6th International Student Conference of the COSEC, Ceylon,

1956: a watershed year

In September 1956, the 6th International Student Conference of the Coordinating Secretariat in Leiden, Holland, was held in the idyllic setting of the Peradeniya campus of the University of Ceylon. At the time, it was billed as the largest and most representative international student conference held outside Europe.

1956 was a memorable year for Ceylon and also for me. I was elected President of the Peradeniya Student’s Council by an overwhelming majority because I was able to win over most of the opposing factional groups and unite them. It was an eventful year for Ceylon as Sir John Kotelawela, then Prime Minister, a figure despised by a majority in the campus, suffered the worst election defeat in the history of the country and left office. A mass
movement by the social under-class had changed politics in the country. Unbeknown to us, the British Cabinet had also made a very insightful assessment of him and his type of government after his defeat. “The result is probably a vote against the previous government than for any new policy. In some ways this is a healthy sign. The previous regime had become corrupt and autocratic; its leaders were wealthy landowners who were not averse from rigging affairs to suit their own convenience. Sir John Kotelawala,
their leader, was a vain, ambitious self-advertiser, determined to “put Ceylon on the map”. In one sense it is salutary that the Ceylon public should have “seen through” Sir John Kotelawala and their vote can be regarded as a sign of intelligent democracy.”
(British Cabinet, C.P. (56) 107, dated 01 May, 1956)

Internationally, the struggle against Western colonialism was gathering momentum in Asia and Africa and 1955 had seen the first Afro-Asian Conference of Non-Aligned Nations in Bandung, Indonesia, where the heavy-weights Chou Enlai of China and Jawaharlal Nehru of India gained international stature while a light-weight from Ceylon, Sir John Kotelawela, made a fool of himself.

The Cold War between the Western powers and the Soviet Bloc was at its height and student organisations were also drawn into this by the main protagonists. The Soviet Bloc had an organisation known as the International Union of Students (IUS) where students from around the world, but mainly from the developing countries and colonial states, were invited in their hundreds for a massive celebration coupled with anti-Western propaganda. To counter this was the Coordinating Secretariat (COSEC) of the International Student Conference, subsequently revealed to be a US Central Intelligence Agency front, headquartered in Leiden, Holland. They were dubbed The Cold Warriors.
Student leaders participating in both events had all expenses paid for by the
hosts. In 1956, the COSEC had decided to have their 6th International Student Conference in Ceylon, no doubt influenced by the uncompromising anti-communism which was the only political philosophy of Sir John Kotelawela. By the time the Conference, lasting two weeks, was held in September, 1956, in the Peradeniya Campus, S.W.R.D Bandaranaike was the Prime Minister of Ceylon and gave the inspiring opening address. It was the first
truly international student conference held in Asia. All conference arrangements were made by the host organisation in Holland in collaboration with the government and university authorities and were undeniably done with professional expertise. We had no hand in it except to pose as the host team. There were participants from 56 countries, each sending 2-6 members, 8 representatives from other student organisations with Observer status and about 10 others. The conspiratorial political nature of the event manifested itself even before the conference started. About a dozen sturdy young hippies of
American and European origin were seen around the campus befriending student groups. They hung around the campus, went with the students on short bus trips to Kandy and the villages and were integrated with the students. Their true identity began to emerge when one student asked a young woman whether she felt safe travelling alone in a strange country. Instinctively, she opened her hand bag and showed her a loaded pistol, remarking “I can take care of myself.”

Student high jinks

The Cold War is now long over and the debates are now mostly forgotten, except for the memory of student pranks. Many African countries were still in the throes of wars of liberation from Imperial Britain or France and sought to introduce resolutions condemning Western imperialism, while the large number of Europeans students sometimes heckled such speeches and cleverly diluted or voted them out. They had come prepared in advance to introduce resolutions condemning Soviet imperialism in Eastern Europe and communist systems and were much more successful in their tactics than the
Afro-Asians. Another episode that rocked a session was the confrontation between the Indian and Pakistani students over Kashmir. The leader of the Pakistani group, a friendly man otherwise, was so overwrought by an Indian comment that he stood up in a paroxysm of rage and threatened to kill the Indian delegate and had to be placated by us.


Our students union had created small student committees with special responsibilities to handle the foreign guests and keep them comfortable. One day I came to Jayatillake Hall at lunch time with some of our foreign guests when I noticed a police presence. About half a dozen policemen were talking to some students in one corner and questioning some of the labourers who were trimming the lawn outside. On inquiry, I was told with some agitation that outsiders had entered a room and stolen the property of our South African
delegate (I believe his name was Trevor A Coombs) and they had brought the police to find the culprits and the stolen goods. We all agreed it was a shame that this had happened and that an apology was needed. At the moment, I was too busy with other matters and left the problem in their hands.

About a year and a half later I was the recipient of a three month UNESCO Youth Travel Grant to travel to Western Europe on a youth leadership programme. This was an award for my work in successfully building the UN Students’ Association under the umbrella of the UN Association of Ceylon, a project sponsored and supported by a great Sri Lankan gentleman, Mr. T. Sri Ramanathan, whose memory I still cherish. Before my departure for Europe, many of my student friends gathered in my room in the campus and wanted to know how I was going to equip myself for the trip. Did I have an overcoat? Good sweaters? Proper suitcases for airline travel? I did not have any of these things. We are going to equip you they said, and produced these items of the finest quality. I was astonished and demanded to know how they came by these. There was a lot of laughter and then it was sheepishly revealed. “You remember the fellow who came from South Africa for the conference. Well, we were intrigued by his views on apartheid and asked him whether he
actually believed black people were inferior to whites. He said categorically that he believed this was true. We congratulated him for his candour and then punished him by concealing his property! We did not tell you at the time as you would have been very angry.”

Another incident was connected with the Cuban delegation which arrived several days late for the conference. Our host committee had greeted them at the Colombo airport and inquired about the delay. Their leader, Jose Antonio Echeverria, was a large pink man with little knowledge of English to converse with our people. He had waved his arms in agitation and hysterically shouted, “Police attack us, we fight police, we fight dictator, we come for the conference.” He made spirited speeches in Spanish at the conference. Our people had by then decided that he should be classified as a harmless joker. The entertainment committee had organised an elephant show during the week-end for our guests at the Trinity College grounds in Kandy. The mahouts showed off the skills of the elephants putting them through various obedience tests. Then a mahout brought an elephant that knelt near Echeverria, a manoeuvre clearly orchestrated by our friends, who then started cheering and shouting for Echeverria to mount the elephant. The mahout helped him up and he rode triumphantly for a short distance when the elephant, unaccountably it seemed, responded by going to a hill side and pushing himself to stand on his two rear legs. The burly Echeverria started slipping from his high perch and
finally clung on to the elephant’s tail before landing heavily on the ground to
the cheers of the crowd.

Postscript on participants

Jose Antonio Echeverria was dead by March 13, 1957. The US Time magazine carried the story about Echeverria from Cuba. He was no ordinary student, he was the leader of the Revolutionary Student Directorate that was associated with Fidel Castro in the fight against the brutal US-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Echeverria had led a body of 40 armed students who stormed Batista’s Presidential palace. While they fought the palace guards, Echeverria had captured the national radio station and broadcast that the hated dictator had been overthrown. Leaving the station, his team ran into army troops, who had by then killed the co-conspirators at the palace. In the ensuing fire-fight, Echeverria was killed, sub-machine gun in hand. There was a picture of this burly revolutionary lying dead in the street. I can say that all of us were conscience stricken and grieved by our treatment of him. We all agreed that here was a true revolutionary and national hero and we had become the jokers.

Three decades later, I was contacted by the Cuban embassy in Colombo and asked whether I had met Echeverria at a student conference in Ceylon. I said that I had. Did I have any memorabilia from the event? I said I had the list of participants and a message of goodwill from Echeverria in my old autograph album. A high official of the embassy came to my house and wanted to make copies of these. He told me that Echeverria was one of the highest national heroes of Cuba and the Institute of Higher Studies was named after him. There was also a museum dedicated to his memory where my little contribution
would be displayed. He asked me my impression of their hero. Foolishly, I related the story of the elephant ride and said we were unaware of the man’s stature at the time. The embassy official was upset by the story. He never contacted us again.

Jiri Pelikan was another whom I vividly recall. He was president of the Soviet sponsored International Union of Students (IUS) and came as an observer. He brought a suitcase full of sports material as a gift for our students and was a quiet affable fellow. He clearly seemed too mature to be a university student. He was 33 years of age and was then a prominent member of parliament in Czechoslovakia. He had been a resistance fighter against the Nazis in World War 2 and had been in a Gestapo prison. Before he left he told me that IUS celebrations would commence soon in Prague and invited me to attend, all expenses paid. I did not take the offer as I had to be present in Peradeniya to conclude the conference arrangements. We corresponded for a while.

Years later, in 1968, I read in the international media that Jiri Pelikan was a close associate of Alexander Dubcek during the Prague Spring, which tried to create “Communism with a human face.” He was then head of the Czechoslovak national television. The liberation movement was brutally crushed by the Russian Army and Jiri Pelikan fled to Italy for his safety. He became an Italian citizen and was elected to the European Parliament as a Socialist Party member. He passed away in 1996.

Gaston E. Thorn was the most famous of the conference alumni who came as President of the Luxembourg Students’ Union and was subsequently President of the International Student Conference. He was already 28 years when he was in Peradeniya as his studies had been interrupted by a spell in a Nazi reform camp during the war. He took to politics in his country and became Prime Minister of Luxembourg in 1974-79, President of the UN
General Assembly in 1975 and was the 7th President of the European Commission from 1981-85[1]. He married Liliane Petit who was his fellow delegate at the conference
and who became a journalist. He died in 2007.

Efraim Halevy of Israel later joined the Israel intelligence services and became the 9th Director of Mossad, the famed Israeli secret service, from 1998-2002, and was also the 4th head of the Israel National Security Council in 2002. He is famous internationally and in
the USA as a security expert and has written a best-seller, Man in the Shadows, based
on his personal experiences as one of the ablest intelligence experts in the world[2].

Frank H. Copplestone, then President of the British National Union of Students, took to banking and became Managing Director of Deutsche Bank’s Global Markets Division. Redha Malek from Algeria was another participant who gained some prominence. He took to politics and was briefly Prime Minister of his country during 1993/94. William E. Abraham from the former Gold Coast became a Professor of Philosophy, was briefly Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana, and later migrated to the USA and taught in several universities there. Tissa Vitharana of Ceylon went on to become a medical doctor, took to left-wing politics and is even now a senior cabinet minister in Sri Lanka.

Demetrius Perricos of Greece was Chief UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq prior to the US
invasion of 2003 looking for “weapons of mass destruction” which he didn’t find. He complained that the US was trying to influence the inspections. He succeeded Dr. Hans Blix as the head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission from 2003-2007.

Many delegates from Asia are traceable as academics and writers. Some of the delegates from South America “disappeared” in the “dirty wars” of the nineteen seventies when American CIA sponsored military coups set up fascist dictatorships that carried out mass killings of liberals and political opponents. Several of the African delegates are also untraceable as a result of the subsequent freedom struggles and the numerous civil wars in Africa. But the fate of Basil K. Bataringaya[3] who came as a delegate from British East Africa is well documented. After Uganda gained independence in 1962, Bataringaya became the Minister of Internal Affairs in the government of the Prime Minister Milton Obote. After Idi Amin’s took power in 1971 in a military coup, Bataringaya was captured, tortured, executed and his head was put on display in the Mbarara military barracks.


Kenneth Abeywickrama

20 September, 2011


[1] http://.un.org/en/ga/president/bios/bio30.shtml


[3] http://www.jstor.org/pss/2934890