Life Abroad Pt. 129 - LETTING THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG - A peep into the past
Continuation of a fascinating true to life story of Wijesim Peelige Bandiya, son of a Kandyan ‘ hack & burn’ peasant farmer, who sailed away from the Colombo harbour to the UK at a very tender age, with only three Australian pounds in his pocket, accompanied by Sir Oliver Goonatillake in 1948, married a German girl and transformed his life into something unimaginable over the years and returned to his roots as a ‘ laxapathiya’ (millionaire) and is now settled in a spacious house at the age of 86 with his brother Wijesim Peelige Ran Kira, 98 years old in Pahatha Dumbara, Kandy. Following are excerpts from an interview the writer had recently in Kandy with Wijesim Pelige Bandiya.
Upon returning to London from his travels in India and meeting up with his children and grandchildren, Sir Oliver became quite busy with his Lloyds Register Insurance work, which involved frequent travels to many parts of the world.
He was still sharing the flat at Carlisle Place with Peter and Hannah, which was owned by Sir Oliver’s friend, Mrs. Saunders. Peter Wijesinghe was always at his disposal in running about and getting Sir Oliver the requisite visas from various foreign embassies and high Commissions in London. It helped Peter with ease, being an employee of the Ceylon High Commission, and the fact that he had already built up a lot of useful connections with other foreign missions in London.
Out of devotion
During such operations Peter had Mr. Rex Koelmeyer’s blessings, who was the Councillor attached to the Sri Lanka High Commission at the time. Additionally Mr. Koelmeyer was completely ‘ devoted’ to Sir Oliver Goonatillake. Rex Koelmeyer was always willing to release a “ third person note” to Peter to help him in his expeditions to obtain necessary visas for Sir Oliver - on one strict condition that he did not let the cat out of the bag!
This procedure helped both Sir Oliver and Peter to a greater extent until Sir Oliver had to obtain a visa to visit Burma on business. One fine morning, quite innocently, Peter Wijesinghe as usual walked up to the Burmese embassy visa counter in London with the necessary documentation and a 3rd person note to apply for an entry visa for Sir Oliver Goonatillake to visit Burma.
Awkwardly, the Burmese embassy staff having noticed that Sir Oliver Goonatillake as the former Governor General of Ceylon became highly overwrought. They, in turn, informed Rangoon to this effect, and the news spread thick and fast like wild fire and ended up in a prominent slot in a Burmese national newspaper on the following day. Obviously the cat was let out of the bag, and the news hit the national newspapers in Ceylon as well, which naturally made matters worse for Sir Oliver.
After the Burmese visa confusion, things began to be somewhat difficult for Peter Wijesinghe. The whole under cover operation exploded overnight with regard to Sir Oliver’s obscured living in London. Sir R.S.S (Senarath) Gunawardhana, who is said to have been S.W.R.Bandaranaike’s ‘best man’ at his wedding, was the High Commissioner in London at the time. As a prominent Lawyer, Gunawardhana had presided over some of the Committee Meetings on drafting the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which finally came into effect in 1961
Senarath Gunawardhana questioned Rex Koelmeyer, a senior diplomat at the High Commission, about Peter’s involvement and, of course, he (Koelmeyer) had to spit the truth and the whole story out to the High Commissioner. The High Commissioner’s advice was to ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ and suggested that Sir Oliver Goonatillake left the flat immediately, and instructed Peter Wijesinghe to ‘lie low’.
When such a calamity was taking place in London, Sir Oliver Goonatillake was actively engaged in business activities in Spain, during his country-to-country travel. Peter had no option but to inform Sir Oliver about the latest developments in London; it compelled Sir Oliver to stay put in a flat in Malaga for some time before returning to London.
After postponing his return trip to London, Sir Oliver was back in Bombay with his rich entrepreneur friend Sidambarn Adayar. On 16th February 1964, Sir Oliver wrote once gain to Peter Wijesinghe, on one of Adayar’s personal letterheads; Peter and his wife Hannah were getting ready to embark on a holiday in Ceylon for the first time after the couple got married.
“ Adayar’s House
16 February 64
My dearest Hannah & Peter
I may need to use your back of the flat whilst you are in Ceylon. So please leave the bedroom, and living room open for me. You can lock up everything else.
It will be myself who would be the occupant.
Kindly keep all this to yourself. If the need arises, I will get Mrs. Saunders’s approval of course. Nothing will happen till after both of us are back in London.
A reciprocal favour.
Sir Oliver returned to London from India to Mrs. Saunders’s flat at 3A Carlisle Place, Victoria, London SW1 (which was adjoining the Westminster Cathedral) while Peter and Hannah were holidaying in Ceylon for the first time after they were married.
Sir Oliver had, in advance, instructed his daughter Sheila in Colombo to help Peter and Hannah with any amount of money the couple needed while they were in Ceylon.
This was one way of showing his gratitude to Peter for all the help and assistance afforded to Sir Oliver in London at the hour of need, however Peter and his wife did not need any extra funds during their holiday as they stayed at the Baptist Mansion at Rawatawatta, Moratuwa where they had a reunion with his former master Rev. T. A. de Silva who taught him first to read long years. Rev. de Silva happened to be the Parish Priest at the Rawatawatta Baptist Church and Peter had kept his communication channels open with the Reverend right throughout.
Sir Oliver continued to live at 3A Carlisle Place, Victoria, London for some time. During this period his elder daughter Joyce and children arrived in London and stayed with him. 3A Carlisle Place, Victoria was a two-storey building where Sir Oliver always occupied the upper floor during his stay in London.
Consequently, Sir Oliver Goonatillake got married to Phyllis Miller, who had been the Secretary of the Soulbury Commission, whom he had befriended during the period of the Commission around 1944. Phyllis Miller was a well-heeled and affluent lady who owned a plush apartment at No. 14 Albion Gate, Bayswater, facing the famous London Hyde Park, situated only a stone’s throw from the Sri Lanka High Commission building at 13 Hyde Park Gardens. Ultimately, Sir Oliver moved to 14, Albion Gate apartment and lived with Phyllis Miller.
By early 1970s Peter and Hannah moved to their own house in Neasden, North West of London. It was a period even in Ceylon things began to change. Firstly, the name of the country took place from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, followed by the emergence of the JVP, and problems became escalated and widespread. As part of the measures to deal with the volatile situation created by the JVP, the government introduced the special Criminal Justice Commission Act where 130 JVP insurgents were sent to jail including the leader of the JVP, Rohana Wijeweera. The government however, could not lay a hand on the Queen’s official representatieve in Ceylon, Sir Oliver Goonatillake.
The latest Criminal Justice Commission Act introduced by Felix Dias Bandaranaike in 1972 had repercussions on several other people as well, who were not connected with the JVP at all! The Act extended its powers to include anyone who had been violating Exchange Control Regulations of the country which meant that many prominent figures such as Sir Oliver’s daughter Sheila, his son in law Sathanandan (Sheila’s husband), popular businessman the late Rajaratne Gopal, among many others, were imprisoned.
For further investigations on money laundering, a special CID Officer, one Wettasinghe, was sent to London to interrogate many in the UK including several officers at the Sri Lanka High Commission in London. It was then that the CID Officer Wettasinghe questioned Peter Wijesinghe and Brenda Fonseka in detail, but Guy Amirthanayagam, a very senior diplomat, profusely refused to co-operate in such an investigation!
At the age of 82, Sir Oliver was tried in absentia in Sri Lanka, under the Exchange Control Regulations Act of 1972. He was finally sentenced to 4 years of rigorous imprisonment with hard labour with a fine of Rs.950,000. However, when J.R. Jayawardena came back to power in the nick of time, he abolished such penal codes that helped Sir Oliver Goonatillake to get back to Sri Lank
Upon arrival to his roots in Sri Lanka once again, Sir Oliver Goonatillake’s vigor started to deteriorate and his health began to decline. Finally, Sir Oliver Ernest Goonatillake, the prominent Sri Lankan and a powerful figure, died in his own country on 17 December 1978.