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. Mendis.
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.
“I 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 time.
The next station was Paris in 1953 which was also a great experience
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 of Moscow.
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 Sri Lanka.
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 obvious pride.
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 Eastern powers.
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 (UNESCO)
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.