Arthur Basnayake who passed away last week at the age of 90 was one of the finest diplomats ever to represent Sri Lanka. He was one of the first five recruits to the then Ceylon Foreign Service. He served in over 10 countries as first secretary, counselor and deputy high commissioner. He was twice ambassador to Japan and also to Myanmar (Burma) and India. He was a key figure in the preparations for the Fifth Non Aligned Summit held in Colombo in August 1976, as the Director General (DG) of the foreign office at the time. He was one of the trusted officials of the Prime Minister, Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike. An unassuming, self-effacing man, never flaunting his diplomatic status, Arthur was deeply conscious of his responsibilities.
Arthur Basnayake was born in 1925. He and his brother Valentine (later dean of the faculty of medicine and a renowned musician and pianist) were twins. Arthur was educated at St. Joseph’s College and among his contemporaries at school were people like Godfrey Gunatilaka. When President R. Premadasa was the chief guest at the St. Joseph’s College prize giving sometime in the 1980s, he referred in his speech to Arthur and Valentine as two outstanding students he remembered at the school. Arthur joined the University of Ceylon to read for a degree in Geography. Ivor Jennings was the vice chancellor and he kept up his acquaintance with Jennings until much later. His lecturer at the University was Elsie Cooke, an English lady. A few years back, Arthur wrote a letter to the Sunday newspapers reminiscing on a delightful day he spent in Polonnaruwa with Elsie Cooke and other geography undergraduates and having lunch with C.P. de Silva, then assistant government agent of Polonnaruwa. Arthur always kept up his contacts, academic and otherwise.
Arthur joined the foreign service in 1949. The others to join with him were Vernon Mendis, Ben Fonseka, Yogendra Duraiswamy and D.P. Wijegunawardane. All his colleagues were to be ambassadors later on. In his 38-year career in the foreign service, he served in posts abroad for 30 of those years. In the first 20 years, he served as first secretary and counselor in Burma, Rome, at the United Nations in New York, Washington, New Delhi and London. That was the time when Ceylon ambassadors were either leading political figures or senior public servants. Foreign office personnel were too junior to be ambassadors. Arthur served first with Susanta De Fonseka in Burma, then R.S.S Gunawardene in Rome, New York and Washington, Sir Richard Aluwihara in New Delhi and Sir Lalitha Rajapakse in London. These envoys were more representational figures for the country at a time when Ceylon was making its presence in world affairs. It was Arthur, in the missions he served, who had to undertake the many management tasks of the mission. First secretaries and counselors were expected to look after the less glamorous details of diplomatic life. Arthur always felt that this was a great experience, working with these ambassadors with their wide ranging interests, especially in politics.
In New York, Arthur was one of the earliest to serve in a Ceylon UN mission. Ceylon was admitted to the UN as a member in 1955. In 1956, as first secretary of the Ceylon Mission, he hoisted for the first time the Ceylon flag over the United Nations. There is a lovely photograph where Arthur is joined by Dag Hammarskjold, the United Nations Secretary General, in carrying out this historic task. Arthur served twice with the UN mission in New York, first in 1956 and 1957, and then again in 1964 and 1965. Arthur had the opportunity at the time to join the United Nations, when it was looking for personnel to be recruited. Arthur was not interested and wanted to be of service to the government. There was an interesting incident during Arthur’s tenure in New York. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) of the USA informed Arthur that the Sri Lankan mission was being entered into in the night by one of its officers, along with a member of the secret service of a communist country and they were using the telegraph facilities of the embassy for their own ends. This was the time when there was tension between Russia and the USA and of course US detective agencies were on the alert, especially at the United Nations. That officer was transferred out of New York.
It is a curious feature of Arthur’s career that he served his first 20 years in Ceylon missions in the West and when he was ambassador in later years, his career was in the East. In later years, he found life more congenial in places like Tokyo and Rangoon, where he was very much influenced by the cultural and religious life of those countries. I remember sometime in the 1980s when he was ambassador in Burma, he kept with Burmese tradition to ordain his son Kolitha as a Buddhist novice monk, for a couple of weeks and the chief guest for the occasion was U Nu, the former Prime Minister of Burma. Arthur enjoyed Japan and the Japanese had the greatest respect for him. President J.R. Jayewardene visited Japan when he was ambassador there for the second time.
Between 1974 and 1977, Arthur was Director General of foreign affairs in Colombo. This was a most active period in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and foreign relations. The 5th Non- Aligned summit was to be held in Sri Lanka in August 1976 and Arthur was one of the key figures in the preparations leading up to the Summit. He undertook extensive travels on non-aligned matters, and he was assisted in the Ministry by its director of political affairs Izeth Hussein, and other officers like Nihal Rodrigo and Alfie David. He had a close working relationship with Mrs. Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, who was virtually the foreign minister. W.T. Jayasinghe, the Foreign Secretary and M.D.D. Pieris, Secretary to the Prime Minister. Arthur was a fine administrator, delegating tasks as required and in coordination. The Non Aligned Summit required a Director General, to assist the Prime Minister as chairman of the conference and the natural choice was first W.T. Jayasinghe, who was Foreign Secretary and then Arthur, who was Director General. W.T. refused to take up the job and so did Arthur as they were not anxious to be involved in a ceremonial job of that kind. So they had to bring Vernon Mendis who was high commissioner in London at the time to undertake the task.
To go back to his personal life, Arthur married Damini Wickramasinghe. Damini’s mother, Winifred (nee Rodrigo) had been the first Ceylonese woman to read for a degree at the University of Oxford. Damini and Arthur had three children, Aruna, Ruvani and Kolitha, doing well in their own careers. After retiring from the foreign service, Arthur led an active life. For 12 years, he was professor of international relations at Nagoya University in Japan. After they returned to Sri Lanka in 1996, Arthur and Damini established the Only One World Foundation to offer scholarships to needy children for their education and also assist in the field of health. The Foundation raises most of its funds in Japan and the scholarships are given mainly in Sri Lanka and also in Myanmar. Two of the active patrons of this association are Aung Sang Suu Kyi from Myanmar and Mrs. Hata, the wife of the former Japanese Prime Minister. It took some effort on the part of Arthur and Damini to build up this foundation which is very active today. Arthur also indulged in his love of farming, having obtained a large extent of land in the Polonnaruwa area. This had to be given up due to terrorist activities.
Let me end on a personal note. I got to know Arthur well in April 1973 when Manel Kannangara (now Abeysekara) and I joined Arthur who was ambassador in Tokyo as the Sri Lankan delegation for the ECAFE annual sessions held in Tokyo. Arthur was a superb head of delegation. I remember going with him and Damini for the cherry blossom party at the Sinjuki gardens in Tokyo hosted by the then Japanese Prime Minister, Kakuei Tanaka. For the next 40 years, we continued to be friends. Between 1974 and 1977, I worked closely with him on non aligned matters. The Prime Minister had wanted me to be involved on the economic side of non aligned matters, and Arthur was always supportive, especially when I was secretary of the economic committee of the non aligned summit. We traveled together to many countries, Mexico, Peru, Algeria, Senegal for non aligned meetings. We traveled with the Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike and Dharmasiri Pieris, Secretary to the PM to Japan, Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines . We prepared speeches and communiqués. Arthur was the nicest of persons to work with. He had a great sense of humour and always saw the amusing side of persons and events. Arthur led a full life and we should remember him as the great gentleman that he was. One day, when we were in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, Arthur wanted to see the interior of the country, and I went with him to the railway station so that he could take a train to some remote town. When we went to the railway station, there was no one or any train in sight, although the train was due to leave in a few minutes. Then we saw a man seated at the end of the long, deserted platform dangling his legs. He said he was the station master. We asked him when the train was leaving. He told us that it was a good question, as yesterday’s train has still not left. He advised us to go out of the station and then take a van and that the van service was managed by his son. I remember this incident in that remote railway station when I think of Arthur.
Leelananda De Silva
Remembering Our Arthur
I have just heard from Rohan Basnayake that his elder brother Arthur had died peacefully in his sleep. My immediate reaction to this news was that this was good news. Arthur had lived an exemplary life, and it is my firm belief that this is how good souls take leave of their loved ones. Arthur fully deserved such an end to his illustrious life.
I first met Arthur when he returned from an assignment as a Secretary at our embassy in Burma. I was attached to our Overseas Administration Division (OAD), as an Additional Assistant Secretary. That division had responsibility for overseeing the work of all of Ceylon’s diplomatic missions in foreign capitals.
I had been recruited as a "cadet" in Ceylon’s Overseas Service in 1958. It was my good fortune that Arthur Basnayake ("Bas" to his friends) arrived at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as an Assistant Secretary, reporting directly to the Permanent Secretary of the ministry on the work of this Division. Bas and I became very close friends from the very beginning of this relationship.
Arthur belonged to the very first batch of diplomats to be recruited to Ceylon’s Foreign Service at its birth in 1948. From our very first meeting, we had developed a high degree of mutual respect – he appreciated my work and, in my eyes, he was a perfect model of a "Conscientious Public Servant."He was very broad-minded, well-informed, and had all the tact that a good diplomat was presumed to possess, and more. My great affection for him and, of course, real admiration, have remained with me to this day.
Arthur was a tower of support to me whenever I ran into difficulties not of my making. In the only instance when this happened, he came to my rescue. He discussed my problem with our Permanent Secretary who sent me a very positive personal response, with the promise to get me out of that mission at the first available opportunity.
That episode speaks volumes about Arthur’s sense of justice. He was an extraordinary human being, and that is how his memory will be cherished by me and everyone who knew him.
NOTE: Mr. A. Kathiramalainathan, a career diplomat (1958-1986), represented Sri Lanka in many countries before being posted as Ambassador of Sri Lanka. His last posting was Ambassador to Egypt (1983-86).