Posted on October 30th, 2014

Dr.Tilak Fernando

In the 1990s Britain was considered as one of the biggest aid donors to Sri Lanka. However, an unfortunate incident that sparked off in May 1991 managed to stir the hornet’s nest by the then British High Commissioner, David Gladstone CMG (most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George – an order of chivalry founded on April 28, 1818 by George, Prince Regent, later King George IV), in Colombo causing much embarrassment to the decorated diplomat himself, who was a descendent of one time British Prime Minister, William Gladstone.

David Gladstone

David Gladstone served in Sri Lanka as the British High Commissioner from 1987 to 1991. This incident undoubtedly managed to bring an equal share of the disturbed hornet’s nest upon the shoulders of both countries, Sri Lanka and Britain equally.

Small things go a long way!

It all began out of a ‘trivial incident’ that sparked off as a routine police entry by the diplomat David Gladstone at Dickwella Police station where he recorded ‘having observed some irregularities during the local elections held on May 11, 1991’. This created headline news in the Sri Lankan media and the British High Commissioner immediately became enmeshed in the election incidence while the Sri Lanka government went hell for leather in gathering ‘sufficient information’ with a view to taking severe action against the British diplomat.

This debacle was followed by a hullabaloo and clamourous noises emanating from the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa with threats to evict the diplomat out of the country with strong statements to the effect, I will throw him out on his ear….”!

On May 27, 1991 such rhetoric came to reality when David Gladstone was declared persona non grata for ‘interfering with the country’s internal affairs’. His expulsion, therefore, was confirmed ‘in conformity with the normal protocol procedure whenever a member of the diplomatic corps abused his/her privileges’.

Dossiers of news coverage that followed this rare incident highlighted how the diplomat had been kept under surveillance by the then UNP government, which exposed ‘his activities of notifying the international community about human right violations that prevailed under Premadasa regime’.

Rubbing more salt into Gladstone’s wound, so to speak, in certain affluent circles some gentlemen began to loosen their tie knots and started lubricating the gossip machine by focusing their main conversation on the ‘Gladstone affair’! In the meanwhile, an effective media campaign was set up against the diplomat for ‘interfering and meddling in country’s internal affairs’. Premadasa government in its defence of the act maintained that ‘the expulsion was purely in conformity with normal protocol practices whenever a member of the diplomatic Corps falls out of line’!

British intervention

On June 11, the then British Prime Minister, John Major, wrote to President Premadasa on a pertinent level making it very clear that the High Commissioner, David Gladstone’s expulsion was considered as an inappropriate reaction and that he (the British Prime Minister) was fully satisfied David Gladstone has had ‘no intention of interfering with local elections nor did his conduct amount to interference’.

While the Sri Lankan government took a stern attitude over the matter, Britain’s immediate reaction for expelling David Gladstone from Sri Lanka and making him persona non grata was to cancel an already scheduled visit to Sri Lanka by the then British Foreign Office Parliamentary under secretary Mark Lenox-Boyd.

Ending weeks of speculation in response to Sri Lanka’s expulsion of the British High Commissioner from Colombo, in June 1991, Britain decided to ‘freeze all future aid to Sri Lanka’ and declared its intention ‘to restrict arms sales’ to Sri Lanka, which was very much a necessity during the height of the LTTE terrorist war.


On June 21, 1991, the European Union Membership issued a joint statement deploring the Sri Lankan government’s decision and reiterated that they (EU) had already announced cancellation of high-level visits of British officials to Sri Lanka (e.g. Mr. Lennox-Boyd’s due visit to Sri Lanka in June in 1991). In July 1991 the British Foreign Office issued a further vital statement, which read as follows:

In reporting the call on Mr. Lenox-Boyd by the Sri Lanka High Commissioner, General D. S. Attygalle, we had made it abundantly clear that we considered the Sri Lankan action wholly unjustified and planned to send a successor soon as possible”.

We have decided not to request withdrawal of the Sri Lanka High Commission from Colombo, instead Mr. Gladstone’s successor will be appointed quickly to ensure that Her Majesty’s Government’s voice continued to be as effective as possible in Sri Lanka, especially on human rights matters. We have also informed the Sri Lankan government of a number of other measures we have decided to implement viz:

(a) To make no new major aid commitments at least until our new High Commissioner is in place, and then to renew any such proposals in the light of human rights situation at the time.

(b) To adopt a more restrictive policy on arms sales to Sri Lanka

(c) To suspend all goodwill visits to Sri Lanka (e.g. By the Royal Navy).

In response to the Foreign Office disclosure, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in the UK at the time, General Sepala Attygalle, made an official statement as follows:

The existing aid agreements are not affected and could be reviewed subsequently. The British government will be guided by the new High Commissioner who will be posted to fill the vacancy of David Gladstone in the matter of restoring the traditionally friendly relationship between the two countries”.

Finally Mr. John Field assumed duties in Colombo as the new High Commissioner for Britain in Sri Lanka and served from 1991 to 1996.

Plunged into a pioneer situation

Subsequently, David Gladstone during a BBC Sandesaya, Sinhala program in London stated the idea of war on terror offers legitimacy to criminal groups whose strategy is to terrorise civilians. I personally don’t believe on war on terror. I don’t know what it looks like. I live in London and I can’t say that I feel like in a war situation. It only glorifies those who are setting up bombs”!

David Gladstone continued stating: The clear instructions by the British Government to interfere to help protect human rights in Sri Lanka marked a new chapter in very long tradition of international diplomacy whereby diplomats did not openly criticise their host countries. But rules of diplomacy have actually changed. I was thrust into the situation to pioneer (in 1991) a new approach to international diplomacy while I was in Sri Lanka.”

Action and reaction

On July 8, 1991, the oldest Sri Lankan English tabloid published in the UK Silvarrow carried the Gladstone story with a headline banner calling, Britain suspends Aid to Sri Lanka – Human Rights issue plays a major role”. The tabloid which had been distributed free on a monthly basis from the Sri Lanka High Commission, as one of its popular despatch outlets from its first publication, was immediately banned by the then High Commissioner which caused an unwarranted hue and cry amidst the Sri Lankan expatriates in the UK.

Diplomats in dog house

This was not the only occasion where diplomats have been in the proverbial ‘dog house’ by trying to interfere with internal affairs of Sri Lanka. In October 2007 Sri Lanka called for the expulsion of Icelandic diplomat Bjarni Vestmann immediately, after he entered the country on a tourist visa and went to the North to meet with Tiger rebels.

In 2008, US Ambassador, Robert Blake, got his image tarnished when he sought a meeting with the Elections Commissioner to ensure free and fair Provincial Council elections in the Eastern Province.

Then again, much later to Gladstone saga, a British diplomat, who was the Head of its Political and Development section, had to visit a local police station for taking photographs of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s motor cavalcade using his mobile phone.

The UK High Commission in Colombo was reported as saying that ‘the diplomat was new to Sri Lanka and he made a genuine innocent mistake in taking the photograph for personal interest as a souvenir and no other intention behind the action. The matter was dropped without much of a hue and cry.

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