Life Abroad – Part 14: DOWN HILL ON ROLLER COASTERS
Posted on February 7th, 2013

Dr.Tilak Fernando

The word “ƒ”¹…”Diplomacy’ means the art and practice of conducting negotiations between representatives of groups or states, with regard to issues of peace-making, trade, war, economics, culture, environment and human rights.

International treaties are usually negotiated by diplomats prior to endorsement by national politicians. At a time when the foreign diplomatic corp. consisted of only seven countries, Sri Lanka High Commission in London became the venue for international delegates to meet during some of the major international disputes.

Sir Claude Corea, as the Chairman of the Diplomatic Corp, hosted some high level meetings when international diplomats such as Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, Russian envoy Gromyko and American Ambassador Winthrop W. Aldrich participated in round table conferences in matters related to the Suez Canal Nationalisation issue.

Diplomatic musical chairs

Even during the cold war between America and Russia in the late 1950s Sri Lanka High Commission played a major role. Peter Wijesinghe, once attached to the High Commission from its very inception, remembers how he had to usher the American Ambassador to the High Commission building during such anxious moments while the Russian envoy had to be escorted out from the rear exit so as not to confront each other!


Diplomat Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

Prior to enforcing the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations on April 24, 1964, preliminary meetings were held at 13, Hyde Park Gardens London, which again goes to show the vital role Sri Lanka High Commission had to play on diplomatic matters internationally.

Diplomatic corp. is regarded as an “ƒ”¹…”exclusive club’ with privileges and perks loaded with duty free petrol, motor cars, liquor, tobacco, free vehicle road tax, accommodation, TV licence and most of all being immune to “ƒ”¹…”domestic ‘ laws in foreign countries.

New breed

With the transference of erudite Diplomats of yesteryear from London, after their tour of duty, the calibre of new officers said to have taken a gradual nose dive under the direct influence of one or two Foreign Ministers who had allegedly steam rolled their own agendas to appoint their favourites!

Seemingly the quality, character and charisma found in diplomats of Sir Claude Corea, R.S.S. Gunaawardena, G.P. Malalasekera, Sir Lalitha Rajapkse, JCA Corea, Mariadasan, Neville Canagaratne, Shanthi Peiris, Santhiapillai, Glenville Peiris, Douglas Jayasekera, Dr Vernon Mendis, Jayantha Dhanapala, Guy Amirthalingam calibre were soon to become “ƒ”¹…”extinct’.

According to certain quarters of the Sri Lankan expatriates, attitudes and priorities of a new breed seemed to have adulterated thus exposing some of the new staff as “ƒ”¹…”self centred’ and engrossed with their own ambitions, materialistic desires and their own problems such as educating their children as priorities!

It is an unwritten law that one should refrain from abusing any privileges when they are given “ƒ”¹…”on a plate’ especially. In this regard Sri Lanka High Commission became notorious at one time for abusing parking laws in the UK and ending up by collecting piles upon piles of parking tickets (fines). Nigeria headed the list of such violations at the time where Sri Lanka became the second country to follow suit.


Peter Wijesinghe had to discreetly welcome the Ameircan Ambassador while ushering the Russian from another exit..

At initial stages, the British Foreign Office turned a blind eye to such abuses considering the diplomatic immunity on foreign diplomats in the UK. But when such abuses became regular and went into multiples, the British changed their rules and made it mandatory for the relevant countries to settle such fines which amounted to hundreds of thousands Sterling Pound!

Severe fiscal policies and austerity programmes introduced by Mrs. Bandaranaike administration began to demoralise all categories of staff while at the same time personal intervention by certain of Foreign Ministers did not make it a healthy environment either, for the staff.

It was seen as a “ƒ”¹…”divide and rule’ operation with a clear display of inferiority and superiority complex games being played, where one party tried to show off their might while the others resisted and protested, all in all which led to the fall of standards affecting the ordinary Sri Lankan citizen who visited the High Commission for a purpose, sometimes travelling from far away distances.

Square pegs in round holes

At one time a batch of 12 staff, all the way from Moratuwa, was installed by a particular Foreign Minister in a single move. In another protracted dispute a senior Diplomat made use of official drivers for her personal use (after office hours) while she entertained guests or attended private parties till early hours of the morning and expecting the same drivers to report back to work on the following morning at 9 am! Such unpleasant occurrences ultimately ended up drivers having to “ƒ”¹…”protest and claim their overtime allowances which according to the victims had run into four figure sums in Sterling Pounds!

Another female Diplomat who was posted to London as the “ƒ”¹…”Information Officer’ by a former President personally at the loss of her husband on sympathy grounds was not aware of the term “ƒ”¹…”By Line’ in a newspaper! When I made a self-introduction to her as the London Correspondent of The Island (at the time) and said “ƒ”¹…”I am sure you, being the information officer, are familiar with my by line, her response was “By ..Line …..! What is that”? I muttered to myself “God help the Diplomatic Corp”!

My attempt to obtain a fax number for the State Pharmaceutical Corporation to despatch some vital drugs from the British Pharmacopoeia Commission Laboratory during General Sepala Attygala’s term as the High Commissioner can be sighted as a typical example why Sri Lankans in England did not pay much regard to High Commission staff activities.

My enquiry to the receptionist was transferred to someone called “ƒ”¹…”Cipher’ operator (telex man) who brusquely said “ƒ”¹…”sorry we do not have their number”! When I informed him that such information should be at their “ƒ”¹…”finger tips’ to which his rude answer was, “ƒ”¹…”why don’t you try the British Telecom directory enquiries”? Needless to say I had to educate him by asking as to why I should approach the BT when he was sitting comfortably inside the most supreme Sri Lankan office in London!

In my next move I spoke to General Attygalla personally who resolved the matter within minutes! This goes to confirm the type of criticisms levelled against the High Commission staff who appeared rather hostile, or unhelpful to fellow Sri Lankans in England.

A former Customs officer, Moorthy, once approached the High Commission to get her wife’s pension papers authorised before submitting to appropriate authorities in Sri Lanka. She had been a graduate teacher for 30 years. Their request was rejected by a member of staff in the High Commission requesting them to come up with a Rs. 10 stamp to be fixed on to the document before he could send it to Colombo.

Bureaucracy

The member of staff at the High Commission who dealt with the subject point blankly had refused to accept the document without a stamp on it even after Mrs. Moorthy pleading with the officer stating:

“Son, can you please spare a Rs.10 stamp which you might have for official work and I will pay you one Pound for it”! But his response had been: “Have you got any relations in Sri Lanka, if so why don’t you ask someone to send a stamp by post; or there is a place in Piccadilly Circus who deals with international stamps and they might be able to sell you one”! What great service!

This was brought to my notice while I was accredited to the Island newspapers as the London Correspondent which became my responsibility to expose such a petty issue which helped not only Moorthys but authorities in Sri Lanka scrapping whole antiquated process of having to use Sri Lankan stamps on documents of that nature.

Along with the dwindling services and unfriendly attitudes to fellow Sri Lankans who visited the Mission on official work, seemingly it started to tell on the condition of the building as well. A beautiful crimson red coloured carpet that covered the stairway up to three floors was allowed to remain like a sore thumb in a threadbare condition while the reception and visa section (inside the main building at the time) appeared like a local Kachcheri office back at home rather than being upto any High Commission office standard in London!

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3 Responses to “Life Abroad – Part 14: DOWN HILL ON ROLLER COASTERS”

  1. Jayantha Says:

    Tilak,

    Having lived in UK from 1967 till 1978 continuously and then having visited UK till as late as January 2013, regularly, I know exactly what you mean. I not only have experienced the deterioration, the drop in standards and the accompanying rude behavior of the staff at our High Commission I also noticed the selfish attitude of the staff.

    The standard of the Sri Lankan High Commission has become very similar to that of very poor African countries such as Gambia and Sierra Leone to name two. It is quite normal to see idle hangers-on at the embassy. Their only qualification being a dependent of an embassy staff member. Threadbare carpet, stinking interior, unkempt, unclean interior as well as exterior of the embassy shows lack of discipline or that typical Sri Lankan “I do not give a damn, someone else will worry about it” attitude are the norm.

    UK too shows how poor it has become as a country. One find it hard to believe that it was once “The Center of the British Empire”. UK, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Greece are countries that are going down the tube, so to speak. Idlers, Union Labor, Easy Riders, Free Loaders are the order of the day. These countries are dead and only desperate Sri Lankans go there any more.

    JP USA

  2. Christie Says:

    USA is no different

  3. Nimal Says:

    I remember the time when General Attygalle was the HC.He had a problem with the govt sent PWD workers who did the refurbishment work.They were a bit of an embarrassment to the General as they were not aware of the building regulations of the country as they seems to have turned the sewage into the storm water drains where it had created a stench in the neighbourhood.The top class neighbours were polite about it and the general asked my help where he knew that I used builders in my business that was on the other side of the Hyde park.I promptly sent my good bigoted friend Dennis and his workers to put it right,costing me a bit and the General a bottle of two of in house scotch.My hard hearted English friend felt really sorry for the humble workers from Sri Lanka.He bought a hell of a lot of expensive gifts for each of those workers when they left.He was very disappointed that none of them wrote back to thank him. He bought the much needed building materials for the work with his own money,but due to some govt red tape his money was delayed and he was answered with the word ‘heta’ Up to this day he mocks me with this word heta.I too managed to get some much needed medicines for the General through a powerful minister who lived close to my home.My experience in these countries always find the people in these countries are genuinely charitable and fair,though they may sound hostile or cold,but helpful and genuine,if one digs deep.At this very moment I have SL patriots who were critical of the western People,working for my business doing some building work and they noticed my friends(of this country) going in and out dragging me to dinners and lunches as it was my birthday on the 4th but my celebrations with them was from the ist of Feb.I will be having couple of italians,french and English for dinner on this Saturday.I had to spread my birthday over 10days as I am very busy with my job and my business.The day I married in 1971 was a poor student,had no money to buy a ring and my friends gave me two wedding receptions,one for my collage friends and one for the usual friends.My English employer was like my parents,paid for everything,believe me they also paid for over dozen of people(one time loyal guests to our business) their air tickets to attend my wedding.It was absolute surprise to me and my new wife.They planned my honeymoon in Scotland but I was so overwhelmed with the surprise,but We knew their anxiety of they running their business without me that night(I worked night as manager) and I felt very obliged to them and faked our honeymoon,came back to the job on my wedding night to the relief of my elderly employers.This very gesture was a blessing in an unexpected way as my day time employer came to know and I was made a level 2 manager in no time.General Kobbekaduwa and OEG knew about this.The moral of this is,that if we had just thousand of us outside the country,we will make a fair match against the enemies of our country by winning the hearts and minds of the fair minded leaders of the West.Unfortunately we are barking the tree the wrong way.I hope the nationalist minded patriots who is working for me now will absorb something useful in the next few days they are working from me.Interpersonal skills are vital and all we see in this web is the defeatist comments of a bankrupt people who harp about a history that has no relevance.In 12 hours time I may dine with some italian,Spanish and an few English friends but never they utter about their ‘glorious history or their religion,but they better those who claim to be superior in every aspect.Their leaders don’t go to temples,churches and mosques but get on with the job and nothing less is expected from the taxpayer and the voter.We should follow the examples of the winning people and winning countries and no one will dare to interfere in our affairs.

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