Lalin’s Column: Memories of Fifth Non Aligned Movement Conference 1976
There could hardly ever be another conference in SL of the size, grandeur and organisational brilliance of the 5th Non Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1976. It may have been the last flutter of a dying regime being strangled by the spiralling price of oil amongst other things but it was organised, planned and executed brilliantly. All SL officials concerned performed exceptionally well knowing the reputation of the country was at stake.
Once in a life time. Amongst the participants there was bonding that was strong as it was unique. These are memories of the event that deserve to be recalled. Cuba that held the next conference wanted every detail of the arrangements and those responsible in Colombo made available to them. It was not because Castro like Kim IL Jun (North Korea) had not made it to this one.
Eighty Six Heads of State. There were 86 heads of state and government (HOS/G) representing over 60% of the world’s people while there were also 10 Observers from countries still to join. The charm of SL’s people, the beauty of the country, its traditions and pageantry wove their unforgettable spell on the guests. It provided SL a challenge, excitement and an atmosphere never ever experienced before or repeated. The delegates and the SL officials had the opportunity to intermix with the 3rd world’s galaxy of iconic, world renown, extraordinarily patriotic world leaders during their heyday. The cheering citizens who lined the routes firstly along the Colombo Katunayake road and the streets of Colombo on the days the HOS/G arrived in SL and to the conference daily to the BMICH from their hotels, had a once in a life time chance to greet and observe them as they moved in glittering motorcades. The Govt film unit brought the scenes exceptionally well to the people in the cinemas while the SLBC did so on radio. Unfortunately SL did not have TV at the time. SL became one with the world, less the suspicious West, as never before.
Leaders who dominated world headlines. The HOS/G included the remaining founder of NAM, Josef Broz Tito, Nehru, Gamel Abdel Nasser, Sukarno, Nkrumah and Hailie Sellasie being the others had passed on. Indira Gandhi was there as were the Kings of Afghanistan and Bhutan, rulers of Arab countries, Arab revolutionaries fighting colonial rule in the Maghreb like Boumediene, Bouteflica and Ben Bella who made history, Sadat who made peace with Israel and paid for it at the hands of one of his own soldiers, Col Gaddafi, ( dressed either in Arab and military uniform), Archbishop Makarios, Syria’s Asif Assad, father of the present ruler, prime ministers from most Asian states less China, Japan and South Korea. The leaders of the best known African countries less South Africa still under white apartheid rule were there. Kenneth Kaunda Zambia’s singing President, the elephantine freedom fighter Nkomo, the victorious but unforgiving if not handsome Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Tanzania’s revered Julius Nyerere were there too. From the former Portuguese colonies Angola (Dr.Augustine Neto) Mozambique and Guinea Bissau etc were represented. Then there was Asia’s pride, Vietnam, that had given the USA a never to be forgotten military hiding proving Field Marshal Montgomery’s dictum that the west continues to forget -never wage a land war in Asia. Beyond all it was Mrs Srimavo Bandaranayke, the world’s first woman prime minister, who having made all the arrangements for the conference, inspired the organizers and stole the hearts of the participants and the show at every turn,
“If you were to ask me ..........I will have to choose from ... many important events ... the highlight of the Summit Conference..... one single event...... a logistical master piece, almost inhumanely perfect in timing of the cavalcade of the heads of State and government....That was the day when I realised how proud we could be of our organisational resources, what our people, our officers and departments are capable of “ . (Vernon Mendis, Secretary General of the 5th NAM Summit)
Press Corps and international staff. A sizeable international press corps was present as was an international secretarial staff loaned by the UN. There were translators also that did simultaneous translations of delegate’s speeches in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and English. World TV showed the Conference worldwide.
Tourists leave.As a security precaution all tourists and visitors already in SL had to leave before a stipulated date while the ports of entry debarred them for the duration of the conference. There had never been such tight control of foreigners and tourists ever. The rule was effectively enforced by Immigration.
Nil incidents. SL exceeded all expectations in running the Conference exactly according to plan. There were absolutely no untoward incidents. She had no enemies then and the world’s revolutionaries were firmly on her side. China and Russia backed SL but the western media, then no lover of HR, fearing the coming resurgence of oppressed people, sneered and sniped. Later the West sabotaged the most important resolutions passed by the Conference initiated by Gandhi, especially to suspend foreign debt, create a universal monetary system to replace the WB and IMF and triangulation of trade agreements.
Police Duties. The police controlled security overall. It included provision of close protection officers to the heads of delegation, VIP movement and transport. SPs Cyril Herath (later IGP) and Leo Perera (later S/DIG) were in charge of the first two while Ian Wickramanayake was parachuted from the AG’s dept to help SP (later DIG) Gamini Jayasinghe in controlling VIP transport.
Forces duties. The Forces were in charge of all ceremonials (Guards of Honour) at KIA (then called Bandaranayke International Airport- BIA), route protection of VIP movement from KIA to Colombo and provided liaison officers (LOs) to all HOS/G.
Gen Denis Perera. The armed forces operations were coordinated in minute detail by then Colonel (later General and Commander of the Army) Denis Perera. This not only included briefings on every aspect of the conference (security, protocol. transport, opening ceremony procedures, state banquet to HOS/G and recreational and social activities of the VIPs etc), rehearsals of all duties but also provision of new working, ceremonial and mess dress for officers. A building was erected to house all out station officers in Echelon Square Fort where the Sinha Regiment was quartered then.
Ms Manel Abeysekera. The Chief of Protocol in her autobiography ’Madam Sir’ described much of the preparations. She was in charge of receiving all Heads of State or Government and other VIPs on arrival at KIA and arranging their departures according to the protocol procedures she herself had produced. Before at best SL would have just one HOS/G visit annually? The arrival and departure of the 96 HOS/G and Observers occurred within a couple of days of each other. Except for the contretemps caused by Col Gaddafi of Libya (see ‘Major who tried to control Gaddafi in SL’-Sunday Island 27 Feb 2011) everything went off very smoothly. However she erred when she said Attygalle controlled the forces operations. It was Col Denis Perera who did so.
Guards of Honour. The Tri Services Guards of honour were stationed at KIA. The 3 Forces provided the Guards, each with strength of 2 officers and 100 men. Their precision drill in new ceremonial dress, with regimental colours flying and bands playing was world class. They were stationed in Katunayake and were on 24 hour stand by through out as nearly 100 VVIPs were to arrive in continuous flow. Col TI Weeratunge (later Army Commander) was in charge, with Major (later Colonel) PVJ (Jayantha) de Silva as his staff officer. One of the Navy officers who served with them was Sub Lieutenant (later Admiral and Navy Commander) Wasantha Karanagoda. The SLAF guards were under Squadron Leader (later Wing Commander Retired) Tony Direckze. All drills and procedures were practiced and rehearsed and delivered to near perfection.
Rehearsals for the arrival and departure had the LOs acting as HOS/G. They were driven before dawn with their police escorts to the KIA from the 3 selected hotels, Oberoi (now Cinnamon Grand), Inter Continental (now Continental) which were then spanking brand new, brightening a not very attractive Colombo skyline and the venerable Galle Face Hotel. The procedures were practised in reverse with the departure first so that the LOs after they departed from the airport in SLAF Herons, could come came back after about an hours flight over SL as HOS/G newly arriving. The LOs, in the equivalent rank of majors being infectiously confident but completely relaxed, had no difficulty in standing in for any HOS/G in the world. They intended to carry out their part with the natural verve of professional soldiers.
Due to the usual vagaries of the forces the over 6 ft Flt Lt (later Air Vice Marshal) Ajit Jayasekera, was chosen to substitute for Tito’s wife while a very short and stout volunteer Major (Fernando?) was to be Tito. This arrangement was thrown out at Katunayake as soon as Gen Attygalle got to know of it - on the tarmac when the Heron landed. This left Flt Lt Jayasekera stranded until all the rehearsals were over for the day. The over excited major forgot all about him when ‘escorted’ to the VVIP car. Ajit had to find his own way back to Colombo!
Arrivals and Guards of Honour. The LOs were received by Ms Abeysekera. She escorted them singly to the Minister delegated to represent the President. Word spread that Lt Gen Attygalle the Army Commander would be the first to greet the LOs acting as HOS/G. There was a near mini riot of army LOs as they queued to receive a salute from him! He retired hurt in double time when he realised that the LOs were shoving each other to be saluted by him.
LO’s stymied. Mrs Abeysekera’s way of receiving the HOS/G was to board the plane and peremptorily order the jostling, ebullient, sweating LOs to descend. ’Madam Sir’ lacking the LO’s imagination and most mandarin like, cautioned the high spirited LOs not to treat the exercise and her lightly. They however were determined to play their parts truly as HOS/G. Not to be out done an infantry regiment LO, standing in for Panama’s President Omar Torrijos insisted that he was a HOS and should not be ordered around. When his turn came to be ’greeted’ by her, he gallantly asked whether he could give her a practice kiss in the tradition of macho South Americans. He was told shortly where to get off. The rehearsals ended quickly.
Night club birds. Not all the actual arrivals and departures stuck to form. There were mavericks like Qaddafi (who came one day late having been preceded the previous day by a Boeing plane load of his countrymen without passports) and high spirited fun loving representatives from some African countries (out going) for whom search parties had to go to ‘Night Clubs’, then open for 24 hours daily, to get them back in time for their departures.
Bongo. President Bongo of the Congo meanwhile arrived nearly two weeks ahead of the conference .He stated he could not wait it until it started as he feared to leave his country unattended for too long . He eventually ruled for nearly 40 years. A tour of the tourist sites was arranged which he enjoyed very much. On the last evening he called his SL Police protection officer, an Inspector, to commend him. He said a certification of his good work would be sent to the Prime Minister. He asked for one last favour which would have bettered Italy’s ‘bunga bunga’ Berlusconi feats. Our man upheld the dignity of his service.
African HOS claustrophobia. There was an African HOS who on arrival told his LO that he could not stand being in a vehicle for more than 30 minutes and if he had to he would get down and walk. So the driver of his vehicle was told to drive like the clappers of hell. This left the police motor cycle escort riders and the rest of the convoy lurching way behind.
Logistics. Much had to be done. The magnificent Chinese built BMICH was ready in time and even today is the most sought out building in SL. The roads from Katunayake to Colombo were re surfaced and a new road called Duplication road was opened. Two luxury hotels, the Intercontinental (now Continental) and the Oberoi (Cinnamon Grand) of a standard never seen or indulged before were built to house the delegates in addition to the stately Galle Face Hotel. Over one hundred identical Australian Holden super luxury saloon cars for the HOS/Gs and 200 Peugeots 604 from France were purchased for the motorcades. After the Conference, the Holdens were distributed amongst the Govt departments or sold while the Police were given most of the Peugeots. The Holdens did not last 5 years.
Extra special guests. Mrs. Bandaranayke generously gave up her official Temple Trees residence to Mrs Indira Gandhi. The out going head of the movement, hoary warrior Houri Boumedienne from Algeria was given ‘Acland’ the State Guest house. Marshal Josef Tito stayed aboard his yacht. They, without asking for special privileges accepted all arrangements made for them with humility and grace. It created a lasting impression on the SL officials who came into contact with them.
Yugoslavs. The LOs were instructed to be familiar with every inch of the lay out of conference venue and hotels their respective HOS/G were to stay. Yugoslavian Colonel Vido Nonevic who was in charge of Tito’s security when checking the Oberoi hotel surprised himself when he bumped into me, his 1973 British Staff College Camberley course mate at the ground floor East lift lobby. The Yugoslavs did an expert technical job for the conference security but over did it for Marshal Tito.
Yugoslav partisan loyalty. This led to some embarrassing moments before President Gopallawa’s banquet to the HOS/G, Observers and 16 SL heads of organising committees. Tito’s menacing bodyguards, heirs to an awesome tradition that saw off the Nazi invaders in WW2, refused to allow anyone to enter any lift in the East lobby before Tito. The guests arriving for the banquet were nonplussed by the obstinacy of the Yugoslavs. Those worthies used the stair case to go to the Banquet Hall which fortunately was just one floor below. However when SL’s President appeared with his wife, the Yugoslavs with asinine insistence refused to budge. This was a major issue as Mrs Gopallawa had a problem with her knees. The Yugoslavs were told repeatedly they had to yield emphasising it was for the President of SL and his wife. They pretended not to understand. Col Nonovic fortunately appeared as Tito was about to arrive. He ordered them to stand back. SL’s warm hearted President and his gentle wife having looked on in mild amusement showing no impatience or annoyance, got into the lift and descended. We made sure there was no repeat performance after the Banquet.
Traffic Control. Vernon Mendis summed up SP (Traffic-later DIG)) Leo Perera’s classical and monumental work as given in the above quotation. He was helped by Colombo ASP Traffic and OIC Traffic.
Arrivals. The flow of traffic on the approach road to Colombo from the Katunayake airport was monitored thoroughly for many days before the plan was made. SP Perera’s team observed that that there were only 4 entry points on the sea side onto the road while there were many on the land side. In order to minimise inconvenience to the local residents during the duration of the conference, it was decided to move the HOS/G motorcades on the sea side (right), keeping the land side, which had very many entry points, free. As almost all the delegations would be arriving on the day before the conference, arrangements were made for the sea side entry points to be kept closed only while there was an actual motorcade movement. Information on the departure of motorcades from Katunayake was passed continuously on the excellent Police radio system. Soldiers lining the entire route, provided security for the road movements.
Colombo city movement. Another detailed study of daily traffic movement was made so that Colombo would not have to come to a grinding halt while the motorcades moved in. It was realised that if the route selected passed through Maradana there would be total chaos. (It was Gen Fonseka, 33years later, when asked whether he had planned a coup who said if he had wanted to, all he had to do was to detail a platoon of soldiers to block the traffic at Maradana junction and the whole of Colombo would have come to a grinding halt!). It was therefore decided that once over the old Victoria bridge, (now Japan Friendship road) the motorcades would pass the Sugathadasa stadium, turn right onto George E de Silva Mw and as it passed Ceylon Tobacco turn left onto St Anthony’s Mw/Sea Beach road passing the Khan Clock Tower on to Church St, passing the Colombo Harbour entrance and the present Police HQ on to Marine Drive to the old Parliament round about. At this point the Inter Continental Hotel bound motorcades would turn left while the others went along Galle Face Centre Road to their hotels. Every building on the way was spruced up. Government funds were given to those that needed it .The route also showed off the history and sights of Colombo. Numerous rehearsals were done on the route until SP Perera was satisfied there was nothing left to chance. Eventually all motorcades reached their hotels without the slightest hitch. All heavy baggage was collected by SLAF movements and despatched to the respective hotels using a different route. Nothing was misplaced.
Opening Ceremony. This was to be the acid test. The movement plan required that 101 VIP motorcades which included the President and Prime Minister of SL, President Boumidiene of Algeria that had hosted the last Conference, the Secretary General of the UN Kurt Waldheim, The Secretary General of the Fifth NAM and 86 HOS/G and 10 undecided national observers hoping to join the movement. It was planned, timed and rehearsed so well that when it was put into effect, the arrivals were correct up to the minute the PM’s secretary civil servant Dharmasiri Peiris recalls. Leaving nothing to chance DIG (later IGP) Rudra Rajasingham coordinating police operations checked up the preparations on the ground. He questioned the policemen on traffic control duties and was duly very impressed by their awareness.
Timings. Three hundred and three (303) vehicles had to take the VVIPs in one hour from their hotels to the BMICH for the opening ceremony. Collection from the hotels was in national alphabetical order. Only 2 minutes were given for each pick up at the hotel. The entire move to BMICH was actually done in 50 minutes. The Prime Minister was overwhelmed and jokingly asked whether the Conference should start 10 minutes ahead of time!
Innovations. SP Perera moved not one but 2 motorcades at a time in parallel from the hotels on the Galle Road via Kollupitiya junction, Ananda Kumaraswamy Mw, right onto Marcus Fernando road, Albert Crescent, Torrington Ave to Buller’s Rd.
Reception at BMICH. As the motorcades entered BMICH Brig Garba gasped as I did when we saw the tree lined, flower filled lush green grounds were flanked by 86 National flags flying, with massed military and Hewisi bands playing stirring military and traditional airs. Colourful, swirling, lithesome and very pretty Kandyan and Baratha Natyam and energetic low country dancers covering the whole grounds performed. At the canopied entrance to the Conference hall only the HOS/G vehicle came up the ramp. The door of the VVIP car was opened by a Military Policeman and even as he shut its door the next VVIP car arrived in non stop flowing motion. The 2 escort vehicles of each motorcade stopped momentarily at the bottom of the ramp. The HOS/G were introduced to Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranayke by the LO.
She met all HOS/G with the traditional SL smile that has captivated visitors through the ages and spontaneous, cheerful, warm words of welcome. Even today to recall how this flawless movement of 101 motorcades was done amazes me even as I remember how graciously SL’s PM welcomed her guests.
Sadat. President Anver Sadat of Egypt when informed of the time of his departure from the hotel told his LO, Major (later Maj Gen) Tissa Jayatunge that “this Sadat does not get up until 9 a clock”. Leo made the adjustments without blinking. It worked without a hitch even though Sadat’s security did some showy acrobatics crawling over and rolling under Sadat’s vehicle before he was allowed to get in. Onlookers were not impressed. Tissa was invited to Egypt for a holiday by a grateful and generous Sadat who was later assassinated by one of his own soldiers at a victory parade in 1981 for signing a peace treaty with Israel. His security had fled.
Indira Gandhi. Leo was able to fit in Indira Gandhi who arrived from India the day after India’s National Day celebrations in New Delhi (15 Aug). She was brought by helicopter from KIA to the Army rugby grounds (where the Taj Samudra stands today). She graciously consented to be driven to the Prime Minster’s official residence Temple Trees, generously loaned by Mrs Bandaranayke, through the East (Beira) entrance so as not to block the flowing motorcades, and yet made it looking strikingly fresh as ever in time for the opening ceremony. Never was SL closer to India than then.
Tito. Tito who was based on his yacht was requested to choose the time he wanted to leave. He told SP Perera he would be ready at any time given to him. Such were the leaders then and such was their affinity to SL. He threw a grand reception aboard his non communist luxury yacht berthed in the Colombo harbour for the delegates later.
Gratitude of PM Bandaranayke. SP Perera had never been sent abroad on any course traffic control or otherwise. Every detail he planned and executed was through his own home spun study, thinking and experience. He was deservedly sent on a holiday to Japan later by a grateful PM, something he recalls with gratitude even today.
Qatar. Maj (later Major General) Devinda Kalupahana had to rebuke one of the Qatar delegates at the registration hall in the Galle Face Hotel when that scamp revealed he had some dishonourable intentions. The Qatari was told in no uncertain terms to behave as his HOS/G would be without an LO if he made one more wrong move. Another excited Arab visitor prowling around the BMICH had to be politely but very very firmly told of painful consequences when he was seen trying to get fresh with the very pretty young ladies dressed in ‘redde hetta’ (jacket and cloth) working as volunteers at the BMICH Tea Board counter. One happened to be the sister of a brother officer. All such incidents were well handled by the LOs concerned.
Nigerian delegation. I was LO to the Nigerian delegation headed by foreign minister 6ft 2 ins Brig Joseph Garba. He had been my colleague at the British Army Staff and Command College in 1973. Nigerian President Gowan, a great favourite with the oil starved British and an alumnus visited during the course. Garba commanding the Brigade of Guards was the spokesman for the plotters that overthrew Gowan in a bloodless coup in 1975. Garba’s father was a chief from Langtan who had several palaces, many wives and 17 children.
Military courtesies. On his arrival when I called him ‘Sir’ Brig Garba told me that I should call him ‘Joe’ as before. I told him he would be called ‘Sir’ as long as he was in SL. He asked after my family who I told him were 125 miles (200 kms) away in Diyatalawa and well. His PA was a tough looking Hausa Sergeant Major. The security officer detailed for him was burly Inspector Rajapakse. Garba spoke about the Biafra war and how a privileged Ibo minority with western aid tried to divide Nigeria and secede. I little believed SL would face a similar situation in a few years.
Excursion to Bentota. Maj Andrew Ratnayake who had been with Brig Garba on the UN Indo Pak Mission after the 1965 war asked me to arrange for Garba to meet up with him. Andrew was a staff officer in Galle. His northern boundary was the Bentota River. He tried desperately hard to get permission to come to Colombo to meet Garba but failed. We therefore arranged lunch at Bentota Beach Hotel. Andrew had an agenda. After lunch I took Joe for tea to my mother’s home in Ambalangoda. She was very happy to meet Joe and told him she hoped to live to see the day when South Africa would be free. Sadly she did not see that glorious day. Coincidentally Garba did yeoman service with the African Union to pressurise the apartheid government in South Africa. One of my Modern Subjects essays at Sandhurst was on Apartheid.
Cecil Denis. (Liberia) Garba’s friend and adjoining room neighbour in the hotel was the handsome, well educated, almost brown skinned Cecil Denis the Liberian Foreign Minister who was an inch taller than Garba. He was ebullient where Joe was more measured. In 1981 a Master Sergeant Daniel Doe took over Liberia and shot Cecil and 15 other Liberian Ministers on the Freetown beach. In Nigeria a close friend of Major (later Lt Gen) Waidyaratne at Sandhurst, Col Ibrahim Bissala (both my juniors in Alamein Company) had attempted a coup before the Conference but failed, with sudden tragic consequences to him.
Michael Kabore. On the opening day of the Conference I was told to usher in late arrival Michael Kabore of Upper Volta (Now Burkina Faso). I asked him whether he knew Col John Kabore of Ghana. Michael was taken aback as to how I knew John who was with me in Alamein Company at Sandhurst (1959-60). Michael said they were cousins separated by national boundaries dictated by colonial rulers. John like most Ghanaians was a super soccer player. He had been educated at Achimota College whose co founder was Rev AG Fraser formerly Principal of Trinity. We were destined to meet fleetingly again UK in 1973 outside the Staff College NAFFI shop. John was on his way home from military training in Israel. Michael was a much loved Upper Volta regional minister.
David Manley Jamaica’s dapper popular socialist Prime Minister, ex WW2 RAF fighter Command, was one of the few HOS/G who had time to meet us in the hotel lobby to chat late in the evenings. When he spoke in an accent much like ours of his days in the RAF in the Battle of Britain, he warmed our soldier hearts.
Afghanistan. King Zahir Khan’s Sandhurst trained ADC was hugely tall and handsome like most Afghans. It would have impressed a Guard’s Sergeant Major to see how he braced himself, sprang to attention and saluted not only his King but also Mrs. Indira Gandhi when they came to the lunch given by the Bangladesh President at the Oberoi Hotel. The Great Game was in great shape.
Bangladesh Major Siddique. Siddique, ADC to his President a former Chief Justice Choudrey, was being given a virtual cold shoulder by his LO late Major Nihal Wijesena possibly because Siddique was much younger. We spoke to him and found out details of the attempted coup led by Major Abu Tahir who had been on the 1964 RSO's course in Rawalpindi with me. Siddiqui abruptly without hesitation said ‘we hanged him’. A Bangladesh Brigadier came in early 2000 to forge a liaison with the company I worked in my retirement. When this story was related he said he was that ADC.
Inspector Carlyle Silva was the Security officer for the PNG HOS/G. That official who was so impressed by Carlyle that he invited him over to join the PNG police force. He served for many years.
Flt Lt Vitharne was told by his African HOS/G after seeing him to his room that he would be very happy if he could be introduced to one or more of the floor ladies in the Oberoi hotel. The officer scandalised and in high dungeon repeated this to others including the floor lady when leaving at night. The next day it was said the HOS/G thanked the officer!
Lakshmi Naganathan an outstanding diplomat, who I first knew when I was attending the Staff College course UK in 1973.She, was in charge of official receptions. She always called me ‘malli-(younger brother)’.In UK as First Secretary she over looked all military affairs when I was there. She accepted all invitations to visit military bases and spoke of how she had sailed in a submarine, gone in a RAF jet and driven a tank and said she had fired its main 120mm gun. She had some very pretty young ladies to help her in French speaking Manique and Shiromi Gunasekera and Sakunatala Kadirigamar, niece of the SLN’s former Commander. Lakshmi decamped to the USA around 1984 from the Foreign Ministry and declared for the LTTE. With her went my Thomian class and dorm mate Vijayan Arulanandam also of the Foreign Ministry the day after I had tea with him at Pagoda tea rooms in Fort.
Somalia. From the list of HOSD/G arriving I saw that the Vice President of Somalia, Brigadier Ismail Abuker who had been with Major Sena de Sylva and me in Victory College at Sandhurst (1959-60) would be leading his delegation. He was called Smiley. He invited both of us to have tea with him at the Inter Continental Hotel. Sena did not come. When I went to Ismail's room he immediately dismissed his security officers who were lurking around in the corridors. We had a great time reminiscing about many friends from 40 odd countries in those challenging and enjoyable days at the world’s best military academy. Smiley promised to keep in touch but he was ousted a short while after he got back by his President, a General. Smiley kidded me that I was still a Major. I told him, not without pride, that SL had a democratic government.
African interlude. Major (later Major General) Upali Karunaratne was LO for Ethiopia’s General Tefari Bente who had taken over disposing WW2’s one of NAMs founders, the former much acclaimed King Haile Selasie who had fought Italy’s colonial rule but had become a tyrant later. Bente himself was later over thrown and killed. Upali’s renewed ties with his Sandhurst Ghanaian friend Foreign Minister Joe Felli. Major (later Major General) Sena de Silva was LO for Algeria’s Boumidiene.
Vietnam. Major SJ Weerasena (deceased) was LO to the Vietnam delegation headed by its Prime Minister. They were the cynosure of all where ever they went. They were however very reticent when asked about their inflicting the first ever defeat on mighty super power USA. Weerasena, as small built as they were, would relay scraps of information about life in Vietnam to a thoroughly envious audience.
Departure with Indira Gandhi. Towards the close of the conference Brig Garba told me that he would be leaving for Delhi with Mrs Gandhi in her IAF plane. I was asked to liaise with the Indians.
Gandhi’s LO was Gemunu Watch Major (later Maj Gen) Wijaya Wimalaratne who was commissioned from the Indian Military Academy Dehra Dun. Wijaya arranged for me to meet Gonsalves of the Indian FO. Gonsalves just could not avoid being thoroughly Indian-annoyingly patronising. He started off by giving me a movement schedule working backwards from KIA saying the time of departure was 3pm and that since it took X minutes to get there I would have to arrange for the Nigerians to leave the hotel at Y hours and make sure the vehicle speed was Z mph etc. When he stopped talking I thanked him for the information. He asked if I had any questions. I had. I wanted to know the time on his watch. Wijaya told me later that Gonsalves had described me diplomatically as being ‘on the ball’.
The Nigerian delegation got to the airport VIP lounge about 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Although Gonsalves emphasised that only Gandhi would be allowed to take her car up to the plane, I made sure my old friend was not treated differently. Given the choice Garb later retired from the Army as a Major General and became Foreign Minister. In 1989 he presided over the 44thth session of UN General Assembly. A photo of him receiving a gem studded elephant from FM Ranjan Wijeratne appeared in the CDN of 11 October 1989. Garba died aged 62 in 2002.
Gifts. Many of the visitors gave gifts to their LOs. The Middle East leaders gifted gold watches. Brig Garba brought me 2 brass statues of a Nigerian chief and his wife. I gave Inspector Rajapakse the entire, not inconsiderable, amount of dollars Garba’s PA gave me to be shared by the escort team of police officers and soldiers. Kuwait said it did not want to ‘spoil’ it’s LO and was tight fisted. The SL government gave generous gifts to the guests too including a lot of expensive books on SL. Liquor in generous quantities was stacked in their rooms by late amiable Lt Comdr Sisira Jayathileke SLN. The Sierra Leone delegation took everything back with them, at least up to the airport. When their baggage was found to be greatly over weight and payment was insisted upon, they argued and demanded that the bill be sent to the UK High Commission for re imbursement! They left without much of the liquor and threw away the books on SL.
Invasion. When the conference ended the wives of some officers rushed in to the BMICH hoping if nothing else at least to inhale the heady air that their husbands had inhaled during the conference. They were disappointed.
Finis - The Star. Those were hectic and exhilarating days. Yet they were very soon almost forgotten in the years of terror that followed in SL even as the fear of the Cold War that was the main reason for NAM, ended. If Fidel Castro at the very next NAM conference in Havana, Cuba, could not recall the name of SL’s President JRJ (Yankee Dickie) when taking over from him, it was only to be expected. It was Mrs Bandaranayke’s name that resonated with all NAM countries if not most of the world. Field Marshal BL Montgomery listed her first among women leaders in one of his books on Leadership. After all she was the first woman Prime Minster in a democracy and was followed by India, Israel, Pakistan, Bangladesh, UK and Turkey amongst others. The fact that she took up the mantle from an assassinated husband was not missed by him. JRJ who declared ‘war’ on his own people (not the LTTE), removed her civic rights!
Hopefully the Commonwealth HOS/G in 2013 will give SL a chance to get back its place in the sun.
- Asian Tribune -