As related by Bandiya
The first Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting was not a very prominent event at the inception and was known as the Colonial Imperial Conference. Subsequently, the name changed from the ‘Colonial Imperial Conference’ to ‘The British Commonwealth Conference.’
The first symposium of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers conference was held in London in 1949, just after Ceylon achieved her Independence from the Colonial rule. Prime Minister Rt. Hon. D. S. Senanayake represented Ceylon at the Convention aided by Sir Oliver Goonatillake and Sir Kandiah Vaithyanathan.
It is of significance to note that when the Prime Minister Rt. Hon. D.S. Senanayake travelled to London to attend the first conference in 1949, he had taken his ‘footman’ Karolis too, where Karolis had to be ‘modernised’ by choping off his Konde (hair knot at the back of head) and to make him trendy with an European outfit!
During the first meeting, Membership of the Commonwealth was restricted only to a few countries such as Australia, UK, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Ceylon, whilst Southern Rhodesia had represented only as an observer (with no access to decision making).
Bandia remembered when India achieved her Independence in 1947, they immediately declared the country as a Republic while Ceylon remained a Dominion State even after the Independence until 1972. This vary fact caused India a problem because a Republic could not be entertained as a member of the Commonwealth for the first summit, especially when Queen Elizabeth II, being the Head of The Commonwealth, participated in the first Commonwealth Conference ‘wearing the Republic name tag’.
It was only at this juncture one bright idea sparked off to change the name of the conference, particularly to accommodate India to The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Finally, it enabled India’s participation.
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) has since become a biennial summit meeting of the heads of government from all Commonwealth nations, chaired by the hosting nation’s respective Prime Minister or President who becomes the Commonwealth Chairperson-in-Office.
Queen Elizabeth II, who is the Head of the Commonwealth, has attended every CHOGM beginning with Ottawa in 1973. During the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings in the past members have attempted to orchestrate common policies on certain contentious issues and current events focusing on problems affecting member nations such as ‘apartheid rule in South Africa’, ‘military coups in Pakistan and Fiji’, and ‘allegations of electoral fraud in Zimbabwe’ etc., to try and find some amicable solutions to such international problems.
During such meetings Member States agreed on a common proposal or a solution at which point they released a joint statement declaring their opinion. It was in such a backdrop that a motion was tabled once, to establish an Institution similar to that of an ‘International Court of Justice’or a ‘Commonwealth Court’to deal with functions related to Commonwealth countries.
Bandia remembered that during Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake’s tenure, one of his Cabinet Minister’s (Edmond Cooray?) had put forward the suggestion to name the proposed ‘Commonwealth Court’as The Commonwealth Secretariat in London.
Finally, all member states having agreed upon the establishment of the Commonwealth Secretariatas the official body to assist and advise on policy development and to provide assistance to countries in implementing the decisions and policies of the Commonwealth, suitable accommodation had to be found for an office to operate from. This was when the Marlborough House, the Royal Palace of Queen Mary (wife of King George V) had been allocated by The Queen to run the affairs of the Commonwealth Secretariat.
Back to 1993
In 1993 The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was held in Cyprus when Queen Elizabeth II decided to Chair the conference on board The Royal Yacht Britannia. The Royal Yacht Britannia did serve the Royal Family for over 44 years, travelling over one million miles. It was originally launched from the John Brown & Company shipyard in Clydebank on April 16, 1953.
To Her Majesty the Queen, Britannia proved to be the perfect Royal Residence for glittering state visits, official receptions, royal honeymoons and relaxing family holidays. Britanniawas a majestic symbol of the Commonwealth and a proud ambassador for Great Britain.
When decisions were made and programs were finalised for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to be held on The Royal Yacht Britannia in Cyprus the entertainment aspect had to be organised by The English-Speaking Union in the UK on the instructions from the Lord Chamberlain at Buckingham Palace, who is the chief functionary of the Court and who is generally responsible for organising all Court functions. He is considered as the “senior official” of the Royal Household. Lord Chamberlain’s office dates back to middle Ages, when the ‘Official Lord Chamberlain, acted as Kings’ spokesman in Council and Parliament.
Instructions from Lord Chamberlain’s office to the English-Speaking Union were to arrange an Octet – Orchestra with a Bassoon player. The bassoon is a woodwind instrument in the double reed family that typically plays music written in the bass and tenor clefs, and occasionally the treble.
The English- Speaking Union upon approaching the Royal College of Musicians finally managed to discover 24 year old Sri Lankan Rebecca Wijesinghe, who coincidently happened to be the daughter of Peter Wijesinghe ( Bandia) attached to the Sri Lanka High Commission staff, with seven other instrument players, Yvette Bree, Myee Clohessy, Julie Ann Derome, Abigail Humphries, Loiuiswe Lillip, Nichcolas Bochner and Peter Delvin.
Rebecca Wijesinghe brought Honour and glory to Sri Lanka
It was regarded as a great honour for Sri Lanka and a glorious, memorable occasion for young Sri Lankan Bassoon Player Rebecca Wijesingheto have had the opportunity to perform in the presence of the Head of the Commonwealth, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and all the Commonwealth Heads of Government, especially aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia in Cyprus on October 22, 1993.
But the unfortunate aspect of it had been that all publicity about the incident in Sri Lankan media had been allegedly truncated as a direct consequence of a boorish act by the then Foreign Minister the late A.C.S. Hameed, the reason for such an impolite decision being that Rebecca Wijesinghe’s father (Peter Wijesinghe) happened to be an employee at the Sri Lanka High Commission in London “who did not qualify as a Diplomat” in the eyes of the Foreign Minister!
Foreign Minister truncated publicity
However, even after 20 years of that memorable event the writer was delighted to justify the lost cause by publicising photographs of Rebecca Wijesinghe in the company of Her Majesty the Queen on board The Royal Yacht Britannia on October 22, 1993 , in the Sri Lanka press, along with a rare picture of the very first Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ meeting held in London (1949) where the Ceylon Prime Minister Rt. Hon. D. S. Senanayake posed with all the other Heads of the Commonwealth countries.
This article is revived to the writer’s blog in 2018
Pic Credit: Bandia, Google, Archives Sunday Observer
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