The word ‘Diplomacy’ means the art and practice of conducting negotiations between representative groups or states, with regard to the issues covering ‘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 Andrei Gromyko and American Ambassador Winthrop W. Aldrich participated in round table conferences in matters related to the Suez Canal Nationalisation issues.
During the cold war between America and Russia in the late 1950s, Sri Lanka High Commission played a major role. Peter Wijesinghe ( Bandia) 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!
Winthrop W. Aldrich
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 ‘exclusive club’ with privileges and perks loaded with everything duty free from motor cars, petrol, liquor, tobacco, vehicle road tax, accommodation, TV licence and most of all being immune to ‘domestic ’ laws in foreigncountries.
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, charisma and the calibre found in diplomats of Sir Claude Corea, R.S.S. Gunawardena, G.P. Malalasekera, Sir Lalitha Rajapaksa, JCA Corea, Mariadasan, Neville Kanakaratne, Shanthi Peiris, Santhiapillai, Glenville Peiris, Douglas Jayasekara, Dr Vernon Mendis, Jayantha Dhanapala, Guy Amirthalingam were soon to become‘extinct’.
According to certain quarters of the Sri Lankan expatriates, the quality, attitudes and priorities of a new breed of diplomats, who arrived at the London High Commission office, seemed to have adulterated thus exposing the new staff as ‘egocentric’ and engrossed with their own ambitions, such as educating their children, materialistic desires and their own problems as priorities!
It is an unwritten law that a diplomats should refrain from abusing any privileges when they are given everything ‘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.
At initial stages, the British Foreign Office turned a blind eye to such abuses taking into account the diplomatic immunity on foreign diplomats in the UK. But when such abuses became regular habitual and went into multiple of piles, the British changed their rules and made it mandatory for the relevant countries to settle such fines, which amounted to hundreds of thousands Sterling Pounds!
Severe fiscal policies and austerity programmes introduced by Mrs. Bandaranaike Administration began to demoralise all categories of the staff, along with personal interventions by certain Foreign Ministers simultaneously. Such manouvers did not make it a healthy environment either, for the staff.
What was seen at the time was a ‘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, which ultimately led to the fall of diplomatic. standards affecting that in turn affected the ordinary Sri Lankan citizen who visited the High Commission for a purpose, at times travelling from far away distances.
Square Pegs in Round Holes.
At one time a batch of 12 members of non-diplomatic 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 expected the same drivers to report back to work on the following morning at 9 am! Such unpleasant occurrences ultimately ended up by drivers having to ‘protest and claim their overtime allowances’that according to the victims had run into four figure sums in Sterling Pounds!
Another female Diplomat, who was posted to London as the ‘Information Officer’ by a former President personally at the loss of her husband on sympathy grounds during JVP struggle, was not aware of the term ‘By- Line’in a newspaper! When the writer made a self-introduction to her as the London Correspondent of The Island(at the time) and said ‘I am sure you, being the new Information Officer, are familiar with my by-line’ in the Sri Lankan newspapers, shocking when she exclaimed, “By ..Line …..! What is that”? The writer muttered to himself, “God help the Diplomatic Corp”!
The writer’s attempt next to obtain a fax number of the State Pharmaceutical Corporation to despatch some vital drugs from the British Pharmacopoeia Commission Laboratory in London, during General Sepala Attygalle’s term as the High Commissioner could be sighted as a typical example why Sri Lankans in England did not pay much regard to High Commission staff activities.
The writer’s enquiry to the receptionist at the High Commission was transferred to someone called the ‘Cipher’ operator(telex man), who brusquely quipped, ‘sorry we do not have their number”! When the writer informed him that such information should be at their ‘finger tips’, his rude answer was, ‘why don’t you try the British Telecom directory enquiries”? Needless to say, the write had to educate him by asking as to why he should approach the BT when he was sitting comfortably inside the most supreme Sri Lankan office in London and twiddling his thumbs.
In writer’s next move, he spoke to General Attygalle 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 inEngland.
A former Customs officer, Mr. Moorthy, had once approached the High Commission to get her wife’s pension papers authorised prior to submitting them to the appropriate authorities in Sri Lanka. She had served in Sri Lanka as a graduate teacher for 30 long years . Their request was a simple one only to obtain a Rs.10/- stamp to be fixed prior to posting the papers to Colombo, as per a member of the High Commission staff.
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 that you might have for official work, and I will pay you one Poundfor 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 else, there is a place in Piccadilly Circus that sells international stamps. They might be able to sell you one”!What great service!
This was brought to the writer’s notice while he was accredited to the Island newspapersas the London Correspondent, which became his responsibility to expose such a petty issue. Finally, the newspaper exposure helped not only Mrs Moorthy, but authorities in Sri Lanka decided to scrap the whole antiquated process of having to paste a Rs.10/- Sri Lankan stamps on pension documents, which probably may have deducted from the pension payment.
Along with such deteriorating services and particularly the unfriendly attitudes of the staff 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 from the reception area 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 Kachcherioffice back at home, rather than making it look like a foreign High Commission office sin London!
Pic Credit: Google & Wikipedia