When I heard some months back that fellow journalist Thalif Deen had published a book titled “No Comment! And Don’t Quote Me On That”, I did not have to read it. I knew what to expect. I was biding my time to write about Deen’s opus which was not exactly magnum at just 200 pages, [...]


No comment: Not from our loud-mouthed


Veteran journalist Thalif Deen. Inset: The book cover Pic courtesy In-Depth News

When I heard some months back that fellow journalist Thalif Deen had published a book titled “No Comment! And Don’t Quote Me On That”, I did not have to read it. I knew what to expect.

I was biding my time to write about Deen’s opus which was not exactly magnum at just 200 pages, particularly because an acquaintance who borrowed my copy seemed reluctant to return it blaming Covid as the government does for every political misadventure.

When you have known somebody for over six decades as I have known Thalif — though I have always called him Dino — one knows what to expect. I wasn’t wrong for “No Comment” was funny, witty and delightful reading interspersed with historical details on international affairs and Sri Lankan happenings.

Dino and I were from the 1958 intake of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya and spent four wonderful years on that picturesque residential campus in its heyday. Thereafter, we met at Lake House, the leading newspaper group at the time and amidst a galaxy of fine journalists, writers and humorous and witty columnist where Dino brushed his teeth and sharpened his tongue each morning.

The two leading political groups at the university then were the Trotskyist LSSP and the Marxist Communist Party. So in his early days at Peradeniya when he was asked by an inquisitive professor for his political leanings Deen responded saying he was a Marxist — but followed Groucho not Karl. That was typical Dino.

The story that followed Dino’s repartee might be fictional — or what he would call “apocryphal” perhaps to uphold the over-blown image of the United Nations which provides the backdrop for much of his book — the professor reportedly retreated to his den still wondering who admitted a comedian to his economics class, right then discussing supply and demand.

An average reader of the day would have distinguished between Karl and Groucho. But it would not be surprising if some of today’s dim-witted politicians and misguided bureaucrats would believe the Teachers’ Union secretary-general Joseph Stalin is a Russian dictator.

As a follower of Sri Lankan politics — for sheer entertainment rather than for edification — I thought that the title of Deen’s book “No Comment” was somewhat inappropriate. Our politicians and officials are rarely without comment for they approach every issue with an open mouth and a closed mind.

Four years after we left University campus Dino and I met at Lake House. I joined the Ceylon Observer and the Sunday Observer in May 1962 shortly after my finals while Deen and several of my Peradeniya contemporaries were recruited some months later to a newly formed Economic Research Unit started by then Managing Director Esmond Wickremesinghe, an internationally-respected newspaper personality.

In recalling the prominent roles played by Ceylonese/ Sri Lankans over the years at the UN, Dino tells of Esmond Wickremesinghe’s role as a Special Envoy of Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala to negotiate Ceylon’s admission to the UN after the Soviet Union used its veto at the Security Council to block our membership.

Having worked under Mr Wickremesinghe on several occasions at home and abroad I had got accustomed to his astute manoeuvres and shrewd diplomacy and to anticipate his thinking.

For today’s Sri Lankans, especially those interested in joining the diplomatic service (heaven forbid!) or those researching the country’s role in international affairs and the contributions made by Sri Lankans at the UN, the latter chapters of the book provide interesting and information not generally known.

I personally know, for instance, of Shirley Ameresinghe’s enormous contribution as chairman of the Law of the Sea Conference for he told me of the arduous task to steer the UN members with a multiplicity of views towards a fruitful conclusion.

That was in 1970 when I was a guest of the ‘Arab League’ to cover a UN sub-committee on Israeli human rights violations in occupied territories which was chaired by Ceylon and headed by Shirley Ameresinghe.

During the visits to Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt Ambassador Ameresinghe would tell many a story over drinks and anecdotes of the UN at work and his clashes at the UN with Israel’s very vocal and multilingual Foreign Minister Abba Eban.

Space restrictions do not permit me to repeat much of what Ambassador Ameresinghe said or did on that tour of the Arab states but it was a real learning experience. Quiet diplomacy would sometimes surrender to his sharp tongue!

Both senior politicians and diplomats of the time (unlike many of today’s lot), worked assiduously and intelligently to maintain the country’s reputation as a worthy and respected, though a small, nation-state of the world body.

Thalif Deen reminisces about his 40 years or more working as a senior journalist and editor of the Inter Press Service. Vic Sutton, then IPS Network Coordinator in its early days, offered me the post of regional editor based in Colombo, which would have brought Thalif and I together again working for the same agency.

The parting of our ways, so to say, came five years or so after I returned from West Berlin having attended an advanced diploma course in mass communication. I returned to the Daily News and Thalif, if I remember correctly, was still with the Observer.

Then in 1971 I left on a Jefferson Fellowship to the East West Center at the University of Hawaii. It was a couple months later that the JVP insurrection broke out. When I returned in June a curfew was still on. Shortly thereafter Thalif left for New York on a Fulbright Scholarship to Columbia University and we didn’t see each other till 1974 when we were back on the Daily News.

Then he was off again as Senior Editorial Writer at the Hong Kong Standard which I joined in September 1989 as Senior Feature Writer, after the JVP tried to kill me in those troubled months.

I might have joined Dino in New York had I accepted any of the three offers I had from the UN Public Information division in 1970, 71 and 75. But Editor Tarzie Vittachi’s wise words that the UN takes journalists and turn them into bureaucrats was firmly etched in my mind.

With so much more to tell but no space left just a word to Dino. “No comment” is no longer heard in our resplendent isle. Every uninformed politician and dumb bureaucrat talks incessantly like our leaking cooking gas cylinders.

“No Comment” is available at Vijitha Yapa book shops and at Amazon.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London)


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