Life Abroad - Part 29:
SORTING DIPLOMATS FROM THE OFFICERS
At a time the Sri Lankan foreign service, especially the diplomatic
Corps, is being subjected to criticism by certain section of the Sri
Lankan community both at home and abroad, it would be prudent to
reminisce on a Sri Lankan diplomat, Sir Edwin Wijeyeratne, who had lived
up to his profile and discharged his duties as a professional and a
charismatic ‘ambassador’ to Mother Lanka.
History of Ceylon reveals that long before the National Congress saw
the light of day, a young group of Ceylonese fiery men, including R. Sri
Pathmanathan and R. Nadarajah, two sons of the wealthiest citizens of
Colombo at the time, were absolutely patriotic to the core and had taken
an oath to liberate ‘Ceylon’ and signed in blood. This had been done in
the midst of several other ‘Reform groups’ which had surfaced
intermittently without a definite focus to see their mission fulfilled.
Young hot blood
King George VI, Lady Leela, Sir Edwin Wijeyeratne and Queen
Elizabeth The Queen Mother
The idea of the ‘young and hot blood’ began to spread like wildfire;
seemingly patriots such as E.T. Silva, M.A. Arunalandan, R.S.S.
Gunawardena, Phillips Tambyah and a prominent Civil Servant, Paulus
Pieris, risked his prestigious job to join the band of young men who
were prepared to be patriots of no mean calibre.
Edwin Wijeyeratne was born on January 8, 1889 at Rambukkana to
Gabrial Wijeyeratne, a much-respected notary public, and Dona Catherina
Wickremasinghe Jayasekera Tennekoon, daughter of Jayasekera Tennekoon,
notary. Wijeyeratne family hailed from Kotte, whose ancestors were famed
for fighting at Mulleriyawa and Balana.
Wijeyeratne Senior, the first Sinhala notary in the entire four
Korales had shifted from Utuwankande, Mawanella to Kegalle during the
early part of the 16th Century, fleeing from the Portuguese whom they
had fought with.
The family continued intermarrying with the distinguished Walauwes of
Kotte, Madapatha and Matara. There were seven luminaries in Edwin
Wijeyeratne mother's family banner, given by King Parakrama Bahu VI of
Kotte to an ancestor. Edwin was the eldest son of his parents.
Edwin Wijeyeratne was initially educated at the village school of
Rambukkana; subsequently at St. Joseph's College, Colombo where he
passed the senior examination with Honours, earning 15 accolades at the
final school prize giving.
At the demise of his father he took up lecturing at the Lorenz Tutory,
simultaneously showing an interest in journalism and served under a
renowned editor in Ceylon, Armand de Souza, whom Governors feared and
The riots of 1925 nearly brought a martyr’s crown upon Edwin. He was
arrested and had a narrow escape. Simultaneously young Pedris was also
taken into custody for his activities ‘against the law’. Others, F. R.,
D. C. and D. S. Senanayake, Baron Jayatilaka, Dr. C. A. Hewavitarne, W.
A. de Silva, Arthur V. Dias, John Silva, Piyadasa Sirisena, A. E.
Goonesinghe and several others who had done nothing to incite were also
When Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam and Sir James Peiris formed the
Ceylon Congress, Edwin being a colleague became a co-founder. By this
time he had passed out as a lawyer and had a flourishing practice in his
hometown, Kegalle. Being an expert in Civil and Kandyan Law and Buddhist
Ecclesiastical Law he became a live wire in the Ceylon National Congress
and a close friend of D.S. Senanayake.
In 1929 Edwin Wijeyeratne passed out as an advocate. In 1931 he
entered the State Council from Kegalle and served till 1936, displaying
great powers of oratory. He was an authority on parliamentary procedure,
yet he did not stand for re-election in 1936.
He remained at the bar from 1936 to 1947. Edwin Wijeyeratne was
appointed as President of the Ceylon National Congress on December 21,
1940. During this period he led the Ceylon National Congress delegation
to London with Henry Amarasuriya and George E. de Silva.
The delegation created an excellent impression on Conservative and
Labour Parliamentary groups.
In 1947 Edwin Wijeyeratne was appointed to the Senate and became the
Minister of Home Affairs and Rural Development in D. S. Senanayake's
Edwin Wijeyeratne married Leela Pethiyagoda Kumarihamy whose
ancestors had fought with Arawwawala Adigar to prevent the Sinhala
throne from passing to the Malabars. Arawwawala and Petiyagoda were
Edwin and Lady Wijeyeratne were blessed with three sons. The eldest
Tissa Wijeyeratne Barrister at Law, served as Additional Secretary to
the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defence, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to
France and Switzerland and Senior Advisor (Foreign Affairs) to the Prime
The second, Deshamanya Dr. Nissanka Wijeyeratne, served as the
Government Agent in Anuradhapura and Jaffna, Secretary to Ministry
Cultural Affairs, Secretary to Ministry of Information Broadcasting and
Transport, Diyawadana Nilame of Sri Dalada Maligawa Kandy, Member of
Parliament, Minister of Education, Higher Education and Justice, Member
Governing Body of UNESCO head quarters in Paris and Sri Lanka Ambassador
to Russian Federation. The youngest Dr. Cuda Wijeyeratne (MRCP) was a
doctor of Medicine.
In 1951 he was ushered into an eventful new chapter in his life when
D.S. Senanayake elected him as a ‘mastermind’ to represent Dominion of
Ceylon in the Council of the world. In the same year, he assumed duties
as the Ceylon’s second High Commissioner to Great Britain succeeding Sir
Oliver Goonatilleke, where he enjoyed the privilege of moving with kings
but managed to maintain the common touch. Born as a Libran, astrologers
had identified him as ‘a gift of destiny to Sri Lanka’ comparing him
with other international personalities such as Sir Winston Churchill,
Adolf Hitler and Mussolini who were also Librans.
In the UK, he became a prominent Asian guest at all noble English
country estates and castles. His personal camaraderie with Salisbury
family made him a frequent visitor to the Hatfield House, home of the
Salisbury's and at Arundel Castle, the home of the ducal family of
Norfolk. At the demise of King George VI, he honoured Ceylon by signing
on the book of condolences on behalf of his country. During Queen
Elizabeth II’s Coronation he represented Ceylon as guest of honour at
Windsor and Sandringham castles.
Edwin Wijeyeratne received the great compliment and honour at the
hands of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 at Buckingham Palace. Very few
Asians had received such a distinctive tribute in person at the very
seat of chivalry. Sir Edwin Wijeyeratne became close to research and
student communities in Cambridge, Oxford, London and he was of great
assistance to students from Ceylon.
In 1954 Sir Edwin Wijeyeratne assumed duties as the Ceylon High
Commissioner to India during his tour of duty he had discussions with
Jawaharlal Nehru on the Indian problem. Whilst engaged in Buddhist work
at Sanchi, he managed to establish a personal solidarity with the Royal
families of Sikkim and Bhutan.
During his tour of duty as the Ceylon High Commissioner for Ceylon in
Great Britain, he received a private audience with his Holiness the Pope
and the President of Italy. He was entertained by Max Petitpierre, the
President of the Swiss Republic; had lunch with President De Gaulle and
was the guest of King Leopold in Belgium. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
and Prince Phillip were entertained by Sri Edwin and Lady Wijeyeratne on
three occasions at their residence at No. 21, Addison Road, London, a
singular and a unique privilege indeed which no Ambassador has had so
Sir Edwin and Lady Wijeyeratne entertained the Duke and Duchess of
Gloucester twice and at their most receptions Lord Louis Mountbatten and
the Countess had been regular visitors. Simultaneously on five occasions
Sir Edwin and Lady Wijeyeratne were guests at "Broadlands" the home of
the Mountbatten’s which goes to show the diplomatic connection this Sri
Lankan ‘ambassador’ had established.
During a busy schedule of diplomatic missions, Sir Edwin Wijeyeratne
represented Ceylon at the Coronation of the King of Nepal and became the
guest of honour at private palace at Kathmandu. At the invitation of the
Burmese (Myanmar), he carried the sacred relics of Sariputta and
Mogallana to Myanmar to become a guest at the Burmese Presidential
Sir Edwin Wijeyeratne expired on October 19, 1968 in Kegalle, leaving
behind a clear-cut image of how to be a true and conscious diplomat and
as an ‘ambassador’ to his mother country and paving the path for his
successors to emulate and to be proud of their service to Mother Lanka.