An Exemplary Man: Mangala Moonesinghe Appreciated in Two Essays

I. Leelananda de Silva:He was truly a model constituency MP”, in Sunday Times, 31 July 2016

Mangala Moonesinghe, who passed away recently at the age of 85, was one of the finest persons in the public life of this country. He was affable, self effacing, and highly principled. Never confrontational, he was largely bipartisan in his approach to politics.
Although a party political figure, he reached out to other political strands of opinion. This can be readily seen in his intensive engagement in developing bipartisan approaches to issues of ethnic reconciliation. A parliamentarian for 18 years between 1965 and 1994, he was not the kind of brash politician that we see in plenty nowadays.


Giving up politics, he moved to be a high level Sri Lankan diplomat, serving as high commissioner in New Delhi, where he spent two spells for eight years, and as high commissioner in London for more than two years. Mangala was not ambitious, and he lacked the killer instinct that is required to move up the political ladder. Although he did not achieve high political office, he made an important contribution to public affairs in this country, whether as politician or as diplomat.

Mangala was born in 1931 to affluent circumstances. He was a descendant of the Anagarika Dharmapala and had family links to the Hewavitarnes. He was educated at Royal College, and then proceeded to England to do his barristers’ exams. On his return, he practised in the criminal courts of this country. He entered politics in the 1960s and was elected Member of Parliament in 1965, winning the Bulathsinhala seat for the LSSP. Although a member of the LSSP, Mangala was never a Marxist, and he could be considered more a democratic socialist than anything else. He moved to the SLFP in 1975, when the LSSP broke with the SLFP-led coalition. He lost his seat in 1977, but came back to parliament in 1989 and lost his seat again in 1994, largely due to rifts within the SLFP itself in the Horana-Bulathsinhala area.

Mangala was one of the most active constituency MPs of his time. He took a keen interest in improving the social and economic conditions in his electorate through many practical actions. He was instrumental in getting one of the bridges built over the Kalu Ganga in his constituency. When the bridge was completed, it was opened not by him or any other politician, but by the worker who had worked longest in constructing the bridge.

He was instrumental in the expansion of passion fruit growing in his constituency which was considered an important cash crop at the time. One illustration of this was the establishment of the Ilimba passion fruit farm for girls in the 1960s.

When land reforms were introduced in the 1970s, he was concerned with making these reforms beneficial to his constituents. Although he would have preferred more state-owned plantations to be transferred to people’s ownership, he was able to transfer at least a few to reduce landlessness in his electorate. He was one of those who believed that small scale farming could be as efficient or even more so as large scale plantations. As a criminal lawyer, apart from being the MP, he played an active role in his constituency during JVP times to save many young men from rampant brutality of the security forces. Mangala was a model constituency MP.

In Parliament, Mangala will always be remembered for his role as Chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee, appointed to Recommend Ways and Means of Achieving Peace and Political Stability in the Country. It was Mangala who proposed the appointment of this committee in August 1991 and he was then appointed its chairman. The committee had 45 members and had 49 sittings over two years. It was one of the major activities of parliament during that period. The committee did not resolve the problems it grappled with. Its main contribution could be seen as bringing the contending parties together to discuss the critical issues which faced the nation. Its report is a rich compendium of ideas and viewpoints on the feasible arrangements for devolution of government in the country. Mangala was always proud of his achievements in guiding this complex inter-ethnic committee.

Mangala’s appointment as high commissioner to India in 1995 was highly appropriate. He had the personal and diplomatic skills to manage a sensitive inter-county relationship after a period of great turbulence. He proved to be one of those Sri Lankan high commissioners who had direct access to the highest levels of Indian Government. Many Sri Lankan high commissioners in New Delhi are virtual onlookers to what is happening between the two countries, as substantive issues between the two countries are handled between the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo and top Sri Lankan political leaders.

Mangala had a close relationship with I.K. Gujaral who was then Prime Minister of India. The relationship was indeed personal as much as official. Mangala and his wife Gnana had close high level political and social contacts in New Delhi, and they were one of the most sought after diplomatic couples in that city. Gnana was of great assistance to Mangala as she herself was very much at home in the cultural life of India. Unusually for a diplomat’s wife, she wrote a book on Buddhism in India, “Thus Have I Heard” about Buddha’s visits to various places in India and of the discourses he delivered. Mangala will also be remembered for his initiative in establishing a pilgrim’s rest for Sri Lankans at Cannaught Place in the heart of New Delhi. He obtained Japanese funds for this purpose. When Mangala was appointed to New Delhi for a second time, it was done by a UNP government and that itself was a recognition of Mangala’s bipartisan approach to politics and the cordiality of his relations with both government and opposition.

He served as high commissioner in London for two years. During that period, his great strength was in establishing contacts with Sri Lankan diaspora groups. He reached out to Sri Lankans who lived outside London, especially in the North and West of England. Keeping close lines of communication with the Sri Lankan diaspora in places like the United Kingdom is now recognised as an important diplomatic and consular function for a high commissioner. Mangala’s political skills were a great advantage in this regard.

Once Mangala returned to Sri Lanka after his diplomatic sojourn of over a decade, he was deeply involved in the processes of ethnic reconciliation and chaired a project referred to as the “One Text Initiative”. He was the Chairman of Marga Institute and was involved with the private sector as a director of Carsons.

 II.  Nihal Seneviratne: Mangala Moonesinghe, parliamentarian, diplomat and true gentleman,” in Sunday Times, 31 July 2016

Mangala Nath Moonesinghe passed away peacefully at Hemas Hospital a week ago and the cremation was held last Sunday at Kanatte amidst a big gathering who came to say a sad farewell to an ex-MP and diplomat who represented our country with great aplomb and finesse as High Commissioner in London and New Delhi (appointed by two different governments) and above all a true gentleman and a sincere friend.

Mangala was born in July 1931 to the reputed Buddhist Moonesinghe family closely related to Anagarika Dharmapala. His early education was at Royal College starting in 1943 when he stood out as a sprinter and pole vaulter and also played cricket. He earned himself the pet name of Munde as we all knew him. Mangala was two years ahead of me at college; yet the early links of a strong and durable friendship started then. Our paths then parted as his affluent parents sent him to London to read for the Bar at the Middle Temple. The rest of us had to be satisfied trying to enter the local university.

Having successfully completed his Bar exams, he was called to the Middle Temple. He returned to then Ceylon and was gradually drawn into politics. In March 1965, he entered the sixth Parliament (House of Representatives) as the LSSP Member for Bulathsinhala which he continued to represent both in the Seventh Parliament and the First National State Assembly until May 1977.

In March 1989 he changed both his party and his constituency and was elected an SLFP MP for the Kalutara district. When he left Parliament in 1994 he had a parliamentary service of over 17 years. Over this long period, my friendship with him became closer. I for one knew how he earned the respect of all parliamentarians of different shades of politics for his eloquent speech and his totally dignified conduct.

An incident which comes to my mind was President R. Premadasa picking him from the opposition to chair a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1991 to try to settle the ethnic differences between the Sinhala and Tamil communities. After speaking to the President, Mangala came to my room and asked me to help him draft the terms of reference for the motion appointing the Select Committee which we did together spending a few hours on the task. The rest is history.

That Select Committee sat for many months and I was privileged to serve as its Secretary. An Interim Report was published in 1993. With his unfailing charm and his persuasive ways, he succeeded in achieving consensus among the Sinhala and Tamil MPs on the Select Committee – an unimaginable task. To this day this achievement stands as the solitary instance of such unanimity — possible largely due to his winning ways and persuasive ability.

Often during his 17 years in Parliament we used to lunch together talking at length about our college days, local politics and our own families. Mangala married an erudite scholar and lovely lady, Gnana Coomaraswamy, who lived with her sister at Barnes Place. I was lucky enough to enter the Peradeniya University with her in 1955 and we graduated together.

Many were the occasions my wife and I were treated to delightful evenings and sumptuous meals at their homes, first at Park Road, then in Battaramulla and finally in Havelock City. We had a grand evening one Dec. 31 night when they hosted a few friends at their elegant Battaramulla home.

Mangala and I were on several parliamentary delegations overseas. When Stanley Tillekeratne was Speaker, we were hosted by the North Korean and Russian Parliaments. Once we were at tea at a Russian Hotel when we were joined by three young Russian ladies and before long Mangala had charmed them though neither of us could speak Russian and they spoke no English. Before long they were hustled off by three Russians whom we later learnt were KGB agents. We were state guests and the young women had no business to be with us and so our cordial tete-a-tete was soon ended.

There was another occasion when we were guests of the Pakistani Parliament and one of our MPs turned up at an evening reception in a colourful sarong and a pyjama coat. He was proud of his appearance. Being the mere secretary to the delegation, I dared not tell the MP that his dress was inappropriate. So I sought Mangala’s help and he, with his usual charm, persuaded the MP to go change his clothes.

I can relate many such incidents which added colour and nostalgic memories to our lives. I recall with pleasure the many times we used to drive each other home after parliamentary sessions. He was often mobbed in the car park by constituents wanting favours. He used to tell me that when he lived at Park Road, he didn’t open the upstair windows early morning because he didn’t want people waiting for him in the garden to know he was up and about!

Mangala had a special affection for his constituents in Bulathsinhala and on every occasion they asked him for some help, he never refused them. His constituents adored him for his gentle ways. My friendship with him lasted over 70 years. His gentle manner, his unfailing charm, his absolute integrity and honesty as a Parliamentarian (so rare nowadays) and his down to earth simplicity are features I will not easily forget.

He leaves his devoted wife Gnana, his son Sanath doing well at the New York Stock Exchange and his adorable daughter Avanti, his deeply loyal son-in-law Murtaza and his two grandsons who were the love and joy of his life. He reveled in their delightful company.

May he attain Nibbana!

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Filed under heritage, life stories, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, social justice, sri lankan society, tolerance, unusual people

3 responses to “An Exemplary Man: Mangala Moonesinghe Appreciated in Two Essays

  1. Eddie Wijesuriya

    He is a highly respected person.

    On Sun, Jul 31, 2016 at 8:28 PM, Thuppahis Blog wrote:

    > thuppahi posted: “I. Leelananda de Silva: “He was truly a model > constituency MP”, in Sunday Times, 31 July 2016 Mangala Moonesinghe, who > passed away recently at the age of 85, was one of the finest persons in the > public life of this country. He was affable, self effacin” >

  2. Pingback: Embittered Tamilness on Display. The Case of Robert Perinpanayagam | Thuppahi's Blog

  3. Hugh

    Well deserved tributes to an exemplary politician.He had an elder brother Sanka who took to tea planting, and I wonder whether he is still around?

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