DAUNTING AND COMICAL INCIDENTS IN LONDON LIFE ABROAD – PART 108
Posted on December 14th, 2014

Dr.Tilak Fernando

Some of the incidents that have taken place in London during the peak of the LTTE’s callous activities at home could be catalogued as threatening, precarious and at times hilarious too. It was an era that certain self-appointed Cdn-2010-tag---In-Focus---imlb.jpgTamil groups, who pretended to be ‘agents’ of the terrorist organisation, began to coerce money from innocent Tamil families and business houses in the UK. In places like Wembley and Alperton, Middlesex rival Tamil gangs, originally from Jaffna and the East, occasionally battled with swords and guns at each other.

During the most popular social annual event in the Sri Lankan expatriates’ calendar (Festival of Cricket), Tamil thugs boisterously wandered about shouting slogans fearlessly. That was the extent of haughtiness those ‘Tiger cubs’ in London demonstrated from time to time.

Arson and sabotage

In a separate incident, during High Commissioner Sepala Attygalle’s term, certain hoodlums managed to set fire to the High Commission building at night causing considerable damage to the lobby area! It was later revealed as a terrorist attack by the LTTE supportive vandals by pouring petrol through the gap of the main door of the High Commission. Fortunately the destruction was limited to the foyer area, but the reception desk needed a new replacement after re-decorating the whole vestibule at a cost.

It sounds somewhat comical now, but at that time it was cogitated as awfully serious when the Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed was lodging at the Cavendish Hotel in London, and his personal secretary, appointed by him to the High Commission, had to be picked up from the hotel. Peter Wijesinghe received orders on that score to proceed towards the Cavendish Hotel and pick the lady up. The procedure adopted by the High Commission at that time was to utilise the services of any junior member of staff who possessed a British driving licence to undertake chauffeuring duties as well.

When Peter Wijesinghe arrived at the hotel entrance he could see the Rolls Royce Phantom, that belonged to Saudi Arabian Prince Imam Dr. Sheik Shamsadin A. Alfassi, Chairman, World Sufi Council, who was a good friend of President Premadasa, parked at the hotel entrance. Apparently, the Sheik voluntarily made available his limousine for the Minister’s personal use whenever he was in London, although he (Minister) never used it but exhibited it only as a showpiece’!

On this particular occasion, the hotel was undergoing some refurbishing work where several builders (white) were busy in painting the outside of the building, perched on a tower type scaffolding. Peter drove into the hotel compound at dead slow speed looking out for a parking slot when he was shaken by a down pour of cream coloured spray paint that fell on the Mercedes Benz making the green coloured car look like a spotted jungle tiger!

Agitated and frantic Peter Wijesinghe immediately stopped the vehicle on the spot and started shouting at the workers and impugned them for the colossal damage done to the paintwork of the Mercedes Benz; the workmen in turn became apologetic and put it down to an inadvertent mishap! However, in Peter Wijesinghe’s mind it simply boiled down to nothing but racial hatred and jealousy on the part of the white workers having noticed an Asian guy driving a luxury Mercedes Benz motor car into a star hotel in Central London!

Soon the Manager of the hotel arrived on the scene, and there ensued a big commotion; the Manager wanted the Benz removed to a safe place in the first instance, whereas Peter Wijesinghe stuck to his guns and maintained he would not remove the vehicle an inch unless the Police arrived on the scene! Finally the Cavendish hotel accepted full responsibility for the misadventure and undertook to do a good clean out job at their expense.

One of the boundless perks enjoyed by foreign diplomats based in London was the exemption of taxes and VAT on purchases of new cars, petrol, road tax (revenue licence), telephone and TV rentals, electricity bills and so forth.

Despite such boons, it was an open secret that those who were in charge of the administration at the Sri Lanka High Commission were either totally inefficient or being frugal that they seldom allowed the drivers to top up the fuel tanks, especially when it came to the second vehicle (Benz) used for all ad hoc running.

Embarrassment

Peter Wijesinghe recalls yet another humiliating situation while chauffeuring the High Commissioner, Chandra Monarawala, to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Central London once, using the official Mercedes Benz. The red alert flashing on the fuel indicator to warn there was not much fuel in the tank made him send shivers down his spine.

Within minutes, the vehicle with Diplomatic plates and the lion flag proudly undulating in the wind got stuck on the middle of a busy road outside Buckingham Palace causing a heavy traffic build up. Highly self-conscious and ashamed Peter left the High Commissioner inside the vehicle and ran across the road towards the Buckingham Palace sentry point, used his presence of mind and sought SOS assistance, displaying his Blue Identity card, issued by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and the High Commissioner’s Ivory diplomatic card.

Immediately rescue operations began swiftly with traffic police arriving at the scene and clearing the traffic for a start. High Commissioner was assisted to proceed towards his intended destination by taxi while Peter Wijesinghe managed to walk up to a nearest petrol station at Victoria to get a can of petrol before he could proceed to collect his boss.

Mysterious disappearances

Another shadowy incident that took place at the High Commission was the disappearance of the official Mercedes Benz car overnight. Out of the two Mercedes Benz vehicles allocated to the Sri Lanka High Commission for transport purposes, one was exclusively reserved for the Head of the Mission’s use, which used to be parked at his residence at Avenue Road, St. John’s wood, after office hours, while the other had a permanent parking bay marked right in front of the office building. The Attaché Administration was fully responsible for all the transport activities.

One fine morning when the caretaker opened the front door of the High Commission he could not fathom what had taken place during the previous night. The Mercedes Benz, which had been parked as usual at the allocated bay in front of the building, had disappeared.

When the staff started to arrive by 9 a.m., several theories began to surface as some suggesting it to be an ‘LTTE master plan’, while others putting it down to some wheeler-dealer masterminding the operation in connivance with the staff inside the High Commission office! Others gave hope stating that the Benz would have already been in mid sea travelling up to Africa or completely dismantled by morning and its parts might have gone to some breaker’s yard! So much so, days passed by into weeks and months but there was not a clue as to whatever had happened to the official Benz that belonged to the Sri Lanka High Commission!

A subsequent enquiry conducted by the High Commissioner ended up with negative results because there had been no proper method of allocating vehicles to whoever was authorised to use them at a particular day or occasion.

The basic method adopted by any transport office in the UK is to have a log sheet allocated to every vehicle in the morning and given to an allocated driver with his name and the vehicle number marked clearly.

The first thing the driver has to do is to record the opening mileage of the vehicle on the log sheet, and the process is reversed at the end of the day again. In the same log sheet provision is there to mark any fuel obtained, which helps the supervisor or the transport manager to keep a tab on the usage and monitor the movement(s) of each vehicle.

This type of procedure would have helped in the case of the above-mentioned incident with regard to the disappearance of the parked Mercedes Benz and to hold the particular driver responsible for his actions and to identify the officer who obtained vehicle keys from the driver at the end of the day!

The million dollar question is that the Sri Lanka High Commission having had thirty five odd members of staff at that time had not been able to organise or devise a simple administrative function of allocating duties to drivers in a systematic manner where a specific member of staff was held responsible for dishing out vehicle keys and to collect them at the end of the day’s work with the driver’s log sheet indicating the use of the vehicle on that day!

The outcome of the enquiry had been that the last person to use the vehicle had just left the car keys on an official’s desk” before leaving the office! In such a dilemma no action could have been taken against any staff, as accountability could not be established! The final outcome was that the Sri Lanka High Commission lost an expensive motor vehicle, while the financial loss itself managed to dig a big hole in the Sri Lanka government coffers.

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