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Sepala Ekanayake episode: A clarification

I write with reference to the Article in Sat Mag of today’s Island [17 May 2008 ] by Edither G. Perera on the "Incarceration of Sepala Ekanayake, the only Sri Lankan who attempted to hijack a plane", and would appreciate your publishing the following clarification.

The reference to the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Bangkok in the article is to me and I wish to correct some errors in it in respect of what the author imputes to me, viz:

1. I did not make any promises to Sepala Ekanayake - one does not to those who have flouted the law.

2. One of his demands made to the Alitalia authorities was that he wanted his son brought to him in Bangkok, and his wife and son were flown over – in fact, I believe that, as he wanted to be sure that his son was on board, it was made possible for him to hear the child’s voice from the plane.

3. I did not say that no action would be taken against him as I had no right to do so nor did I have any knowledge of what the Authorities in Colombo were planning to do as at no stage did they communicate with me and communication with the Foreign Secretary was entirely one way, with me calling him from the Airport, where Air Lanka could not help me with direct dialing facilities whereas the Royal Nepalese Airlines Office was able to do so as its lady in charge came to my aid, demonstrating solidarity and cooperation between women!

Sepala made 3 demands:

1. To have his son brought to him.

2. To be given US$300,000 for him to distribute among his collaborators.

3. That all passengers be allowed to disembark without security checks.

My only concern was the safety of the 269 passengers on board of whom the only Sri Lankan was Sepala . As a Christian, I was in constant prayer for fulfilment of this responsibility, and I am convinced that I was inspired to speak with Sepala in different tones and ways – sometimes cajolingly, sometimes sternly – after I had made sure that he was not in the Sri Lankan Government black list of individuals and that he was not an Eelamist as I had initially suspected – and it was a miracle how he responded positively to my requests, if not instantly, but eventually. At the start of my dialogue with him through the Alitalia Intercom with the Pilot’s Cabin, I spoke with him in Sinhala, partly to see whether he would betray a Tamil accent. Later, I spoke with him in English in case anyone got the impression that I may be making a deal with him!

After the Airport denouement and after I was authorized by the Foreign Secretary to put him on board the Air Lanka plane that was due to fly that evening, I reported to him that he was carrying a large sum of US dollar notes for which I believe he could have been arrested, initially at least, on grounds of violation of Exchange Control regulations instead of waiting till the Italian Embassy lodged a charge of extortion on behalf of Alitaia. As a result of inaction , I believe Sepala was not only given a hero’s welcome by his fellow southerners , but was also able to stay at the Hotel Ceylon Intercontinental till the foreign Airline Pilots protested, and was able to spend his ill gotten money and even to Bank it and travel home to the south.

With regard to the retroactive anti-hijack legislation passed, it is ironic that, one year before Sepala’s hijack. I had to deal with an Indonesian plane hijacked by Indonesian rebels [to get their fellow members in prison released] who forced the Pilot to land in Bangkok and then wanted to fly it to Colombo, perhaps to refuel and fly to their planned destination., which I adamantly refused. In my official report to the Foreign Secretary I said, inter alia, that while I was aware that we were signatory to the IATA anti- hijack Convention, I was not aware whether we had ratified it and passed national legislation to enable us to arrest a hijacker. The response from the Foreign Ministry was that "steps are being taken" to do so. Alas, those steps had not been taken even one year later and were hurriedly passed with retroactive effect.

I hate to think that, in order to cover up their inaction, the Authorities said that I gave Sepala a guarantee that no action would not be taken against him. In fact, I asked the Foreign Secretary whether legislation had been enacted . He did not know and wanted me to ascertain it from the Legal Adviser of the Ministry. Since action in terms of national legislation was a matter for the Colombo end, I suggested that he check and let me know!

The hijack was being debated in Parliament soon after the incident, during which the Foreign Secretary telephoned me in Bangkok to ask whether I had paid for Sepala’s Bangkok/Sri Lanka ticket on Air Lanka and I told him that I certainly had not! Subsequently, I learnt from my Chief Clerk, the very competent late Mr. R.M.Premaratne, whom I had left behind at the Airport till the Air Lanka flight took off, that Sepala had paid it out of his pocket and not out of his bag of dollars. During the debate in parliament the Government side had said that I had given Sepala a guarantee of no action against him. Had the Foreign Secretary asked me about this as well as about payment for Sepala’s ticket he could have briefed the Government accordingly.. Alas, it was not so, and I am extremely honoured by and grateful to my defenders , the late Hon. Maitripala Senanayake and the late Hon..Anura Bandaranaike, Members of the Opposition, who said that they knew me well enough to say that I would never have done so, and I am happy that I had not betrayed their confidence in me.

It is a matter for regret that, while I did my very best over the hijacking [it should be noted that handling hijackings is not part of Foreign Service Training, probably because no two are the same], in handling a hijacking , one is left to one’s own resources – spiritual, material and human and my satisfaction from the two I have handled is the self confidence I got from the experience

I would like to record my great debt to the Sri Lankan Police, who sent me prompt replies to my queries on Sepala’s background and history, at a time when we did not have quick communication through Fax, IT and Mobiles – and had recourse only to telex and telephone; My queries were made as I had to have some insight into the background, character and activities of my adversary , so that I could assess how best I could deal with him and I thank the Police for their help..

Another asset I had was my knowledge of Italian, the language assigned me by the Foreign Ministry when I joined the Foreign Service as the first woman career Officer. As a result., unknown to others present at the hijack, I was able to understand what was going on through the Alitalia Airport officials’ communication with the Alitalia Captain’s Cabin.

I would like to mention here a happy sequel to this hijacking on my return to Sri Lanka after serving as Ambassador to Germany , Austria and Switzerland and was Director general Political Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I had a call from Sepala from Nuwara Eliya where he said he was doing home gardening. I guessed what he was after and asked him what he wanted .When he said he wanted to get a visa to Italy to see his son , I told him that he would not get a visa as he had committed an international crime, and that the best course of action would be to get his son to visit him. By this time, Sepala had been divorced by his Italian wife and was married again with children. Imagine the pleasant surprise I had when I saw a photograph in one of our newspapers of his teenage son [named "Free"]. Visiting Sepala and looking very much like his father during the hijacking!

Manel Abeysekera
Former Ambassador to Thailand
(1980 - 1983)

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