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Living in Paris, exploring London and an encounter with JRJ over a newspaper article

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At media seminar with Everett Rogers

(Excerpted from volume ii of the Sarath Amunugama autobiography)

I found accommodation close to my office in Rue Miollis. It saved me hours of commuting time to my office and EHESS, my study place for my doctorate. My friend Dilip Padgoankar and his wife Lotika were going back to India and their flat fell vacant. Dilip, a ‘bon vivant’ who later became the Editor of the Times of India and advisor to the Indian Government on Kashmir, had chosen well. As M’Bow’s media spokesman he was on call all the time and had to live close to his boss’s office. Thanks to his recommendation I managed to secure that flat.

It was spacious enough to accommodate me, my wife and two children, and was close to good restaurants, cinemas and theatres. Many children of UNESCO staff lived in the vicinity and they all went to the same schools so that the neighborhood was congenial. For instance, Varuni had a friend who was the daughter of a sister of the Shah of Iran who was in exile, living in a mansion close by. Another friend, Mohammed Musa, was the son of M’Bow’s advisor from Nigeria.

Ramanika’s best friend was the daughter of a senior Indian professional in the science sector of UNESCO. All in all it was a stress free life wherein I could easily handle my official duties as well as academic pursuits with ease. From our Metro station Segur, it took me less than ten minutes to get to EHESS on the Boulevard Raspail.

Exploring London

One of the advantages of living in Paris was that I could travel often to the UK. The Paris-London flight took less than an hour and there were commercial flights on 12-seater planes which offered us cut rate tickets. These low cost flights took us to Stanstead airport and not Heathrow which meant that the entry formalities and waiting time was much less. The British government was promoting Stanstead in order to take the pressure off Heathrow. Since our elder daughter Ramanika was studying in England my wife and I took every opportunity to use these low cost flights to get to London.

Another factor was that our close friends, Namel and Malini Weeramuni were living in North London and their spacious house became a home away from home to us as it was to many visiting Sri Lankan friends. The Weeramunis were a generous and welcoming couple and we spent time together exploring the nooks and corners of London including Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery. At that time J B Dissanayake and his wife were also in London for his sabbatical and Gananath and Ranjini Obeyesekere were hosted by the Anthropology Department of London University. In addition there were a large number of our friends from Sri Lanka working in the UK in different capacities.

H.H. Bandara was employed as a researcher in the London museum library dealing with Sinhala palm leaf manuscripts with Somadasa who way the librarian of Peradeniya University in our time. Mark,Fernando who played the lions role in Sarachchandras “Sinhabahu” was a solicitor practicing in London. R.D. Perera, my Arunachalam hall mate, was a high school teacher who had authored a popular book on economics for “crammers” for public exams and had thereby become rich and famous.

RD generously lent us his new Mercedes Benz for our excursions. One such excursion of our group was to Cambridge University where we met several Srilankan students, particularly those who were attached w a hospital there. With the Obeyesekeres and Weeramunis I went to a West End theatre to see Pirandellos “Six characters in search of an author”. This may have been the beginning of Namel Weramunis fascination with the plays of Pirandello.

After relocating in Colombo many years later he won fame with his production of a translation of a Pirandello play. Here I must write of a memorable dinner meeting with Lindsay Anderson at the Weeramunis. Malini, ever the sacrificing wife, worked part time in a supermarket in North London. It so happened that Lindsay Anderson, the famous critic and filmmaker lived in Hendon and was a regular visitor to Malini’s supermarket for his provisions. Being an admirer of Lester and Sumitra Peries and a frequent guest at their home in Colombo, and a confirmed addict of rice and curry, he became a friend of the Weeramunis who frequently invited him to their home.

Once Lindsay came over to share a meal with me and talk about Asian cinema. It was a memorable meeting which went on till midnight and Lindsay’s insights on Lester and Satyajit Ray’s films have remained in my memory. He died not long after and our cinema, particular our radical young film makers, lost a kindred soul.

Being a senior official of UNESCO I interacted with the staff of the British delegation attached to our office. Occasionally they invited me for discussions in London in the Commonwealth office as several media projects in Commonwealth countries were funded by IPDC. I found that the British were less ideological than the US and were willing to work with multilateral organizations because they got much credit without investing large sums of money. As one such official described it, the UK got “more bounce for their ounce”.

Many of these meetings ended with a drink and dinner at London’s famous clubs like Travellers, Whites and Carlton with their distinctive atmosphere and superb food. Of these the Carlton was the most ‘political’ of the lot and we could see several well known politicians in their cups carrying on undisturbed. Privacy was the golden rule and often we had our conversations in hushed tones. Much later when I was a minister I was offered membership in the Carlton but I did not follow through as my visits to London had dwindled and I could not afford the high fees.

When not staying with the Weeramunis I patronized a regular hotel in the Strand which was close to the theatre district. Opposite it was the famous Savoy Hotel which had been the favourite of Winston Churchill during the Second World War. I was entertained there occasionally and I marveled at the efficiency of the staff and the crisp linen and table arrangement which could not be bettered in a hotel dining room anywhere. Fine dining is an art in the western world and without experience of it in London, New York, Paris, Zurich or Berlin one cannot really begin to understand the life of the “haute bourgeosie” in the capitalist world.

Class differences are clear in that society and within a few minutes of association it was possible to place an interlocutor within the social map in which he is embedded. The emerging “pop” culture of the time with its crossing of social boundaries was a working class reaction to the snobbish upper echelons which dominated English society till it was torn apart during the Second World War and the post war period.

The English stage which was invaded by “angry young men” featured characters who rebelled against the upper class due to their envy and sense of inadequacy. They “looked back in anger” but often took it out impotently on their upper class girlfriends and their parents. I will return to these personal experiences later on in this chapter.

Let me now return to my official duties as Director of IPDC. This time I face an editorial difficulty since my readers will not in all probability be interested in the minutiae of this assignment. On the other hand however, in my autobiography I am bound at least for authenticity, to describe the important and memorable experiences encountered in my varied career. I will therefore now turn to the highlights of my UNESCO career.

International meetings

One of my responsibilities as Director was to popularize the activities of IPDC and solicit funding for the media projects which were identified by us. For this purpose we called for proposals from developing countries and studied them with assistance of the staff of the communications division.Tis included the headquarters staff as well as our regional representatives who were in direct contact with the media authorities of the membe states. These projects were submitted by me to the annual meeting of the governing council which then allocated resources from the IPDC.

Fund from other donors were on a ‘Funds in Trust’ basis. At this meeting I introduced the projects to the members of the Council and made my recommendations regarding the proposals before us. On occasion this led to heated debates. Far instance African countries tended to band together on the basis of their regional affiliations and demand the biggest share of the pie. I had a difficult time to get approval for some projects submitted by Cuba because of objections by the US delegation.

But with the US boycotting UNESCO and a wave of sympathy from the developing countries I was able to get Cuban projects – mostly promoting education – approved, as well as get their representative elected to the Inter-Governmental Council. I could always depend on the Asian group and the African group which tended to follow the line dictated to them by the Director General M’Bow who was their hero and icon.

Once this provided a nasty shock to the Sri Lanka delegation led by our Ambassador in Paris, Balasubramaniam. Bala was considered to be an able negotiator and he was determined to show his diplomatic skills by getting Esmond Wickremesinghe elected to the Council of the IPDC. He began canvassing early and was confident when election day arrived. In the election Esmond and an African candidate got equal votes and it was decided to have a second vote.

While our Ambassador was nonplussed and rendered ineffective the African caucus was, we learnt later, instructed by M’Bow to support their fellow black candidate. Esmond was defeated in the second round. He took it calmly but I knew that he was very hurt by M’Bows uncalled for intervention which was criticized by whisperers in the corridors of the UNESCO building. After that Esmond lost interest in UNESCO and began to get involved with Ralph Buultjens, with disastrous results to him and the country.

Oslo [Norway]

I travelled to donor countries to firm up their offers of assistance to the IPDC Fund as well as to `sell’ large projects they could finance on a multilateral basis. This funding mechanism was called ‘Funds in Trust’. Going around with the begging bowl was an interesting task for which I had good experience in promoting projects like the introduction of TV to Sri Lanka with Japanese assistance. Norway was the biggest donor to the IPDC Fund pledging a million dollars every year. So Norway was one of our target countries.

At an international conference there was an inter-mixture of Norwegian media and government officials as well as a large number of internationally famous media personalities. Sri Lanka was represented by my friend Mervyn de Silva, and together with Kumar Rupasinghe who was then living in Norway, we spent time exploring Oslo and its restaurants in which venison dishes were a specialty. The forested hills of Norway were full of deer and a saddle of venison was on everybody’s table. But some killjoys created a scare that the deer had migrated from Chernobyl, with its radiation leaks, and the venison may be contaminated. However, these scare stories did not prevent our participants from tucking in.

Hohenheim [Germany]

Another important donor to IPDC was the Federal Republic of Germany. The German Government as well as their powerful NGOs were keen participants in the New Communication Order debate. The FRG delegate to IPDC was Bertolt Witte who was an important figure in the Free Democratic Party [FDP] which was the junior partner in a coalition Government with the Social Democrats. He later became a Minister in the FRG.

The FDP though small in numbers was quite influential and the Foreign Minister came from that party. Witte was a liberal and deeply concerned about questions like the freedom of the press and training for journalists. He arranged a meeting with media scholars at the ancient University of Hohenheim which is near Stuttgart. This University specializes in agrarian sciences with special emphasis on communication for promoting new agricultural practices and marketing.

During this time many German media scholars looked to the US for their theoretical orientations. In the Hohenheim seminar an important role was played by Everett Rogers who had written extensively on use of media in achieving developmental targets. Since he taught in a midwestern University much of his attention was on use of media for agricultural development. Everett was a genial person who was supportive of IPDC. We got on well.

The Hohenheim Conference did the IPDC a world of good because FRG became a contributor to our programme. Witte who was a well-known journalist and a senior in the FDP, continuously lobbied the German government on our behalf. He was a member of the IPDC Council and a great supporter of UNESCO.

After the Seminar I was the chief guest at a dinner offered by the Rector of this old University. Hohenheim was a beautiful agricultural area with its rolling green hills and vast swathes of arable land. Stuttgart was an industrial town which was the heartland of German motor car manufacturing, including the Volkswagen works, but Hohenheim with its old castle and large irrigated fields was a peaceful agricultural university town.

Helsinki [Finland]

Helsinki was a unique experience fir most of us since Finland is not on the conference circuit. But both in the conference room and out in the freezing winter amid. we were treated with extraordinary friendship and courtesy. Sharing a territorial boundary with the USSR, the Finns while cherishing their independence were extraordinarily careful not to offend the hibernating Russian bear. The organizers had made sure that a strong USSR delegation led by Professor Zassousky of Moscow University also participated in one of our conferences. The USSR team comprising their regular delegation to IPDC and Zassousky, weremost cooperative and supportive of my suggestion to have a similar meeting in the USSR. The Soviets, soon to drop that name and call themselves Russians, were strong advocates of the New Information Order as a way of embarrassing the West.

Finland was full of surprises. Just across the square facing our hotel was the beautiful ‘art decor’ railway station designed by Saarinen. He was a Finnish architect who later migrated to the US and made a name for himself with his path breaking designs. Helsinki is full of his buildings which give a modern look to the city. We were guests of a rich magazine publisher of the country. His country home was built on the shore of a small lake. He had installed a wave making machine on one side of the lake so that there were artificial waves for surfing in the summer.

That being a winter, he took us to his sauna by the lake. This was an authentic Finnish sauna and not the artificial one we usually come across in big hotels. We had to alternatively sit inside the sauna sweating profusely and then run naked to the lake for a dip in its ice-cold waters. This had to be done several times so that the skin is subjected to extreme heat followed by extreme cold. In addition we had to hit our bodies with branches of birch so that the skin is drawn tight by the time we dip into the water.

This was a once in a life time experience. Though fearful at first I found this invigorating and the body was made ready for large gulps of Finnish beer which was sucked up by my tormented body. Fortunately none of us came down with pneumonia.

Another interesting feature was that most of the buildings we saw were built by Scotsmen. It was the Scots who had introduced electricity to Finland. We were told us that Scottish businessmen had invested in infrastructure development in Finland prior to World War Two. Now however, Finland was too close to the USSR for the west to intervene in its economic development.

Parts of Helsinki looked very much like St Petersburg before the revolution. In fact Lenin had come to join the revolution in St Petersburg via the Finland railway station. Many films like David Lean’s ‘Dr Zhivago’ were shot in Helsinki where the streets and houses could be used to simulate the life and atmosphere of the Russian capital about the time of the Russian revolution.

The participants at this seminar who were the world’s leading communications scholars of the day were bowled over by the life and customs in Helsinki and the goodwill of our Finnish colleagues. There is a ‘back story’ which involves Finland which I can narrate here. At the height of the shooting war with the LTTE, Gamini Dissanayake, who was being fast overtaken in popularity by Lalith Athulathmudali who had been put in charge of defence, presented to JRJ a memorandum which advocated a `detente’ with India. This was an alternative to the hostile approach of Lalith to India.

One of the references in this memorandum dealt with the ‘inter se’ position between the USSR and Finland. Here the two countries functioned without the smaller country challenging the interests of USSR. JRJ did not comment on this suggestion. However on the day after the signing of the Sri Lanka-India accord, the editor of the ‘Sun’ newspaper, Rex de Silva had an article which highlighted what he called the ‘Finlandisation of Sri Lanka vis-a-vis India.

It may be that Gamini had fed Rex a copy of his memorandum which was the usual practice at that time. JRJ called me in a fury after reading this article which appeared the day after signing the accord. He wanted me to get the Information Ministry to take over the Sun newspaper. This was a challenge to me as a newspaper take over was the worst thing that could be done at that juncture. Rex was my friend and after much thought, I got him to join me in a visit to ‘Braemar’ to meet the President.

That was a time when I could walk into ‘Braemar’ without notice, as Anandatissa, the Minister was in hospital and the President relied on me to handle the Department of Information, in which my lieutenant, Anura Goonesekere was Director. By this time JRJ’s fury had abated and he patiently explained to Rex that his analogy was the last thing he wanted the Indians to adopt. Rex replied in a conciliatory manner and the matter was dropped for the time being.


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