After a long hiatus, Mangala Samaraweera has stepped out of the shadows to spearhead the launch of an apolitical centrist movement to join the fight to protect the principles of democracy, freedom, equality and justice. The former Finance Minister calls the principles a four-pillared foundation for a just, caring, and prosperous society, based on liberal democratic values.
Samaraweera leads a movement of young people who call themselves ‘true patriots,’ challenging the patriotism tropes used by politicians since independence to pull the wool over the people’s eyes and win power. The Radical Centre movement claims that decades of selling pseudo patriotism to the public have led to Sri Lanka approaching failed State status. The movement has pledged to be a platform for Sri Lanka’s moderates to oppose and fight authoritarianism, racism and other forms of extremism. Importantly, Radical Centre is positioning itself as a broad initiative to promote liberal democratic values instead of becoming merely a platform to oppose Rajapaksa rule. Samaraweera has pledged that his movement will provide a forum for all Sri Lankans to discover their common humanity, transcending the boundaries of race, creed, and caste.
Appropriately, the launch coincided with the 38th anniversary of the 1983 Black July anti-Tamil pogrom, long considered one of the darkest moments in Sri Lankan history and the event that launched a protracted civil war.
Samaraweera parted ways with the Sajith Premadasa-led Samagi Jana Balawegaya before the 2020 Parliamentary elections. Premadasa and Samaraweera approach politics in diametrically opposite ways. The SJB Leader has chosen the path of parochialism and pandering to the nationalistic structures that prop up politicians in the country, abandoning the traditional moderate base the UNP once sheltered under its umbrella.
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.
The former Finance Minister’s mea culpa at the launch of his new movement probably stemmed from acknowledgement of this past. In recent years, Samaraweera has become and remained, a staunch ally of liberals, moderates, and the country’s minority communities. While he served as Finance Minister in the Yahapalanaya regime, Samaraweera acquired celebrity status in the island’s war torn northern and eastern provinces, as he worked tirelessly with local economists and community leaders to deliver socio-economic relief to the devastatingly impoverished regions.
Samaraweera was also the last liberal standing a few years into the Yahapalanaya administration, championing transitional justice measures like the Office of Missing Persons and the Reparations Office, and cooperation with the UN Human Rights Council in Parliament at great political cost. Today that remains his enduring legacy; he came into governance in 2015 the way he went out – as a champion of liberal values, boldly espousing reconciliation, justice and a permanent solution to the Tamil national question.
For this reason, Mangala Samaraweera chose to forgo another term as a member of Parliament rather than remain with a party that stood against his core values. The trajectory of the current main Opposition is a strong indication that in the future, the SJB will be a mere substitute for the current set of rulers, and in no way an alternative political movement that will inspire public imagination.
Samaraweera meanwhile, has been biding his time, as the mood in the country shifts slowly. From being demonised for his neo-liberal economic policy, Samaraweera is now being viewed more kindly for his management of an economy that was hanging by threads, as the incumbent Government flails helplessly on this front, and as the country hurtles towards default and bankruptcy. As Sri Lanka faces censure internationally, and risks losing important trade concessions to European markets over its human rights record, Mangala Samaraweera’s strategy of engagement with the UN looks more appealing every day.
As a politician who has seen and played both sides of the patriotism game, and who, in recent years, was flayed as a ‘traitor’ and ‘enemy of the state,’ Samaraweera has a unique opportunity to build a credible platform for change. His movement will gather intellectuals, professionals, minority communities, moderates and key sections of civil society that were the drivers of political revolution and reform in 2015. An astute political strategist, Samaraweera is seizing his moment in the vacuum, as the forces of the centre cry out for leadership and a credible alternative.