Servant’, he was indeed a pride of the Nation
On Sunday morning, news reached Colombo that Felix
Dias Abeyesinghe, a former Commissioner of Elections and High Commissioner
to Australia, a terrifically upright public servant and a great
family man, had passed away peacefully in the Australian capital
of Canberra. He had been battling Parkinson’s for some time,
and the inevitable end-stages of the sorrowful disease had come.
By some twist of fate, he was to be cremated on his 88th birthday.
|Felix Dias Abeyesinghe
I had heard of Mr. Dias Abeyesinghe as a young
reporter working for the then Davasa Group. He was the Elections
Commissioner who introduced the first one day election in Sri Lanka
back in 1960 ( previously elections were held over 3 days), and
that he would have done at the age of 42.
My first official contact with him was when he
granted me a rather rare interview on the eve of the 1977 General
The first thing that struck me when I walked into
his simple office, was the number of telephones on his big desk.
There must have been about 20 of them – all hotlines, I was
later to be told, to the Assistant Commissioners of Elections in
the various districts. It was like an “Operations Room”
during some military campaign. Such was the logistics that went
into ensuring a parliamentary election in Sri Lanka. The fact that
none of the telephones ever rang during our one hour interview –
which appeared as the front page lead story on the eve of that elections,
was indicative of the well-oiled machinery that was in place. Those
were hard fought elections, as they are today. But power had been
devolved to the men in the districts – calls were to be made
only if they could not handle it at their levels.
History recorded a landslide win for the UNP at
that election, but the bigger victory was for democracy in Sri Lanka.
There were no allegations – not even a hint of it - of partiality
by the Elections Department; and there was no need for humbug foreign
election observers to come and give worthless certificates about
the conduct of an election in this country, or to make profound
statements at news conferences and issue reports about the standards
of elections here. The fact that despite deteriorating standards
in every institution of government today, that the Elections Department
still earns the respect of the vast mass of the citizenry, give
or take a few instances which doesn’t involve the Department
itself, is largely due to public servants of the calibre of the
late Mr. Dias Abeyesinghe, who served the public service –
and the country - with honour, dignity, efficiency, and impartiality.
When he retired as Commissioner, the reputation
of the Elections Department was spotlessly clean. His loyal duties
to his country continued thereafter, when he served a stint as our
envoy in Canberra during the difficult period of the 1983 riots
back in Sri Lanka, and then served as Secretary to the All Party
Conference in 1984, when the then Government tried, in vain, to
settle the northern insurgency amicably. And then, he went to spend
his well-earned retirement with his wife and son in Canberra, where
he kept abreast of all the happenings in Sri Lanka – especially
the many elections.
Despite the many accusations of polls-rigging
and the way elections were conducted in the modern age, he steadfastly
defended the public service, for he understood the pressures they
were subjected to.
In service, he showed ample leadership qualities
that must have inspired peers and subordinates alike who worked
for the public service. There were a galaxy of such people in the
public service at the time, but his job was particularly high-profile.
Of the many challenges such a man in such a job would have had to
face, one came in the early days of his career when a political
whiplash could have easily relegated him to cold storage, and the
second, at the tail-end of his illustrious career. One showed his
impartiality in the face of political interference, the other his
partiality for the welfare of the voter.
Way back in early 1960, or thereabouts, the authority
to assign a party symbol passed from the Minister of Home Affairs
to the Commissioner of Elections. The onerous responsibility of
assigning the ‘Hand’ symbol to the Sri Lanka Freedom
Party was contested.
Mr. Dias Abeyesinghe, as a relatively young public
servant decided, after an inquiry, that the symbol had to go to
Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and the SLFP. He received messages from
both, the caretaker Prime Minister Dr. W. Dahanayake and then Home
Minister Stanley Zoysa, but he took the pressure in his stride and
did exactly what he believed was the correct thing to do.
In his last report on a General Election, he commented
adversely on the practice of marking a voter’s finger with
an indelible ink. He felt that this was an insult to a voter; an
assumption that he was dishonest. He wanted that done away with,
not that a multiple voter is discouraged by the ink anyway.
These are but two illustrations of the man who
was held in very high esteem by all the political parties contesting
elections as a thoroughly fair man.
I went to see Mr. Dias Abeyesinghe last year.
In fact, I made it a point to go and see him. He took his debilitating
illness with characteristic dignity. His mind was racing back in
time, nostalgically, to the times when public servants were servants
of the public, and not political servants. He was a good listener,
I knew I would not see him again, but a stream of friends, relatives
and one-time colleagues continued to make it a point to drop in
and pay at least a courtesy call on this fine gentlemen, in the
evening of his life. He could relate to people of any age with consummate
ease, and an easy-going bon-homie. He was a good Christian, as good
as they come, and a true Thomian serving its Board of Governors
for many years. To many, he was like the ancient Roman pater-familias,
the head of an extended family. He led a good and full life; and
he served his Motherland well. He was not only awarded a Deshamanya,
but he deserved it. He was indeed, a Pride of the Nation.
Felix Dias Abeyesinghe served as the Commissioner of
Elections from 1959 to 1978 and later as High Commissioner to Australia.
He died last Sunday of pneumonia caused by the end-stages of Parkinson’s
disease, and was cremated in Canberra.
She stood out for her goodness and kindness
Perera (nee Rodrigo) :::::
While her close family and friends kept vigil,
prayed and wept in shocked disbelief as Jeanne’s young life
ebbed away, we couldn’t even begin to find any consolation
in Wordsworth’s sentiment that “the good die first!”
The truth how good she was and her true excellence,
only hit us as we watched her flower filled coffin being lowered
into her grave. As a child, growing up with her four sisters, playing
with her numerous boisterous cousins, she stood out for her quintessential
goodness. One of them, remarked when proposing the toast at her
wedding that they all regarded her as ‘mother superior’,
as she perhaps was a restraining influence on their mischievous
Her parents probably never had to reprimand her
even once as she was an obedient daughter, excelling both in her
academic studies, as well as in her chosen field of Information
Technology. After she married Conrad, she continued her role as
an exemplary wife, and together theyfaced the unfamiliar and rigours
of life in Kuwait.
After returning to Sri Lanka, they provided a
wonderful home for their two sons, Rushitha and Chiren to grow up
in. Jeanne’s unstinted energy supplied them with all their
She broke rest whenever they were ill, personally
prepared all their favourite foods and zealously encouraged and
promoted all their educational and extra-curricular activities.
Though only 8 and 5 years, they showed prowess
in both studies and sports, mainly due to Jeanne’s untiring
efforts. There was an unusually close interaction and rapport between
all the members of this wonderfully happy family- her parents, four
sisters and brothers-in-law, whom Jeanne described as golden (rathran).
Their 11 children, as well as the progeny of other cousins, provided
a close knit, congenial environment at Kelaniya, when awareness
of Jeanne’s fatal illness struck with the force of a bolt
Jeanne had always seemed the healthiest in the
family. Unwilling to worry anyone, she probably concealed her aches,
pains and discomfort under her usual cheerful exterior. Else how
could her medical condition have remained undiagnosed till less
than two and a half months before her death?
Now, as all in her close family circle try to
come to terms with the first bereavement that affected their generation,
they can only find consolation in the fact that Jeanne was mercifully
spared the harrowing agony and anguish involved, if she had to face
the medical treatment prescribed for her ailment.
Deeply religious, with a life-long, special devotion
to Mary, she was privileged to have a vision of the Virgin Mother
beckoning her with a bouquet of flowers, a few hours before she
died. As she and all of us continue to believe “Life is eternal
and Love is immortal and death is only an horizon and an horizon
is nothing save the limit of our sight!”
Jeanne, the only relief we have in our grief is
the knowledge that you are resting in peace, though hidden from
our mortal sight.
Man of the wilds and much much more
Christopher Wickremesinghe was my husband, Simon’s
uncle. But over the years he became my uncle as well and we affectionately
called him Uncle Kitty. Knowing him was an experience I’d
never forget, for he was no ordinary mortal. Here was a man who
was totally absorbed with life and its many facets. Working with
wildlife was his primary interest, and his outstanding efforts in
this field won for him many international and national accolades.
When I first got to know Uncle Kitty, he had already
retired from Government service and was involved in planting crops
on his land at Mahiyangana. This venture however was terminated
when a fire destroyed the property. In the latter years of his life
he kept close contact with us and used to drop by for Sunday lunch
and talk to us regularly on the telephone. It was during these times
that I learnt more about him.
I learned that he was a keen hiker in his youth
and how as a student while exploring the Minipe area, studying the
ancient irrigation systems, he met our first Prime Minister, D.
S. Senanayake, who took an instant liking to him which later developed
into a ‘guru-pupil’ relationship. Uncle Kitty was responsible
for being one of the founders of the Historical & Geographical
Society of his school, Trinity College Kandy. He joined the Medical
College as a student but after a few years a virulent attack of
malaria prevented him from doing his exams and he decided to abandon
Nature was close to his heart and he loved nothing
more than roaming the jungles. He told us how he opened an account
with Cargills (one of the largest Department Stores at the time)
through whom he purchased medicines which he then distributed to
the Bintenne Veddhas on his visits to those areas. It was not surprising
therefore, that he chose a career with the Wild Life Department
which he joined in 1950. He was appointed as a Game Warden in the
National Parks while still a young man.
Uncle Kitty’s days as Warden were ones of
accomplishment and excitement; animals went out of control, needed
to be rescued, poachers were rampant, tours had to be arranged for
special visitors, and flooding and drought caused their own kind
of disasters which affected the terrain under his administration.
Today, a plaque bearing his name stands in the Yala Sanctuary marking
his exemplary service in the Wild Life Department.
He was a skilled photographer and was appointed
by the internationally reputed Time/Life Magazine to cover the first
Colombo Plan Conference held here. I have seen some of his photos,
among them some superb black and white pictures of D. S. Senanayake
with Jawaharlal Nehru (then PM of India) as well as some interesting
studies of Leonard Woolf.
Uncle Kitty was also a gifted pianist and possessed
a great love for classical music. Reading was also an important
part of his life. A few years ago we were delighted when he was
honoured with two prestigious International awards for Wild Life
Conservation. The first took him to Holland where he received the
Golden Ark for Conservation, personally presented by Prince Bernhardt
of the Netherlands. The World Wildlife Fund awarded him the Conservation
Merit Award which event took place in Malaysia. In 1998 the Biodiversity
Elephant Trust of Sri Lanka presented him with the Conservation
In recent times Uncle Kitty virtually lived by
himself and used to sometimes feel lonely and bereft at the loss
of many of his old friends. He once told me, ‘I can’t
talk about the old times to anyone now as there’s no one who’d
remember them’. Nevertheless, he did have a band of people
- from those who worked for him, to relatives, neighbours and close
friends – who looked after him in their own different ways.
The telephone became his chief contact point and we called each
other often, Uncle Kitty and I; we’d talk about cooking, the
latest antics of our dogs, birds that visited our gardens, music,
books we had recently read – or we would call each other just
to say “How?” His two dogs were his staunch companions
and dearest friends.
We shall certainly miss Uncle Kitty.
His spiritual convictions led him to Buddhism
and Sai Baba, and I am certain that although he has left this world,
Uncle Kitty has finally gained happiness and peace in his new Home.