Rohan Abeywickrema – A pioneer in transport professionalism | Sunday Observer

Rohan Abeywickrema – A pioneer in transport professionalism

27 November, 2022

Rohan Abeywickrema was my friend and professional colleague for over three decades. He passed away on November 9. His contribution to my own life will live on to the end of my days, as it would in and through the life of countless people who allowed Rohan into their lives and was influenced by him.

Rohan (or Rohaan as he would spell) joined the then Ceylon Shipping Corporation (CSC) in 1973 as a Management Trainee fresh from school - Ananda College. His father passed away when he was 17 and he decided to take responsibility for the family. He received a UN Fellowship for his higher studies and obtained a B.Sc. in International Transport from the University of Wales, Cardiff in the UK (being probably one of the first-degree holders in Transport in Sri Lanka). On his return in 1978, he was appointed to the R and D Department of the CSC.

He provided leadership in planning and implementation for a 560 TEU container service replacing break bulk, the first of its kind in South Asia. He was instrumental in negotiating Neptune Orient Lines, Singapore, one of the best in South Asia at that time to partner with CSC. His proposal for a service to the USA via Hong Kong also materialised when Maersk Lines entered in 1983.

His contributions to the shipping sector in that critical time of reform and advent to containerisation were significant, particularly his pioneering work in promoting coastal / feeder shipping which began in 1980. He was also one of the early promoters of digitalisation in shipping.

In 1986, he resigned as Manager, Research and Development CSC, and as Manager of Coastal Shipping of the vessel owning, Ceylon Shipping Lines, to which he had been seconded. Thereafter, in an effort to promote container traffic to Colombo, he co-founded Green Lanka Shipping (agents for Evergeen), thereafter, Sea Consortium Lanka Ltd, where he was its Managing Director before setting up, Sathsindu - a Non-Vessel Operating Common Carrier (NVOCC) company in 1990.

Member of CIT

My association with Rohan began during my early days with the Chartered Institute of Transport (CIT), as it was known before it merged with the Chartered Institute of Logistics in 2001 as the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT). In 1978, Rohan was one of first Sri Lankans to become a member of CIT. He was most likely the first from the shipping sector to join with the likes of Derek Wijesinghe, Eng. LS deSilva, John Diandas, Mandri Sahabandu, Prof DS Wijeyesekera, MC Premaratne, and HA Premaratne to pioneer setting up CIT (Sri Lanka Section) in 1984.


Rohan sought me no sooner than I returned from my higher studies, to bring me into the Exco. In those fledgling days of CIT, he sought young people with promise in the transport sector and badgered them to help CIT position transport as a profession in Sri Lanka.

Rohan was the backstage manager who kept the institute operating allowing the bigger names to perform publicly. For well over a decade, the CIT/CILT office operated from his office at Sathsindu. He and Anoma were eager hosts to all the informal functions of CIT/CILT and even the hosting of foreign visitors. A former Treasurer has confided how he made good all operational shortfalls personally.

Rohan took it upon himself to lay the foundation of CIT/CILT into what it became. His passing allows me to capture in writing this pioneering effort, which may easily get buried in the trappings of its success. Vernon de Rosairo recounts how in 2000, Rohan took him to meet Ministers and MPs to get CIT Incorporated under an Act of Parliament.

Leadership succession

He was always thinking ahead of leadership succession in CIT/CILT and was responsible for pressing many members to take up positions, me being one of many examples. He served on the CIT/CILT Council for over 30 years, was elected a Fellow member and served as its Chairman (Sri Lanka section) in 1993 and 1994.

He was an International Vice President for CILT from 1997 to 2001 (the first from Sri Lanka) and appointed as an Honorary Fellow in 2005, being only the second Sri Lankan after John Diandas to be so recognised with CILT’s highest award of honour, which hardly anyone knows since he bore it so humbly.

He was a key figure to initiate memorial lectures in recognition of the contributions of pioneers such as John Diandas, LS de Silva, and PB Karandawela. He served on the John Diandas Memorial Trust alongside me from its inception. In addition to CILT, he was an active member of the Jaycees, becoming the JCI National President in 1991.

He was also a key figure in the British Scholars Association of Sri Lanka serving as its President in 2009/2010. He was also an active member of the Ceylon Association of Shipping Agents (CASA). It was natural for him to seek every opportunity to be involved significantly. I recall when talking about raising funds for a road safety publication, he promptly said he would find the funds. He did this, though I suspected most of it came from him.

It was Rohan who made road safety a personal passion for me with his insistence that professionals were not doing enough. He dragged me to meetings with every Minister and Secretary of Transport most of whom he knew personally, but sadly, did little to support the enthusiasm and leadership he took. He did similar rounds with the insurance and media houses, challenging them, to their indifference to the rampant increase in road accidents. In 2001/2, we served in the advisory committee that proposed setting up of the National Road Safety Secretariat.

In 2004, it was my turn to get him involved in the Ministry of Transport when professionals were invited to help reform the land transport sector. From day one, we faced opposition from within the Government itself. He sat with me on the boards of the National Transport Commission and the Sri Lanka Transport Board during those difficult times. He stood firm even when one of our consultants had to take a bullet.

In 2019, we were invited back to serve on the Advisory Council of the Ministry of Transport, but it was too deep in multiple political strangleholds for us to salvage. He worked for the ADB in the Maldives. He served on scores of boards, expert panels, task forces, committees. In 2002, the Chartered Institute of Shipbrokers honoured him with a lifetime award for his services to the sector. Rohan’s interest in land transport had not distracted him from his commitment to the shipping sector. He was a director of the Ceylon Freight Bureau. He championed getting cruise ships to Sri Lanka.

Firm in values

He was firm in his values which made up his professional judgment and opinions and unlike others who spoke in private circles, Rohan expressed his concerns publicly. His criticism of the decision to construct the Hambantota Port, political meddling with the terminals in the Colombo South Port and the handling of the X-press Pearl disaster last year, did not go well with those in power or even other professionals who did not want to displease those in power.

He was one who took risks to fight for what was true and what was good for Sri Lanka and the shipping sector, even though it put his business at risk. Such was his passion and commitment to transport in Sri Lanka. He was often a lone voice. Sri Lanka is in trouble today, just for the want of people like Rohan Abeywickrema who could have stood up with him, to say the right things at the right time.

Aviation matters

Many were the attempts he took to reduce agricultural post-harvest losses. With Anoma being in air travel, he had keen insight into aviation matters as well. He was truly a multimodal transport professional, a fact that very few others could claim. He even contributed to academia, by supporting the formation of the Department of Transport and Logistics Management at the University of Moratuwa which he followed up by being a member of its Department-Industry Coordination Board.

He was instrumental in getting the Sri Lanka Society of Logistics and Transport (SLSTL) started in 2014. He never missed an invitation to any of its conferences or seminars and was a regular sponsor of the annual research awards. I was awed to realise that he had presented over 50 technical papers and presentations at conferences and seminar in Sri Lanka and overseas, sadly the last of which was a paper on road safety at the SLSTL conference two years ago.

He never allowed himself to be constrained by the schedule of a busy professional to listen to an opinion, respond to a need, or challenge someone to action. As a result, Rohan was rarely punctual for any meeting. He would roll in unceremoniously and be never in a hurry to leave even after the meeting. He would hold down those willing to hear him emphasise what CIT/CILT should be doing, which usually made him late for his next appointment.

He was concerned about people. He invested in creating good values and professional ethics in those who were willing to listen to him and was always hurt whenever someone he deeply cared for chose a different path. He would stick to the narrow and winding road when many colleagues chose the paths to glory and easy profit, especially during the last decade or two.

He was pained to see the dismantling of institutional norms and attraction to the superficial and glamorous at the expense of the significant and what was beneficial to society. But Rohan was not one to throw in the towel or his hands in despair. He would challenge people at meetings, he would challenge them at elections. He did not abandon anything he had built up without trying his utmost to restore it to its founding objectives.

He was always a servant of whatever he chose to be passionate about. I recall an instance when he contested an election on a matter of principle, notwithstanding a blatant threat of business retribution. He was moved to tears but would not be moved in his position. He lost. But so has the country that has gradually replaced hard work and commitment with shortcuts to positions and personal profit.


He was not afraid even of his own limitations. A slight stutter did not stop him from appearing on radio and TV interviews. Some saw him as a perfectionist, others as a disciplinarian. Yet to many, he was a mentor, a ready source of help and counsel. To many, he was tough and stubborn, but only those who took the trouble to understand him, saw his kind heart and the concerns for which he stood his grounds.

I have heard stories of how he went out of the way to help others in their time of need, including during the horrific riots of 1983. Rohan chose his paths clearly. He could have risen much in the eyes of the world if he did not purposefully get distracted by the needs of others, the profession, and the country. He earned his fair share of opponents and enemies from those quite comfortable climbing the ladders of corporate and professional success. He profited by giving. He cared little about what he got.

Rohan was proud of Seneka, the elder daughter taking up Logistics and Supply Chain and doing an MBA in Supply Chain, while he was thrilled that the younger daughter Aneka completed her higher studies in Economics and proceeding to higher studies in Corporate Finance based in Cardiff, where he completed his studies.

Rohan was many things to many people. In many of his undertakings, he chose to elevate those in whom he saw the potential to higher platforms while staying in the background. Goodbye, my friend, it has indeed been more than a privilege, but a blessing to have known you. Thank you for leading by example. As Matshona Dhilwayo, the African-born philosopher and author has noted, “To help people takes strength; to inspire people takes wisdom; to rule over them takes virtue, but to elevate them takes love.”

Rest assured that those that have valued and profited from your work, will continue to build on them, with love for Sri Lanka and for all humankind.

Amal S. Kumarage,
Senior Professor,
University of Moratuwa