Ernest Corea, who passed away in the US last week, distinguished himself in two professions: journalism and diplomacy – even as he artfully deployed his journalistic skills to advance the country’s foreign policy in two western capitals.
At Lake House, he served as Editor of the Daily News (1966-1970) and later Editor of the Ceylon Observer (1970-71), two of the most influential dailies of the 1960s and 70s. And after he left Lake House, he was Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist at the Straits Times in Singapore. As part of a renowned journalistic triumvirate, Ernest followed in the heavy footsteps of two of his legendary predecessors: Tarzie Vittachi and Denzil Peiris. But Ernest went one step further – and ventured into the world of diplomacy.
As Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States in the 1980s, Ernest fought a relentless battle against a group of Tamil expatriates who were furiously lobbying US Senators and Congressmen to espouse the cause of a separate Tamil state in the north and the east.
With a supreme command of the language – and a wordsmith in his own right – Ernest fast gained a reputation for his thorough professionalism on the job with his uncanny ability to talk to American officials in their own idiom, an A-plus in Washington’s inner circle.
Ernest succeeded in convincing the US administration to host an official state visit to Washington DC in June 1984 by President J.R. Jayewardene, the only Sri Lanka political leader to be given that privilege. Quick with his devastating punchlines, Ernest was ever ready to provide headline-grabbing sound bites to news reporters.
When Amnesty International rushed to judgment with a highly critical report on human rights violations in Sri Lanka after a hasty nine day probe, he took a broad swipe at the London-based human rights organization: “Even rabbits don’t produce that fast,” he said, triggering a headline in the Daily News. In July 1983, Ernest convinced the US State Department to disassociate itself from a resolution passed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives calling for the divestment and withdrawal of all public funds and pension revenues from American business organizations in Sri Lanka.
When Ernest authored a publication titled “Beyond Conflict,” a group of London-based separatists released a vituperative 24-book response titled “Dear Sri Lanka’s Ambassador – Your Slip is Showing”.
Asked for a response, he told the Daily News: “I do not believe either in polemics or propaganda. I will not, therefore, dignify the polemics and propaganda which splatter the pages of this particular literary curiosity with a reply.”
As a non-career diplomat, Ernest was Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Canada for three years and later Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States for eight years, winding his career as a Senior Consultant at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) Secretariat, an affiliate of the World Bank. Before his stint as High Commissioner in Canada, he was Director of the Publications Division of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Ottawa.
Jayantha Dhanapala, a former Sri Lankan envoy to the US and later UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, told the Sunday Times: “Ernest’s personal rapport with President Jayewardene and Foreign Minister Shahul Hameed gave him special access and influence. The fact that under his watch JR was the only Sri Lankan head of state to be accorded a state visit to the USA with a state banquet at the White House remains a tribute to Ernest’s effectiveness and professionalism.”
“Yes Ernest and I were in close contact,” admitted Dhanapala. “We did not always agree – especially on JR!” Ernest’s sense of humor and lively interest in global issues enabled him to maintain a warm empathy with the career diplomats in the Sri Lanka Foreign Service who remained his firmest friends when he retired in Washington D.C. after working for the World Bank on the development issues close to his heart, said Dhanapala, in a tribute to Ernest.
Ernest had the distinction of being one of the first reporters from Lake House to cover the United Nations just after Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) joined the world body in December 1955. As he recounted his days at the UN back in 1956, he described himself as a young and relatively junior journalist on the Ceylon “Observer” assigned to cover Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s first and, tragically, last appearance at the United Nations.
Barbara Crossette, a former Chief Correspondent of the New York Times in South East and South Asia, told the Sunday Times: “I got to know Ernest in diplomacy and my husband was drawn to him through their association at the World Bank. Everywhere, he was open and accessible to all.”
“For me as a journalist, he was always generous with practical advice and introductions when I asked about contacts in Sri Lanka or in international development through CGIAR. (He really taught me the complexities of Sri Lanka before I was ever there later as the civil war became more brutal, and I always was sympathetic to the place and its people in the years that followed, when I made many trips to the island.)” One anecdotal addition stands out, said Crossette, who was later UN Bureau Chief for the New York Times. “At some point, when I was an editor in New York, he arranged to bring Jayewardene to the New York Times for a lunch with editors to talk about Sri Lanka.
When the cars arrived at the door of the Times, Jayewardene got out with a flourish, dressed in his customary national dress. Around Times Square, it would normally have been hard to attract attention, but people stopped in their tracks to watch him sweep into the building, with Ernest more or less leading the procession. “I remember that the president offered a baby elephant as a gift to the Times. If I recall correctly, someone said perhaps it would be better if we supported one at the elephant sanctuary in Sri Lanka. And the story ended there.” But JR did gift a baby elephant– but to President Reagan at a formal ceremony at the White House lawn. Since the elephant was the symbol of the ruling Republican Party headed by Reagan, the ceremony hit the front pages of virtually every newspaper in the US, a publicity gimmick which was another tribute, this time to Ernest Corea the journalist. Ernest is survived by his wife Indra and sons, Lester and Andy, and grandchildren Carl, Sophie, Wilson and Percy. He was preceded in death by his brother Vernon Corea and Lester’s late-wife Doris.