Many incidents occurred at the Sri Lanka High Commission office in London, during the late General Sepala Attygalle’s period as the High Commissioner . A noteworthy incident, which has gone into the history books, has been the disposal of a priceless, hand drawn Hague Atlas from the library, after it was removed from the Record Room in the basement, during the process of the entire basement converted into staff flats.
The ruling to dispose of the entire library by the High Commissioner was considered as a most imprudent move as amidst a rare collection books and documents was a hand drawn Hague Atlas of the 17th Century.
High Commissioner , General Sepala Attygalle
Peter Wijesinghe, who was working for the High Commissioner at the time, bemoans to this day, when he recollects this incident how ‘the removal men who did the clearing of the library came back to him later and revealed the heart-breaking news about the Hague Atlas selling at a London auction for one million pounds’ to an enthusiastic rich map collector at a later date!
Although the newly converted flats in the basement managed to resolve the accommodation problem for the Foreign Ministry staff sent to London, its adverse effect was noticed when two adjacent flats were allocated to a male and a female member of staff that led to an embarrassing situation out of an infatuated romantic affair between a widow and a MLO (Military Liaison Officer), whose duty was supposed to have been to engage in security operations covering the LTTE activities and propaganda in London, instead it turned into lascivious activities!
Once the blather became contagious inside and outside the High Commission boundaries, General Sepala Attygalle received orders from above in Sri Lanka to expel the married Army officer to Colombo immediately. However, the rumours that floated around at that time pointed a finger at none other than the caretaker, Ranasinghe, who had been the culprit to report the indignity to the highest authorities in Colombo on the sly!
Quandaries that started from the basement were to reach upstairs soon when the top floor (where the caretaker Ranasinghe’s flat) was modified and adopted to have extra lodging facilities for another officer, who happened to be a senior diplomatic secretary of Tamil origin.
Ranasinghe, who was constantly in touch with the writer at the time, might have anticipated that it would be possible and much easier for him to use the writer to disclose many a scoop in the Sri Lankan newspapers, as the writer at the time was accredited to the Island newspapers as the London correspondent. However, it was not to be, because such exposures would not have been objective and fair at the time, apart from such revelations would have amounted to ‘dynamite’ if all that were confided in the writer were to appear in black and white!
Ranasinghe treated every one without any ethnic bias, but became highly worried about the security aspect, he being responsible as the caretaker of the building, especially during the height of a terrorist war at home and supporters of the LTTE were rampant in London and were up to many ruinous activities.
In such a backdrop, he became apprehensive when numerous Tamil folk used to ring the main doorbell of the High Commission at all odd hours of the night and wanted to go up to the newly accommodated diplomat, who resided on the top floor.
That meant every time the door bell rang, Ranasinghe had to come down walking three floors to the main door to check who was at the front door in the absence of any security cameras! This type of constant occurrences managed to agitate the caretaker to no end, especially a flow of Tamil visitors wanted to meet with the diplomat at all odd hours.
He approached the High Commissioner Attygalle and divulged his dissatisfaction about this new development of unfamiliar elements arriving at the High Commission building at all odd hours in the night, and indicated the amount of risk involved by letting such strangers walking up the stairs straight up to the top floor of the building to see the Tamil diplomat!
Reigning silence on the part of the High Commissioner made Ranasinghe more agitated and disappointed to the core that drove him psychologically into an edgy situation with uncertainty of danger at any given moment. After all being the caretaker of the building he had to answer in case of a bomb went off ! But Ranasinghe’s authority was limited as just a caretaker of the building and his duty was to answer the doorbell, oblige and let anyone visiting the High Commission building in, even at odd hours (to see the senior diplomat). As the problem became acute with no positive action being taken by the High Commissioner, Ranasinghe’s patience began to deplete on a daily basis, which gave rise towards acrimony towards the diplomatic officer.
The Tamil diplomat used to go on Thursday evenings to Wimbledon Hindu Kovil to participate in Sai Bhajans and arrived late at night. It happened to be an ill-omened day for the diplomat, even after attending a religious prayer meeting. When he returned to his quarters, Ranasinghe happened to be under the influence of liquor and waiting for his arrival.
As the officer rang the main doorbell to enter the building, furious Ranasinghe, who had devised a secret plan, opened the main door to let the diplomat walk into lobby area. In a state of drunkenness he started kicking the diplomat hard on the abdominal area screaming in the cream of Sinhala, while his poor master had been pleading with him, with his hands clasped like in prayer, and begging, “Aiya Samy, don’t hit me”!
After a few kicks, Ranasinghe had threatened the diplomat again in the cream of Sinhala, not to utter a word about the incident or report him to the authorities with a warning that if the incident became public knowledge, then it was going to be very tragic for the officer!
Ranasinghe later phoned the writer after a couple of days of the incident and made it known as a means of getting his frustration out, but he was damn lucky that the officer, out of decency or fear, kept mum on the incident, as otherwise it would have been the end of Ranasinghe’s career there and then.
Ranasinghe seemed quite proud about his unpardonable action and emerged as a cock on a brick wall, feeling very pleased about what he did and became extremely vigilant about the Tamil officer’s movements. He was definitely after the officer vigilantly watching the officers movements.
On Friday 20th November, 1993, the High Commission main doorbell had rung at around 7.05 pm. Ranasinghe opened the door as usual and saw a couple of Tamil youths at the main entrance holding three trays of cakes to be handed over to the Tamil diplomat. He took delivery, but did not permit any one of them to step inside the building, and later handed over the trays to the Diplomat in the night itself.
On Monday, 30th November, the officer had requested two ladies of the High Commission staff to cut the cake and serve it to all the office staff stating it was his mother’s birthday (on the 20th of November), which later became public knowledge that the cake had arrived from the Wimbledon Sai Temple where Prabhakaran’s birthday had been celebrated. It happened to be during the week when in fact Prabhakaran had openly requested, in his birthday speech at Vanni, ‘to go for Sinhala blood’!
THE ISLAND NEWS ARTICLE
Ranasinghe somehow had resolutely managed to get the news out to the Island newspaper through a contact in Colombo and the Island carried the news flash in prominent box in the front page, under the caption “Prabhakaran’s cake”. Once the news item appeared in the Island newspaper, President Premadasa had gone berserk, which made the High Commission office naturally turning into a disturbed beehive and started probing into who had let the cat out of the bag! In their assumption ( as usual) an accusing finger was intuitively directed at the writer ( being a media guy) who was completely ignorant of the incident. However, when the writer contacted Ranasinghe subsequently to obtain more details about the exposure, Ranasinghe’s response was to simply chuckle and say, “Ithin kathawa attane mahattayo (so, the story is true, Sir!)
Another incident which The Sunday Island carried as headline news on December 12, 1993, under the caption was: “Diplomatic bag from London missing,” which caused another pandemonium at the London High Commission when the ‘diplomatic dispatch case carrying some sensitive dossier relating to a particular officer sent to the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo on December 3 went missing’.
THE SUNDAY ISLAND
The Sunday Island newspaper report revealed to what extent the High Commissioner in London at the time, General Cyril Ranatunge, was feverish over the loss of the diplomatic bag, and how the enraged High Commissioner himself had undertaken the trouble to take the bag personally to the airline office in London later, for onward transmission to Colombo.
General Ranginge handed over the diplomatic bag personally to the Airline Office
The newspaper report further added thus: “On December 6, the bag was personally handed over to the airline by the High Commissioner, Foreign Ministry officials are said to be irked over what is perceived to be some bureaucratic bungling in London” (Sic).
It was common knowledge among the Mission staff as to who was responsible within the staff, for getting every inside information leaked out of the High Commission building, but they were left in a helpless situation.