8th March 1998
The lady diplomat who did it in style
By Roshan Peiris
Today is Women's In ternational Day and The Sunday Times sought the experiences of Sri Lanka's first woman career diplomat Iranganie Manel Abeysekera.
Manel has been a diplomat for thirty-five years. A graduate of Somerville College, Oxford and thereafter of New Hall, Cambridge (sent there by the Foreign Office) Manel's memories are varied and coloured with much humour.
The British had debarred women from both the Civil Service and a diplomatic career for a woman was just not thought of until S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike changed it all, said Manel.
Manel recalls with mirth that at a party given by the F.A.O. Director in Rome she, a young attache then, was introduced as Miss Kangaroo (she was a Miss Kannangara). Her father while visiting his daughter in Cambridge had told people "call me Kangaroo" since Kannangara was a mouthful and this had filtered down.
In Bangkok later, having got a promotion as Charge de Affaires, a puzzled chauffeur called her "Madam Sir." "I did nothing to correct him I thought it cute," she recalled, chuckling.
Thai protocol did not allow her to accompany a Sri Lankan Buddhist priest who had written a book on Thai Buddhism to present it to the King. "I arranged for it but I was not allowed to accompany him because I was a woman. I had to send my Chief Clerk."
"In February 1972 just before we became a Republic, Queen Elizabeth visited Bangkok and I went to the Quay to receive her with the others. It was just as well since the chief photographer took the picture of us representatives of Commonwealth countries with the Queen. Keeping to protocol being a Charge, I stood next to the Indian Ambassador who was the newest of the diplomats having just presented his credentials. Being in saree the photographer thought I was his wife and had crept in where spouses were not allowed. He whispered this to the Queen and the Queen remembering me at the Quay told the photographer off commenting, 'you are ignorant'.
"The King of Thailand held a banquet for the queen and each country was given a quota of nationals who could be invited. As Charge I was given that right and I included the same priest there Ven. Wimalasiri.
"I had taken the precaution to inform British protocol that she was not to shake hands with him. The man forgot to tell Her Majesty and she was bringing her hand forward when I stared directly at her. She luckily understood my eye language and half way she took her hand up and prudently patted her hair and greeted the Ven. Monk with folded hands as he did."
Ven. Wimalasiri by the way helped Manel to understand Theravada Buddhism as practised in Thailand and though a Christian she joined in Buddhist activities guided by him and even gave danas.
Her term of office first as Charge from 1970 to 74 in Thailand she recalls was quite memorable. "Since the Ambassador lived in Burma and I had to find my diplomatic way around."
"I came back at last to Sri Lanka. Earlier when I was back home I drafted my first joint communique after Chancellor Kiesinger's visit. People like G.V.P. Samarasinghe as Permanent Secretary helped me. It is a delicate task pushing our views quietly while including those of the other side. The Prime Minister at the time was Dudley Senanayake, also a very understanding man.
Her next job was Chief of Protocol from 1974. She has been the longest Protocol Officer serving as such for six years.
"Upto 1976 I spent my time training 150 of my staff on what to do and not to do when the 92 heads of state visited Sri Lanka for the Non Aligned Summit. It was not a task I cherished but then again it was also a challenge for a woman to undertake.
Almost every seven minutes I had to welcome heads of state and present them to the President and Prime Minister at the Airport. One had to change flags and play the correct national anthems. Sometimes changing of the flags became confused but we never flopped.
"Gaddafi's people created a problem. He came late for the opening of the Summit and so we had to coax Baduddin Mohammed to receive him at the Airport which he did not like, missing the opening. I had to ask Gaddafi to go straight to the hotel and not the BMICH since the opening ceremony by then was over. Also his Chief of Protocol refused to allow him to inspect our Guard of honour. Security for him was indeed very very tight."
Starting her diplomatic career in Rome as an Attache was very conducive, she recalls. "The people, both rich and poor, were intrigued by a woman diplomat from Asia and were very helpful and kind. They also were adventurous when it came to food and liked sampling some of our local dishes, unlike the English who were conservative."
In Rome after passing all her diplomatic exams in ten months she got promoted to being Third Secretary showing that a woman could do as well as any man.
In London she was Second Secretary and then First Secretary. "Dr Malalasekera and his wife treated me like a daughter. My senior colleagues like Vernon Mendis were very considerate and helpful.
"My stay in London was pleasant since I had many friends from my Oxford and Cambridge days. Despite dear 'Queen Victoria' the cook, whose name was simply Victoria, I taught myself to cook and became very adept at it."
Now comes the interesting part when our lady diplomat went back to Thailand as Ambassador in 1980. After her arrival she had an exciting time when an Indonesian plane was hijacked by Indonesian fundamentalists and they wanted to come to Sri Lanka to refuel. "President Jayawardene said 'No' and so despite their pleas I refused them leave to come over here".
"Next came Sepala Ekanayake, the Sri Lankan who hijacked an Alitalia plane saying he had explosives tied around his shoulders and would not let anyone leave the plane until his Italian wife brought his son to him.
"Naturally I had to get into stride. I met him and spoke to him in Sinhala and told him he was committing a criminal act. He had paid for his ticket and was determined to come back here with his son.
"I prayed fervently for the lives of people on the plane. Finally the wife was persuaded to come, bringing the child with her. After the child spoke to him I asked him to release the women and children from the plane which he did.
"He asked for a written guarantee from the Thai government that he would be unharmed and allowed to leave, which was refused. He never sought a written guarantee from me and I never gave one. But issues got confused here and it was said that I gave him a written guarantee that he could come to Sri Lanka.
To end on a brighter note it was in Bangkok in 1973 that she met her husband Hector Abeysekera working in the U.N. Research Asian Institute of Economic Development. "I wanted a trailing bouquet for the wedding but the Thais only did bridal posies. I had to have a trial run and sure enough it was a posy so I stationed my niece with the florist who was near the palace and got my trailing bouquet. Since then the florist said she began making trailing bouquets even for the palace.
"The Registrar had to come to the Embassy to marry us. He was quite out of his depth seeing me with my veil, saree and trailing bouquet. When he asked in Thai 'will you take this woman to be your wife', I had to kick Hector since he did not understand a word of Thai to say 'yes'. Anyway it was a memorable occasion with my brother bringing me down the stairs and asking me to be careful when I had been up and down those stairs numerous times a day."
On July 11th Manel and Hector will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
"Women can be very good diplomats. I hope more and more take to diplomacy," said this pleasant first woman career diplomat.
Manel retired after serving as Ambassador in Germany.
This beats the grandest job in the whole world
The bedside clock reads two a.m - tired and groggy eyed from continuous disturbed nights, I get out of bed to nurse my one week old son Mishael Akarsha. On his part, he hasn't decided whether he is hungry or just wanting some cuddling. Two in the morning is not the best time to try my nerves but then he has no way of knowing that. This is selective motherhood, I remind myself, my husband and I wanted to have this baby. There's something about choosing to have a baby - and discovering you are pregnant before you could actually understand how it happened. The two situations are totally different.
At thirty two, opting for motherhood sounds - and feels good. For a dyed-in-the-wool full time career woman, the idea is unique in its appeal. More and more women, I am overjoyed to discover, follow up - some even give up - successful careers to welcome motherhood. Call it going back to biological roots when women were expected to become mothers no matter what else they were good at; becoming a mother when you can lie back and enjoy it certainly beats everything else.
The pregnancy itself becomes an experience to savour; no matter how bad the morning sickness is or how dull the maternity dresses look. Your feet cannot swell anymore and your skin goes all patchy yet the radiance of pregnancy stays on. Pregnancy can become a time of joy forget the prim and proper saree and brief case routine. When it's time to thank God with your new born baby in your arms, you understand why all those heady heights of glory in the boardroom, the battle front, the factory and every where else women have gone on to conquer, pale into insignificance at becoming a mother. This is one experience a woman alone can have, whatever her social strata may be .
I am not talking about the usual routine of getting married with stars in your eyes and the toad test that waits one year down the road. This is motherhood later-in-life, when you fully understand and comprehend the situation; the sleepless nights, the difference between high pitched screams and hunger cries, colic and nappy rashes. When you can still recall the two hours of sleep you have had last night and laugh about it. And can still pick up your baby for a cuddle when you know he has been throwing a tantrum as only babies know how to for the last few hours. The difference is you opted for it. You found motherhood instead of motherhood finding you as it happens to most young women soon after marriage.
Too many women fall head long into pregnancy and child rearing without a clue; the experience can either make or break you. Nobody is promised a rosy picture - today's world is a terrible place to bring up a child in but at least when you know where you are going, it is comforting. And you won't know which direction the road lies unless you are mature enough to handle the enormous responsibility of having - and bringing up a child. Yet, becoming a mother takes the kind of commitment most career women today can understand.
Late motherhood can be a delightful experience for both mother and baby. Ask any woman who has had a baby in her thirties and she'll agree gleefully. You are surprised to discover you can actually sit around the baby all day - everything else can wait. Content-that's the word.
Any amount of looking at yourself in the mirror - tummy yet to become flat, pregnancy weight yet intact and all - a horror story under normal circumstances - cannot dampen the enthusiasm. There was good reason behind all that flab . Even an overdose of post natal depression cannot be depressing enough to take away the renewed delight of watching your sleeping child.
The day can, I discovered, actually revolve around this tiny person who doesn't even know it yet. And that doesn't bring in fears of being tied down in a baby room or becoming helplessly child bound. When I pick up my sleeping son and kiss his forehead, I tell myself this beats the grandest job in the whole world - even if it came with all the perks you could dream of. In short, biological or not, God intended women to play a unique role of bringing up another human being through motherhood; a kind of a role that no heights of glory could surpass.