‘Khema’s boy, I am a Dreamer’
By Mangala Samaraweera
Thirty years ago this month, when I first entered Parliament, my head was full of dreams; dreams for my beloved country, dreams for our people and also dreams for myself.
A war was raging on in the North and an equally tragic youth insurrection was engulfing the South. I dreamt mostly of peace where all Sri Lankans, in spite of their caste, class, race, or religion, could live in harmony and dignity.
The incredible economic advances of the early J. R. Jayewardene years were being squandered away in the name of a separate state in the North and a Marxist dystopia in the South; thousands of valuable lives were being lost, almost daily.
Like most young people, Ladies and Gentleman, I thought I could make a difference.
I guess I have always been a dreamer from a very early age; in fact, one of my earliest dreams was to become a racing driver but I have never driven in my life.
Later, I dreamt of being a designer taking London and Paris by storm as a student at Central St. Martins. However, I decided to pursue my career here at home after witnessing the remarkable changes taking place in Sri Lanka in 1980. Gone were the queues and the scarcities. Sri Lanka was a country full of hope and promise as the new decade dawned, which inspired me to return home in ’81 to pursue my dream of being a successful designer.
I met Chandra Thneuwera, the iconic textile designer who invited me to join her at the University of Aesthetic studies as a visiting lecturer, while promoting Sri Lankan textiles as a Consultant at the Ministry of Textile Industries under the stewardship of the minister then, the late Wijeyapala Mendis.
My father, Mahanama, was also a dreamer. Named Dom Morton at birth and educated at St. Josephs College in Colombo, later changed his name to Mahanama in anticipation of a successful political career, which he embarked upon as a young lawyer. He was a Communist in his youth like many other young men of that era. As a lawyer, he made his name appearing free for cases in relation to police brutality and caste-related violence. He entered Parliament in 1952 and as the Deputy Minister of Justice in the SWRD Government; my father in 1956 presented the Bill in Parliament that would abolish the Death Penalty. This is the legacy along with his reputation for being honest and straight-talking which made my entry into the Political arena possible nearly 23 years after his death.
My mother, Khema, on the other hand, was not a dreamer but a practical, earthy and compassionate person. If the people of Matara respected my father, they loved my mother.
She was one of the first women to enter Local Government politics in Sri Lanka when she was elected as a member of the Matara UC in the ‘50s. However, she did not serve her full term as she felt that her new role was too restrictive and formal. She was a people’s person and I like to think that some of my better qualities were inherited from her.
My mother was not judgmental; I remember writing to her from London at 19, grandly announcing that I was madly in love and a week later I get a reply; “Whoever makes you happy will always make me happy.’
She was non-communal. At a time when mixed marriages were frowned upon, my Aunt Manel married Kumar Anandan, a Tamil lawyer and a Guinness book record holder for swimming across the Pack Strait at 18. My mother was the first member of the family to welcome the newly married couple with open arms.
When I first visited party activists in Matara, my home town, as, the newly-appointed Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) organizer in 1988, many of them introduced me to others as “Khema’s boy” and told me that, if I needed their support, I should come back with my mother. Even today, there are still people who refer to me as “Khema’s boy”, and I am always proud to be called so.
Thirty years later, I still remain a dreamer. Many of the dreams I dreamt for my country still are unfulfilled but I feel that I may have been able to make a little difference along the way thanks to some of the very special people whom I had the privilege of associating.
Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Anura Bandaranaike must have seen the politician in me, through my Bohemian camouflage, for it was they who first invited me to become the SLFP organizer for Matara in 1988.
At the very first meeting I attended at the Darley Rd., Head Quarters of the SLFP, it was Mahinda Rajapaksa who first welcomed me to the fold by introducing me to other organizers there. We went on to form the Mother’s Front movement at my home in Matara where we were elected Co-convenors and formed a friendship that I thought then would last forever. I was not to know then that my best political friend of that time was to be the reason for my departure from the SLFP many years later.
Today, despite much water flowing under the bridge and us, standing in the opposing ends of the political spectrum, I still consider President Mahinda Rajapaksa a friend and I am very happy that he is here with us now.
The ‘game changer’ in my political life, Ladies and Gentleman, was Chandrika Kumaratunga who brought hope and change to a moribund political party still espousing Soviet-style socialism, extreme Sinhala nationalism and closed economic policies.
Chandrika Kumaratumga perhaps was the first politician to dare talk about a ‘federal solution’ for the ongoing ethnic conflict and win a landslide in the exclusively Sinhala Buddhist electorates of the deep South in the provincial elections of ’93.
President Kumaratunga embraced the market economy [with a human face, of course] and revived the reformist agenda for Sri Lanka, which slowed down after the war started in 1983. The privatization of Sri Lanka Telecommunications in 1997 is still considered as a textbook example of privatization in a developing country.
I am also happy to have been given the opportunity by President Kumaratunga to beautify and redevelop Colombo. The re-greening of Galle Face, Developing Beira Lake and commencing the shanty redevelopment with Sahaspura flats in Maligawatte along with other beautification projects which followed, has today paved the way to Colombo finally transforming itself into one of the most beautiful and liveable cities in Asia.
When Eelam War 3 broke out in 1995, at President Kuamaratunga’s request, the ‘Sudu Nelum’ movement was launched as a grass-roots campaign in the Sinhala villages about the need of a political settlement if a lasting and durable peace is to be achieved. The high point of this campaign was the ‘book and brick’ project to rebuild the Jaffna Library, and it still remains a source of personal pride for me that the Library was completely restored by a committee co-chaired by Lakshman Kadirgamar and me.
After a period of not daring to dream, it was in 2010 that I entered the United National Party (UNP). Despite having said some pretty rude ‘things’ about its leader over the years, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe welcomed me graciously and warmly to the grand old party. This made me feel that I had come home at last! In the UNP, I have found an inspiring leader and a team who share many of my political beliefs and values; in the UNP I have also found a party where I could ‘dare to dream’ again.
With the ascendency of President Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, the country got an unprecedented chance to fulfil many of the dreams that have eluded us for decades. During the last four years, Sri Lanka has restored its democratic credentials, established the rule of law, and elevated the reconciliation process to the topmost priority. Despite setbacks from time to time, Sri Lanka continues to build a new future for her people based on the fundamentals of Democracy, Reconciliation and Development; albeit festina lente!
The recent 51-day constitutional crisis also demonstrated to the country and the world the independence of our Legislature and Judiciary and that Sri Lanka has now become a mature, stable Democracy.
After 30 years in Parliament, I would be lying if I say that I have no regrets and disappointments. It is natural human nature to feel disappointed, but it is also important not to lose hope; not to become cynical; not to stop dreaming of a better, brighter future and always to remain resolute in achieving progress. All of us, politicians and non-politicians alike, have a responsibility to make our nation a better place to live in and to keep working with determination to ensure the realization of our dreams for our nation – a peaceful, stable, reconciled and prosperous Sri Lanka for all, where the dignity of each and every individual is upheld.
Last but not least, let me say thank you to the people of Matara, who for 30 long years have put their trust and hopes on me to be their representative in Parliament. Their support, strength and inspiration have made me who I am. Finally, a big hug to my Aunt Manel for her vigorous activism and to my dearest Sister, Jayanthi for her enormous strength and support – still doing her utmost to nurture “Khema’s boy”.