Bandiya Series

Diplomatic Emergence

January 1, 2015

(As related by Peter Wijesinghe)

‘Ceylon’ remained under  the Colonial Status until  midnight of Feb. 3 1948,  when it transformed into a Dominion State. Prior to the Dominion stage, G.C.S. Corea (who was later knighted as Sir Claude) served as the last Ceylon Representative  of Ceylon  operating from 28 Cockspur Street Trafalgar Square. Despite the change of address,  not much of diplomatic activity took place in the absence of a proper High Commission office in London or an organised Ministry of External Affairs in Colombo.


The first High Commission office was established at 25 Grosvenor Square, London on October 22, 1948 and Sir Oliver Goonetillake assumed duties as the High Commissioner in the UK.

Among the distinguished guests at the ceremony were Rt. Hon.D.S. Senanayake, along with King George VI and Queen Mother who participated in a tea party hosted by Sir Oliver.

Two assistants brought from Ceylon, Buluwela and Peter Wijesinghe became pioneers of the London staff, who later became as part of the furniture at the London Mission until they retired after serving for a long period. During late 1950s, The Sri Lanka High Commission shifted to 13 Hyde Park Gardens, West London, a large Victorian building, that belonged to Lord Northcliffe on a long lease agreement.

The first Sri Lankan employees at the High London

Buluwela, was a simple man commonly known as ‘Bulu’, He became  main caretaker of the new building from the moment ( he) turned the key of the main door at 13 Hyde park Gardens to officially declare open the new High Commission Office.

His services continued uninterruptedly as the sole caretaker until his official retirement date,  but was extended officially for a further period thus becoming the only government servant  in the capacity of a caretaker, with the longest service, in the annals of Sri Lankan administration.

Bulu’ occupied the top floor flat at 13 Hyde Park Gardens, as his living accommodation, and later got married to a Sinhala lady and produced two children. Their daughter became a brilliant student  and  became a first Sri Lankan ( born in the UK) to join the British Foreign Service and to  serve as Britain’s Trade attaché in Russia, as her first appointment.

His son excelled in studies and ended up as a recognised Medical Research doctor attached to St. Mary’s (teaching) Hospital in Paddington initially,  and later moved to Charing Cross Group of Hospitals in London. The last time I met Bulu in London he proudly announced that  his son Lakjaya Buluwela was on a research programme to find a drug to combat the deadly disease cancer, and he was on the verge of ‘cracking’it!

Sir John Kotalawela

When SWRD Bandaranaike gave a sledge hammer blow to Sir John Kotelawela’s United National Party at the ‘ominous’ general elections (while Sir John was Prime Minister), and crushed the UNP govt’s majority to eight parliamentary seats, agitated Sir John threw in the towel to Ceylon politics and packed his bag and baggage and bid adios to Ceylon as well and came to the UK and settled down in the UK.

When Sir John wanted to bring money from Ceyon to buy a farm in Kent,  and settled down in Britain,  SWRD made no qualms about it but allowed Sir John to take necessary foreign exchange out of the country (despite restrictions that prevailed at the time). In London, Buluwela was introduced to Sir John Kotalawela  by Sir Oliver. Sir John quite liked Bulu, which gave Bulu’s family easy access to Sir John at any time.

Bulu often used to brag about Sir John by showing his family photos posing with Sir John, which made him very proud. He praised Sir John  for helping  him  financially many a time. In such instances he was  like ‘a cock on a brick wall’, proud as ever! It was, regarded, nevertheless, as as an exceptional gesture on the part of Sir John,  being the Premier of  Ceylon once  to have  accommodated a simple man like Bulu because  Sir John was known as an ‘ arrogant aristocrat’.

Bulu’s photographs proved beyond any doubt  about the human aspect of the great character of Sir John despite  various tags put on Sir John as a man of superiority and immense temper! One thing though, being a straightforward gentleman, Sir John  always had the guts to come out bravely  to call spade a spade without thinking about  any repercussions. Some people believed    Sir John always acted before thinking twice and later regretted after scoring his own goals!

Besides, he used a few peculiar Sinhala phrases such as Umba, Ban and Yako,  which formed part of his normal vocabulary when speaking to anyone in Sinhala, yet not considering it being rude or offensive to address people in that manner. I once wrote about a personal incident and an experience as a junior school boy in the presence of Sir John in an earlier write-up where three school boys cycled to his Kandawela Estate when he was the Prime Minister. Relaxing on an easy chair in the verandah, wearing boxer shorts and a vest (how simple we thought), he was reading  the Evening Observer in the afternoon.

The one boy among us with guts, out of the three of  us, approached Sir John nervously and muttered in English,

“Excuse me Sir, can we have your permission to walk around in your estate”?

Displaying his typical character, and not even blinking an eye lid, he bellowed: “Katha karapiya Yako Sinhalen.….! Palayaw, gihin balapiyaw…!! kagenwath avasara ganna oone nehe mage watta balanna” ( Speak in Sinhala you dim-witted  fool ….. go …go and look..around …….. and enjoy yourselves – there is no need to take permission from anyone to stroll in my garden.) Actually, there wasn’t a single body body guard or any security to be seen anywhere in the estate

Peter Wijesinghe was a different kettle of fish and completely diverse from Bulu. He blended with the English life style effectively as opposed to Buluwela and he became known as jack of all trades. Always smartly dressed in a dark three-piece suit, he worked attached exclusively to all the High Commissioners’ from the very inception. Well-informed and fluent in English (spoke with a clear accent) he always extended a helping hand to fellow Sri Lankans who visited the Mission on various errands. From my personal association with him and knowledge about Peter, I regarded him as a cultured person who was on the ball’even on international affairs, and had the capacity to bypass some of the ‘diplomatic types’ who were sent to London at latter stages through Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry.

Peter married a German lady and produced a daughter who became a popular musician in England. After serving at the Sri Lanka High Commission in London for over 50 years, he too retired from the Sri Lanka Foreign Service and settled down in Kandy.

Sir Oliver was succeeded by many erudite Diplomatic officers , as High Commissioner to the UK, all of whom were of high calibre who displayed a certain amount of panache in commensurate with the responsibilities attached to the exclusive post in representing Sri Lanka and promoting the counry’s image abroad.

However, since Ceylon becoming independent in 1948, something that had lacked was the inability for Sri Lankan High Commissioners to follow the normal diplomatic etiquette in presenting credentials to the Queen instead, only an official letter went to the British Premier’s office at No. 10 Downing Street.

This was regarded as a  failure on the part of the ‘Ceylon’ government for not adhering to the legitimate process, after changing the country’s  status  into a Socialist Republic. Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in a rather ‘sluggish’ manner, rushed proceedings only through a Constitutional Assembly and changed the status quo into a Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka on May 22, 1972.

Despite rumours that floated at the time about Mrs. Bandaranaike not having ‘good relations’ with Britain, the actual fact had been due to non-existence of any provision in the British Constitution to entertain the diplomatic etiquette in the presentation of credentials to the Queen under the circumstances mentioned above.

The situation remained subdued and sedentary for many years due to the lack of appropriate legislation in the British Parliament, which is the mother of all legislation. After Dr. M.V. P Peiris relinquished his duties as the High Commissioner, the late Tilak E. Gooneratne, who was the Assistant Secretary General   attached to the Commonwealth Secretariat in London succeeded as the new High Commissioner.

It was during Tilak Gunaratne’s period the ‘mystery’ behind the presentation of credentials to the Queen was unearthed. Subsequently with the help of a group called,  ‘Friends of Sri Lanka’, which consisted of British Parliamentarians such as  Mr. Michael Morris ( Lord Nasesby),Betty Boothwrite and another Lord managed to put things in the perspective by enacting legislation through the House of Lords to make it possible for Sri Lankan High Commissioners to present credentials to the Queen.

Thus, Tilak Gooneratne became the first Sri Lankan envoy tCommissioner to present credentials to the Queen after the country was recognised as a sovereign state.

pic. Credit: Peter W. & Google

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