When “Madame-Sir” made it in a male world

A trail blazer in Sri Lanka’s diplomatic service, Manel Abeysekera speaks to Chandani Kirinde of many memorable moments now recalled in her new book

When Manel Abeysekera arrived in the Thai capital Bangkok to take up duties at the Sri Lanka Embassy as chargé d’affaires in 1970, she was greeted by the driver who had come to the airport with the words "Welcome, Madame-Sir”. The driver, no doubt, unaccustomed to seeing a lady diplomat had hence instantaneously coined this novel greeting. It’s this unique phrase that Mrs. Abeysekera, Sri Lanka’s first woman entrant to the Foreign Service (then Ceylon Overseas Service), has chosen as the title of her memoirs due to be released shortly.

“Madame-Sir”, a Stamford Lake publication will be launched on November 30

Her entry into the Foreign Service in 1958 came at a time when the public service was an exclusively male domain and was quite accidental. Her eye had caught a gazette notification that appeared in the newspaper that year calling for applications to join the Overseas Service, which also carried a sentence stating that “married women who apply must get special permission of the Public Service Commission”.

“Being an unmarried woman, I thought I might have a better chance and sent an application,” Mrs. Abeysekera recalls. She was called for an interview with three Permanent Secretaries chairing the panel who welcomed her as the first woman to face such an interview. But what annoyed her was the question that came next. “What if we take you and train you and then you decide to get married,” one of them had asked. Her quick thinking answer put an end to that line of questioning. “I am sorry Sir, but I don’t think there is anything in the application to say that if you get married you have to leave. What about a man? Do they leave when they get married?’ she retaliated.

The answers to the questions on international affairs which followed came easily to her and she secured herself a place in the Overseas Service, along with seven male applicants.

The foundation for her trailblazing career in the foreign service was laid in her school years at Methodist College, Colombo which she describes as the “number one girls’ college”. She secured the all island second place in her SSC (Senior School Certificate) and later gained admission to read history at Peradeniya. But being a female was an impediment to her pursuance of a higher education.

“I was a home bird. I had never been away from home a single day and was literally tied to my mother’s apron strings. She did not want me to go the 72 miles to Kandy and then I decided I would not study anymore,” she says.

But her father, a civil servant and later Senator, E.W. Kannangara, was keen that she pursues her higher education and suggested she do an external degree from the U.K. She enrolled for a course in Wolsely Hall in Oxford, did the first exam well, but lost interest thereafter. “I am not a person who can sit and study. I need company. I am a gregarious type. I like competition and challenges,” Mrs.Abeysekera says with a laugh.

That may have been the end of her academic career if not for her brother, who was studying at Oxford at the time, suggesting that she seek a place there to follow a degree course. Her parents then asked her to go to Peradeniya which she did not want to do as her classmates had already finished their first year.
Thereon she went on a tour with her parents and sister to several European countries which was very “educational in nature” and upon her return to the country, again prompted by her brother, applied to Somerville College at Oxford where she went to study modern history.

“I always wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. He was in the first batch to join the Ceylon Civil Service. He was my hero.” As fate would have it, instead of the Civil Service, she was selected to the Foreign Service in 1958, and was sent to London to study languages- Italian being the choice for her.

Before proceeding to London for training, Mrs. Abeysekera recalled the new recruits being taken to meet the then Prime Minister S.W.R.D Bandaranaike. “Before we left my father warned me that the Premier would be in a bad mood that day due to certain political problems that had cropped up with the Federal Party (FP). Being the only woman, my colleagues would have expected me to sit next to the Prime Minister but instead I chose to sit away from him. He turned to one of the boys and asked, “What is my foreign policy?” While he fumbled for an answer, he asked the same question from the rest and having not received a satisfactory response turned to his secretary and asked him to tell the recruits to study his foreign policy and come back.’

Thus ended their first meeting with Mr. Bandaranaike but before the new recruits went on their overseas training, they met with him again. “This time my father said Mr. Bandaranike would be in a good mood as he had sorted out his political differences with the FP. And he was prophetic as the Premier was in an expansive mood that day and noted that a woman too had been recruited.”

Tragically Mr. Bandaranaike was assassinated while she was away on her overseas training and when she assumed duties at the Ministry of External Affairs, his widow Sirima Bandaranaike was Prime Minister and was someone Mrs. Abeysekera was to work closely with.

One of her most memorable experiences in the Foreign Service was the role she played as Chief of Protocol during the Non-Aligned Summit in 1976 which was attended by 92 heads of state and government.

She along with her team of officials from the External Affairs Ministry as well as assistance from the members of the Police and armed forces rehearsed for two years to see the successful conclusion of the biggest event of this nature the country had hosted. “I had allocated seven minutes for each of the VIPs to inspect the guard of honour and speak with the President and the Prime Minister and it went off perfectly. We had a lot of camaraderie and team work.”

Mrs. Abeysekera feels that the reason for the smooth conduct of the NAM summit was that there was a single chain of command at the time with the Prime Minister also being the Minister of Defence, External Affairs as well as in charge of economic affairs. “Mrs. Bandaranaike was someone who took quick decisions. It was a real pleasure to work with her.”

The other momentous event in her career took place when Mrs. Abeysekera was serving as Ambassador in Thailand when Sri Lankan national Sepala Ekanayake hijacked an Italian airliner with 169 passengers on board and threatened to blow it up on the tarmac of the Bangkok airport.

“I was in the Alitalia office in Bangkok for 38 hours negotiating with the hijacker. It was like a miracle but he did as I asked. We managed to settle the matter without anyone getting hurt,” she says.
In her memoirs, Mrs. Abeysekera deals with the “career and dilemmas of the first woman diplomat in the Sri Lankan Foreign Service” and says her belief that “God would help me in my challenges” and “my parents legacy” were the important aspects that helped her face them.

“If you overcome and meet the dilemmas and challenges, it strengthens your character; Just plain sailing without problems never strengthens you.” Her career in the Foreign Service spanning 35 years saw her in the close company of royalty, presidents and prime ministers. She recalls with fondness the former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi whom she first met in 1962 when the former visited Sri Lanka with her father Jawaharlal Nehru, who was then premier, and opened the Ayurveda Hospital at Nawinna. They met again when Mrs. Gandhi attended the NAM summit in Colombo in 1976. Another such leader was the one time Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda.

A hallmark of her success was not being afraid to advise politicians when required to do so and not letting anything stress her out. “Our job is to be advisor and if they want they can take it and if they don’t want to, they won’t,” she says candidly.

One politician with whom she says she had quite a few arguments with was A.C.S. Hameed (Foreign Minister from 1977-89). However after her last protocol job, when she met with him, he had quipped, “Manel tells me lots of things I don’t want to hear but when I ponder I realize it’s for my own good,” to which she promptly replied, “Sir, that is the best compliment an official can have from a politician.”
She still keeps in touch with the driver in Thailand whose words became the inspiration for the title of her memoirs.

“When he used to drive me around when I was in Bangkok, people used to come up to him and ask him, ‘Why are you flying the flag for the ambassador’s wife?’ only to have him tell them proudly, ‘She is the Ambassador’.”

It’s such interesting anecdotes that Mrs. Abeysekera recalls with fondness as she reminisces her long career as a diplomat, a path she trod in her own forthright, humorous and affable style that made her a worthy pioneer in her chosen field.

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