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Traveling for UNESCO: India, US, Cyprus and Riyadh

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French Stars of “Nobody is Perfect”

Gratifying to see the number of Lankans in the hotel and airline trades in Saudi Arabia

Excerpted from volume ii
of the Sarath Amunugama autobiography

Coming back to UNESCO affairs, our visit to India with the DG was on a far grander scale than the seminars that have been described above. The Indian Ministry of media had organized a major international conference on the New International Communication Order. They had invited the DG M’Bow as a special guest of the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to preside at the opening session. M’Bow agreed and requested me and Dilip Padgoankar, the media chief of his personal secretariat, to accompany him.

This was a signal honour as well as a great responsibility because both the reputation of the DG as well as of UNESCO was at stake in these missions. Everything had to go perfectly to the satisfaction of the big man. We had several planning sessions before touching down in Paalam airport for a grand reception and transfer to Hotel Ashoka, the massive state owned hotel, in the heart of fashionable New Delhi.

The meeting was held in the Vidhya Bhawan’s cavernous auditorium. We were all seated and were expecting the arrival of the Prime Minister. All eyes were focused on the side entrance from which she was to enter the hall. Then I saw an unforgettable sight. A small Indian made car stopped near that entrance and a tiny figure in a saree opened the car door and stepped out without any fanfare. Indira Gandhi walked briskly towards the stage and the whole house got on to their feet to welcome her.

In its simplicity and her imperial hauteur, this entrance was unbeatable and would remain in the mind’s eye of all the participants. She then sat next to M’Bow and engaged in a friendly discussion. She spoke fluent French and our DG was made to feel at home. Some years earlier, in their capacities as Ministers of Education and Information, they were members of the UNESCO governing board and were friends.

She told us later, to make his visit to India a memorable one, she had designated two senior diplomats to represent India in the IPDC’s Governing council. They were G. Parasarathy [GP] who was India’s legendary diplomat and was Jawaharlal Nehru’s protege and family friend and Mani Dixit, a hard driving and frequnently unreasonable diplomat who belonged to the Foreign Office officials `corps’ which believed in India’s hegemonic role in the region. He had strong views and had as many friends as enemies in the South Block.

They were joined from time time by Ambassador Kaul who claimed to be a relative of the Nehrus as they were all Kashmiri Brahmins. As the Director of IPDC and a Sri Lankan I had good relations with them. GP was particularly close to me and would invite me for a meal at his Lodhi Gardens home. In this way I also became a friend of GP’s son Ashok who was a scientist who later became a Permanent Secretary of an important Ministry in the Central Government.

These relationships affected my future. President JRJ wanted me later to come back as a ‘back channel’ to these decision makers in New Delhi when our ethnic conflict had dragged India into becoming a major player in the fracas.

The New Delhi visit was a great success. India agreed to make a cash donation to the IPDC Fund. But more importantly Indira backed M’Bow fully in his emerging conflict with Western countries, the US in particular. The West was baying for his blood and the US under Ronald Reagan was threatening to cut its funding to UNESCO, which accounted for about a third of our Budget. Reagan was looking at the UN system with a jaundiced eye. He had already cut his funding to UNFPA accusing it of promoting abortion.

The Anti-Abortion lobby was one of his big vote banks. Another vote bank were the Jews, who though traditionally Democratic Party supporters, were cheering their President Reagan on in his fight with M’Bow over some UNESCO funding for Palestine. So our DG needed all the friends he could muster and India and Indira became valuable strategic partners. This tour helped him to secure that flank and he always treated Padgoankar and me as valuable allies in his struggle for survival.

Washington DC

After a visit by an influential Under Secretary of President Reagan to Paris to discuss American concerns with the Director General of UNESCO, the relationship with the US got worse. We heard that there was a heated argument on two issues: media and Israel. M’Bow lost his temper and told the US official that he represented the UN and could not be spoken to as if in a plantation in the American south.

I heard from US diplomats in Paris who came for IPDC meetings, that a cut in the US financial contribution to UNESCO was imminent. This news was conveyed to the DG by Bolla and me. He then suggested that I should visit Washington and lobby against such an eventuality. His office contacted the iconic American lawyer Elliot Richardson who was the Chairman of the UNESCO Association of the US, to facilitate my visit.

Richardson, a ‘Boston Brahmin’ was the legendary Attorney General who refused to carry out an order of President Nixon during the Watergate episode. He had no hesitation in quitting his job rather than bending the law. His successor also refused to comply with Nixon’s order and was also fired in what was then described as the ‘Saturday night massacre’.

I stayed overnight in the Mayflower Hotel, close to the White House. The following morning Richardson and I went by a side gate to the White House. At that time security was minimal and we had to go through only one checkpoint located in the corridor leading to the office complex. Several senior officials received me cordially and took me and Eliot to a spacious room for a discussion which was already scheduled.

I put the best case for IPDC saying that with the growing interest in media, many countries would want modern technology which is available for sale only in the US. I made special mention of Arthur Clarke and his predictions of greater demand for new technologies. The US’s successful space programme had developed many new technologies which would have a profound impact on the media scene. I quoted Homi Baba, the US educated Indian space researcher, who famously said that the poor countries could ‘leap frog’ to development with newly invented technologies.

Then something extraordinary happened. My hosts rolled out a large screen and established a link with Reagan who was flying on Air Force One to California. A senior official spoke to him and referred to the technology angle as being important for the US. Reagan who appeared on the screen before us was brief. He agreed and asked his interlocutor to contact a person he knew in California who was a large-scale manufacturer of advanced communications equipment.

Not a word did he say about UNESCO. To me it appeared that for him it was purely a political matter. He would decide, as it happened later, not on the merits of the case but on the electoral value of his decision. US officials in Paris had told me that they had strongly urged that they should remain in UNESCO. Reagan did not listen to them. But before he took a final decision we had our IPDC annual sessions in Tashkent in which the US was present as Observers since they were not members of the Intergovernmental Council.

Cyprus

The DG then asked me to represent him at a media conference held in Nicosia, Cyprus. There had been a lot of tension at UNESCO meetings on the issue of Israel. The cultural programme of our organization, particularly relating to archaeology and language studies, had evoked much controversy between the Arab states and Israel. Both sides were keeping a sharp eye on the archaeological digs in the region because of Israel’s claims of the presence of a Jewish nation on those lands in ancient times.

They would cling onto any evidence either on the ground or in ancient writings like the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ about the boundaries of Judea, to justify their modern claim for land in a ‘greater Israel’. On the other hand the Arabs were keen to ensure that new justifications for Israeli expansionism should not be provided by UNESCO experts researching in the region.

When I discussed our conference with UNESCO officials in the region, I was told that since Cyprus was in close proximity to the contested areas, Nicosia was seething with spies and agents of different interests reflected in the politics of the region. In addition Cyprus itself was divided into the Greek dominated and Turk dominated sectors. There had been a costly confrontation between Turkey and Greece for control of the island Cyprus.

The Greek Cypriots had been led by Archbishop Makarios who was the head of the Greek Orthodox Church and later Prime Minister [At Peradeniya University in my time any undergrad who sported a big beard was called Makarios]. Makarios also became a prominent member of the Non Aligned Movement as it helped him to bolster his country’s independent status. The Turkish sector was ruled direct from Ankara and the Greeks feared an invasion from Turkish forces which were stronger than them.

The conference I attended, though ostensibly dealing with media, was also meant to strengthen Nicosia’s position both regionally and globally. Our DG must have smelt a rat and realized that it was not prudent to participate in this hot spot at his level and that the IPDC, which had established good relations all round and of which I was Director, should represent him.

But the programme was sponsored at the highest levels. We were invited by the Prime Minister of Cyprus, a layman who had succeeded Makarios, to a dinner held in his Greek style mansion on top of a hill. In a speech he emphasized the importance of the history of their land; Cyprus had been a Greek island which had been captured by the Turks who refused to concede Cypriot sovereignty.

The tragedy of Cyprus was dramatized during our visit to the ‘line of control’ which had been established by the UN to stop the fighting. Towns and villages had been cut into two and people who had lived together in neighborhoods for a long time were subjected to different administrations. Both sides maintained an uneasy peace mainly because the ‘Blue Hats’ of the UN would intervene if there was a resumption of fighting.

The UN had a hard time preventing the Turks from overrunning the Greek sector with their superior fire power. One evening we were entertained at a Greek taverna, with wine, local food, group dancing and smashing of plates and glasses. But when we were to return to our hotel, slightly inebriated, we had to walk past the heavily sandbagged demarcation line which cut the hotel garden into two.

I remembered the ethnic crisis in my country and the calls of some Tamils for the bifurcation of Sri Lanka. In the international arena Sri Lanka was occasionally coupled with Cyprus as problem states. My experience in the divided island of Cyprus forcefully demonstrated to me the evils of partition and the distress it causes to communities that have lived together for a long time.

One good result of my visit to Nicosia was my interaction with Arab decision makers and media personnel. With our representative in the Middle East Tayyib Salih, who was a well-known Egyptian author, we were able to interest some Arab potentates from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE in participating in IPDC activities.

Riyadh

I followed up my visit to Nicosia with a visit to Riyadh, on my way back to Sri Lanka for a holiday and a meeting with President JRJ. UNESCO had got a favourable response from Saudi Arabia, notwithstanding the hostility of the Reagan administration. This was partly due to the emergence as Foreign Minister of Prince Turki who wanted to play a bigger role in world affairs, in keeping with his country’s wealth and oil resources. Turki was lionized by the bigwigs of UNESCO.

At the invitation of M’Bow we all assembled in the main hall to listen to the new voice of Saudi Arabia. He was fluent in English, being a forerunner of young western educated Saudi princes who were cutting a dash in US universities with virtually inexhaustible wealth. Turki made a contribution to UNESCO funds which was most welcome in the context of the US leaving the organization with their annual contribution in their pocket.

The Saudi government had a practice which no doubt delighted their official visitors. From the time we set foot in Riyadh we were guests of the Royal house and all bills were settled by them. This was regarded as a kind gesture since hotel prices in Riyadh were astronomical. But what astounded me was the number of Sri Lankan workers in every department of the airline and hotel trade in Saudi Arabia.

This was most gratifying as they had their beginnings in the tourism drive that I had been associated with as Secretary in charge of tourism. They too were happy to see me and urged me to make full use of the hotel bar. This was not as attractive an offer as it seemed since the hotels did not serve hard liquor. They had a non-alcoholic beverage in traditional liquor bottles. However, when I visited the palatial home of their media controllers they had an array of genuine alcoholic drinks that would have made a Hollywood mogul green with envy.

At that time the Saudis were facing a major policy problem regarding the media. They had purchased all the best media equipment for TV broadcasts. But there was a debate between the traditionalists and modernists regarding programme content. Up to then only religious and news programmes had been allowed. The Royals thought that modernizing the media Would lead to a delegitimizing of their charisma as they were the custodians of the Holy places, including Mecca, and the guarantors of the sanctity of the Islamic faith.

Any crack in t hat belief would have serious consequences for the regime. The answer was not to inhibit change but to manage it in the light of technological change. The mansions of the Saudi bigwigs had all the modern western programmes which they could view with the latest display equipment. But public screenings were another matter. It took a long time for these orthodox Wahabists to relate to the new media. Even with the reforms of modern times this issue has not been fully resolved.

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