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Susantha De Alwis

The 1970s was a notable period in Sri Lanka’s foreign affairs. An active foreign policy was a key feature in the Sirima Bandaranaike administration. Sri Lanka hosted the Non Aligned Summit in Colombo in 1976. Prior to that, beginning with the Algiers Summit in 1973, and even before, the preparatory process for the Colombo Summit got underway. This involved extensive negotiations and diplomacy at innumerable conferences in various parts of the world, and particularly in New York and Geneva. The non aligned preparations ran in parallel with the intensive diplomacy of the developing countries through the Group of 77, and non aligned mechanisms to negotiate a new international economic order, the centrepiece of which was the Integrated Programme for Commodities and the Common Fund, proposed by UNCTAD.

Sri Lanka played a leading role in these activities as the prospective host of the non aligned summit. Susantha De Alwis, as Sri Lanka’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, was a key figure in these negotiating processes. The key Sri Lankan diplomats abroad engaged in preparing for the Non Aligned Summit were Shirley Amarasinghe (New York), Neville Kanakaratne (Washington), and Susantha de Alwis (Geneva).

Susantha read law at the University of Ceylon, and had his early employment, unusually for a foreign office official, as a journalist. He joined the foreign service in 1957 and spent a couple of years at the University of Oxford, studying international relations. He was then posted in succession to Madras, Jakarta and Washington. He assumed duties as permanent representative in Geneva to the United Nations in 1974, and continued until 1978, a period in which international economic diplomacy was centered around UNCTAD and Geneva.

Susantha served as the Chairman of the Group of 77 (Group of developing countries) and of the Asian Group in Geneva, with great acceptance. This was a time when the North-South dialogue was most intense, and there was much acrimony between the delegates of the North and of the South. Susantha was the man for the occasion. He built up excellent relations with his colleagues from the developing countries while maintaining cordial relations with the ambassadors of the developed world. Susantha was much sought after by both sides to diminish the frictions that naturally arose in the course of this wide ranging multilateral diplomacy.

He worked closely with ambassadors Alathaz and Brillantes, respectively of Indonesia and the Philippines, who led the G-77. Ambassador Alathaz was later the Foreign Minister of Indonesia. Gamini Corea was the Secretary-General of UNCTAD during this period, and Susantha established a very close working and personal relationship with him. At the Non Aligned Summit in Colombo, Susantha was the secretary of the General Conference and also of the political committee. Good at drafting, soft-spoken and deft in repartee, outstanding at networking and courteous at all times, Susantha was the impeccable diplomat.

I travelled with him to many conferences and most memorably to the Non Aligned Summit in Algiers in 1973. The delegation was led by the Prime Minister, Mrs. Bandaranaike and the others were Mr. and Mrs. Felix Dias Bandaranaike and Mr. W. T. Jayasinghe. Susantha was an excellent team player, working actively in the political committee of the Algiers Summit. It is with a sense of sadness that I recall Algiers, with WTJ (a great public servant) passing away recently, and with Mrs. Bandaranaike and Mr. Felix Dias Bandaranaike no more. I enjoyed working with Susantha at the Non-Aligned Summit in Colombo, when I was the secretary of its economic committee.

In the five years I was close to Susantha in the 1970s, what struck me most was his warm and friendly personality. He and his wife, Achala, who is a Pandita Gunawardena, were most welcoming hosts, at their well appointed residence in Geneva. Susantha and Achala had a stream of guests from all walks of life. In early 1978, when I was having a troubled time in my career, Susantha was one of the very few colleagues in the public service to visit me at my home and offer practical assistance. I shall always remember that kind gesture, which was typical of Susantha.

He had a long and distinguished career after 1978, becoming ambassador to Japan, and then to Washington. Although he led a busy life, his family was very close to him. He doted on his daughters, Chamini and Dharshini, and son, Ruvan. A cruel illness took him out of public life prematurely.

Leelananda de Silva


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