Hassina Leelarathna, …. with her original title being “Mangala’s 30th Anniversary Bash & the Price of Power” …. Visit www.srilankaexpress.org
A Colombo-based media outlet publicizing “Khema’s Kolla” – Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s 30th anniversary in politics – mentions this in the laudatory piece: “It is believed that Mangala is particularly skillful in promoting foreign relations.”
The not-uncommon practice in Sri Lankan journalism of ignoring the basic 5 W’s rule is noteworthy here: who really believes Samaraweera has skillfully promoted his nation’s foreign relations?
For one thing, in the 30 years (360 months) of political life he’s celebrating, Mangala was minister of foreign affairs for approximately 30 months (January 2015-May 2017; November 2006-January 2007) – which accounts for less than 10% of his political career.
Each time he was thrown out of that office for acting contrary to Sri Lankan interests, without the approval of the cabinet or the president. In 2007 he was expelled by the Rajapaksa cabinet after siding with the US and Israel in a crucial UN Security Council resolution that condemned Israel for atrocities against innocent Palestinian civilians. The resolution was vetoed by the U.S. in the Security Council. When the vote was taken in the General Assembly, the Sri Lankan delegate went missing, making the country the only one in South Asia (one of the few in the world) that failed to support the condemnation of Israeli atrocities against civilians.
Within a year of assuming office in 2015, he co-sponsored with the US the troubling UNHRC Resolution 30/1, a damaging agreement which experts say opens the door to foreign intervention in Sri Lanka in violation of UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/36/103 of 9 December 1981.
What Samaraweera has done very skillfully is promote US interests and himself by cozying up to the US Embassy for over a decade. That dazzling power Khema’s Kolla paraded at the February 28 BMICH event hasn’t come cheap, not for Sri Lanka.
For the price tag of Samaraweera’s quisling encounters with the Americans, one only needs to look through the confidential postings made by the US ambassador in Colombo over several years which were among the documents made public by Wikileaks.
Samaraweera’s American journey started way before he became finance minister – in fact, when he was in the socialist government of Chandrika Bandaranaike. Ambassador Lunstead assessing Mahinda Rajapaksa’s new cabinet of November 2005 mentions that Samaraweera had contacted the US Embassy for help when he was appointed in 1994 as Minister of Posts and Telecommunications: “he [Samaraweera] contacted the Embassy to ask for help in “getting up to speed” in his new position.” The ambassador adds that he later “became somewhat less accessible (as did most ministers in Kumaratunga’s government due, in part, to her habit of calling extended and impromptu Cabinet sessions) as time elapsed and, as his closeness to the JVP increased, somewhat more outspoken on anti-globalization and Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) sympathies.” Despite a speech before Parliament (2004) extolling an essay by author Arundhati Roy condemning the “rapaciousness of corporate globalization and commending Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for “holding on” in the fight against globalization “despite the US Government’s best efforts” in general, Lunstead concludes, “Samaraweera does not appear to be anti-west or anti-US and is genuinely appreciative of US assistance to his tsunami-devastated home district.”
As foreign minister, Samaraweera’s first meeting with the US ambassador took place on December 6, 2005 when Ambassador Jeffrey Lunstead called on him for a meeting. The discussion centered on the ongoing review by GSL of the Cease-fire Agreement (CFA), Samaraweera’s “just-concluded visit to New Delhi,” the continuing Norwegian role in the peace talks, and the Millennial Challenge Account. Since Mr. Samaraweera was also minister of Ports & Aviation at the time, Ambassador Lunstead brought up problems with Sri Lankan Customs which were preventing progress “towards full implementation of Megaports.” Minister Samaraweera promised to convene a meeting of the relevant ministries to sort out the issues, saying “I will attend to it.”
The meeting was a tremendous success for Samaraweera. Lunstead’s report to Washington was headlined “New Foreign Minister eager to maintain close US ties, focused on the peace process.” The report ends with this glowing account that augurs [well for the] cozy relationship to come.
“Samaraweera came across well in our first encounter with him as Foreign Minister with a lowkey (reinforced by his open collar, rolled-up sleeves and sandals) but focused approach on the issues. His emphasis on the peace process underlines reports we’ve heard that Samaraweera will be a major player in that regard. Also encouraging is that he displayed no hesitation on deferring on details to his team members in the meeting (Palihakkara’s retention is particularly good news in our view). The new Foreign Minister clearly is well-disposed to the U.S. and eager to work closely with us. Whenever Samaraweera decides to make his maiden voyage to Washington, we think high-level attention could bear fruit.”
Fast forward to the tumultuous events of Feb 9, 2007 when Samaraweera, Anura Bandaranaike (National Heritage Portfolio) and Sripathy Sooriarachchi (Ports) are expelled from their ministerial posts.
In his report to Washington, Ambassador Robert Blake who succeeded Lunstead says: “The president [Rajapaksa] reportedly offered no official reason for the dismissals in his letters to the three. However, Sri Lankan media reported on February 11 the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Executive Committee endorsed the dismissals because Bandaranaike, Samaraweera, and Sooriarachchi had “breached party discipline.” According to the Sunday Times, examples of such breaches included Samaraweera’s following a U.S. call to vote against a UNGA resolution denouncing Israeli atrocities in the Gaza Strip despite President (and party leader) Rajapaksa’s “campaign for Palestinian rights.” Blake adds (with perhaps a hint of triumph) “…in fact, the Sri Lankan representatives did not even abstain, but absented themselves from the vote on the resolution.”
In the postings that follow, Samaraweera is seen turning increasingly to the Americans for sympathy and validation while exposing a bristling animus towards his political opponents, often providing unsubstantiated damaging information against them and the military.
An interesting development is that while, as noted above, Mr. Samaraweera’s expulsion was widely tied to Sri Lanka’s absence at the crucial UN vote November 2006 against Israeli atrocities, the ex-minister was soon spinning a new narrative that he was expelled for his stance on human rights, a narrative readily adopted and repeated by the US envoy with no more mention of the high-handed UN vote/lack thereof and other “breach of discipline” charges the SLFP had leveled.
On February 15, 2007, Ambassador Blake writing about a press conference held that day by Samaraweera and fellow expelled minister Sripathy Sooriaratchchi pushes the narrative along: “he [Samaraweera] would not accept any ministerial post under the current government because he refuses to justify human rights abuses to the international community. He added that he was dismissed for speaking frankly about presidential abuse of power in cabinet meetings. He accused Rajapaksa and his brothers of running a “dictatorial, fascist regime.”
The same posting also indicates that Samaraweera had conveyed concerns for his safety due to the reduction in his security and that he had been trying to get a meeting with Blake after his expulsion. The ambassador was in no hurry, preferring to allow “a little time to pass and tempers to cool.”
Eventually, a meeting took place on February 26 when Ambassador Blake called at Samaraweera’s residence. In a report dated February 28 (titled “Sri Lanka: Ex-foreign minister complains of harassment by government”) Blake mentions Samaraweera had requested the meeting to talk about the “unprecedented level of harassment he’s been experiencing.
Samaraweera goes beyond sniveling about the cutback in his security staff, from 39 to 6, and fears for his safety, to make very damaging charges against the Sri Lankan military, President Rajapaksa, and Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa without, judging by Blake’s notes, providing any proof.
“Samaraweera confirmed for the first time that special cells have been established within military intelligence to abduct LTTE sympathizers.”
“Ambassador commented that the President and the Defense Secretary reportedly believe that their military strategy, including abductions and harassment of suspected LTTE sympathizers, is working to make Colombo more secure and to degrade LTTE networks.”
“Samaraweera confirmed that the Government uses a group called the “Lion Cubs” to engage in these extrajudicial activities.”
“It is widely rumored [Blake comments in his report] in Sri Lanka that Army Commander Fonseka, with the knowledge and approval of Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, has set up special cells within military intelligence to go after suspected LTTE cadres and sympathizers in Colombo, Jaffna and other places. We have also heard reports of a similar shadowy group called the “Hambantota Cats.” The recently-appointed Cabinet Minister for Environment has publicly called for the use of extralegal means to root out LTTE sympathizers. Samaraweera lent credibility to these reports by relating grisly details about the methods these groups use to dispose of the bodies of their victims at sea.”
To what extent such “first-hand revelations” from Colombo influenced Washington’s policies and perspectives will never be known. In the ensuing months, US pressure on Sri Lanka to allow an international monitoring mission to be present on the island intensified and in October 2007, the US State Department stated that “an international human rights presence in Sri Lanka would be an important step in improving human rights, accountability, and the rule of law, and ultimately resolving the conflict in Sri Lanka,” and called on the government to “reconsider its opposition to expansion of the OHCHR office and mandate in Sri Lanka.”
Samaraweera in his assumed persona championing human rights shows support for such an international “monitoring” presence on the beleaguered island.
At a meeting with Ambassador Blake on October 3, 2007, the impending visit of Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is discussed and Blake writes: “Samaraweera said that he planned to meet Louise Arbour during her visit to Colombo next week. He said he would recommend to her that she pursue the idea of an expanded presence by the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights. He predicted the government would resist such a proposal, but noted that the failure of Sri Lankan institutions to address their own human rights issues meant that this was the only realistic way forward to stop human rights abuses.”
At the same meeting, as Blake documents, Samaraweera confides that he meets frequently with former president Chandrika Bandaranaike and that he “she might be willing to assume leadership of the SLFP party, similar to the role Sonia Gandhi now plays in leading the Congress Party in India.” With an eye on future elections, Samaraweera assesses that “Chandrika still has significant support in many parts of the country so a decision by her to work with him would pose a significant threat to the Rajapaksa brothers.”
Another noteworthy Blake posting is from January 2009 and provides a glimpse into just how cozy the relationship between the US Ambassador and the former foreign minister had become. Titled “Sri Lanka: Former Foreign Minister Receives Threats, Will Seek Temporary Haven Abroad” it details a luncheon meeting that took place Jan 23, 2009.
Blake asks Samaraweera about local media reports that indicated “Samaraweera was planning to go to Washington to request a meeting with Secretary of State Clinton to hand over a dossier detailing the crimes of the Defense Secretary and Army Commander.”
Turns out it was “fake news” put out by Samaraweera himself! Blake writes: “However, Samaraweera somewhat sheepishly confided that he himself had put out that story, thinking that raising his own profile at this juncture might provide some protection. He admitted he does not have sufficient specific evidence to compile such a dossier.”
Samaraweera also tells Blake that he believes his life was in danger and that he was he was planning to seek temporary safe haven abroad. “He strongly implied that Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa was behind the threats to his life,” writes Blake adding that Samaraweera “admitted he does not have concrete evidence.”
Regardless of evidence, Samaraweera, who was apparently planning to seek asylum abroad, presents an unhinged tale of sinister threats against him. Since 2008 he had been receiving death threats by phone and blamed Gothabaya, “because I know that he’s behind everything that is going on.” Samaraweera had recounted to Blake that “…when the calls started coming, a number of former colleagues still in the cabinet began warning him to be very careful. Even the Prime Minister had passed word to him through an intermediary that his life was in danger …. Other Ministers were so frightened that they arranged to call him from the homes of friends outside Colombo.”
Shoring up his human-rights-defender person, Samaraweera claims at this meeting that his expulsion from the Rajapaksa cabinet was a punishment for demanding an investigation and prosecution of serious human rights violations especially after the murder of 17 Tamil aid workers in Muttur in August 2006 (when he was still holding a cabinet position).
As told by Blake: “Samaraweera recounted the history of his break with the Rajapaksas and dismissal from the government in February 2007. By mid-2006, he recalled, and especially after the murder of 17 Tamil humanitarian aid workers in Muttur in August 2006, he met the President, Defense Secretary, Senior Advisor Basil Rajapaksa and Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunge several times and argued for an investigation and prosecution of those responsible for serious human rights abuses. Basil started shouting at him, he told us, and Gothabaya insisted that to do so “would demoralize the whole Army.” Samaraweera rejoined that in fact, the Army was becoming demoralized by the non-prosecution of the few guilty members of the armed forces. The government’s inaction was sullying the reputation of the entire security forces. “The President cannot absolve himself of these deeds. I know, because we discussed them many times. His style is that he does not issue these orders directly. He gives a wink and a nod, and those around him know what to do. They all must be held accountable.”
More excerpts from the Jan 23, 2009 meeting:
- “Samaraweera said he believed the extremists in the Presidents entourage such as JHU Minister of Environment Ranawaka were intent on installing a Sinhalese supremacist, authoritarian regime. He said the President’s entourage was systematically silencing dissent and predicted further attacks on the media and opposition politicians.”
- “Samaraweera said that in his opinion, Weerawansa and Ranawaka in particular had always believed that democracy was wrong for Sri Lanka and wanted to install an authoritarian, Sinhala Buddhist supremacist regime. Samaraweera said they had found the perfect vehicle for their plans in Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, whom he termed “extremely ambitious.” The government’s post-conflict strategy was beginning to emerge, he said, and that was “to silence critical voices.” Samaraweera believed that Sri Lanka was headed toward some sort of political climax soon, “either in the war or in governance.” Samaraweera mused that the President himself was becoming a victim of the forces he had unleashed.”
- *Samaraweera said that he was convinced that the government had timed its attacks on the media to coincide with major military victories like the capture of Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass. He feared that future military successes would be coupled with several more attacks. As a result, he confided that he planned to leave the country soon and would spend about a month in London before heading for New York.”
Wanted to meet Boucher
Not satisfied with tattling to the ambassador, Samaraweera was intent on taking his weaseling to a higher level and wanted to meet with senior State Department officials during his proposed March 2009 trip. Blake writes that Samaraweera expressed interest “in meeting a senior official at the State Department, such as Assistant Secretary Boucher.” However, “We advised him that because of the transition it was difficult to arrange such appointments now, but offered to facilitate a meeting for him closer to the date of his travel.”
These are just examples from publicly available documents that provide insight into the nature of Samaraweera’s relationship with U.S. officials – hardly indicative of “skillfully” promoting foreign relations on Sri Lanka’s behalf.
In her keynote address at “Khema’s Kolla,” [Samantha] Power talked a lot about Mangala’s “dignity.” …… “When I asked his colleagues and peers about his lifetime of service, the word I kept hearing was “dignity.” Dignity, dignity, dignity. The belief that every individual is worthy of respect.….. The pursuit and promotion of individual dignity seems to be the animating principle in Mangala’s career.”
Mangala & “dignity”
Dignity and Mangala? Oxymoronic given Mangala’s uncouth, foul-mouthed outbursts (just a few months ago he called President Sirisena a “para balla”).
In her address Power also invokes Nelson Mandela (considered a “terrorist” by America until 2008). To parody the famous lines of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen during the 1988 vice-presidential debate when Republican Dan Quayle compared himself to Jack Kennedy: Ms. Power, we all know about Nelson Mandela; Mangala is no Mandela.
And Ms. Power is no purveyor of human dignity. Commenting in The Harvard Law Record on her joint appointment in 2017 at both the Law School and the Kennedy School, John Froggatt says Power has “a sordid history of promoting American imperialism and enabling the very human rights abuses she sought out to prevent.” The HLR piece is a scathing attack on her record as US Ambassador to the UN during which “From Libya to Gaza to Yemen, Samantha Power has had an active role in either promoting western intervention within the Administration or defending the violence of the U.S. and its allies.” Pointing out that throughout her career, Samantha Power has been a proponent of the “responsibility to protect” or “R2P” doctrine, it speaks of how it was weaponized by Power against Libya “to promote a bombing campaign and a regime change that left as many as 30,000 dead.”
It also mentions how Power ignored her own responsibility to protect the vulnerable and oppressed. during the 2014 conflict in Gaza that left thousands of the occupied population dead. “If the U.S. didn’t have the responsibility to protect the 500 children killed in Gaza, then what value can Samantha Power’s doctrine have?” the article asks.
Power mentions in her keynote address that while she wouldn’t take time off her work to even get groceries, she didn’t hesitate to accept his invitation to fly 8000 miles to Sri Lanka for the special event: such is the place Khema’s Kolla holds in her heart.
And that seems a small price to pay for all the dirt on his country and his colleagues Mangala has faithfully hauled to the US embassy and to Washington for the past 13 years – nearly half of his 30 years in politics.
Michael Roberts, “Ambassador Blake in Never-Never-Land: Misreading LTTE Capacity in Early 2009,” 26 August 2016, https://thuppahis.com/2015/08/26/ambassador-blake-in-never-never-land-misreading-ltte-capacity-in-early-2009/
“Ball-by-Ball through Wikileaks: US Embassy Despatches from Colombo, 2009: ONE,” 27 August 2014, https://thuppahis.com/2014/08/27/ball-by-ball-through-wikileaks-us-embassy-despatches-from-colombo-2009-one/