Beauty queen turned politician was in Malaysia to further the cause closest to her heart — women’s rights
ROSY Senanayake, former beauty queen and Colombo’s senior-most diplomat in Kuala Lumpur, breezed into town last week wearing the hat of someone seen by many as an up-and-coming Sri Lankan politician and the country’s most visible and vocal women’s activist.
The former Miss Sri Lanka and Mrs World, who was high commissioner in Malaysia for a little over a year before an unceremonious recall in 2004 following a change of government back home, was back in her old hunting grounds to further the cause closest to her heart today — women’s rights.
I managed to catch up with her yesterday, a day before she flew off to Colombo, to exchange notes on how the past nine years have treated her and the change in circumstances from diplomat to member of parliament for Colombo and senior United National Party (UNP) leader.
(We are joined by second daughter, Thisakya, who flew into Kuala Lumpur with her mother to requaint herself with the city that she first came to know nearly a decade ago.)
The long and the short of it is that the personable Senanayake, still packing the charm and grace that made her the belle of Kuala Lumpur’s diplomatic balls nearly a decade ago, has been talking about the Malaysian success story when she has not been pursuing the rights of “those who are sometimes seen as the second-class citizens of Sri Lanka (women)”.
“I came back to being a political and social activist. The transition from diplomacy not being very difficult to accept. Today, I am in the thick of advocacy for women’s rights in Sri Lanka,” says the outspoken first-time MP, who was part of the Sri Lankan delegation at the Women Delivers Conference which ended last Thursday.
Senanayake, in the opposition ranks where she plays a key role in the UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who sent her as a political appointee envoy to Malaysia almost a decade ago, is very much a new breed of Sri Lankan politician willing to work as much as possible with widely-popular President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government for the people.
“I do not like to wash dirty linen while abroad,” she says to my question about relations between her and Rajapakse’s Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), her statement very much underlining her policy that she is Sri Lankan first and last outside the island’s shores with party lines obscured when away from the nation.
That she is here in a parliamentary delegation led by Sri Lanka’s Minister of Child Development and Women’s Affairs Tissa Karaliyadda with two MPs from the ruling government and another opposition MP is proof of her willingness to assist efforts to help uplift Sri Lankan women at large.
But she cannot help but state with diplomatic tact that “if we were in the government, we would do things very differently and that it is time for the UNP to take over and usher in economic development”.
The mother of three adult children responds with a smile to my comment that the person in charge of women’s affairs in Sri Lanka is a man (there are only eight women MPs in government ranks and five in the opposition.) She does her bit through her daytime television program Eliya and Tales With Rosy on MTV where she champions the cause of women and children to profound effect.
Senanyake is unable to shake off her brief but momentous association with Malaysia as high commissioner; this time around honing in on Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor’s “Permata Negara” early childcare and education programme as a possible project for Sri Lanka.
“I met Rosmah at a dinner at her residence. I would love to emulate her ‘Permata Negara’ programme back home,” says the 55-year-old, who admires the prime minister’s wife’s initiative to take up the cause of children despite her duties as spouse of the leader of the nation.
The former goodwill ambassador for the United Nation’s Population Fund is also a relentless campaigner for greater Malaysian investment in Sri Lanka as “I feel that there is so much more Malaysia can do in Sri Lanka” (Malaysia is the largest investor in the nation).
In this respect, her links with Malaysia’s special envoy to South Asia Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu (“a good friend with whom I spoke a few days ago”) will hold her in good stead as she tries to woo Malaysian investors to the island nation.
Senanayake is uniquely equipped for the task (despite being on the wrong side of the political divide back home), given her exposure to Malaysia, its leaders and its political, social and financial architecture. We can rest assured that the quintessential Sri Lankan woman politician/activist will be back in town soon to resume her love affair with Malaysia and reap dividends for both nations.