Madame protocol tells all

Extracts of the address made by Dr. John Gooneratne at the launch of Manel Abeysekera’s memoirs “Madame-Sir: Career and Dilemmas of the first woman Diplomat in the Sri Lanka Foreign Service” at the Public Library auditorium recently.

Manel was my senior in the Foreign Service. And at the time I first met her she was already a well-rounded personality. And she was of the same happy nature as she is now. In fact, in the very first sentence of her book, she speaks of her “happy nature.”

Manel’s book covers a great variety of themes and scenes she deals with in her career as the first woman Diplomat in the Sri Lanka Foreign Service, from joining to quitting. It is not a ‘dry’ account of it. It deals with the pleasant and unpleasant aspects, the exhilarating and frustrating aspects of a foreign service officer’s life. I think Manel’s plump-happy-girl personality has a lot to do with how she views things, and how she sailed through her career.

I do not want to pre-empt what our guest speaker may say, but I want to mention just a couple of things that struck me reading Manel’s book. Manel can, I think, be called Madame Protocol for the role she played in the area of Protocol. She handled important events like the Colombo Non-Aligned Summit in 1976, and the crises that go with such large events.

Handling over 90 odd Heads of State is no mean feat. She gave a bit of her mind to Col. Gaddafi of Libya on the protocol procedures to be followed on his arrival. And several other such incidents she narrates. But, at the same time, she also put her ideas on Protocol down in writing in the form of a Protocol Manual for succeeding generations of Foreign Service Officers, a first so far in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That was typical of Manel. She wants to see what experiences she draws from what she does, and how it can help others. “We Scatter Light” is the motto of the College she went to in Colombo. I can see its influence on Manel.

Protocol is a very important part of diplomacy. And it is quite complicated and can be politically very sensitive. Unfortunately, in our time, some of us loathed having to be assigned any protocol duties.

For us protocol meant that one had to be dressed up like a tailor’s dummy, have a permanent grin from ear to ear, and have a cologne-dripped handkerchief to wipe off the sweat on one’s face just before the VIP arrived. That was protocol for us, and we hated it. Philosophically, also, we tended towards the minimalist school of attire, and cologne and scents were to be used only by ladies, except for after-shave lotion.

How does one train a newly-recruited diplomat? Actually the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had no set policy. It was a hit or miss thing. In Manel’s days they were sent to England. To make a pukka diplomat.

And after her British-training and a stint in Rome as a probationer, she was back in the Ministry, and assigned to the Asia Division. Manel says that one of the first assignments she got was to study the files on Kachchativu, the ownership of which, at that time, was disputed between Sri Lanka and India. She says she finished the assignment and handed the results of her study over to the Director. I am not sure what exactly they did with what she handed over.

I mention this somewhat obscure matter, because at the time we were recruited, the new recruits were looked upon as a bloody nuisance to our seniors when we reported for duty. It was not that they were hostile to you. It was just a question of - What the hell do you do with them? So we just hung around, went to the canteen and had a tea and cigarette, came back to our room, went for lunch, loafed around the Fort humming and singing the tune, popular at that time, – “Watching the girls go by - me oh my - What a lovely way to spend the afternoon.”

And waited till closing time. When the Director of Administration got tired of seeing this routine of ours, he sent us to the different regional desks. And I remember I landed in what was called the Citizenship Division. When I reported there, I was handed a file by the Director of the Division, with instructions to “study the file.”

And I did not see him thereafter. And the file, was one of those about-to-burst large files, dusty and tied with red tape. The file was on – you guessed right - Kachchativu. At this rate we must have had a hell of a lot of experts on Kachchativu.

I left a serious observation that Manel makes in her book to the last so as not to bore the audience. Manel describes in detail an event that took place after the elections of 1977, when a UNP government was elected to office. At the time the new Minister of Foreign Affairs was coming to the Ministry to assume duties, a member of the UNP, known to Manel, who had come to the Ministry had told her the UNP had a “Hit List” of those who were supporters of the former Prime Minister, Mrs. Bandaranaike, and that Manel was on the Hit List. Unlike other writers on such matters Manel gives their names, and they are still living. It’s not the same as quoting dead sources. I will not describe the details of this event; they are all in the book. But, I would like to comment on it, since these kinds of practices affected career professionals.

This was the beginning of political witch-hunting in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Something that had not happened before. In an open political democracy of that time, people had their own political preferences. Reports get around about the political preferences of some officers. How that happens, I really don’t know, but we come to hear of them. But, to my knowledge as a mid-career officer at that time, no officer’s promotions had been affected by such stories, to the ever-lasting credit of the Prime Ministers of the time, who were also the Ministers of External Affairs.

But political witch-hunting began on a grand scale since 1977. They were hunting for SLFP-karayas. To my knowledge this went on till 1989. I retired in 1993, and what it has been since then I cannot comment.

But I am sure you will ask - What happened to Manel, who was supposed to be on the Hit List? The details are there in the book. But it did show that Newton’s Third Law of Motion has exceptions, if it has not till now been discovered. Newton’s Third Law of Motion states – most simply put - Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. But in the case of Manel, if you bumped against her on the wrong side, the reaction was more than double the force of the original bump.

Another example of this kind of witch-hunting was when the Minister of Foreign Affairs was investigating why the former Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike who was returning after medical treatment in Yugoslavia had been escorted to the Arrivals lounge by Protocol. I am quoting from Manel’s book: “I was so angry that I immediately went to the Minister’s room and asked him why I was being investigated when the simple and honourable thing would have been to question me” There you have the Manel exception to Newton’s Third Law of Motion at work.

Recording of such first-person experiences of events are very valuable as an antidote to reputations that are constructed purely on a lot of spin.

Manel’s book is full of such light and serious events of her career.

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