The first Sri Lankan Career Lady Diplomat

(August 03, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It is easy for anyone who has met Manel Abeysekera to understand how she rose to become the first woman to join the Foreign Service of Sri Lanka. Erudite, charming, hospitable and articulate, she seems to possess all the quintessential qualities of a diplomat. Yet, she remains simple, with her feet on the ground.

In an era where the role of women in society was largely confined to the home, the gregarious personality boldly applied to the Foreign Service (then known as the Sri Lanka Overseas Service) and was recruited in 1958.

During the course of her illustrious career, she functioned as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Thailand and later to Germany with accreditation to Austria and Switzerland. She also served as the Director-General of Political Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; as the Chairperson of the Presidential Committee on Women; and also as the Chairperson of the Sri Lanka National Chapter in the Coalition for Action on South Asian Cooperation.

The old girl of Methodist College (a fact of great pride for Manel Abeysekera!), did very well in her G.C.E. Ordinary Level Examination. Instead of pursuing her Advanced Level studies, she opted to travel abroad with her family. At that time, her father had to inspect tea promotion offices in countries such as Spain and the US. Her father, E. W. Kannangara was a prominent civil servant who served as Permanent Secretary to S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in 1945 and later. He had believed that travel was a great educator and the young Manel eagerly looked forward to the prospect of travelling.

Having left Sri Lanka at the age of 15, she celebrated her 16th birthday in Switzerland. At that time, her brother was studying at Oxford University and her parents had wanted her to stay at Oxford. “But clinging on to my mother’s ‘saree potta’ as I then did, I couldn’t even think of it,” she smiled, adding rather cheekily, “I was obedient then, unlike what I became later on!”

Back in Sri Lanka after a fascinating period of travel, Manel sat for the matriculation exam to read History at Oxford University’s Somerville College. Although knowledge of Latin and French was a pre-requisite for acceptance, she was conversant only in Latin. Positive as she was, she wrote to an education officer at the Sri Lankan High Commission in London explaining her situation. The officer, in all likelihood, would have made a special request to the University. And like a Christmas gift, just a few days prior to Christmas, Manel received a letter of acceptance from Oxford.

“Not having stayed for even one night without my parents, I was overwhelmed. My parents stayed in a hotel nearby for a month and when they left, I was in tears. I later heard that my mother had been crying in the train,” she disclosed.

Nevertheless, she managed to complete her degree successfully and wanted to join the Sri Lanka Overseas Service, having been inspired by a colleague at Oxford who was in the Indian Foreign Service. But at that time, recruitments to the Foreign Service could be received through the Civil Service, a domain reserved exclusively for men. “The British had debarred women from both the Civil Service and a diplomatic career for a woman was not on the cards until S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike changed it”, said Manel.
Entering the Overseas Service

Upon her return to the island, her eyes fell upon a Gazette Notification calling for applications to the Overseas Service. One particular sentence, “Married women must obtain special permission from the Public Service Commission” caught her eye, and she realised that if married women can apply, then surely unmarried females could too!

No prizes for guessing what happened thereafter!

“My father gave me permission to apply and he was confident that I would get in. My mother, on the other hand, told me to forward my application thinking that I would not be recruited,” Manel recalled. As it turned out, she was the only female out of the seven other recruits and surprisingly, she felt no sense of intimidation. “I was not frightened in the least and although I was somewhat shy (a quality which I soon lost!), I was confident. I think I was a feminist at heart,” she remarked.

During the recruitment process, she was interviewed by three Permanent Secretaries, who initially appeared somewhat sceptical of her. “The first question they asked me was related to marriage. They told me that the Service would stand to lose in the event I marry and leave. I was furious. I said you don’t expect a man to resign. What if men secure openings elsewhere and resign?” she had asked.

On providing satisfactory answers to a series of questions to gauge her knowledge on international affairs and to assess her personality, she was recruited to the Service. After passing all her diplomatic exams in ten months she was promoted as Third Secretary in London. Later, she was posted to Thailand as Charge d’ Affaires from 1970-74. “As the Ambassador was in Burma, I had to really take charge of matters,” she said. Interestingly enough, it was also in Bangkok in 1973 that she met her husband Hector Abeysekera who worked in a U.N. agency.


Her next job was as Chief of Protocol from 1974 – the phase in which she encountered her biggest challenge. She was tasked with the responsibility of organising the Non-Aligned Summit in 1976 where 92 heads of state and government participated. “It was a challenge for a woman to undertake, but I wanted to show that a woman was capable of handling the formidable task and also, I was thrilled at the prospect,” Mrs. Abeysekera said.

Another challenging moment came her way with the hijacking of the Boeing 747 Alitalia plane by Sepala Ekanayake in June 1982. Proclaiming that he has explosive strapped around his shoulders, Ekanayake threatened not to allow anyone to leave the place unless his Italian wife brought his son to him. “Although I am not particularly religious, I prayed fervently at that moment. His wife was persuaded to come, together with his son. After the child spoke to him, I asked him to release the passengers from the plane which he did,” she said.

Manel Abeysekera’s contribution to the Foreign Service is considerable. In fact the Foreign Ministry Manual of Protocol Procedure was written in 1980 by Mrs. Abeysekera during her period as Chief of Protocol from 1974-1980. It was revised in 2004 at the request of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in the light of protocol development and practice since 1980.

Currently, Mrs. Abeysekera works as a Consultant (Foreign Service Training), Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is based at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and also as a Consultant on Gender and Development
- Sri Lanka Guardian