Memoirs of a happy diplomat

BookFact : “Madame-Sir” by Manel Abeysekera. (A Stamford Lake Publication - Rs.750). Reviewed by Anne Abayasekara

There’s no doubt about it – Manel Abeysekera (nee Kannangara), is by nature a happy person who remained undaunted by the challenges and dilemmas and the triumphs and travails she encountered in the course of her career of 35 years as Sri Lanka’s first woman diplomat.

She attributes her success and her contentment to “the wonderful family” to which she was born, the school – Methodist College, Colombo – which moulded her and the deep Christian faith that has sustained her throughout her life.

Manel’s father, E.W. Kannangara was one of our early Civil Servants, widely respected for his integrity and his devotion to duty in the many important positions which he held. Manel candidly admits to her father being her hero and how much she wished she had been born a boy so that she might emulate him!

Manel has divided the chapters of her book to cover each different stage of her life, from the formative years at home and school and university, (Somerville College, Oxford), her entry in 1958 to the Ceylon Overseas Service as it was then called, and all that followed thereafter.

Her impish sense of humour keeps surfacing and it is tempting to dally over the amusing incidents so vividly described. For instance, she recounts that when a VD test was included in the medical examination that was required for recruits to the Overseas Service, “Mother felt strongly that it was degrading for me and I recall Father explaining to her that it was a rule that had to be complied with and had no reflection on me! In order to pacify her, he said he would accompany me to the Clinic so that everyone would see that I was not going there in secret!”

I’d no idea of the extensive training that recruits to the Foreign Service had to undergo. Manel’s batch were assigned to British universities to study foreign languages “as well as diplomatic history, international law, international relations and other related subjects.”

But prior to their going abroad to their respective universities, they were sent to some of our Government Departments such as Immigration and Emigration, Commerce and Tourism among others, to gain an understanding of how they functioned and their relevance to their own future work. She refers to “our superb Counsellor of Training, Glennie Peries, who initiated us into the finer points of foreign affairs, including conduct at cocktail parties to which he had us invited for the purpose.”

After a faux pas on the part of the Ministry which had assigned her to Balliol College, Oxford, which was exclusively for men - an incident she relates with glee,- Manel was found a place in New Hall, Cambridge, where she was to study Italian.

She thoroughly enjoyed her time in Cambridge which recognized her Oxford degree and admitted her as a post-graduate student. She followed the courses she thought would be useful to her, like lectures on International Law, Economic History and the European Common Market “and whatever else I thought would help me in my job and career.”

As at Oxford, Manel received glowing certificates from her Cambridge Dons to take back to the Ministry of External Affairs in Colombo.

After her year at Cambridge, she met up again in London with her batch-mates to attend the Foreign and Commonwealth Course for new entrants to the Commonwealth Foreign Service. Manel found she was the only woman among a hundred or more participants and so the lecturers had to address them as “Lady and Gentlemen”!

Womanlike, Manel often interrupts her official narrative to bring in stories of friends, relatives and others who mattered to her and she goes into detail about what they did and who married whom. We make the acquaintance of her colleagues and of her minor staff and she even devotes several pages to her faithful companion in Bonn, a German Shepherd dog (Alsatian), she named Fuzzy 2, (after Fuzzy 1, a pet she had had back home).

Manel’s first diplomatic assignment was as Attache to our Embassy in Rome. She was dubbed a `probationer,’ for newcomers to the Overseas Service had to pass their First Efficiency Bar Examination and also become proficient in their assigned language within three years, to be fully accepted..
As it turned out, she was in Rome for only 10 months, but she did sit for that First Efficiency Bar Examination and pass it two years ahead of time, which resulted in her becoming a ”passed Probationer” and elevated to the rank of Third Secretary.

However, this led to an awkward situation because the Embassy had no financial provision for salaries to two Third Secretaries! Manel had to be transferred out. She came back to Sri Lanka, for a stint at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then headed by Mr. M.F. de S. Jayaratne.

In 1970, Manel was appointed Charge d’Affaires n Bangkok and was the virtual Head of Mission. She became the youngest as well as the first woman Charge d’Affaires of the Ceylon Overseas Service. She was also the only female Head of Mission in Bangkok.

When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip came on an official visit, on seeing Manel lined up with all the other Heads of Mission, the Chief Photographer of the royal yacht “Britannia” thought she must be the wife of the Indian Ambassador next to whom she was standing, and checked on her with HM herself, since wives were not supposed to be in the photograph!

Later, when the Thai PM held a reception for the Queen and once again the Diplomatic Corps was presented to her, the Queen had told Manel that she understood she was the sole female Head of Mission in Bangkok and had inquired whether “the men were treating her well.”. Manel had replied that they were, in fact, spoiling her, to which the Queen had laughingly responded with, “Good! See that they keep it up”.

She returned home and served as Chief of Protocol, during which period she had the good fortune to be picked by Mrs. Bandaranaike to accompany her to Geneva where Mrs. B. was to address the annual ILO Conference, and thence to Mexico where, as the world’s first female Head of Government, she had been invited to grace the UN 1st World Conference on Women.

This exposure to the secondary status accorded to women worldwide, strengthened Manel’s own desire to promote the empowerment of women in her own country. As Chief of Protocol, Manel took up the challenge of being responsible for all the protocol arrangements for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit to be held in Colombo in 1976, which 92 Heads of State or Government were due to attend. “I wanted to show that a woman could do the job”.

However, three years before that official event, there occurred a momentous event in her personal life when, at age 40, she married Hector Abeysekera, whom she had met in Bangkok. “The most wonderful thing that happened to me in Bangkok was meeting Hector in 1971 and getting married to him in 1973.” She leaves us in no doubt that it was a match made in heaven.

The procedures entailed in preparing for the NAM Summit are daunting to read about and, with her usual thoroughness, Manel devoted the two years prior to the Summit to making the meticulous preparations required. Everything went off without a hitch and her faultless Protocol planning and execution had a happy sequel in that Manel was invited to Cuba to advise the Cubans who were due to host the next NAM Summit in 1979. “I enjoyed every moment of my stay in Cuba, “ she writes.

In 1980, Manel was appointed as our first resident Ambassador to Thailand, a country in which she already felt very much at home. The most memorable incident was, perhaps, the notorious Sepala Ekanayaker hi-jack of an Alitalia Boeing carrying 169 passengers.

The ensuing dialogue between Ambassador Manel and the hijacker – which called for all her diplomatic skills - and the developments that followed, was of the stuff which might be described as `Drama in Real Life’. The negotiations took 38 hours, during which time Manel was stuck in the Alitalia Office. It’s a long story which readers will find very informative.

Manel served as her country’s Ambassador for a second time when she was appointed to the Federal Republic of Germany, from 1988 to 1992, a period which saw the re-unification of Germany after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Returning home in 1992, she was Director-General Political Affairs for one year, before she retired in 1993. Manel writes that the saddest experience of this time was the assassination of President Premadasa. She was asked by the Ministry to handle the Protocol for the VIPs who were coming to pay their respects to him and says she considered it a privilege to do so ” as I respected him for many reasons and had had a good rapport with him and Madame Premadasa.”

One act of President Premadasa’s that had especially won Manel’s esteem was his creating a Ministry of Women’s Affairs “and thereafter the National Committee on Women, to accelerate the process of gender equality and equity”, a cause dear to Manel’s heart.

She was appointed its Executive Director by President Chandrika Kumaratunga. It wasn’t roses, roses all the way by any means. Manel had her share of the “downs” of a diplomatic career, as well as the “ups”, and she dealt with the former with her customary forthrightness and sense of fair play.

These memoirs constitute a fascinating record amply illustrated in black-and-white photographs of a way of life far from the experience of most of us, a book that informs and entertains and engages the reader’s attention from the first page to the last.

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