IN FOCUS – LIFE ABROAD. Pt 21-TRANSFORMATION
Posted on March 29th, 2013

Dr. Tilak S. Fernando

During the late General Sepala Attygala’s tenure  as  the High Commissioner in London,  President Premadasa decided to take some remedial action  to give a face lift to  the  Sri Lanka High Commission building at 13 Hyde Park Gardens, upon realising  the historic value of this vast building where Lord Northcliff had lived with 24 servants in the basement in an era when  the British aristocracy occupied the main house, known as  “ƒ”¹…”upstairs‘ and the domestic staff  occupied the basement as ” downstairs”. A popular British Teledrama called “Upstairs & Downstairs“ illustrated this fact distinctively.

Successor to Buluwela, the long served caretaker of the building, a new replacement believed to be a “ƒ”¹…”trustworthy’ employee (namely Ranasinghe) recommended by President Premadasa took over the reins as the caretaker at a time when terrorist attacks became vulnerable.  

TUNNEL TO BAKER STREET

 A historic feature of this  building was the underground tunnel that stretched up to Baker Street in London where Lord Northcliff had been using for his daily walks from his residence to Baker Street through this tunnel. However, in recent times the tunnel has been blocked out.

President Premadasa’s decision to convert the whole basement area into several flats as staff quarters was to save foreign exchange drain on rent paid out to private landlords every month on diplomatic staff accommodation.

To attend to all building conversion work President Premadasa sent a workforce of tradesmen all the way from Sri Lanka.  Although the building was on a long lease from the Church Commissioners in the UK, the lease agreement allowed for such modifications by the lessee.

 For a long period of time Sri Lanka government owned only one property in the UK, after being there for decades! Ultimately a fairly large house with a spacious garden and an additional three bed-roomed house, at St John’s Wood, West London, became Sri Lankan property. Subsequently, the Gardner’s cottage was refurbished and used as staff accommodation.  

 NAIVETY

Although it was thought to be a cost effective operation to send tradesmen from Colombo to London to do refurbishing and plumbing work, what the Sri Lankan authorities had not realised was that Sri Lankan tradesmen were not conversant with the UK building regulations!

An apparent disaster during pluming work had been evaded in the nick of time when the Sri Lankan plumbers started on water pipe connections by “ƒ”¹…”turning the sewerage into the storm water drain’.   

This, in fact, was highlighted by one “ƒ”¹…”Nimal’ as a feed back to one of my earlier episodes which appeared in the www.lankaweb.com website, who introduced himself as a Professional in the Building Industry in the UK. On 8 February 2013   he wrote explaining   how he managed to “avert a dreadful situation, which otherwise could have created a stench in the affluent neighbourhood“.

Mini Studio

Prior to the conversions, a section of the basement was transformed into a mini TV studio to groom senior diplomats to face TV cameras and forthright British journalists.  

For this purpose a well known  British advertising company  was contracted out  at an extravagant  cost, but the operation did not last long with the result  that Sri  Lankan diplomats apparently becoming  diffident from   TV  appearances  during  live panel discussions  with Tamil terrorist sympathisers  who were making good use out of  fabrications.  

In such circumstances, to fill the vacuum  and  safeguards one’s motherland,  a  few Sinhala Patriots  and Sinhala Associations who were brave, brainy and knew their onions appeared on TV and came on radio discussions to counter adverse arguments with historical facts  when  LTTE sympathisers  attempted to tarnish  the good name of the country  .

The general consensus in London at the time was that the Diplomatic deficiency helped the LTTE sympathisers to germinate the seed of doubt and fear among the TV audiences which has today become a gigantic tree. This is crystal clear from what the world has seen recently from UK’s Channel 4 concocted stories and “ƒ”¹…”doctored’ videos such as “ƒ”¹…”Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’.

The saddest part of it all was  how and why the   British authorities including the Scotland Yard  did  not  pay much heed to  individual  protests  by the  Sinhala Diaspora  against  LTTE activities and  turned a Nelsonian eye  by statements such as   “officially we have not heard  anything from  your government sources”.

Such clemency on the part of the British  on a ruthless terrorist organisation, which  had been proscribed by many countries in the world including the UK itself,  and permitting them to behave freely on London streets  by crippling the whole transport system, blocking the parliament area for weeks and most of all tolerating   the LTTE spokesman Anton Balasingham ( being a British Citizen) to continue his terrorist activities  openly from  the LTTE Headquarters,  compounded and  aggravated the conflict   to drag the terrorist war for 30 long years.

It needs to be acknowledged, however,  that whatever the High Commission staff did covertly, a major part of combating was done overtly by patriotic Sinhala expatriates to make them heard by organising protest marches, holding placards in front of 10 Downing Street, writing numerous articles to  Newspapers and websites, and one or two prominent personalities even travelling abroad at their own personal expenses to other countries fearlessly to participate in Tamil Forums  without which the LTTE would have  outshined completely  in their publicity stunts internationally.  

Internal Politics

There were instances on record where at least one senior High Commission official who did not have the mettle to face up to TV confrontations attempting to block out certain visits of a patriotic individual who had always appeared earlier on TV and Radio at every instance to defend the country when no single face of a diplomat was seen on the box!  There is factual documentary evidence on recorded tape to prove such specifics which no one can dare challenge.   

In the meanwhile, the “ƒ”¹…”internal’ politics’ between  the High Commission staff and the Sinhala Diaspora at  one stage  managed to divide loyalties among themselves  on a national issue by getting  embroiled   in Internet and  email-battles condemning one another, throwing mud at each other  and/or  being partisan through yahoo forums which only  helped the  critics  of the country to have a hearty laugh using satirical  phrases such as  ” Sinhalaya modaya kevun Kanna yodaya“! 

The level-headed patriots  in such unfortunate situations referred  to such ill-fated situations as an act  of vendetta using a Sinhala  simile summarising the melodrama  as  : ”  Balla pidiru kanneth neha kana gonata denn eth neha”  (the dog doesn’t eat straw, neither does he allow the one who eats to do either’)!

The Sinhala Diaspora even today seem to lament on what could have been done if  the responsible officials who were acting as “ƒ”¹…”custodians of the motherland’  had the  full knowledge and oratorical skills  that were required at the height of terrorist activities to crush all  adverse propaganda spread by the terrorist sympathisers.

 It also needs to be acknowledged  in fairness that most of the time “ƒ”¹…”hands of the  Sri Lankan were  bound and mouths gagged’ to speak out on their own accord during any critical situation prior to obtaining authority and the green light from  the Foreign Ministry, Colombo! This largely embarrassed the Head of the Mission when British journalists and TV crews bombarded within minutes of an incident in Colombo, such as a bomb blast.  

The main and oldest organisations representing the Sinhalese community in the UK, The UK Sinhala Association and The Sinhala Bala Mandalaya  has today given  rise to multiples of Sri Lankan Associations under different names  and categories.

“Man is the only one that knows nothing, that can learn nothing without being taught. He can neither speak nor walk nor eat, and in short he can do nothing at the prompting of nature only, but only weep.” –Pliny the Elder.

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