Farewell Madame Ambassador

by T. D. S. A. Dissanayaka

Former Ambassador to Indonesia, Egypt and the European Union

Mrs. Loranee Senaratne, the first woman Ambassador/High Commissioner of Ceylon passed away recently at the age of 91 years. She was High Commissioner of Ceylon in Ghana from 1963 to 1965 and Ambassador of Ceylon to Italy from 1970 to 1973. In a very real sense she played a pioneering role amongst our women Ambassadors/High Commissioners who as of now account for seven, five from our Foreign Service and two political appointees, currently on their way back home.

In 1948 Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake established six Embassies/High Commissions in Burma, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the United States. The Prime Minister appointed six Ambassadors/High Commissioners who were either retired or defeated Cabinet Ministers. In the early nineteen fifties new Embassies/High Commissions were set up in Australia, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. All five were headed by high ranking officials. Somehow Ceylon did not appoint any freedom fighters or icons in the field of indigenous culture to these prestigious posts. In direct contrast Burma, India, Indonesia and Pakistan did so with great acceptance. Then in 1957 Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike appointed Mr. Wilmot Perera as Ambassador to China and in 1962 Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike appointed Mrs. Loranee Senaratne as High Commissioner to Ghana. both had excelled in the field of indigenous culture.

At the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference held in London in 1961, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana met for the first time. There began a friendship because their policies were so similar. Apparently Prime Minister Nkrumah had remarked that his High Commissioner in Ceylon, the Reverend S. G. Nimako, a much respected freedom fighter from the Methodist Church, so meticulously reflected the cultural renaissance in Ghana in the High Commission of Ghana in Colombo and in the course of his official duties. However, the High Commission of Ceylon in Accra did not even bother to reflect the cultural renaissance of Ceylon. It was against the background of this complaint that Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike appointed her confidante Mrs. Loranee Senaratne, as her High Commissioner to Ghana in 1962. She assumed duties in Accra in January 1963.

Mrs. Loranee Senaratne, the wife of the well known eye surgeon Dr. O. L. F. Senaratne, had throughout her life shown a deep seated interest in the indigenous culture of Ceylon. The granddaughter of the philanthropist Mr. Charles Henry de Soysa and the daughter of Mr. Louis Peiris, a well known lawyer and collector of antiques from Kandy, ever since her days at Hillwood she had developed an interest in oriental decor while her sister became a professional sculptor and painter. The home of Dr. and Mrs. Senaratne, a spacious Government bungalow down Brownrigg Road in Colombo-5 and later at Flower Road, Colombo-7, was complete with furniture from the Kandyan era, curtains from the Polonnaruwa era, with artifacts consisting of lacquered stands, painted pottery and the walls ornamented with wooden plaques. Their three sons, Chandra, Nihal and Lal, were my schoolmates at Royal College, and their daughter Onitha was exactly my age. As such I was a regular visitor to their home in the nineteen fifties.

In 1953 Mrs. Loranee Senaratne visited England to look up her son Chandra who was studying at Cambridge University. On that visit she produced a pageant "The Famous Women of Sri Lanka" at the Imperial Institute Hall in London, making use of the latent talents of the Ceylon community in London. It was hailed by the British and even given TV coverage by the BBC. However, she had to face a barrage of snide remarks from pitiable creatures from the Ceylon community. Some whined that the famous women of Sri Lanka had no recourse to lipstick and rouge. Others claimed that the famous women from Sigiriya were bare-breasted and that was not portrayed in the pageant!

Jealous and snide remarks apart, Mrs. Loranee Senaratne was recognised in Ceylon by friend and foe alike, as a live wire in the Lanka Mahila Samithiya. That influential organization rendered yeoman service to the cultural renaissance in Ceylon. Such recognition resulted in her appointment as the Honorary Secretary of the Lanka Mahila Samithiya. During her tenure of that prestigious office she was awarded a Leadership grant to visit the United States. Another nation which honoured her, in like manner, was India. It was in this context that she was appointed High Commissioner of Ceylon to Ghana.

Indeed she was well received in Ghana and our High Commission in Accra changed beyond recognition. At a time when the cultural renaissance of Ghana was perhaps at its peak, wherever the Madame High Commissioner went be it in Accra, Tema, Kumasi, their principal cities, or even the outlying Provinces, she reflected the cultural renaissance of Ceylon. At Achimota College, Accra, their equivalent of Royal College, she presented an expensive ornamental memento to be awarded to the best all-round student. On prize day she was invited to present it to the winner while Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah and half his Cabinet, all distinguished Old Boys of Achimota, and other distinguished Old Boys from all walks of life, gave her a standing ovation. A very fluent speaker on any subject pertaining to the cultural life of Ceylon, she was a model High Commissioner in the eyes of Prime Minister (later President) Kwame Nkrumah, Indeed she immeasurably strengthened the friendly ties that existed between Ceylon and Ghana.

My first visit to Ghana was in 1964 and I was amazed to see our High Commission in Accra in action. It looked not like our drab High Commissions and Embassies around the world but like a miniature of the Ceylon Tea Centre situated in Piccadilly in the heart of London. A Ghanaian receptionist dressed in cloth and jacket greeted me saying "Ayubowan". She then handled my appointment with Her Excellency the High Commissioner. In the next few minutes another Ghanaian girl, also dressed in cloth and jacket, served me with a cup of freshly brewed Ceylon tea. Her Excellency was in excellent form and gave me a lecture on Afro-Asian Solidarity, one of the favourite subjects of President Kwame Nkrumah, while I listened in astonishment!

In 1971 and 1972 I was based in Nigeria as a UN international civil servant and travelling throughout West Africa, handling the disbursement of emergency aid. My visits took me frequently to Guinea and Mali, amongst other nations where famines were so common. Living there in exile was President Kwame Nkrumah. He spoke in very complimentary terms and in detail about two Ceylonese, Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and High Commissioner Loranee Senaratne. I now live in retirement in Colombo, having served as an Ambassador for fifteen years. I doubt whether any of the foreign Presidents I worked with so closely, can even remember my name!

Down the ages it was said that the role of an Ambassador/High Commissioner changes with every generation or so. With the first flush of Independence, emotional issues tend to dominate the bilateral relationships between nations. As the years roll by harsh realities such as good governance, trade and economic growth, dominate such relationships. Ten years after the opening of our High Commission in Accra, it transpired that we had no trade whatsoever with Ghana. Our principal exports then were tea, rubber and coconut, and in Africa Kenya exported tea and coconut. However, Ghana had no agricultural products that we had for which we could lobby together for better prices in the world market. Therefore our only Diplomatic Mission in Africa located in Accra, Ghana, was closed down after ten years and re-located in Nairobi, Kenya

In 1970 with the return to power of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, Mrs. Loranee Senaratne was an obvious choice for another posting as Ambassador/High Commissioner. Indeed Kenya which had obtained her Independence in 1964 and was so proud of her cultural renaissance, would have been an excellent posting for her. Somehow her new appointment was Ambassador to Italy, which nation had practised the art of diplomacy for centuries and had even influenced the Vienna Convention on Diplomacy in 1796. Therefore any Ambassador who wishes to shine in Rome, has to have expertise in foreign relations or export-import trade or emergency aid from the FAO or consular affairs, because for centuries illegal entry to Europe from the Third World has been via the Mediterranean nations.

Ambassador Loranee Senaratne nevertheless successfully adapted herself with enthusiasm to her new role. Tourism had become a lucrative field in Ceylon during the last Dudley Senanayake administration. Commencing 1968 the Bentota-Hikkaduwa stretch of coast and the Cultural Triangle were earmarked for an ambitious programme of construction of tourist hotels. Thus once again Ambassador Loranee Senaratne was in her forte advertising our ancient culture with special reference to Anuradhapura, Kandy and Polonnaruwa which she projected as splendid tourist destinations. With Capri, Naples and Sorrento having world famous beaches which Italians are so proud of, she had the intuition to advertise the tropical beaches of Bentota and Hikkaduwa as well. With Air Ceylon having regular flights to Rome, she encouraged Kandyan dancers to perform in Rome and Milan. They held Italian audiences spellbound. More importantly, tourists from Italy came to Ceylon in significant numbers from Rome by Air Ceylon and from Milan in charter flights which commenced during her tenure of office.

In the contemporary world heading an Embassy/High Commission involves much professionalism. Consequently sixty percent of our Ambassadors/High Commissioners are now career diplomats, irrespective of whether the SLFP or the UNP is in power. By the same token, seventy percent in Pakistan, eighty percent in Bangladesh and ninety percent in India of their Ambassadors/High Commissioners are career diplomats, irrespective of the political complexion of the Government of the day.

Way back in the decade in the nineteen sixties diplomacy was very different. All our Ambassadors/High Commissioners were political appointees. Blessed with a personality whereby she could walk with Presidents and Prime Ministers without losing the common touch and a burning desire to propagate our culture, I have never seen any Ambassador/High Commissioner ever represent our cultural life so well, as portrayed by Ambassador/High Commissioner Loranee Senaratne. She enhanced that image by authoring the book "Heirs to History", a living testimony to her dedication to our cultural heritage, our arts and our crafts.

May the turf lie gently over her.