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DateLine Sunday, 7 October 2007

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Sri Lanka Foreign Service

Invest further for a fruitful harvest

(This article is being written to commemorate the 58th anniversary of Sri Lanka Foreign Service which fell on 1st October, 2007)

Sri Lanka Foreign Service commemorates its 58th anniversary on 1st October, 2007. Sri Lanka Foreign Service which commenced its activities independently on 1st October, 1949 with five members. Viz., V. L. B. Mendis, H. O. Wijegoonawardena, A. Basnayake. I. B. Fonseka and Y. Yogasunderam - has since grown up substantially having undergone changes, challenges, disputes etc. etc., and now has strength of 153 career personnel serving as ambassadors, High Commissioners, additional secretaries, directors general and directors.

It is my view that the Sri Lanka Foreign Service (SLFS) has not received its due share of "praise" from both the media and the general public. This is mainly due to the fact that general public is not appropriately apprised of the onerous duties performed by the members of the Sri Lankans living abroad. They are at times targeted by the media for criticism "for not taking action to safeguard" the Sri Lankan migrant workers who are found guilty of violating the rule of law applicable to the respective countries.

Nevertheless, it will have to be conceded that there may be very few instances where SLFS officers have observed the rules in the breach, perhaps unwittingly. Another criticism levelled against SLFS officers is that they are more keen in "looking after the welfare of their children's, education", than the well-being of the country. This allegation is baseless and is unfounded. Of the 419 home based officers serving in Sri Lanka foreign Missions aborad only 97 officials, a mere 23%, are from the SLFS. The balance 322 personnel or 77% comprises officers from various government services and also those who are with a political patronage. Of the 153 officers now serving the SLFS 61% comprises unmarried officers and officers with one child per officer or none. Most of the children of these officers are not receiving the "Education Allowance". Hence, it is not fair by these officers to level such criticism against them.

Therefore I consider it remiss, with the dawn of the 58th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service, if I don't explain as to how the SLFS contributes to the national development of Sri Lanka and also as to how it had contributed towards this end during the last five decades.

Sri Lanka Foreign Service is a specialised service. It runs paralled to Sri Lanka Administrative Service and other combined services in the country. However, its role is different from other services. Broadly speaking, the Sri Lanka Foreign Service (SLFS) officials are tasked with the responsibility of coordinating bilateral and multilateral relations with foreign countries and also with the responsibility of protecting and safeguarding the image of the country. The Sri Lanka Foreign Service officers have measured up to their counterparts in other countries in discharging their assigned duties with diligence and bringing "name and fame" to our motherland.

When we gained Independence in 1948 after a period of foreign domination of almost 150 years, the most sought after and the prestigious service in the country was the then Ceylon Civil Service (CCS). Therefore every young man with the requisite qualifications aspired to be a "Civil Servant" and the failures at the "Civil Service" had the opportunity to join the then Overseas Service, which was then new to the country. However, they had to answer an extra question paper on world affairs.

In terms of the first Overseas Service Minute - operative from 1949 to 1959 - nearly 32 officials were recruited to the then Ceylon Overseas Service as probationers and they were designated as "Grade IV Officers of the Ceylon Overseas Service".

The Overseas Service Minute of 1949 was superseded by the Overseas Service Minute of 1959, which had the effect of a revision of the examination to recruit officers to the Overseas Service. From 1949 to 1973, seventy three (73) officers had been recruited to the Foreign Service of this country.

From 4th January, 1974 onwards the scheme of recruitment to the Foreign Service was revised so as to allow the opportunity to those graduates who had qualified themselves in Sinhala and Tamil media also to sit the examination in Sinhala and Tamil media in addition to the examination in the English medium. Thereby many graduates from Sinhala and Tamil speaking rural areas who received their education in the Sinhala and Tamil media and who were the products of "Central Colleges" established in keeping with the "C. W. W. Kannangara Vision" were benefited and the numbers from such rural areas exceeded the numbers from the urban areas.

Until the time of late Ranasinghe Premadasa, the President of this country, the post of Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs was held by non-SLFS officers. It was during President Premadasa's time that an SLFS officer was appointed Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the first time and that honour goes to Bernard Tilakaratna. Subsequently, T. H. W. Woutersz (1965 batch), R. C. Vendargart (1967 batch), G. Wijesiri (1970 batch), D. E. N. Rodrigo (1965 batch), B. A. B. Goonetilleke (1970 batch) and H. M. G. S. Palihakkara (1979 batch) held that coveted post.

Mrs. Manel Abeysekera created history in the Sri Lanka Foreign Service by being the first woman career diplomat and the first woman Chief of Protocol of the Foreign Ministry. Ms. Mary Lukshmi Naganathan was the second woman career diplomat and the first from the Tamil community to reach that level. Ms. Sarala Fernando (1975 batch) was the first woman Permanent Representative of the United Nations. Of an approved cadre of 179, Sri Lanka Foreign Service now has 153 officers in its service in the categories Grade I, II and III. (And additional Secretary level too) The ethnic, religious and gender balance in the Sri Lanka Foreign Service is healthy. Of the 153 serving officers 52 are women and four of them are serving as Heads of Missions in Paris (Mrs. C. Wagiswara), The Hague (Mrs. Pamela J. Deen), London (Mrs. Kshenuka Senewiratne) and Vienna (Mrs. Aruni Wijewardane).

In addition to the aforesaid women Heads of Missions, SLFS officers head the following Missions, New Delhi (C. R. Jayasinghe), New York (Prasas Kariyawasam), Berlin (Jayantha Palipana), Warsaw (C. F. Chinniah), Beijing (Karunathilaka Amunugama), Stockholm (Ranjith Jayasuriya-designate), Tel Aviv (W. M. Senevirathna - designate), Tokyo (Ranjith Uyangoda) Muscat (M. Maharoof), Cairo (I Ansar - designate), Oslo (Esala Weerakoon), Katmandu (Sumith Nakandala), Pretoria (R. K. M. A. Rajakaruna), Hanoi (A. L. Rathnapala), Dhaka (V. Krishnamoorthy), Frankfurt (T. Raveenthiran) and Chennai (P. M. Amza).

Two officers of the "Ambassador rank" are serving as an Additional Secretary (Ms. Sarala Fernando and a Director General (Ms. Grance Asirwatham) respectively at the Ministry of Foreign affairs.

Of the aforesaid 153 SLFS officers 57 officers including the 10 officers recruited in April 2007 are attached to the office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombo. The balance 91 SLFS officers are attached to Sri Lanka Missions abroad (four officers are on study leave and one of senior officers has been working in the international organisation). Majority of the SLFS officers had been recruited through competitive examinations and some through the merit system, which was an opportunity extended to clerical grade officers serving the Foreign Ministry and the other category being through a "limited examination" conducted by the Department of Examinations for the benefit of certain grades of public servants with a certain number of years of service to their credit in government departments.

Recruitments to the SLFS under the merit and limited systems were abolished by the new minutes introduced in 2001 for the Sri Lanka Foreign Service. Anyone who wishes now to join the Sri Lanka Foreign Service has to sit an Open Competitive Examination conducted by the Department of Examination. The examination comprises six written papers and a viva voce.

When we look back at the performance of some of our SLFS officers during the last half-a-century we can be really proud of our service. Many of them have excelled in their respective fields. May I take this opportunity to name a few of them.

Dr. V. L. B. Mendis was one of the very first batch of officers selected to the Overseas Service of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). His contribution to our foreign service is priceless. He was highly respected wherever he served. To his credit there are several publications authored by him, which are a sine qua non to SLFS officers. The 1976 Non-aligned Summit was the most successful International Conference ever held in this country. Dr. Mendis was its Secretary General and it was he and the SLFS officials who meticulously planned and programe the proceedings of the Summit. The whole world acclaimed that it was a complete success.

The diplomatically famed Dr. Jayantha Dhanapala has brought fame not only to the Foreign Service, but also to our motherland as a whole. He is a product of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service and has displayed his "Diplomatic skills" internationally by serving the United Nations Organisation at different levels. His name was also proposed for the post if Secretary General of the United Nations in the year 2006.

Dr. John Gunaratne, who joined the Foreign Service in 1967, has several publications to his credit one of which is "a decade of confrontations Sri Lanka and India in the 1980" His recent publication launched in July 2007 is "negotiating with the Tigers". S. B. Atugoda joined the Foreign Service in 1975 and he has several publications to his credit fictions both in Sinhala and English.

Ranjith Gunaratna of the 1992 batch has published several fictions both Sinhala and English. Also in 2006 he translated into Sinhala and published the biography of the former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yen. Niluka Kadurugamuwa who joined the Foreign Service in the year 2003 was a journalist at the "Lakbima" newspaper. He has translated into Sinhala and published two publications, "In Evil Hour" authored by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and "Maya" authored by Mrs. Manel Abeyratne under the titles "Vikal Horawa" and "Maya" respectively.

Bandu de Silva and Kalyananda Godage of the 1956 and 1973 batches respectively are two prolific writers.

They subscribe to the local press periodically on matters not only pertaining to the Foreign Service but also of national interest. Their publications have boosted the image of the Foreign Service.

Nihal Rodrigo is not only a diplomat (1965 batch) but is also a painter of no mean repute. Rodrigo when he once met the Cuban Leader Fidel Castro, he on then spur of the moment, sketched Cuban leader's face on a piece of paper. The Cuban leader was so happy with the "sketch" that he autographed it. It is now a souvenir with Rodrigo. He served as the Secretary General of SAARC from 1st January 1999 to 10th January 2002.

T. Z. A. Samsudeen of the 1981 batch served as the Executive Director of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) in Mauritius. Rodney Perera of 1988 batch and a former Ambassador to Italy received one of the highest honours awarded by the Italian government.

Our Foreign Service also possesses experienced media personnel. Ravinath Ariyasinghe of the 1988 batch was an announcer as well as a presenter at the Sri Lanka Rupavahini. As a presenter of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini he had also conducted several interviews with visiting "VIP" leaders of many countries. He is presently the Director General of Public Communications at the Foreign Ministry.

Ms. Madhrika Joseph and George Cooke of the 1998 and 2007 batches sharpened their skills as announcers at the Sri Lanka Rupavahini and the TNL respectively. Several SLFS officers are well versed in UN and other international languages.

B. Kandeepan joined the Foreign Service in the year 1996. His hobby is playing tabla and is one of the skilled tabla players. He has displayed his tabla-playing skills even at musical shows conducted by Maestro Visaradha Amaradeva.

Chanaka H. Talpahewa (year 2000 batch) has excelled in the sport of rowing in the country. He became the first rowing captain of Sri Lanka when he led the Sri Lanka rowing team to the Asian Games in South Korea in 2002. He has also won a silver medal at the SAF Games in Pakistan (2004) and a bronze medal at the South Asian Games in Colombo (2006). He is the holder of two Sri Lanka records. He is also an accomplished rowing coach and the secretary of the national rowing association.

Sri Lanka Foreign Service had to face an uphill task to redeem the lost prestige of the country. "Human rights violations" were the main allegations levelled against Sri Lanka. Our officers working in foreign missions, especially New York, Geneva, Brussels and some European countries and India, had to burn the midnight oil to keep the Sri Lanka flag flying with prestige. Our officers with the guidance of that great and inimitable statesman the late Lakshman Kadirgamar were not only able to turn the tide against the terrorists and redeem the lost prestige of our motherland but also to persuade several countries, including those who initially supported terrorist activities, to proscribe the anti- Sri Lanka movements in their countries. It was a great achievement and the unsung heroes were the Foreign Affairs Ministry officials and the Minister. Foreign Ministry officials played a significant role at the Peace Talks and/or negotiations with the LTTE commencing from Thimpu to Geneva. The first Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat was B. A. B. Goonetilleke, a product of the SLFS 1970 batch. Dr. Jayantha Dhanapala and Dr. John Goonaratne too had worked at the Peace Secretariat. Presently C. H. Poologasingham of the SLFS 1975 batch is working at the Peace Secretariat. The two SAARC summits held in Sri Lanka were excellently handled by SLFS officers.

The "Tsunami" of December 2004 was the biggest disaster the country had ever suffered. The administrative machinery too was affected and several public servants could not even reach their workplaces. The international community reacted to the situation immediately and the influx of foreign aid was instantaneous. Over 300 foreign representatives arrived in the country.

The SLFS officers were ever ready to meet any situation and the coordination of the visits of the foreigners was handled by the SLFS officers to the entire satisfaction of everyone.

Officers of the Sri Lankan missions abroad collected more than five hundred (500) million rupees as donations as well as officers' personal contributions. Sri Lanka Mission in China alone collected approximately two hundred (200) million rupees. With those funds Foreign Ministry completed five (5) housing projects comprising 856 housing units for tsunami victims - 152 units at Trincomalee, 300 units at Ampara and 116 units at Galle (two projects and 288 units at Kalutara).

The recent reception held at the Embassy of Sri Lanka in Japan to commemorate the "Sri Lanka Day" was attended by more than 100,000 guests and the spouse of the Japanese Prime Minister graced the occasion as the chief guest. It was a great publicity event organised by the SLFS officers of the Mission. Sri Lanka Foreign Service Officers have done a yeoman service to the country. They have protected and safeguarded the image of the country. They have kept the Sri Lanka flag flying with dignity. Their services are indeed praiseworthy.

The next batch to the Sri Lanka Foreign Service is scheduled to be recruited in the near future. As a member of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service I would invite talented young graduates who passed out recently to join the SLFS and serve our motherland. In concluding my comments may I mention with gratitude the encouragement given to me by that veteran administrator Lionel Fernando, a one time Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of the former Civil Service, to make an in-depth study of the "Sri Lanka Foreign Service". I thank him from the bottom of my heart.

The writer is a Member of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service and the First Secretary of the Embassy of Sri Lanka in Hague in the Netherlands.

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