Going down memory lane
Sri Lanka’s Father of Diplomacy Dr. Vernon
.L. B. Mendis reminisces his trail blazing career
spanning over a half century with Nation Eye
By Ravi Ladduwahetty
He was appointed as the first member of Sri Lanka’s Overseas
Service by no less than Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake in 1949.
He got his foreign posting to Washington the next year. These
are the lifelines of Sri Lanka’s most senior career diplomat and
tagged as the Father of Sri Lankan Diplomacy Dr. Vernon L.B.
The veteran diplomat, seated at his BMICH office, was
reminiscing his trail blazing career with Nation Eye. Having
passed his 80th Birthday last December, one might have expected
him to be as fragile as a porcelain vase, but to the contrary,
he looked sturdy, albeit somewhat feeble in his memory.
was most fortunate to work with some of the finest men of the
highest calibre of that time. The then Ambassador to Washington
was Sir Claude Corea and the Deputy was no less than Glennie
Peiris” ( also Chairman of Air Ceylon and father of Prof. G.L.
Peiris), he said attempting to recall some of the finer moments
at the inception of his career. Dr. Mendis was a Counselor at
the Embassy who completed routine work and he had found Sir
Claude very inspirational.
His next posting was in Tokyo which was an epoch making event as
he had to open the Sri Lankan mission there. Japan was the
height of the momentum as he aptly describes it as following the
famous speech delivered by the late President J.R. Jayewardene
as the Minister of State at San Francisco Peace Treaty
Conference in 1951. The Ambassador to Tokyo Susantha Fonseka
came much later.
His stint with Ambassador Susantha Fonseka whom he described as
glamourous personality and a great experience were he built on
the very foundations that he laid. Dr. Mendis was still a
Counsellor and was still not in the rank of an Ambassador at the
The next station was Paris in 1953 which was also a great
In 1955, he was posted to Moscow and had the privilege of
working with Dr. G.P. Malalasekera who was appointed by the
Government of Prime Minister S.W. R.D. Bandaranaike. Working
with Dr. G.P. Malalasekera was the combination of a great
scholar and a great gentleman, he said.
Moscow was seeing one of its greatest transitions under the then
Prime Minister Nikita Kruchev and the other members of the
Russian Communist Party.
It was in 1960 that he was recalled to Sri Lanka by the
Government of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranike whom he
described as a wonderful person to work with and work for and a
very rich experience “ Although she did not profess to be an
expert, she had a wonderful feeling for Sri Lanka’s
international relations and the highlight of her career was at
the Belgrade Summit in 1961 where she really stole the show, Dr:
Mendis said .
It was with the 1965 Government of Prime Minister Dudley
Senanayake that he was posted as the High Commissioner to the
United Kingdom and later he was assigned to the Russian capital
With the advent of the United Front coalition government of Mrs
Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1970, he was recalled to Colombo. He
was her Foreign Affairs Advisor and that was the time that he
played a pivotal role in the formulation of Foreign Policy of
The epoch making moment for Sri Lanka was the hosting of the
fifth Non-Aligned Conference Movement in Colombo in 1976.
His greatest moment was when he functioned as the Secretary
General of the Non Aligned Movement Summit in Colombo where he
had to chair sessions in the presence of some of the greatest
leaders at the time, such as Indian Prime Minister Indira
Gandhi, Yugoslavian Premier Marshal Tito, Cuban President Fidel
Castro and their ilk.
‘It was the recognition Sri Lanka gained from the conference
that made it such a momentous occasion,’ he recalled with
He left the foreign Service in 1980 after being Sri Lanka’s
envoy to Canada and Cuba to take up a posting with the United
Nations as Special Envoy in the Middle East based in the
Egyptian capital of Cairo. That was the time he had to look
after the interests of the United Nations in the Gulf where
Egypt was making waves in its foreign policy, at a time that
that the country was emerging as one of the leading Middle
Although he was at a loss to recall some of the spiciest moments
of his stint for the United Nations in the Middle East, he
faintly recollected the issues relating to Egypt’s relations
with Sudan and he also had to deal with some of the issues in
relation to Egypt’s Cultural Treasures on behalf of the United
Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation
He said that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy had been shaped with
great skills with the passage of time by successive Governments
following the path of Non Alignment where the island nation was
instrumental in formulating policies at regional and global
levels. He also described the relationship between India as a
model relationship at all times, despite a brief breakdown in
the 1960s but that was quickly restored.
He looks back at some of the greatest moments in his personal
involvement in the formulation of foreign policy. It was a
passion for History at Royal College, Colombo and later the
Colombo University which led him to a career in international
relations and diplomacy. The highlight is that there was one
classmate at Royal College Colombo who was on the same
wavelength with him who also scaled global heights. No less that
Justice Christie Gregory Weeramantry, later Vice President of
the International Court of Justice.