by Thilak S. Fernando

On the eve of the third consecutive session of the Sri Lanka Centre opening doors on 10th March at the Ealing Town Hall Tilak S. Fernando spoke exclusively to the ‘brains behind’ this enormous project. Following are the excerpts of the interview.

Q. You inaugurated the Sri Lanka Centre event at Alexandra Palace and then went to Porchester Hall. You say this is a temporary measure until you find a permanent home, but why are you holding the Centre at posh places at such high expense?

A. Most Sri Lankan events are held in cheap, and often nasty-looking, halls. The decision to hold the Sri Lanka Centre events in nicer venues was to help to raise the profile of the Centre and also to boost the morale of our people.

Q. The Sri Lanka Centre must be costing you a fortune. Why have you embarked on such a venture?

A. The Sri Lankans are the only community in the UK which does not have a community centre. Even poorer countries have set up centres for their people. We did have a centre in the late Sixties and early Seventies, but it was a students’ centre, and it was sold off by the government at a ridiculously low price.

Q. Why do you think that a Sri Lanka Centre is so vitally important ?

A. It is the lack of a Sri Lankan centre that has prevented the development of a national consciousness among our people. We do not think of ourselves as Sri Lankans. Instead, we are highly fragmentised since we are organised only as members of one or other old boys’ organisation, or as members of some profession or as members of some political party. The Sri Lanka Centre enables us to come together as Sri Lankans: to feel part of a nation.

Q. How is it that such a Centre has not been thought of by others?

A. Other people also may have thought of such a centre, but nothing has materialised. I, myself, have been trying with a number of others to set up such a centre for more than six years, but there was not enough real support.

Q. Why have you decide to set it up yourself rather than in association with others?

A. Many organisations collapse because some people get into the committees to hi-jack and subvert them and divert them from their original objectives, or use them for self-publicity. Or the members have violently conflicting views of the aims. Moreover, to set up such a Centre costs a lot of money. The hall charges alone for the hire of the Palace Suite at Alexandra Palace for the ceremonial opening on 2nd December 2000 cost more than £3,000. On top of that there were the charges for the band, the singer (who was brought direct from Sri Lanka), fees for the cultural dances, costs of the dinner etc. – all of which totalled nearly £6,000. The charges for the occasion at the Porchester Hall on 3rd February 2001 also cost nearly as much.

Q. Some people often complain that they were not invited into the committees for this project and you have a mind of your own and difficult to work with you. How do you defend yourself ?

A. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but I will tell you some thing and that is, it is very difficult to persuade people to contribute even small amounts of money. People cannot expect a right to get into committees without taking on the obligations? I have been involved in work relating to the Sri Lankan situation for the past seventeen years, but only a very small number of people have ever contributed any money – and that, also, mostly in 1983 to insert that famous advertisement titled ‘You heard the Media: Now read the facts’ in the (UK) Guardian.

Q. Do you mean to say that you have not had any response from the Sri Lankan compatriots in support of your endeavour since then ?

A. No. Except for a very small number of cheques which were received in recent years – and these we diverted straight to other Sinhala organisations - the reluctance of people to contribute is very dispiriting. But the reluctance is also partly due to the fact that many believe in the past some individuals had collected money from the public, but the money had ‘disappeared’. Allegations are that some even set up private businesses. As a result, even the few people who were concerned enough to want to contribute money for the Sri Lankan cause, stopped giving.

Q. Do you think that is the major stumbling block you face ?

A. It was because of this difficulty of getting our people to contribute any money that I stopped even asking people, and from that time on, all my efforts – for three years, I even published a newspaper called ‘Sri Lanka International’ – were financed by me.

Q. People have said that the programme is too long – going on from 10.00 in the morning till 1.30 the next morning. Because of this, though substantial numbers of people have been turning up, it gives the illusion that the numbers are low because the crowd is dispersed over more than fifteen hours.

A. The Sri Lanka centre is intended to perform the function of a permanent centre. People should be able to visit whenever they feel like it – whether to come and purchase groceries, or to have a hopper or string-hopper lunch, or for dancing or even simply to sit down and read the papers or have a chat with other Sri Lankans. The Centre caters to all of these objectives.

Q. Why have the Sri Lankan businesses not supported your venture so far?

A. Businessmen have to look for their profits and are, traditionally, conservative. But they are now realising that having a stall at the Sri Lanka Centre makes very good economic sense. Businesses need to go where the people are, rather than expect the people to go to the businesses. By having stalls at the Centre, they can advertise their products directly to potential customers, answer customer queries, solve customers’ problems, and immediately sell their products. As any Sales Manager knows, this is this ideal opportunity to do all that.

Q. So why have organisations like the Bank of Ceylon, with their new Corporate image, not seized the opportunity of The Sri Lanka Centre?

A. Very good question.The Bank of Ceylon spends a large amount of money for advertisements to try to and induce people to open NRFC accounts. But people do not go all the way to Devonshire Square to open NRFC accounts, but to conduct their own business. If the Bank wishes to induce people to open such accounts, it should come to The Sri Lanka Centre - to where the people are – and speak to them, explain the advantages of such accounts, and get the paperwork completed then and there. If the Bank had only done so, I am certain that more NRFC accounts would have been opened at the past three Sri Lanka Centre occasions than have been opened during the past five years.

Q. Since this is a good community project, why has the government not done this, rather than leave it to a private individual?

A. When the late General Sepala Attygalle and General Cyril Ranatunga were holding the position of High Commissioner here, they repeatedly promised to help setting up of a Sri Lanka Centre, but nothing materialised. The new High Commissioner, Mr Mangala Moonesinghe, is more concerned and we feel that we will now have the Government support for a permanent centre. It will be more economical for the government to purchase a suitable building to house all the government organisations in one complex, and we could help in the running of the Sri Lanka Centre in one part of the building. After all, considering the number of Sri Lankans living in the UK this becomes an important and vital requisite.

Q. You have already held the Sri Lanka Centre event on two occasions and spent a large amount of money for this project. People say that either you have too much of money, or you are foolish to do this. What have you to say to such criticisms?

A. This is a typical Sri Lankan attitude. Many people do not want to do anything, and when someone does, people are ever ready to criticise. It is the government that should have done this, but over the past fifty-three years it has done nothing. The lack of a Centre has been very harmful to our nation because it has eroded our sense of nationhood. Today we tend to think of ourselves as members of this or that old boys’ association, or of one or other professional organisation or even of one political party or another. But we do not think of ourselves as a nation.

Q. How optimistic are you that in the very near future your dream to establish a permanent Sri Lanka Centre will come true, despite all the negative criticism being levelled by some people?

A. I believe that a permanent centre can be established very soon. In fact, the major problem is finding a suitable building. If anyone knows of a disused cinema building, church hall or any other building within about a ten-mile radius of Ealing, we would be very grateful if he/she gets in touch with us on 020 8998 3024.