CHOGM – Going Down Memory Lane

The 23rd Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) or the ‘Leaders Retreat’ will be held in Sri Lanka from November 15 to 17, 2013 as per Commonwealth Leaders’ agreement at Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago in 2009.

Queen Elizabeth I1, as the Head of the Commonwealth, will not be attending the Conference in Sri Lanka as the 87 year old monarch has reportedly curtailed her overseas visits due to her age factor (news source - Buckingham Palace). Instead, Prince Charles, heir to the throne, and the British Prime Minister David Cameron will represent Britain.

According to media reports there is going to be a proposal at the forthcoming meeting ‘to make the position of Head of the Commonwealth hereditary to descendents of Queen Elizabeth II”.


At the very inception the Conference was not a prominent event and was known as ‘The Colonial Imperial Conference’. Subsequently the name changed from ‘The Colonial Imperial Conference’ to ‘The British Commonwealth Conference’ and finally got registered as 'The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting'.

The first symposium of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers 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 Goonetilleke 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 chop off his Konde (hair knot at the back of head) and making himself trendy with a 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).

It is noteworthy to learn that 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 very fact caused India a problem because a Republic could not be entertained as a member of the Commonwealth for the first summit. Queen Elizabeth II being the Head of The Commonwealth India could not possibly have 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. It is chaired by the hosting nations 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 agree on a common proposal or a solution at which point they release 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.

Records reveal that during Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake’s tenure one of his Cabinet Minister’s (Edmond Coorey!) 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 Secretariat as 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. Britannia was a majestic symbol of the Commonwealth and a proud ambassador for Great Britain.

Cyprus meeting

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 the Buckingham Palace, who is the chief functionary of the court and who is generally responsible for organising all court functions.

He is considered the "senior official" of the Royal Household. Lord Chamberlain’s office dates back to middle Ages, when ‘he’ 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 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.

Honour and glory

It was regarded as a great honour for Sri Lanka and a glorious and memorable occasion for young Sri Lankan Bassoon Player Rebecca Wijesinghe to 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!!

However, even after 20 years of that memorable event, ‘Life Abroad Column’ is 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 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.

Sri Express
Sri Express

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