A MAJOR CONFLICT – Part 30 – The Island



By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil

President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada

Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum


Dual Roles

Returning to the Coral Gardens after being away for a month, I quickly settled in to do my dual roles, without any other executive at the hotel. I was working long hours as the Acting Manager in addition to my other roles which included Executive Chef. The Financial Controller and the Maintenance Engineer of Bentota Beach Hotel spent extra time in Hikkaduwa to help me.

The day-to-day operations continued as usual, although I missed the support from Muna, the previous Hotel Manager. He had left in the middle of the season due to pressures from a few local residents. After my return, I felt more support for my efforts from different people. This included the European Tour Leaders, repeat guests, supervisors, union leaders and locals.

A rumour that the head office may appoint a former military officer to manage the Coral Gardens did not surprise me. By then, there were about a dozen hotel managers without any training in hotel operations managing well-known resort hotels in Sri Lanka. They all had good administrative experiences gained in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Police. There were also a few ex-planters with experience in managing large estates, who had become hotel managers. These mature managers who had migrated to the hotel industry for a second career, often depended on their deputies with qualifications and experience in hotel operations. In return, these mature persons parachuting to hotel manager posts helped young hotelier to improve their administrative skills.

A Terrifying Breakfast

One morning I went to our sister hotel, Bentota Beach for an important meeting. As I had over an hour to spare before the meeting, I joined the Executive Housekeeper, Mrs. Joyce De Silva for breakfast at the main restaurant. Joyce was curious to know details about my accident and the month recovering at a nursing home in Colombo. While we were chatting, the new Assistant Manager of Bentota Beach Hotel joined us at our table.

Although I had met Major Siri Samarakoon a couple of times before, I did not know much about him. Over the breakfast I learned that he preferred to be referred to as ‘Major’, and had earned a law degree prior to joining the army as a Lieutenant, 12 years prior. Unlike most of the other officers finding the hotel industry a lucrative second career after retirement from military service of a minimum 22 years, Major was still in his mid-thirties. He boasted how he trained the hotel company Director, Gilbert Paranagama, who had recently joined the army as a volunteer officer. “Gilbert was so impressed with me, he immediately wanted me to join the Bentota Beach Hotel as the Assistant Manager for a short period before the company promotes me to a higher position”, Major announced confidently.

At that point, the Head Room Boy of the hotel, who was also the new President of the Bentota Beach Union, approached our table and rudely spoke to his superior, Joyce, “There is a delay at the laundry in getting bed linen today. Instead of having your big breakfast, can you resolve that issue, immediately?” I felt that his rudeness was mainly to show that he did not care that the Assistant Manager was present. We were surprised and Joyce appeared to be embarrassed but did not say anything.

Major got up, placed his left arm around the Head Room Boy’s shoulder and started walking with him towards the front desk which appeared to be a bit crowded. Major spoke very gently, “Abeywickrama, instead of shouting at your boss, let me show you something very interesting.” Major directed the Head Room Boy to the guest telephone booth near the entrance to the restaurant. This telephone booth had no windows, but just one door, which the Major opened. Joyce and I were able to see them from the corner table where we were seated. “Now look at those cob webs in this telephone booth, Abeywickrama”, Major continued to speak very softly. Once both got into the telephone booth, the door closed and we did not see or hear anything for the next five minutes.

Eventually when they both came out of the telephone booth, Major asked the Head Room Boy if he understood everything clearly now. Abeywickrama was very calm now and nodded his head in full agreement, while staring at the floor. When Major returned to the table, I wanted to know what happened in the telephone booth. Major said, “Nothing much, I strangled the bastard until his tongue came out and then knocked his head on the wall a couple of times as a warning!” Joyce and I were shocked. “I don’t think that he will behave in such a disrespectful manner to his superiors, ever again”, Major said with a grin. I quickly asked Major, “what if he complains to the union?” “Complain about what? He has no evidence of anything,” Major said. I thought to myself that Major took some pride and pleasure in being a sadist. Well, not all officers are gentlemen.

We then attended the special management meeting. I was thinking that it was good that I wouldn’t be meeting Major regularly. Key agenda items were management changes. I was asked to organize a good ‘hand over’ to the new Manager. It was then announced that the new Manager of Coral Gardens Hotel is Major Siri Samarakoon. He shook my hand and said, “Chandana, see you tomorrow sharp at 1400 hours in Hikkaduwa.” I confirmed, “Yes, Major!”

The First Impressions

Major arrived next day precisely at 2:00 pm to take over the management of Coral Gardens Hotel. After introducing him to the key supervisors of the hotel, I showed him the office which was shared by the Manager, the Assistant Manager and the Secretary. After that I ushered him to his apartment. On our way to settle him in his apartment he wanted to see the large changing rooms just used by over 100 excursionists who had visited the underwater Coral Gardens.

The changing rooms appeared to be wet with a lot of water on the floor. He asked who was in charge. “I am,” said the Changing Room Supervisor, Van Dort, seated comfortably on a chair. The Major shouted at him and ordered him to get the floor cleaned immediately. “I don’t like the manner in which you speak to me. I will report this to the union,” Van Dort, warned. “You can tell any mother’s son! I don’t care! I will be back here in 30 minutes. If the floors are not fully cleaned by then, you will be in deep trouble,” the Major yelled and left before Van Dort could speak again. When we returned, I was surprised to see the floor fully cleaned and Van Dort on his knees, finishing the task. He probably consulted the union, and was advised to do his job properly, before the union reacts to the new manager.

Around 3:30 pm we were back in the office. While I was writing the next day’s stores requisitions, Butler Raman came with my standard order, lime tea in a cup covered with a saucer on a tray. The Major was disappointed. He told me that, “from tomorrow I would like to see your tea served properly from a pot.” When I told him that I prefer to have my tea quickly while working, he said that Managers must get the same service as tourists and that is essential for the staff to know that.

Then he told me how a Sergeant had to walk a foot behind him with a tray and his beer every evening during his inspection time at the last army camp he commanded. “Officers and managers must demand their due respect!” he continued his lecture. I always believed that managers should earn the respect of subordinates. However, based on the wishes of my new superior I stopped being served tea in a cup for the rest of my time at the Coral Gardens Hotel.

Comparing and contrasting the management styles of the previous Manager, Muna, with the current manager, Major, was beneficial for me. Muna was a very participative type of manager and the Major was a very directive type of manager. I felt that a style in the middle would be ideal for the Coral Gardens.

The bullying and abusive terror tactics of Major continued from the start. He loved challenges, confrontations and conflicts. I knew that it was a matter of time before the union reacted. It was like experiencing total calm before a major cyclone hit the land.

Office Stormed by the Union

The union culture at the Coral Gardens Hotel was unique. In many ways it was a mature union with clear strategies. They had a good system of union leadership development. Most senior members of the union such as Butler Edmond and Barman Kalansooriya served on the committee but had stepped down from roles such as President and Secretary. They were grooming junior members to take leadership positions, but remained strategists and advisors to the younger committee members. Surprisingly, Major already knew all these details.

Within a week of the arrival of Major, the union appeared to be ready for a big fight. Five committee members of the union showed up at the entrance to our office. “Who the hell are you and what do you want?” Major barked at them. “We represent the hotel union and we want to discuss a few urgent and important issues with you.” “When?” Major asked. “Immediately!” Kalansooriya said.

Major was annoyed and checked with our secretary if the union had made an appointment to meet him. When he heard that there was no request for an appointment, Major said, “OK, come in two hours’ time.” When the union expressed their dissatisfaction of such a delay, the Major yelled, “You are making a living by working here. You don’t own this hotel to drop in when you feel like! With immediate effect, no one gets to meet with me without an appointment.”

Two hours later the five union representatives returned. This time Major spoke softly. To him it was like a game of chess. “Come in all, welcome to my office,” he said with his usual grin and a sarcastic tone. Then he asked each one to do a self-introduction with the name and the position in the union. A Pantryman in the kitchen, Chandrapala was the newly elected President of the hotel union, and he was being coached and groomed by the senior union committee members. Soon after his introduction, Major said, “Oh! The President, such an important position. I am honoured to meet you, your excellency! What is the level of education you have earned, to qualify for such a position?”

After that, the Secretary and the Treasurer introduced themselves. Then the two veteran leaders, Edmon and Kalansooriya introduced themselves as Committee Members. The major stopped grinning and stared at all five while increasing the volume of his voice. “I am Major Sir Samarakoon LLB, Manager of the Coral Gardens Hotel. I have no time to waste with union secretaries, treasurers and committee members. Get out of my office, now!” When all five were leaving, Major said, “I deal only with the President. Chandrapala, you stay, and that’s an order!” Then he told our secretary, “Ganeshalingam, close the bloody door!”

Without the presence and support of his mentors, in a closed-door office with a lawyer-tuned army officer with a reputation of a strange personality, Chandrapala appeared to be like a fish out of water. He was nervous, sweating and shivering while Major stared at him from head to toe to look for an error. And he found one. The top button of Chandrapala’s uniform was open. Major shouted, “You are the President who does not even know how to wear a uniform properly. Put that bloody button on, immediately!” Then he continued the verbal abuse, “OK, what are the union issues you want to discuss?” Chandrapala was harassed so much, he did not remember a single issue to discuss, apart from nervously stammering. “I say, I have no time to waste with idiots like you. Get out of my office and stop wasting any more of my valuable time,” the Major ordered. That was the end of the meeting.

New Strategy of the Union

I heard that the very next day the hotel union had an emergency meeting when Chandrapala abruptly resigned from the post of the President. They re-elected the two trade union veterans, Edmond and Kalansooriya as the President and Secretary of the hotel union. They also had consulted one of most legendary trade unionists, lawyers and socialist political leaders of Sri Lanka, Bala Tampoe, who was affectionately addressed by fellow socialists as Comrade Bala.

As a ‘show of strength’ strategy, the hotel union organized their 1977 annual general meeting (AGM) with Comrade Bala as the chief guest. He was General Secretary of the 200,000-member-strong Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union (CMU). He had joined the Trotskyist faction of the Leftist and then underground Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in 1941. He came into the limelight after his dismissal from public service, for participating in the strike of public servants in 1947. He joined the CMU in 1948 as its general secretary and remained in that position for 66 years, until his death when he was 92 years old.

Comrade Bala was known for his militant challenges to the political decisions of the government of the day. One of the major strikes he led in the Colombo Port escalated into an all-island general strike and defied the government when it invoked its emergency powers. He was the architect of the concept of nation-wide monthly token strikes, which I disliked. Although I was not a fan of Comrade Bala I was excited to meet with this charismatic legendary union leader and U exceptional orator. Major was very pleased to have the opportunity to directly confront with this worthy opponent. Bala Tampoe was arguably the greatest union leader of Sri Lanka for all time.


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