Until the early 19th century, European countries adopted their own system of diplomatic ranks where comparative positionsor titles were subjected to considerable dispute due to the insistence of major nations seeking superiority over minor nations.
In an attempt to resolve the problem, the Congress of Vienna of 1815 formally established to adopt an international system of diplomatic ranks. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary became the Head of a Mission. In Commonwealth countries the Head of the Mission was known as the High Commissioner, who represented the government.
Sri Lanka High Commission was established immediately after ‘Ceylon’ gained Independence in 1948. Peter Wijesinghe, one of the oldest employees (non diplomatic staff) who rendered his services to the Sri Lanka government has gone on record as an exceptional case in serving the government from 1948 to 1988, and again from 1988 until 2002, on a special contracted out basis. However, despite such a long past history of serving under a record number of High Commissioners from 1948, he had a dejected story to reveal once retired.
Long awaited meeting
The writer has known Peter Wijesinghe for decades in London. His knowledge and experience surrounding certain historical incidents on the Sri Lanka High Commission in London was akin to a personal encylopaedia. In that respect, Peter’s contribution enriches this Bandia column to a certain extent.
On 10th of August 2014, the writer once again met with Peter in a village in Kandy called Amunugama in Gunnapana, where he is settled down in his retirement. In a secluded area of about one acre of land, he lives in a seven bed roomed house built by him, with an additional basement turned into accommodation for his brother to live , who at the time was 96 years of age.
Life In Sri Lanka
His main theme in life in Sri Lanka concentrated on charity. Being a vegetarian and attached to the Buddhist temple in his local village, he meditates in the mornings as a ritual. As a young handsome and a dashing bachelor, he got married to a German lady, Hanna, in London and the couple was blessed with a daughter.
When Peter lost his wife (after his retirement) he was devastated. He could not possibly live in the same house at their residence at North West of London; his memory played up to remind him that Hanna died on the same bed next to him! He, therefore, had to move to his daughter’s residence immediately in Essex, and later came to Sri Lanka and built a new house for him to spend the rest of his life
Once during a holiday in India when they visited Taj Mahal Hanna had romantically whispered to Peter in the moonlight: “Why don’t you build something like this when I die”! Peter Wijesinghe may be a poor follower of Shah Jahan, fifth Mughal Emperor of India, who built ‘Taj Mahal’ in memory of his beloved empress consort, Mumtaz Mahal, after her death in 1631, but Peter was determined to comply with Hanna’s amorous request made to him while gazing at Taj Mahal.
To demonstrate his indissoluble love towards Hanna, Peter Wijesinghe built a new Dharma Sala (Hall) at Yakgahapitiya village temple costing Rs. 8.5 million (85 lakhs) by transforming the once muddy spread of the temple compound into a modern and plush hall displaying the words “Hanna Wijesinghe, Brook Newton Hall” (with a picture of Hanna and daughter Rebecca, as a young child
Hanna Wijesinghe -Brook Newton Hall at Yakgahapitiya Village Temple
During the writer’s long chat in the evening to catch up with a lot of past memories and incidents, Peter came out with his ill-fated story about his PSPF (Public Service Provident Fund) where he seemed to have lost approximately Rs.20 million, which, he says, ‘is‘now water under the bridge’!
‘Sri Lankan High Commission in the UK obtained the Membership of the Public Service Provident Fund in 1957. ‘Home- based’ staff were paid various allowances such as special living allowances, cost of living allowance, W&OP, Education allowances for children, medical allowances, Overseas allowances and house rent allowances et al, to supplement their wafer thin salaries paid in Sri Lankan rupees in the absence of any pension rights’.
The locally recruited members of staff, on the contrary, were paid on a weekly basis at the rate of £5 per week, and were subjected to hire and fire contracts with a week’s notice from either side. Subsequently, a new scheme of British Civil Service pay conditions were adopted in favour of the locally recruited staff, which meant 5% from their wages was deducted, while the HC paid a higher rate towards the PSPF.
This caused a lot of friction between the locally recruited staff and the home based staff mainly due to an ‘element of jealousy’ by the fact that locally recruited staff were paid according to British Civil Service salary scales on a weekly basis. The situation became even more complex when the locally recruited staff qualified for the UK National Insurance contribution scheme as well, in addition to their PSPF! In contrast, the home based staff received ‘their scanty salaries’ by converting rupees into Sterling Pounds at the foreign exchange rate of Rs.15.50 to a Pound! In addition, the locally recruited staff qualified to work until they reached the age of 60, prior to their retirement.
At a certain stage, when the PSPF contribution rate was 6% by the employee and 9% from the employer, Sri Lankan government abolished the PSPF scheme totally on locally recruited staff, amidst a lot of argumentative atmosphere between the two groups.
When Peter Wijesinghe retired officially in 1988, he received a PSPF cheque for £1025, which was purely based on his contribution only – without the employer contributions!
At this juncture, Peter Wijesinghe had no option but to file a case against the Sri Lanka High Commission in the British Employment Tribunal. It indeed appeared to be a cataclysmic situation where an employee had given his longest service in the history of Sri Lanka’s foreign service. The High Commission Management maintained their inability to pay due to various obstacles within the system that existed at the time! This he attributed to a ‘certain amount jealousy’ of his receiving the British Civil Service Pension as well as his PSPF entitlement, which would have amounted to approximately Rs.20 million at his final retirement.
Appealed to the Queen
In the midst of such a hullabaloo Peter Wijesinghe addressed his predicament in a letter to Queen Elizabeth II, who was accredited to the Court of St. James, seeking redress. The Queen referred the matter to the Head of the Civil Service, from there it had been directed to the Head of the Foreign Office, who finally made a written appeal to the Sri Lankan High Commissioner requesting him to reconsider Wijesinghe’s case in a justifiable manner.
Peter Wijesinghe said, the High Commission authorities never responded to the request made by the Foreign Office in the UK. In the meanwhile, a Sri Lankan lawyer, the late Gunadasa Mabarana (a shrewd solicitor once in the London scene) had connived with a Diplomatic Secretary, the late Abeyratne at the Sri Lanka High Commission and approached Peter Wijesinghe on the premise of offering legal advice to win the case against the government on his PSPF dues.
Duplicity and Dishonesty
Peter Wijesinghe was rather disappointed when he finally realised that Gunadasa Mabarana not only had cheated him by charging a substantial amount of money from him as legal fees to appear on his behalf, but he had been engaged in a calculated duplicity exercise instead, by ‘just sitting on the appeal papers until the time frame allocated passed the ‘dead line’!
Finally, Mabarana’s conspiratorial and despicable act helped the Sri Lanka High Commission to come out of the woods and make open statements to the effect that ‘the High Commission won the case against Peter Wijesinghe on the grounds of diplomatic immunity‘!
“That was it, and I only lost about Rs.20 million rupees, but my case paved the way to reintroduce the PSPF scheme for the benefit of other locally recruited staff once gain”, said Peter Wijesinghe from his retired surroundings in Gunnapane, Kandy.
In the history of the Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service, members of staff who had served from overseas Sri Lankan Missions had been far and few between. One such employee was Mr. Strauss attached to the Embassy in Washington who had once approached the late Dr. N.M. Perera, during the Minister’s visit to Washington and complained about his (Strauss’s) long service of over 25 years, which had not been recognised by the Sri Lanka government! Dr. N.M. Perera had been quick in his wit and had immediately responded by saying: “Why don’t you come to Sri Lanka on a holiday“? Strauss accepted the offer and thoroughly enjoyed his memorable holiday, all expenses paid by the Sri Lankan government, as a mark of recognition for his long service to the Sri Lanka government from Washington.
In London, Robert Haynes,an elderly English man had been employed by the High Commission from 1948 (as men in the UK were scarce after the second world war). Robert Haynestoo worked for a record number of years at the High Commission as a ‘messenger’; however, the same treatment apportioned to Strauss in the USA was denied to Haynes in London!
Having spotted such injustice, Peter Wijesinghe took the case up with the Sri Lanka Foreign Service sighting the precedence created by Dr. N.M. Perera, in favour of Strauss at the Washington Embassy. It finally paved the way to Peter Wijesinghe as well, to enjoy the same privileges of a pre-paid holiday to Sri Lanka in recognition of his long service.