A depleted consulate


(Continued from last week)

I left for Toronto on March 13, 2008 and assumed duties on two days later. I was received at the airport by Segi Ismail, Attache at the Consulate Generals office. Later, I found Segi to be a good and humble officer who served his country well. They took me to the huge eight-room residence of the Consulate General in one of the expensive areas in Toronto, Oxbow Road. The house was owned by one time Speech writer for George Bush David Frums family. Frums is credited of having coined the phrase, ‘Axis of Evil’.

The house was in a very bad state—far too big for a poor and humble diplomat from Sri Lanka. It also had Jacuzzis and Saunas. Sri Lankan-Canadians I met later joked that diplomats had used the Jacuzzi to wash clothes and the Sauna to dry them. I wouldn't know the truth. With my domestic staffer, I cleaned the house till 2.00 the following day and was shocked to find the national flag under a bed. With no Consul General to represent Sri Lanka for nearly a year, Sri Lanka had paid almost USD 10,000 per month to keep the empty residence instead of giving it up unti a new person was appointed. We could have rebuilt a village in Sri Lanka with that amount of money.

Instead of waiting for Monday to assume duties, I decided to check the office out on Saturday itself and saw the state of affairs. Personal Assistant had moved places; the Accounts Officer was somewhere else, all due to personal animosities. I thought they had come to Toronto to serve the country! Instructions were given to them to revert to their original positions. The Consulate General’s office staff welcomed me in the traditional way on the first day and I was pleasantly surprised to have met Daya Hettiarachchi a veteran of SLUNA (Sri Lanka United Nationals Association ) who had been battling the LTTE in Toronto for many years. Daya was 80. He shed tears of joy on hearing that the LTTE had been defeated. He told me many in Canada at that time never expected to hear the good news in their life time.

That is how I started my relationship with SLUNA in Canada. They stood by me and Sri Lanka right throughout. They still do.

Instruction went out that the National Anthem be played sharp at 9.00 in the morning. Apart from respecting the national anthem I wanted LTTE supporters who came to the Consulate to get their work done to accept the fact that the consulate was Sri Lankan territory. (At the Consulate they pretended to be innocent. But, they were the very people who protested against us) I had to order several of them to stand up when the national anthem was played. They had no choice. If not they couldn't get their work done. My message to them was "You respect Sri Lanka. We respect you. You don't respect Sri Lanka. We don't respect you or accept you!"

It was important to improve communications and other facilities to try and counter the strong LTTE lobby. It was a tough task with a Kachcheri like operations carried out by Consulate Generals office at the time. I was surprised to hear that my predecessor had not used a computer!

Instructions were given to start a new interactive website to a well wisher, Suvi Wijeratne, who offered to do it free of charge. I got a Blackberry phone to be on top of the game for instant communications, created more emails since the mission was operating with just one email. If the personal assistant did not check emails no one else cared to do so. Newspapers were ordered for the Consulate since the mission was carrying on blindly whilst facing a heavy propaganda onslaught.

We made the Consulate both disciplined and visitor friendly and even introduced a Sri Lankan tea Counter with the help of a very supportive Sri Lankan, Nalin Wijesekara. Another Sri Lankan, Nihal Cooray, who had contacted me before my arrival in Toronto did the introductions. He was ready to extend a hand anytime and even offered to provide uniform to the Chauffer and the Peon. Strict instructions were given to use passport and other related form with all three languages. Our battle was with the LTTE and no one else.

I also called President Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama. (The only thing Bogollagama asked me was if the house was comfortable!). Later, I contacted Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunga and Foreign Secretary Kohona and informed them of the developments. Kohona asked me not to wait for approval from the Ministry to counter LTTE propaganda and to take them on because the decisions had to be made on the spot. It was very welcomed.

I also called on W. J. S.Karunaratne, who was the High Commissioner in Ottawa. I knew Karu when he worked with former President Kumaratunga as her Secretary. I considered him a nice person. I still do. He treated me well and asked me to do my best for the country. WJS never interfered with my work.

Most people in Sri Lanka were anti-LTTE since no one wanted the country divided. But, some of us were better known as even more anti-LTTE. I had that reputation and the Pro LTTE lobby was ready for me. They had begun their campaign against me much before I set foot in Toronto.

I had also developed a very good rapport with the Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Angela Bogdon. I also had an old warhorse in Mohan Samarasinghe to help me and at times to guide me. Mohan a former journalist and Information Counsellor at the Sri Lanka Embassy in Ottawa was working for a Canadian MP, Deepak Obrahi, Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Deepak visited Sri Lanka several times. Another tower of strength to me was our man next door in New York. Former Foreign Secretary and Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United Nations H. M. G. S. Palihakkara, who was holding our defences well vis-a-vis a heavy diplomatic onslaught. I could count on his wisdom all the time.

I also realised that all right thinking Canadian Sri Lankans, regardless of whether they were Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, Malay were very demoralised with the kind of support they got from the Sri Lankan Diplomatic Mission. They were heavily outnumbered by LTTE backers and their Canadian sympathisers. They had their work cut out.

I decided to lead from the front.

Next Week: Strengthening the defences

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