Manel Abeysekera – Lanka’s first woman career diplomat goes down memory lane with The Nation

‘Women can do as well as men, perhaps even better’

By Carol Aloysius
The most formidable obstacle in her 35-year career in the Overseas Service was the fact that she was a woman. Yet, ironically, it was this seeming obstacle that fuelled her determination to achieve her goals.

“My father, E.W. Kannangara was in the first batch of Civil Servants in Sri Lanka. He later became Permanent Secretary and served under S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike as Secretary, Health and Local Government. The two of them worked so closely together, they were called ‘The fathers of Local Government.’ My father was my hero, my guru and the person I respected most in my life. From the time I was very young, I decided to follow in his footsteps and join the Civil Service. No one could change my mind.”

Manel Abeysekera, Sri Lanka’s first woman career diplomat, remembers vividly the initial instances of gender bias that had stood in the path of realising her childhood dream.

The first time was in the field of higher studies. “After I got through the OL exam, I was prevented from entering for the AL exam by my parents, because the Arts Faculty which was in Colombo, had moved to Peradeniya, the very year I was to sit for it. Having never lived away from my parents, they were reluctant for me to move so far away from Colombo, because I was a girl. Unlike me, however, when my brother gained entrance to Oxford University, he was given permission to go. So, it all boils down to gender I guess.”

To pacify her, her father enrolled her as an external student to follow a correspondence course from London University. After passing the first exam, she refused to continue the course. “I wanted to study with other students, because I wanted to have competition. When I told this to my father, he finally consented to let me go to Peradeniya. But, by then, it was too late, as I had lost one year, and my friends would not be in my batch. Then my brother, who had just finished his Degree from Oxford, suggested I go to Oxford. I naturally jumped at the idea!”
It was when she began applying to Oxford for admission, that she encountered her second gender obstacle in higher studies. “I found that there were only five colleges for girls, whereas there were some 23 colleges for boys. So, whereas men were not required to sit an entrance test, women had to sit an entrance test, because of the limited intake.”

Determined to try her luck, Manel sat the entrance test – in Sri Lanka.
“I sat the exam at my school, Methodist College, Kollupitiya, and wrote it under the supervision of Miss Grace Robins, the Principal of the school. The college I applied to was Somerville College, one of the five colleges for women in Oxford. Before sitting for the exam, I told the Education Officer at our High Commission in London, to inform the Somerville Authorities that they should consider admitting me only on my performance in the written test, as I wasn’t prepared to go all the way to England and face the risk of being turned down at the interview stage, which happens sometimes. Due to this condition, I hadn’t much hope of being successful. So, imagine my delight and surprise, when at Christmas, I got an unexpected gift – a letter informing me I could attend Somerville College to read History for my Degree.”

She finished her three-year Degree course in 1957 and returned to Sri Lanka with high hopes of being able to finally achieve her childhood goal of entering the Civil Service like her father. It was when she applied to enter the Service, that she encountered her third and most serious gender related obstacle.

“Imagine my horror and dismay, when I found out that women couldn’t enter this service, because the word “Man” in the recruitment minute meant just that. It was an all-male service under the British recruitment service at that time, and so did not include women.”

She refused to give up trying anyway – determined that one day she would break through this male preserve and thereby achieve her goal.

Recruitment to the COS
That auspicious day arrived in 1958, when her persistence was finally rewarded.
“While reading the newspapers, quite by chance, I saw a Gazette notification calling for recruitment to the Ceylon Overseas Service (COS). If you recall, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was then the Prime Minister, and he changed the orientation of our foreign policy, opening diplomatic relations with China, Eastern Europe and in the Middle East, and joined the Non-Aligned Movement. As the Gazette notification did not mention restrictions against women applying, I sent in my application. I was one of two women who applied. I was selected. In all, eight of us were recruited that year, and I was the only woman.”
Her selection gave Manel the distinction of becoming the first woman diplomat in the Ceylon Overseas Service. She and her colleagues were given their appointments on April 1, 1958, not as a joke, but as it was the beginning of the Financial Year!

Her debut into this former all-male bastion was by no means smooth, and this time the obstacles were not only gender bias.
“Being probationers, Bandaranaike was very particular about our orientation. So, we were sent back to universities abroad and assigned various study courses including languages. I was assigned Italian. Before leaving, I was given a letter to attend Balliol College, Oxford, but when I told them it was a male college, they found me a place at New Hall, Cambridge. It was a new College for women, and my admission to this college was a blessing in disguise in more ways than one.”
“I was doubly fortunate, because the Modern Language Faculty at Cambridge was excellent – the best at the time, in my opinion. Secondly, my lecturer was an Italian. Because of that, I mastered the language, acquiring the correct accent.”

The Alitalia hijacking
Her fluency in Italian proved to be a useful weapon in a most unexpected situation.
The first time was when a Sri Lankan, Sepala Ekanayake, hijacked an Alitalia plane and forced it to land in Bangkok. “I was Charge’ d’Affaires at Bangkok at the time, and because of my familiarity with the Italian language, I was able to understand what the Captain and the Alitalia ground staff were discussing about the hijacker.”
Her knowledge of Italian also proved useful when she was sent to Rome as her first foreign assignment. Her second assignment was London.

Non-Aligned Summit
Manel returned from London to Sri Lanka in 1974. She now found herself undertaking the most challenging and daunting role she had faced thus far.
“I was made Chief of Protocol. It was the time when the country was in the process of readying itself for a Conference of such magnitude as the forthcoming Fifth Non-Aligned Summit to be held in Colombo in 1976. Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike was Prime Minister then. I worked directly under her. She was a fantastic organiser and a wonderful woman to work with,” she recalls of her former ‘boss.’

She little realised, however, that, as Chief of Protocol for the Non-Aligned Summit, she would be running into huge problems, which were all the more complex, as they were of a technical nature.
One of these was the lack of modern tools for quick communication.

“I knew that to do a good job I needed to have fast, dependable communication tools. If you remember, this was the period before we had the kind of high-tech communication gadgets we now have. There were no TV, computers, mobile phones or fax machines. The telex machines only operated with the outside world, and not between departments and offices within the country. It was a huge problem which needed to be sorted out soon. We were expecting 92 Heads of State/Government to attend the Summit. It was the task of the Military to hoist the correct flag of the country of each arriving delegation, the moment the delegation arrived at the airport. If there was a mix up or delay, it would have been a disaster. Anything could have gone wrong.”

In desperation, she sought the help of the one person who she knew could solve that nightmare problem. She sent an SOS appeal to her boss – the PM.
“I told her it was imperative for me to have some form of quick communication, so that I could communicate with all those I was liaising with. I told her also that the military Guards of Honour were on the tarmac waiting for confirmation from me after boarding a flight, the moment a new delegation arrived, that it was the expected delegation, and not some other that had come, as otherwise they would have to make a quick change of flag and national anthem of that delegation, and that needed fast communication facilities. After my appeal, she gave me the only means there was for quick communication – a walkie-talkie, of which I had one part, and my deputy on duty the other. It may not have been the ideal method of communication compared with today’s modern technology, but it was invaluable and nothing went wrong,” she recalls with gratitude.

Protocol Manual
Since hundreds of persons were involved in the massive pre Summit operations, and many of them were ignorant of their respective duties, she hit upon the idea of producing a Summit Protocol Manual of Procedure – the first of its kind in the country, to help them.
Her main target readers were those working at the Katunayake Airport, which was the first point of contact for the visiting delegates.

“I categorised the different officers working in the airport and spelt out clearly what their respective duties were, with regard to the arriving delegates. So the officers in each category knew exactly what they had to do. They were trained with it over a period of two years – 1974-76.”
She also asked the PM to give her more personnel, since the staff in the Protocol Division was not enough. She was sent Army personnel whom she trained in baggage clearance, the Cadet Corps in Frontier Formalities and the Police in arranging and handling motorcades, with the accent on accuracy and precise timing.

“I timed the ceremonial arrival to seven minutes. I told them that every seven minutes I was going to bring a VIP from an aircraft to the tarmac. I had a Rolls Royce in which I brought them right up to where they were received by our President and our Prime Minister, then to the Honour Guard for the Salute, after which, my staff escorted them to their allocated VIP Lounge, and after the Cadet Corp took over their passports for baggage clearance, they were taken out of the Lounge to their motorcade, to be driven to their Hotel. We timed the whole operation to just seven minutes for each visiting delegation.”

So how did it go when the Summit began? I asked her.
“Very well. We had about five cars in each motorcade, in which around 15 people could travel, ready at the airport for the visiting Heads, each of whom was given a security officer and liaison officer. We also had a few selected hotels like the Oberoi, Inter Continental and Galle Face, where I had Protocol units, which were able to liaise with the hotel staff and the Police, and see that there were no delays when they were setting out to attend the Conference.”

Team Work
One main reason why everything worked out so well at the NAM Conference was because it was a team effort, Manel recalls.
“Mrs. Bandaranaike was Prime Minister, and Minister of Defence and External Affairs. So there was no clash, because all the forces were under one command. The Police and Army liaised with the Air Force and the Airport Authority, and with Protocol. We were all accommodated at the airport hotel, and this made it easy for us. Besides, the PM was a fantastic person, and was personally involved in everything that was going on.”
Manel remembers how from 1974-76, she would have monthly meetings convened by the PM’s brother Dr. Mackie Ratwatte, the Director General of the NAM Summit Conference Organising Committee, and chaired by her, where every detail was discussed and problems smoothed out. Manel says she was flattered that the Army and the Police produced Manuals of Procedure like her Protocol Manual.

After the Summit, and following the change of government, with J.R. Jayewardene becoming President and R. Premadasa Prime Minister, Manel found herself winging her way back to Bangkok, this time as the first Ambassador of Sri Lanka there, and the only woman Head of Mission, as she had been six years before as Charge d’Affaires. On her return, she was Director General – Press and Publicity Division of the Ministry. Thereafter, she went as Ambassador to Germany [West Germany before reunification] and was concurrently accredited to Austria and Switzerland. She returned to Sri Lanka in 1992, and retired from the Overseas Service in 1993, when she reached the statutory age of 60 years, after a career in the Foreign Service spanning 35 years, which she had thoroughly enjoyed.

“In 2004, the Foreign Minister called me out of retirement and asked me to update the general Protocol Manual, which I had done for the Ministry when I ceased being Chief of Protocol in 1980, which I did; and in 2005, he asked me to train Foreign Service Officers, which I did till 2007.

Among the highlights of her fruitful career, the Non-Aligned Summit stands out, as a memorable experience in Protocol.
“Protocol is the first line of defence. When a VIP comes to the country, if the protocol leaves room for improvement, it will give the country a poor image. I have told my staff and those to whom I give lectures on Protocol, that the best protocol is what is unobtrusive, where you remain ‘invisible,’ while doing the work you need to do, without being seen running around.”

She also emphasised the following points on being a good protocol officer:
A Protocol Officer can’t afford to be rude or tactless to a visiting VIP – even if he/she is rude to the officer. You have to remember to be polite for the sake of keeping the good image of the country.
However, being polite doesn’t mean that the Protocol officer must always be obliging – to the extent of allowing a visiting diplomat to get away with doing something illegal or in violation of the country’s regulations or interests.
Manel cites some examples from her own experiences.

“After seeing how Bangkok protects its national treasures, I said that we too must have an Antiquities Law, which came into being, to prevent diplomats taking away our national treasures when they returned to their own countries. So, we sent archaeological officers to inspect the luggage of departing diplomats. I remember how an officer had specifically told a diplomat who was going back, not to take a certain antique with him, as it was a national treasure. But the diplomat did exactly that. So I had to take a calculated risk and get the customs officers to open his baggage at the airport, in his and the archaeological officer’s presence, and remove the item in question.

Then, when I discovered that foreign diplomats were importing duty free food and liquor over and above their official and personal requirements, I put a stop to that, as the excess was going to the black market, where they were being sold at exorbitant rates (this was the time when import of such goods was banned). As the importation list came to us, I would vet each list and say, “Sorry, but it’s way too much,” if there was an excess.
When she heard that the wives of diplomats were evading paying parking fees, she advised them that parking fees were not a tax and they had to pay them.
“I was strict when I needed to be, especially when it came to our sovereign rights, but always courteous,” she said.

Post retirement
Accustomed to leading an active life, Manel has continued being the busy person she has been, holding a number of positions even after retirement. She has been a member of the Independent Group of Experts on the SAARC Integrated Programme of Action, member of the Citizen’s Commission on South Asia, Chairperson – National Committee on Women, to implement the Women’s Charter of Sri Lanka, President – Sri Lanka Women’s Conference, a Consortium of Women’s Organisations, President – Sri Lanka Federation of University Women, President – Colombo YWCA and President – Oxford Society of Ceylon. She has launched an NGO forum on Ageing, during the UN Year of the Older Person.

Currently, she is working on an outreach programme in the North, to train youth in vocational training to repair damaged cycles. “This will give them a livelihood, and we are also trying to assist them in purchasing a bike, which will further enhance their livelihood through mobility.”
Right now she’s busy putting the final touches to her memoirs aptly titled Madam Sir – the Career and Dilemmas of the first woman of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service. The book’s title is based on a personal experience. When she arrived in Bangkok as the new Sri Lankan Ambassador, her chauffeur, who had been accustomed to driving only male diplomats, had greeted her as “Madam Sir!”

“I have written these memoirs to show my gratitude to God, my family, my school and Universities, my Foreign Service Trainers such as Glennie Peiris and Dr. Vernon Mendis, and the wonderful opportunity I got to serve my country. I hope it will be an inspiration for women to feel they are second to none.
Quoting the ILO slogan, “A woman is always a worker,” she says with conviction, “Women have to play so many roles – as homemakers, working women, mothers; they have the resilience and capability. The secret is proper Time Management. If they manage their time well, in carrying out these multiple tasks, they can outperform men any day, any time, but I would personally rather work with the men in a shared gender contribution to the people of Sri Lanka.”


1st Winemakers’ Night

Sandalford Wine Dinner with Chef Mats at MLH

The Wine and Dine pairing nights with Chef Mats will be another signature event that will occur monthly along with the most talked about Slow food Nights and the soon to be showcased “WE Dining nights with Chef Pubilis.”
These “Winemakers Dinner” nights will showcase wine from well known wineries from around the World paired with a gourmet dinner from the Kitchen of the Mount Lavinia Hotels specialty chef from Europe, Mats Petersson.

For the first such dinner in September, Chef Mats and Grant Brinklow, CEO of Sandalford Wines (Western Australia) will match and pair delectable dishes to create an enhanced dining experience that will be a first in Sri Lanka.

“We at MLH are trying to create dining experiences en par with the best in the world so that our clientele will have the variety and choice in wining and dining demanded by discerning guests worldwide, states General Manager, Mount Lavinia Hotel, Anura Dewapura.
Sandalford (www.sandalford.com) has Vineyards in the Swan Valley and the iconic Margaret River region and routinely wins awards at wine shows and competitions. It also has a highly regarded restaurant on the Vineyard which has won its own numerous awards and accolades - hence this initiative fits in very well with the direction that MLH has taken.

In the words of Grant Brinklow, “We are very pleased to be the associated with the debut of the Winemakers Dinners at the Mount Lavinia Hotel – a world famous historic property in one of the most exciting tourism destinations”. At this dinner, Sandalford wines will showcase limited production wines and the current vintage and it will give guests a chance to chat with a personality who has vast experience in the wine trade and is a much sought after speaker on wine.

As Anura Dewapura says, “It is about putting diners in touch with other people, for some light hearted conversation over great food and wine. Some people would see it as a more relaxed form of networking accompanied by the chef and wine connoisseur to add some insights into the dining experience. So why not join us for a very special event when Chef Mats prepares a masterful, multi-course, gourmet dinner paired with Sandalford award-winning wines with our objective being to establish a unique experience that the discerning public can become involved in”.

The sunset, unusually extensive beach frontage and the Colombo skyline are a photographer’s delight at the Mount Lavinia Hotel and adjudged as “One of the Worlds’ Best Gathering Places” by Newsweek and to top it all off connoisseurs of gracious living come for the heart-stoppingly beautiful panorama of the Indian Ocean. But equally potent is the exquisite service and tantalising delicacies all cooked up by world class chefs that make your visit to the hotel nothing short of picture perfect. To be on par with this picturesque experience, The Mount Lavinia Hotel has launched new dinner-time experiences aimed specifically at travellers and visitors looking for conversation, company and a unique experience over dinner.

Sandalford is a boutique winery with Vineyards in the Swan Valley and the World famous Margaret River wine region in Western Australia world that consistently wins awards and accolades for its wine as well as for the award winning gourmet restaurant at its Swan valley property.


The Nation EYE, together with the Mount Lavinia Hotel is holding a competition for our readers. Answer a simple question from the write-up about the hotel and stand a chance to win a dinner voucher for two from the Mount Lavinia Hotel each week.
Please fill in the coupon below with the correct answer and send it to: The Nation EYE, 742, Maradana Road, Colombo 10.
One person can send any number of coupons but photocopies of the coupon are not accepted.

Question: What is the native country of Sandalford Wines?

Answer: .....................................................................................................
Name: ........................................................................................................
Contact number: .......................................................................................
Email: ........................................................................................................
Postal Address: .......................................................................................