Connect with us


How an Intruder in the General Assembly was Upstaged by a Foreign Minister



By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS – Sri Lanka had its fair share of Foreign Ministers who made their annual visits to the UN during the General Assembly sessions in September when the world body traditionally hosted over 150 world leaders, including heads of state and heads of government.

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister ACS Hameed had one of his memorable moments when an Eelam activist and lawyer from London, Krishna Vaikunthavasan, surreptitiously gate-crashed into the UN and tried to upstage Hameed by walking onto the podium of the General Assembly hall and momentarily took the speaker’s slot.

The incident, perhaps a rarity in the history of the UN, saw the intruder unleashing a diatribe against a member state accusing it of genocide and lambasting the government for committing war crimes against the Tamils fighting for a separate state in northern Sri Lanka.

When the president of the Assembly realized he had an interloper on his hands, he cut off the mike and summoned security guards who bodily ejected him from the hall and banned him from the UN premises. And as Hameed walked up to the podium, there was pin drop silence in the Assembly Hall.

As a member of the Sri Lanka delegation at that time, I was seated behind Hameed. But the unflappable Hameed, unprompted by any of his delegates, produced a riveting punchline: “Mr President”, he said “I want to thank the previous speaker for keeping his speech short,” he said, as the Assembly, known to suffer longwinded speeches, broke into peals of laughter. The intruder was in effect upstaged by the Foreign Minister.

Hameed’s canny sense of humor also went far beyond the confines of the UN. When he came under attack for staying in five-star luxury hotels during the UN General Assembly sessions in New York, he fired back at the Opposition MP in Parliament with a rejoinder dripping with sarcasm: “Where do you want me to stay when I travel overseas as the Foreign Minister?”, he asked. “in thosai boutiques?”

To put it in perspective, that would be like rooming at the Ambal Café in Hulftsdorf or Saraswathy Lodge in Bambalapitya. Or perhaps Saravana Bhavan in New York’s Lexington Avenue.

Hameed routinely pitched his tent either at New York’s Hyatt Regency, the Intercontinental Barclay, the Waldorf Astoria or the Palace Hotel—and he did it in style, like scores of other high-flying Foreign Ministers arriving for the UN sessions. A globe-trotter of near-biblical proportions, he was probably in Colombo only on transit, in between catching overseas flights.

Hameed was an unforgettable character in his heyday—enjoying every single moment of his tenure as Foreign Minister beginning 1977. And more so, because President JR Jayewardene (JRJ) never addressed the UN nor stepped into the UN premises (even while he stayed at the Waldorf Astoria in New York during his state visit to Washington DC in April 1983.) The reasons for shunning the UN remains a mystery.

With Sri Lanka holding the chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) during 1976-1979, Hameed was constantly called upon to preside over some of the thorniest international issues of the mid-1970s: which of the two Cambodian factions had the rightful claim to the seat at the UN (the General Assembly session that day was held up for over four hours as he negotiated behind closed doors to help resolve the dispute, with backing from the UN’s Legal Adviser)? Was it Kampuchea under the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979)?

And, in another dispute, should Egypt, which had signed the Camp David peace agreement with Israel in 1978, be driven out of NAM? There were also sharp divisions in NAM over the disputed territory of Western Sahara in the Maghreb region of North Africa and the split over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989).

As he sat in judgement, Hameed’s closest advisers during the General Assembly sessions included two outstanding career diplomats, Jayantha Dhanapala and Nihal Rodrigo, along with Ernest Corea, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Canada and later Ambassador to the United States.

Ernest was one of Hameed’s longstanding friends, having known him long before he became Foreign Minister, and was the only Sri Lankan Ambassador who addressed him by his first name: Shahul, throwing protocol to the winds.

As Ernest once told me : “Shahul faced many challenges in his life – one of them was a lack of physical height – but his biggest challenge was managing the Foreign Affairs portfolio for the Sri Lanka government. To the best of my recollection, he was the first Foreign Minister to hold that portfolio without the direct involvement of the Prime Minister’s/President’s office”. Previously, Defence and External Affairs were integrated into a single portfolio.

When President Jayewardene unhitched them, there was a fairly widespread perception, particularly in Colombo’s foreign policy establishment, that the whole business of foreign affairs was being downgraded. “Shahul proved them wrong”, said Ernest.

As part of the landscape in the UN Delegate’s Lounge, Hameed was seen holding court, even as he kept chomping at his cigar, probably the best from Cuba, which he picked up in Havana during his frequent trips to the Cuban capital, before Sri Lanka handed over the NAM chairmanship to Fidel Castro in 1979.

At home, Hameed had a tough task steering the NAM ship among sceptics like Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali, and of course, JRJ himself. Still, Hameed showed remarkable patience and persistence.

Perhaps his most joyous moment as Foreign Minister was when JRJ told Fidel Castro at the Havana summit that it was Hameed who enabled Sri Lanka to hand over NAM’s leadership to Cuba “untarnished and unaltered.”

This put to rest the speculation even within his own party that his days as Foreign Minister would be short. “The fact is that JRJ realized as few others did that Shahul had an intuitive feel for international relations. Those who had the privilege of working with him understood this. He had his faults. Who doesn’t?,” asked Ernest.

“I am not going to be counted among his critics who might want to let fly at him now that he is no longer with us. Rather, I would like to remind those of us who worked with him and others who observed him at work that he was outstanding in several areas”.

First, he was tri-lingual: in English, Sinhala and Tamil. This gave him a remarkable reputation among his peers. Second, he had a phenomenal memory and could at precisely the correct moment during a drafting session pull out from the recesses of his mind a word, a phrase or other salient reference that added substance and depth to a public policy statement. He was also insistent, as some of his colleagues were not, that a solid Sri Lanka/India relationship was an essential component of foreign policy, said Ernest.

“One more point needs to be stressed and this is very personal. He was an excellent extempore speaker. He could intervene in a debate to deal with a complex issue for which most of us were unprepared as if he was saying to himself: “Here’s that loose ball I was waiting for,” declared Ernest.

Armed with self-deprecating humour, Hameed funded the publication of a collection of cartoons that lampooned him. He particularly relished a cartoon which showed him sitting before a huge globe with the caption: “Let me see – what are the countries I have still not visited.” His initials ACS were spelled out as “All Countries Seen.”

An equally lovable cartoon in November 1978 showed a world-weary Hameed arriving at the Katunayake airport and innocently asking a passer-by: “My dear man, could you show me the way to Harispattuwa?,” his electorate in his hometown of Akurana, a majority Sinhala Buddhist electorate. And to have been elected over a very long period was a tribute to Hameed’s political relationship among his voters.

The cartoons were sketches from some of Sri Lanka’s celebrated artistes of the 1970s, including W.R.Wijesoma, Jiffrey Yoonoos, Mark Gerreyn and Amita Abayesekera.”One of the greatest gifts is the ability to laugh at oneself,” said Wijesoma in an introduction to the book titled “Mr Foreign Minister”, ” Mr Hameed is doing just that, and I believe he is having the last laugh.”

Oscar Wilde once made the distinction between two forms of torture: the rack and the Press. Ask any politician, said Hameed, and he would opt for the grisly torture chamber over the editorial offices and the news desks in Colombo.

This article is adapted from a newly-released book on the United Nations titled “No Comment—and Don’t Quote Me on that” authored by Thalif Deen. The book is available on Amazon and at the Viitha Yapa bookshop.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Sacked PUCSL Chairman fights back, writes to Prez



Former PUCSL Chairman Janaka Ratnayake yesterday showing the media a document at a news conference called by him in Colombo. Pic by Kamal Bogoda

By Rathindra Kuruwita

Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission (PUCSL) Janaka Ratnayake yesterday wrote to President Wickremesinghe denying all allegations levelled against him.

Earlier in the day, Ratnayake received a note informing of his removal from the PUCSL.

“I write in response to your above captioned letter dated 22 March 2023. At the outset I strongly deny all and singular the several allegations contained against me in your letter under reference,” he said.

The PUCSL Chairman said his letter contained a detailed response..

“I was given an extremely short period of one week, despite the serious consequences that could flow from the misconceived allegations made against me,” Ratnayake said.

He said that the PUCSL was not a rubber stamp for proposals put forward by the Electricity Industry including the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB).

“But the PUCSL should duly exercise its powers and functions as an independent regulator even when the consequent decision reached by it may be one which is not desired by the CEB or the Government,” he said.

Ratnayake said that the PUCSL acting independently has resulted in the Minister of Power and Energy being unable at times to act at his whim and fancy.

“This appears to have irked the Minister of Power and Energy, and also the President. In May 2022, the secretary to the President had phoned my personal assistant instructing her to “ask the Chairman of the Commission to refrain from making any announcement or statement contradicting the speech made by the Prime Minister.”

Continue Reading


Singer Sri Lanka bags top awards



Singer Sri Lanka PLC clinched the People’s Brand of the Year and Durable Brand of the Year Awards for the 17th consecutive year at the SLIM-KANTAR Awards held at the Monarch Imperial on 27th March, 2023. Singer Sri Lanka PLC Chairman Mohan Pandithage receiving the award from Chief Guest, Sri Lanka Test Cricket Captain Dimuth Karunaratne and Guest of Honour, Past President-SLIM Kalana Ratnayake at the glittering ceremony. Singer Sri Lanka PLC CEO Mahesh Wijewardene, Marketing Director, Shanil Perera, Marketing Manager, Piyum Jayathilaka and other senior officials were present. Pic by Kamal Bogoda

Continue Reading


SJB trade unionist calls for significant fuel price reduction



By Shamindra Ferdinando

Convenor of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) trade union wing, Samagi Joint Trade Union Alliance, Ananda Palitha yesterday (28) said that with the appreciation of rupee against the USD and comparatively lower crude prices in the world market, the government could reduce the price of litre of petrol (92 Octane) and diesel by as much as Rs 100 and petrol (95 Octane) by Rs 125.

The trade unionist said that the price of a litre of kerosene, furnace oil and naphtha, too, could be decreased by Rs 100 each.

Responding to The Island queries, the former Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) employee said that fuel prices should be revised as fast as possible for the benefit of the public.

Lanka IOC should follow the new pricing formula, the former UNP trade union leader said, strongly urging the government to re-examine the petroleum sector. It would be pertinent to mention that petroleum and water sectors, too, should be brought under the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) in terms of PUC Act No 35 of 2002, Ananda Palitha said.

Former Power and Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila said that he was out of the country.

Therefore, I couldn’t comment without studying the latest developments.

Ananda Palitha found fault with political parties represented in parliament for the inordinate delay in fully implementing the Act that was meant to regulate three vital sectors. The PUC received authority to regulate the electricity industry, in terms of Sri Lanka Electricity Act No. 20 of 2009, Palitha said. However, respective Acts, pertaining to Petroleum and Water, were yet to be passed by Parliament, the trade union leader said pointing out that the delay on the part of the parliament seemed deliberate.

Asked whether they opposed the further liberalisation of retail market with the entry of more foreign companies, Ananda Palitha said that the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government was exploiting the current political-economic-social crisis to advance the original agenda of Wickremesinghe.

“We are facing a frightening situation,” the SJB activist said, urging political parties represented in parliament to review rapid developments taking place. The entry of four foreign entities should be examined against the backdrop of Lanka IOC further expanding its operations here, Ananda Palitha said.

The outspoken trade unionist warned against moves to gradually weaken Sapugaskanda oil refinery to pave the way for increased import of refined products. “The refinery that launched operations in 1969 during Dudley Senbanayake’s era received the attention of President J.R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa. But, since then no President paid attention to the facility,” Ananda Palitha said. Instead of enhancing its capacity, successive governments were working overtime to weaken it for obvious reasons, the trade unionist said.

According to him, all were attacking Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera over the continuing crisis in the petroleum sector. “We should question President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Cabinet-of-Ministers headed by the President and the relevant Sectoral Oversight Committee,” Ananda Palitah said.

Ananda Palitha said that political parties as well as some trade unions should accept responsibility for the pathetic situation in the petroleum sector. For want of a cohesive action plan, politicians and interested parties regardless of on and off setbacks were able to pursue their agendas detrimental to Sri Lanka, he said.

Continue Reading