LIFE ABROAD – PART 10:DIPLOMATIC EMERGENCE
Posted on January 10th, 2013

Dr.Tilak Fernando

“ƒ”¹…”Ceylon’ remained under Colonial Status until the midnight of February 3, 1948 when it transformed into a Dominian State. Prior to the Dominian stage, G.C.S. Corea (who was later knighted as Sir Claude) served as the last Ceylon Representative from 28 Cockspur Street Trafalgar Square. Despite the change, not much of diplomatic activity took place in the absence of a proper High Commission office in London or an organised Ministry of External Affairs in Colombo.

Official inauguration

The first High Commission office was established at 25 Grosvenor Square, London on October 22, 1948 and Sir Oliver Goonetillake assumed duties as the High Commissioner in the UK.

Among the distinguished guests at the ceremony were Rt. Honourable D.S. Senanayake along with King George VI and Queen Mother who participated in a tea party hosted by Sir Oliver.

Two assistants brought from Ceylon, Buluwela and Peter Wijesinghe became pioneers of the London staff who later became as part of the furniture at the London Mission until they retired after serving for a long period.

DS Sir Oliver, daughter and British official at the opening

During late 1950s, The Sri Lanka High Commission shifted to 13 Hyde Park Gardens, West London, a large Victorian building which belonged to Lord Northcliffe on a long lease agreement.

Buluwela, a simple man commonly known as “ƒ”¹…”Bulu’, became the main caretaker of the new building from the moment he turned the key of the main door at 13 Hydepark Gardens to officially declare open the new High Commission office.

His services continued uninterruptedly as the sole caretaker until his official retirement date approached but was extended officially for a further period thus becoming the only government servant with the longest service in the annals of Sri Lankan administration.

Bulu’s assets

“ƒ”¹…”Bulu’ occupied the top floor flat at 13 Hyde Park Gardens as his living accommodation and later got married to a Sinhala lady and produced two children, a brilliant daughter who managed to join the British Foreign Service and served as Britain’s Trade attache in her first appointment.

His son excelled in studies and ended up as a recognised medical research doctor attached to St. Mary’s (teaching) Hospital in Paddington initially and later moved to Charing Cross Group of Hospitals in London.

The last time I met Bulu in London he proudly announced that Lakjaya Buluwela was on a research programme to combat the deadly disease cancer and he was on the verge “ƒ”¹…”to crack’ it!

When SWRD Bandaranaike gave a sledge hammer blow to Sir John Kotelawela’s United National Party at the “ƒ”¹…”ominous’ general elections (while Sir John was Prime Minister) and crushed the UNP government’s majority to eight parliamentary seats, agitated Sir John threw the towel into Ceylon politics, packed his bag and baggage and bid adios to Ceylon.

In the UK he bought a farm in Kent and settled down in Britain for which SWRD made no qualms about allowing Sir John to take necessary foreign exchange out of the country (despite prevailed restrictions). In London Buluwela was introduced to Sir John by Sir Oliver. Sir John quite liked him which gave Bulu’s family easy access to Sir John at any time.

Bulu often used to brag about Sir John showing his family photographs posing with Sir John which made him very proud and helped him in such instances to appear as “ƒ”¹…”a cock on a brick wall’! It was, nevertheless, thought as an exceptional gesture on the part of Sir John to accommodate a simple man like Bulu considering the reputation he had earned as an “ƒ”¹…”arrogant aristocrat’!

Bulu’s photographs proved beyond any doubt the human aspect of the great character despite tags put on Sir John as a man of superiority and immense temper! One thing though, being a straightforward guy, he always had the guts to come out bravely with whatever he thought instantly without thinking of any repercussions. Some used to say Sir John always acted before thinking twice and later regretted after scoring his own goals! Besides, he used a few peculiar Sinhala phrases such as Umba, Ban and Yako! which formed part of his normal vocabulary when speaking to anyone, yet not considering it being rude or offensive to address people in that manner. I once recorded a personal experience as a junior school boy in the presence of Sir John in an earlier write up where three of us cycled to his Kandawela Estate when he was the Prime Minister. Relaxing on an easy chair in the verandah, wearing boxer shorts and a vest (how simple we thought), he read the Evening Observer in an afternoon.

Peter Wijesinghe and Buluwela

The one with guts out of us approached Sir John nervously and muttered in English, “Excuse me Sir, can we have your permission to walk around in your estate”? Displaying his typical character and not even blinking an eye lid, he bellowed: “Katha karapiya Yako Sinhalen…..! Palayaw, gihin balapiyaw…!! kagenwath avasara ganna one nehe mage watta balanna” ( Speak in Sinhala you dim-witted ….. go …go and look..around …….. and enjoy yourselves – there is no need to take permission from anyone to stroll in my garden.) Actually, there wasn’t a single body guard or a band security around him to be seen!

Peter Wijesinghe was a different kettle of fish and completely diverse from Bulu. He blended with the English life style effectively as opposed to Buluwela and became known as jack of all trades. Always smartly dressed in a dark three-piece suite he worked attached exclusively to all the High Commissioners’ from the very inception. Well-informed and fluent in English (spoke with a clear accent) he always extended a helping hand to fellow Sri Lankans who visited the Mission on various errands. From my personal association with him and knowledge about Peter, I regarded him as a cultured person who was ‘on the ball’ even on international affairs and had the capacity to bypass some of the ‘diplomatic types’ who were sent to London at latter stages through Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry.

Peter married to a German lady and produced a daughter who became a popular musician in England. After serving at the Sri Lanka High Commission in London for over 50 years, he too retired from the Sri Lanka Foreign Service and settled down in Kandy.

Sir Oliver was succeeded by many erudite Diplomatic officers of high calibre who displayed a certain amount of panche in commensurate with the responsibilities attached to the Exclusive Post in representing Sri Lanka and promoting her image abroad.

However, since Ceylon becoming independent in 1948 something that had lacked was the inability for Sri Lankan High Commissioners to follow the normal diplomatic etiquette in presenting credentials to the Queen, instead only an official letter went to the British Prime Minister’s office at No. 10 Downing Street.

This was regarded as failure on the part of the ‘Ceylon’ government for not adhering to the legitimate process of changing the status of the country into a Socialist Republic; instead Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in a rather ‘sluggish’ manner, rushing proceedings only through a Constitutional Assembly and changing the status into a Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka on May 22, 1972. Despite rumours that floated at the time about Mrs. Bandaranaike not having ‘good relations’ with Britain, the actual fact had been due to non-existence of any provision in the British Constitution to entertain the diplomatic etiquette in the presentation of credentials to the Queen under the circumstances mentioned above.

The situation remained subdued and sedentary for many years due to the lack of appropriate legislation in the British Parliament, which is the mother of all legislation. After Dr. M.V. P Peiris relinquished his duties as the High Commissioner, the late Tilak E. Gooneratne, who was the Assistant Secretary General of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, succeeded .

It was during Tilak Gunaratne’s period the ‘mystery’ behind the presentation of credentials to the Queen was unearthed. Subsequently with the help of ‘Friends of Sri Lanka’, a group of British Parlimentarions, of which Mr. Michael Morris, Betty Boothrite and another Lord managed to put things in the perspective by enacting legislation through the House of Lords to make it possible for Sri Lankan High Commissioners to present credentials to the Queen. Thus Tilak Gooneratne became the first Sri Lankan High Commissioner to present credentials to the Queen after the country was recognised as a sovereign state.

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3 Responses to “LIFE ABROAD – PART 10:DIPLOMATIC EMERGENCE”

  1. Nimal Says:

    Very nostalgic article and glad to say two of them are relatives of mine and each from my father and mother.We miss them both.

  2. Nimal Says:

    Our ancestral home was adjoining that spot that was asked to be given away to the US embassy.Our grand parents went to school from there,I was told.We moved to a place close by now.

  3. Nimal Says:

    These leaders had a vision for our country. I remember DS, knowing the threat of separatism move a lot from the South to places like Padaviya.In 1951. I remember coming with these people in the same train up to Polgahawela where that section of the train broke away. Poor people were carrying everything from the mirisgala to Mortar made out of kithul logs.Then.our leaders created the Colombo Plan scheme where many projects created for us by UK and Canada.UK.as I remember built the second stage of Norton bridge hydro scheme, Canadians gave us the diesel power sets that had the name Novas Scotia, British Columbia, Montréal etc.They were the first train to pull the badulla train without a second engine.These diesel engines are still running. Parting colonials were for an united country and helped us to colonize some areas of the East by pouring money for the Galoya sheame, knowing that one day we may have to move troops swiftly to the East the Canadians build a highway to the east from Miyanngana.I remember my eldest brother was involved in building the highway, where he worked for PWD.My friends too were given contract to bulldoze jungles to clear the way for the vital road.I remember the burly Canadian uttering in Kandy before he parted the island, that we should remember them in future as this road will be of great help with a strategic value in the defence of our country.I think this aid was requested by DS decades before. They could foresee the impending threat from the Muslims and the separatist Tamils. Should we have contained this problem in the island, we wouldn’t had the Canadians now talking for the Diaspora.
    . That time our youth was so engrossed with hobbies like train spotting, taking numbers of cars, stamps and foreign currency notes collection. We were also keen collectors of beautiful bird feathers that some times fall off birds (not killed them), pictures of Hollywood actors that was given with bubble gum. Highly prized was that of Tarzan (lex Baker) and Roy Rogers (king of the cow boys).we collected comics printed by Dell and they were highly priced by the kids. Whatever patriots say, the Colonials left a decent country and parted as friends but not as tyrants as some say. We had a glorious peaceful history 100 Years. I think our ancestors were so pleased with them, they began to adopt their names as Charles,Fernando,Perera,Percy,Alwis,Silva.My son too have two anglicized first names which had a direct connection of two friends in my life who helped me and guided me as a role model. People of this generation never will understand the life people enjoyed, that means all the people in the land, but not just the privileged families. We had our pride and never one moment had we licked their shoes or anywhere else as there was mutual respect for every one.

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