The Prince of Kandy
Given the recent passing of Mangala Samaraweera, it is important to set out at least a few things so as to show disagreement with the consensus view. Samaraweera was a polarizing figure with his stance on ethnic reconciliation drawing adoration from some and hatred from others. Here I will contend that those adoring him and those hating are both misconceived in their views of Samaraweera.
Samaraweera in his own words was defending the armed forces from a more thorough investigation of their actions in the conflict. His establishment of the Office of Missing Persons, various nuances in the co-sponsored resolution, and backroom dealings all helped Sri Lanka buy for time. Though much of the foreign policy victory should be given to Wickremesinghe there is no doubt that Samaraweera though a horrible finance minister was a very adept diplomat.
People with actual power in positions of public interest are rarely put under much public scrutiny in our country. A recent piece I wrote on recently deceased Rajendran Rajamahendran was very difficult to get published but was done so here[i]. The sickening deification of people recently passed is not out of our forgiving and understanding nature but rather our sycophancy and the hope that we too receive such treatment in our own passing. I am far from a saint but at least I am not a moron.
The United National Party has by far the worst record on ethnic harmony. The UNP though antecedent of the Ceylon National Congress was behind much of the racial tension in Sri Lankan history. Through extremely divisive policies the UNP created both the JVP and LTTE.
Beginning from the 1980s the UNP used state-backed violence to create communal disharmony in such a manner as to retain power. The UNP of the time embodied, contrary to the principles of the Ceylon National Congress and the notion of a United Nation within its name, the very ethnocentric elements of the SLFP.
This worked wonders as any intelligent criticism of the government would also probably be by someone who would be easily castigated as being against the majoritarianism of the government. In other words, people like Cyril Mathew could be used to reign in any elements averse to the brazen corruption of the executive presidency. This trend continues today with the likes of the Jathika Hela Urumaya and Bodu Bala Sena being propped up by the major two parties (which represent broadly one set of policies). The SLFP could and should have thrown the UNP under the bus when facing international pressures on the outcomes of the war. This alongside the brazen Western alignment of the government in the 1980s would have gone a long way to allay pressure on the country.
Though I have great respect for Ranil Wickremesinghe I do not think by any metric he or even Mangala Samaraweera made a tangible difference to ethnic reconciliation. The UNP making bigger admission of its role in state-backed violence against minority communities would go a long way in coming to a long-term solution.
Wickremesinghe being a member of the government in the 1980s is unlikely to admit at best his government’s blatant cowardice and at worst obvious complicity in the incidents that took place. In politics, you have to be pragmatic. The Tamil polity should build ties not with the policies but with the people of the JVP and form a united movement against the Executive Presidency.
Back to Mangala
Samaraweera’s political journey has been quite different. He was a human rights campaigner in the 1980s during the Ranasinghe Premadasa presidency. But as a member of President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s inner circle, Samaraweera was known for his cut-throat political style and his markedly illiberal approach to governance. In 2005, when he served as manager for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidential campaign, Samaraweera ran a nationalist electoral battle that alienated moderates and ethnic minorities.[ii]– Mangala’s moment?
The above quote was from a piece published this July. In contrast to the sentiment expressed in recent opinion pieces Mangala’s politics rarely if ever seem to show a large principled stand on political issues. Think about how ridiculous it is to deify Mangala Samaraweera as a champion of ethnic harmony.
Samaraweera owes his beginning in politics largely to the Bandaranaike family who he actively supported even while within the UNP. He and his personal staff sing the praises of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Need I tell you that the Bandaranaike’s were behind the Sinhala only policy.
Though his budgets gave large reference to the Northern regions, the elements that were implemented largely took the form of huge tax breaks to those that have historically backed the UNP and are currently bank-rolling the SJB. Nowhere did he create expenditure (the most effective way) that brought about investment in the Northern regions.
How can people without any concern for plausibility suggest that Samaraweera or for that matter any politician believes in their own rhetoric? Do these same idiots believe Mrs Perera who recommends[iii] that we drink Rathi milk powder? The latter being an Indian female actress pushing a brand owned by a New Zealand based multinational. Given the advertising revenue model, the television waves only broadcast what the powerful want you to hear.
Samaraweera championed what suited him at the time. The Premadasa’s tendency for brutality (Sajith has come out fervently in support of capital punishment[iv]) has both been ignored and wildly confronted by this one man.
Though there is a lot of advertising and political interest in painting a certain historic view of the war think about how deluded it is? UNP leaning individuals fervently believe that it was Wickremesinghe’s splitting of the Karuna faction and international diplomacy that isolated the LTTE and lead to the war victory. Rajapaksa loyalists believe that it was the bravery and resolve of the leadership that brought about the victory.
No one stops to think that the tsunami of 2004 had a major impact in weakening the LTTE. No one within this shameless vote grabbing rhetoric further stops to acknowledge the massive costs paid by our armed forces in delivering that victory.
Chief amongst those ignored is one Dr Amith Munindradasa without whom Sri Lanka would not have had the long-range weaponry that gave the country the edge required to continue advancing. The entire notion of ‘No-Fire Zone’ is a testament to how effective Sri Lanka’s long-range equipment was in defeating the guerilla tactics of the LTTE. Interested parties can read War Games by Leo Murray which details how suppressive fire causes enemy soldiers to either fuss, flee, or freeze.
Dr Munindradasa though a national hero does not have proportionate appreciation by the general public. Many don’t know that he died in Israel, one of the leading centres for arms dealers, under very suspicious circumstances.
Mangala’s death was more concerning to the establishment than it was to the general public. The elite liked him as they knew he would not go against their interests. Amongst the most powerful messages of condolence was from one Samantha Power who currently heads USAID. To quote the tweet[v] released on an official USAID social media account.
Mangala fought for justice & for reconciliation. As Foreign Minister, he pushed to create the Office on Missing Persons, & for reparations to war victims and survivors. As Finance Minister, he orchestrated the forgiveness of loans taken out by desperate families after the war.
As alluded to before the Office of Missing Persons is a dud institution. Further under the Yahapalanaya government microfinance ballooned and most people are aware of its nefarious impacts on society. Those with an anti-Western bent will go so far as to point that it was the IFC that helped create many of these highly predatory instruments and that they also back the large corporations that administer them.
USAID is an organization that has nefarious impacts and funds a lot of the so-called ‘Think Tanks’ in our country. They have targeted spending to influence key people in the media, judiciary, and policymaking of the country. Contrary to the name they aren’t allocating a serious amount of money to the building of wells in rural schools.
To quote research: Human Rights Practices and the Distribution of U.S. Foreign Aid to Latin American Countries[vi]
“The distribution of U.S. foreign aid among Latin Ameri- can countries has tended to reward human rights violators and punish human rights champion.”
Former Minister of International Development of Norway Erik Solheim came out with a message of condolence for Samaraweera. Solheim was a key player in Wickremesinghe’s ploy to pivot the Western agenda against the LTTE.
Wickremesinghe picked Norway as it is notably both a member of NATO and also a country that is insignificant. Norwegians in the bid to seem important were invited to play a role in the Sri Lankan conflict.
Norway also interestingly is a country with a horrible track record against minorities. Norway’s long history of actions against the Sámi people is atrocious. They were very unlikely to bring about definitions and mechanisms that would in any way be used against themselves.
If the war had escalated before the tsunami it is unlikely that Sri Lanka would have won. Given that it isn’t even alleged that Wickremesinghe as opposition leader called on Rajapaksa to stop the advancing forces we must assume that he too was in support of the actions of the armed forces.
Given that Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe get on so well it should be assumed that they don’t expect to tarnish each other’s reputation. As mentioned before it is unlikely that the SLPP will push the UNP under the bus in terms of its record on ethnic reconciliation and it is unlikely that Wickremesinghe would question in any serious manner the actions of the armed forces.
Samaraweera’s last venture in politics was the True Patriots organization. A self-proclaimed non-partisan front with no transparency on funding that existed with no clear purpose (largely rhetoric) and no desire to contest elections. The organization was largely a joke which without Samaraweera will become obsolete. The headline however stands as it contends that Samaraweera as Foreign Minister stood by the armed forces.
In the long run, it would be beneficial for Sri Lanka to acknowledge and come to terms with its very violent and deep-rooted system of state violence. However, for the sake of national interest, the ending of the civil conflict can only really be questioned by the citizens of that country. Any system of punishment or inquiry will invariably have to cut both ways (inclusive of released LTTE cadres) creating deeper fractions within society.
To paraphrase what Wickremesinghe said once when abroad when questioned on the fact that Sri Lanka had done little to live up to its commitments at the UN. He noted that at the end of the day it was up to the Americans to come to terms with what they had done to the Japanese American population during the second world war.
On this issue, one can not deny that Samaraweera was deeply a patriot. Those arguing otherwise should point to where he actually failed the Sri Lankan armed forces on their track record during combat. Broader society would probably feel that Samaraweera committed a necessary evil in his actions.
Is convincing the Tamil polity to engage with the fruitless venture of the Office of Missing Persons, morally right? Is promising economic prosperity to war-torn regions and then creating tax incentives for the Colombo elite who control sentiment expressed by human rights institutions morally justified? The issue of whether Patriotism is virtuous is something that you will have to decide for yourself. You would however have to be stark raving mad to assume that Samaraweera is not burning somewhere in hell or has in any way attained enlightenment.