Sri Lanka: The Orient’s Pearl regains its luster

Ambassador H.E. C.A.H.M. Wijeratne

Over eons the island country has been known by many names; it was chronicled as Lanka in the ancient Indian epics, it was known to Greek travelers as Taprobane, the Arab maritime traders referred to it as Serendib and Portuguese occupiers called it Ceilão in 1505.

The English, who colonized the island from the late 18th Century, transliterated Ceilão to Ceylon and granted it independence in 1948 under the name Dominion of Ceylon. In 1972, the country reverted back to its Sanskrit name of Sri Lanka and six years later became today’s Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. Despite its many name changes and checkered past, for much of its more than 3,500 years of recorded history, Sri Lanka has enjoyed strong maritime trade links with countries along the Arabian Coast and across the Indian Ocean. Historical trade links between Sri Lanka and the Arab world were further strengthened in 1971, when Kuwait became one of the first countries from the region to initiate diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka.

This was followed in 1981 by the opening of Sri Lanka’s embassy in Kuwait and the subsequent opening of Kuwaiti embassy in Colombo. “Since the opening of our respective embassies, relations between Sri Lanka and Kuwait have witnessed rapid growth in trade, investment and tourism,” said H.E. C.A.H.M. Wijeratne, the Sri Lankan Ambassador to Kuwait, during an exclusive interview with The Times.

“Following the initial signing of bilateral trade agreements in the early 1990s, the volume and range of products traded have expanded and the amount of investment by Kuwait in Sri Lanka has also increased exponentially. For instance, the Kuwait Fund for Economic Development has invested in various rehabilitation, irrigation and infrastructure projects in the country, as well as in the re-development of South Eastern University of Sri Lanka.”

“We are also working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Sri Lanka The Orient’s Pearl regains its luster National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters to increase bilateral cultural exchanges between our countries. The Sri Lankan dance troupe that entertained delegates to the recent Asian Cooperation Dialogue Summit held in Kuwait was very well received by audiences. We are planning on a repeat performance by the same dance troupe and other cultural exchanges are also on the anvil. Tourism is another area that has improved substantially since the end of ethnic conflict in our country; this year we are expecting the number of annual visitors to cross a million with strong representation from this part of the world. Our strong diplomatic, commercial and cultural relations notwithstanding, it is in the realm of human resources, both skilled and unskilled, that Sri Lanka is more widely known in this region. And it is this human component that has occupied a significant chunk of my time since assuming ambassadorial duties.”

“I entered the Sri Lankan Foreign Service in 1992 and served at diplomatic missions worldwide, including in Germany, Indonesia, Nepal, Italy and Canada. I have also on occasions participated as a member of my country’s delegation to the UN Human Rights conference in Geneva as well as UN General Assembly in New York. I took up my assignment here in Kuwait in 2010 and this is my first assignment as the Head of Mission. At that time, there were over 600 Sri Lankan citizens stranded in the safe house maintained by the Mission on various issues.

Following my presentation of credentials to, and in my audience with, His Highness the Amir of Kuwait, I brought up the subject of stranded Sri Lankan laborers in the country. I felt extremely honored when His Highness immediately ordered their repatriation and even arranged for their air tickets.” “The government of Kuwait displayed their compassionate nature once again in 2011, when they granted a general amnesty to Sri Lankan migrants who had been staying illegally in the country and also assisted with the repatriation of stranded female domestic workers. This humane gesture on the part of His Highness and the government of Kuwait was highly appreciated by Sri Lanka and acknowledged on several occasions by Sri Lankan dignitaries during their visits to Kuwait, including during the recent visit of His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his discussions with His Highness the Amir.”

“With over 120,000 Sri Lankans living and working in Kuwait, mainly in the domestic sector, we continue to encounter labor related problems of unpaid salaries and workplace harassment. As the Sri Lankan Embassy we are legally bound to provide all necessary assistance to our nationals under any circumstance, so we have opened a ‘safe house’, adjoining the embassy, where those who suffer grievances can seek refuge. We then arrange for discussions between the local sponsor and Sri Lankan labor agency representatives stationed here, to find an amicable solution. We do not believe that airing problems in the media helps resolve issues; either we work out a mutually agreeable solution with the sponsor, or we arrange with the authorities to speedily repatriate them back to Sri Lanka.”

“We have setup a system at the embassy whereby any Sri Lankan can approach us to redress their complaints, either through a complaint box or directly on the phone. I personally meet with many of them and try to find solutions to their problems so that they can go about their livelihood and continue to live and work in an environment conducive to them. In this context, it is worth pointing out that there are several social and economic compulsions behind the huge influx of unskilled female domestic workers from our country into this region. The implications of trying to stop this emigration through legislation are also equally large; not least of which is the nearly six billion dollars that are annually repatriated by the 1.7 million Sri Lankan expatriates around the world.”

“No doubt, there is poverty and unemployment back home and there are definite financial benefits to be had from seeking employment in this part of the world, but underlying these economic issues are many social ones too. It is only when one comes in direct contact and hears first-hand accounts of compelling social and cultural problems that prompted many of these women to migrate abroad that you realize the futility of trying to prevent their exit through laws and regulations. At best, these laws can prevent a few people from going abroad, but more often than not, these regulations will only allow unscrupulous agents and middlemen to thrive through further exploiting these unfortunate people.”

“It is my opinion that local people often form impressions of a country from what they read, hear and see in the media, but more and more these notions are colored through their interaction with expatriates living in that country.

An ambassador or other diplomatic staff in the embassy are restricted by the short duration of their tenure and their limited exposure to local people to significantly influence perceptions about a country. It is my firm belief that it is our people who are the real ambassadors of Sri Lanka; they are the voice and face of the country. It is based on interacting with them that local people base their opinions about our country,” concluded the ambassador.