the realities of Lankan politics which is mostly a two-party race, he aligned with the UNP.


Samaraweera’s political outlook had become increasingly liberal by this time and found resonance with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. He worked tirelessly in the opposition and became a vociferous critic of the Rajapaksa regime.

Using his position in the UNP and his close friendship with Kumaratunga, Samaraweera was able to bridge the gap between the two erstwhile political rivals. This, and a series of closely guarded and carefully crafted political moves resulted in Maithripala Sirisena defecting from the SLFP and running against Mahinda Rajapaksa to register a surprise victory. There is no gainsaying that the individual most responsible for that sophisticated political operation was Mangala Samaraweera.

For his efforts, he was rewarded with the plum portfolio of Foreign Affairs. There, he undertook the massive task of repairing Sri Lanka’s image in the eyes of the world, when it was being described as a pariah state that was guilty of genocide. Samaraweera did much to correct that impression, negotiating with the United States and the United Nations and offering sensible compromises instead of the intransigence of the Rajapaksa regime.

Later on, he had to take on the even more important Finance Ministry in the aftermath of the debacle brought about Ravi Karunanayake’s alleged involvement in the Central Bank bond scandal. Samaraweera took great pride in ensuring fiscal discipline, even at the cost of the government’s popularity.

Samaraweera however couldn’t prevent the subsequent decline and disintegration of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine and its ultimate result, the split in the UNP that led to the formation of the SJB. He tried his best to reconcile the differences between Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa but failed mostly because the former was inflexible and unyielding.

In the end, he went where the majority of the UNP went, to the SJB, but was not totally convinced that the new party had the correct vision, the policies or the gravitas to command the respect of the people. He saw the fledgling party being populated by persons with narrow-minded agendas and ulterior motives, even if Premadasa himself had better intentions. Disillusioned, he quickly called it quits.

Samaraweera will be remembered not only for his political nous and his uncanny ability to pick a winner but also for speaking his mind when lesser people would have held their tongue because it was politically advantageous to do so. He should also be acknowledged as one of the few remaining honest politicians who was not accused of making big bucks despite overseeing many a high-profile ministry where there would have been many an opportunity. Also, he could never be accused of being a racist.  

Samaraweera leaves us at the age of 65. At a recent television interview, he opined that he would probably live another ten to fifteen years and that he wanted to use that time to create a better country. He had already embarked on a project called the ‘Radical Centre’ which he launched just a month ago. Unfortunately, it was not to be.    

Mangala Samaraweera was as a voice which spoke clearly and with common sense, even when the chips were down and the odds stacked against him. He will be sorely missed by Sri Lanka in the years to come and the void he leaves will become more apparent as an authoritarian, obstinate regime tries to tighten its grip on the nation.



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