Themes of Mangala’s life: Dignity, modernisation and democracy | Sunday Observer

Themes of Mangala’s life: Dignity, modernisation and democracy

Samantha Power
Samantha Power

I am extraordinarily honoured to be here today. It is wonderful to be back in Sri Lanka, for the first time since 2015, when I visited as a member of President Obama’s Cabinet.Mangala himself was one of the first political leaders to take to Twitter during the crisis to condemn the viciousness, sending a clear message of zero tolerance for politicians and others who incited racial violence

Right now, I am in the final weeks of finishing writing a new book. I have been working non-stop to meet my deadline. I won’t even leave my house to buy groceries. But if there is one person who could get me to travel over 8,000 miles at the moment, it is Mangala.

Mangala is one of the most remarkable people I encountered during my eight years serving in the US government. So I simply had to be part of this occasion.

Those of you who know our Guest of Honour will not be surprised that, when I asked him how I should approach my remarks today, he said, “The less said about me, the better.” Now, considering this is an event about Mangala, this was surprising to my American ears. I come from a country where, as President Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter once said about her dad, politicians want to be “the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening.”

I have decided to compromise. I will speak today about what we can learn from Mangala’s 30 years in politics about the central challenges of our time – and how we must confront them. The three themes I believe run through Mangala’s life’s work, are dignity, modernisation, and democracy. So in his honor, I would like to say a few words about each.


We have heard about how Mangala began his career, thinking he might become a fashion designer. The late fashion photographer Bill Cunningham once said that, “Fashion is the armor to survive everyday life.” Well, Mangala seems to have concluded from an early age that the most meaningful way to spend one’s days is to use one’s influence to help people.And, specifically,to help people to not only survive daily life, but to help ensure that they are able to build lives of dignity.

His inspiration to get involved in politics came in the late 1980s, when the government was suppressing the Marxist youth insurrection in the South, and dead bodies were being hung on lampposts in his home town. The son of a remarkably enlightened, trailblazing mother and a pioneering human rights lawyer father, Mangala thought to himself, “Maybe I can make a difference.”

“Maybe I can make a difference…” Mangala, rest assured, you have made one hell of a difference. And you are only getting started!

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 word comes from the Latin, dignitas, or “worthiness.” The pursuit and promotion of individual dignity seems to be the animating principle in Mangala’s career.

When I think of dignity, what springs to mind is the last civil rights protest Martin Luther King, Jr. was involved in, before he was gunned down. It was in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, when sanitation workers decided to go on strike to protest poor pay and the crushing to death of two workers in garbage compactors. The striking workers carried signs that said simply, “I am a Man.”

I think of June 1989 and a slight man in grey slacks and a white shirt carrying two shopping bags, who decided to confront one of the hundreds of tanks that were mowing down student protesters in Tiananmen Square. This Chinese man, seemingly on his way home, who we have not seen since, standing before the turret of that tank, embodied the assertion of dignity.

And I think of the mothers I have met here in your country, who clutch the weathered, faded photos of their missing sons and daughters, begging people to hear their cries. Or the heads of household who, needing money to feed their families after the war, relied on micro-lenders for small loans – micro-lenders who extorted them, charging spiraling interest that these families would never be able to pay back.

Respecting human dignity means not patronising those who are less fortunate, but listening to – hearing – the reality of the lived experience of others. Making sure that nobody is invisible.

If decision-makers or leaders – whether of countries, of companies, or of classrooms - can put themselves in the shoes of others, if they can cross this essential imaginative threshold, they will have the motivation we need to act.

Mangala did this back in 1990 when he founded the “Mother’s Front” with Mahinda Rajapaksa - creating a network dedicated to tracing down information on the disappeared and pressuring the Sri Lankan government to provide compensation.

Mangala is well known for taking the fundamental step of recognising past abuses and the critical need for reconciliation. As Foreign Minister, he spearheaded the creation of the Office of Missing Persons, which is now finally operational. He helped push a law through Parliament that will provide for reparations for war victims and survivors.

And more recently, as Finance Minister, he has orchestrated the forgiveness of loans taken out by those desperate families after the war. And he has just launched another debt relief program for those affected by the crisis of severe drought. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”

But the best measure of Mangala’s regard for the dignity of those who have lost their loved ones or their livelihoods is that he knows that none of this is nearly enough.It is the deficit of human dignity that explains so much of the tumult of our age. We ignore it at our peril.


Second, Mangala has shown his belief in modernizing Sri Lanka. He has prioritised opening up this beautiful country to the rest of the world, including to the United States.

He secured the launching of the first-ever US-Sri Lankan strategic Dialogue. He announced in 2015 Sri Lanka’s joining of the Open Government Partnership. And he shepherded Sri Lanka’ application to the Millennium Challenge Corporation through a long and tortured approval process—dedication that is now paying off, as it will soon bring some $480 million in concrete benefits for a number of infrastructure projects in transportation and agriculture.

Long before this recent phase in his career, when he was Minister of Post and Telecommunications, it was Mangala who spearheaded the privatisation of Sri Lanka’s telecommunications industry. This initiative introduced competition for the first time and knocked down barriers between the privileged Sri Lankans who had phones and those who had to wait as long as seven years to get one. Today Sri Lanka has one of the highest number of phones per person in all of Asia, and, despite being a country of 21 million, Sri Lanka is apparently home to 34 million cell phone subscriptions.

This progress has been absolutely essential as a foundation for economic investment and growth. However, for all of the good we know technology can do, rapid advances in fields from Social Media to AI to automation are also posing profound risks to our democracies. These tools are going to be decisive in global development going forward, but governments must confront their dark uses as well as their boundless possibilities.

I believe we need to dramatically increase our scrutiny of the effects of new technologies. That will require fresh thinking, critical perspectives, and bold steps by policymakers to find a better balance than we currently have—a balance that takes into account the impact that tech is already having on politics and human rights. In the United States, in the wake of Russia’s interference in our elections, and because of the deep divisions in our society, we are seized with the question of how falsehoods and echo chambers enabled by social media impact our domestic politics. But these platforms also have potentially deadly impact when it comes to the rights and well-being of marginalized groups.

The UN, for example, has found that the spread of violent hate speech and falsehoods on Facebook in Myanmar played a “determining role” in the mass atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya. From the Philippines to India to Mexico to Indonesia, technology that barely existed 15 years ago is being used to scapegoat vulnerable populations, exacerbate societal cleavages to the point of violence, and empower the most extreme voices.

Last year, here in Sri Lanka, after hate speech and conspiracy theories about Muslims disseminated on social media led to violence and destruction, one of your government officials made a profound observation that I believe the entire world must heed: “The germs are ours, but Facebook is the wind.”

Mangala himself was one of the first political leaders to take to Twitter during the crisis to condemn the viciousness, sending a clear message of zero tolerance for politicians and others who incited racial violence. In societies like ours – with mixed ethnicities and religions, with free speech and extreme voices – we ignore this reality at our peril.


Third and finally, Mangala has not only been a believer in democracy and the institutions that are the cornerstone of our respective systems, he has himself worked to strengthen them. He has been, in his way, an institution, a one-man check and balance. I am not sure what is on the best-seller list here, but in the United States people are buying books with titles like:

  • 1984.
  • How Democracies Die.
  • How Democracies End.
  • The People vs. Democracy.
  • Can It Happen Here?
    Authori tarianism in the US.
  • Fascism: A Warning.

These books, and the feeling that democracy is in retreat, do not come from nowhere. They are moored in disturbing trends. Thirteen straight years of freedom in decline around the world, according to Freedom House, which has documented that it is consolidated democracies that are suffering from the worst setbacks. Overall, 68 countries suffered net declines in freedom in 2018 on measures like individual rights, freedom of expression and belief, and rule of law.

Instead of Rule of Law, the Carnegie Endowment has documented how more than 70 governments in the past ten years have instituted ‘Rule by Law’ taking a number of serious measures to restrict civil society (from legal means like regulation to straight-up intimidation campaigns).

There are no silver bullets when it comes to trends like these. But fatalism cannot be the answer. Yet a confidence gap seems to have overtaken our world – authoritarians strutting around, though their model rests on very fragile foundations. Democrats, meanwhile, seem to be running for cover.

But if you look at most autocracies and what lies ahead in terms of their ability to deliver for their people, I believe each of us would choose the resiliency and possibility for self-renewal, of democracy. I do not mean to understate the challenges of maintaining a truly democratic society. My country and your country are facing turbulent times.

The last time I was here, I could never have guessed that an American President would attack the judiciary, the press, women, minorities, our diplomats, our intelligence professionals, our law enforcement officers, and many of our closest allies.

Sri Lanka has experienced its own political crisis, which raised alarm bells all around the world.

But critically, while our respective institutions have bent, they are not breaking in the US, and they are not breaking in Sri Lanka.

In the United States, journalists have done an extraordinary job investigating corruption and calling attention to abuses of power. In a number of cases, dogged reporting has led to resignations and exposed terrible wrongs. After doing almost no oversight for two years, our Congress has just been reinvigorated. There are more than 100 women in the House of Representatives for the first time in American history. More young people and women and minorities are running for office than ever before. And our State and Local governments have taken a stand on many pressing issues, from Climate Change, to immigration, to voting rights that the Federal government is failing to address with any seriousness.

Here in Sri Lanka, during the recent crisis, your citizens made themselves heard, with many of them speaking not for parties or personalities but in defense of your hard-earned democracy.Your streets were home to the country’s first-ever spontaneous, popular protests not initiated by a particular party, proving US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ great wisdom that, “the most important political office is that of private citizen.”

Both traditional and new media outlets played a key role in keeping Sri Lankans informed and keeping institutions accountable. Civil society – and again, both new and established groups –were active and effective. And your judiciary stood by the Constitution and enforced the Rule of Law with great independence and seriousness of purpose. All of this is a credit to the resilience of Asia’s oldest democracy and to the checks and balances that Mangala championed over the years. Sri Lanka suffered a brutal 26- year civil war that ended only a decade ago, and all of us are living in times that can test our faith in politics.

And yet I am as convinced as ever that despite all the cynicism out there, our strength will rest where it always has – in those people willing to serve, and the convictions they bring to the human endeavor of politics. People who see the flawed world as it is, but are willing to say, “Nevertheless!” and strive to build a better world.

Mangala is one of those individuals, and I join you today and all days in thanking him for his 30 years of service. We all know the best is yet to come.