After the completion of three successful years in Kuwait, as His Excellency C.A.H.M. Wijeratne prepares to bid adieu to Kuwait, The Times Kuwait takes a look back at how this affable and ever cheerful career diplomat has made an indelible impression among the diplomatic corps and with people in Kuwait, as well as endeared himself to his fellow nationals, and to the many in the larger expatriate community who had the honor of meeting and interacting with him.
The Ambassador remembers how in early July of 2011 the hot desert winds of Kuwait welcomed him to this country. As it was his first posting in the Middle East, he looked forward to absorbing the culture and traditions of the Arab world. Not only was it his job to maintain the longstanding relationship between Sri Lanka and Kuwait, but also to establish relationships with the various communities in Kuwait. Ambassador Wijeratne recalls that this was made easy considering how tightly knit the expatriate community is in Kuwait, and how he and Mrs. Wijeratne truly appreciated such togetherness.
Noting that since the time of Kuwait’s independence in 1961, the two countries have always had friendly and cordial relationship, the ambassador remembers how during the Iraqi invasion and occupation of 1990–91, Sri Lanka supported all UN Security Council resolutions demanding the immediate withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and, in March 1991, it became one of the first countries to reopen its embassy in Kuwait.
Pointing out that both Sri Lanka and Kuwait have participated at international forums, including the different UN Conventions, the Non-Aligned Movement summits, the Asian Cooperation Dialogue Ministerial meetings as well as the Summit and the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conferences, the diplomat says the two countries share a common understanding and belief in the need to further strengthen the relationship into a multi–faceted and mutually beneficial partnership encompassing all fields of interest.
The Ambassador stresses that bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and Kuwait improved significantly with the visit of His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa the President of Sri Lanka to Kuwait to participate at the Asian Cooperation Dialogue summit in 2012.
With economic ties between the two countries showing an upsurge, Ambassador Wijeratne notes: “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.”
“Tourism is another area that has improved substantially since the end of ethnic conflict in our country. With annual visitors to the country crossing the million mark, and a strong representation from this part of the world, we aim to regain our position as one of the most visited countries in South Asia,” says the diplomat.
Describing cultural exchanges between countries as another forum to form and build people to people relations, the ambassador says, “We are working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters to increase bilateral cultural exchanges between our two countries. The Sri Lankan dance troupe that entertained delegates at the last Asian Cooperation Dialogue Summit held in Kuwait was very well received by audiences. The embassy is planning more cultural exchanges in future to further strengthen relations on the popular level.”
“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,” explains the envoy.
As a career diplomat, who has served in various parts of the world from Germany, Indonesia and Nepal to Italy and Canada, his experience in both the public and diplomatic service has made him an excellent representative of the community of more than 200,000 Sri Lankans in Kuwait. They fondly remember him as the person who truly cared for them. During his tenure many were able to approach him with hopes that he would redress their grievances. In many instances, the ambassador has gone out of his way to assist those in need in whichever way possible.
The ambassador’s tenacity in following through and solving problems of his people has gained him the grudging respect of government officials in the host country, while his cheerful demeanor and camaraderie has won him the friendship of many dignitaries and the admiration of his colleagues in diplomatic circles.
“During the course of my diplomatic career, 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, this instilled in me an abiding interest in the welfare of ordinary people,” says Ambassador Wijeratne.
“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 have also 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.”
The ambassador goes on to say that diplomatic staff in the embassy are often limited by the short duration of their tenure and brief exposure to host country society, to significantly influence perceptions about their country on the local people.
“It is my opinion 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 expatriate community living and working in their midst. 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,” says the ambassador.
The Wijeratne’s were also very popular in diplomatic circle and in the social milieu of Kuwait. Mrs. Jayalakshmi Wijeratne, the wife of the ambassador, was a very active member of the International Women’s Group (IWG) in Kuwait and was also a great support to her husband. In recognition of her participation and service to the IWG, Mrs. Wijeratne was elected this year as the president of the organization.
She deeply regrets being unable to contribute to the IWG as president because of her departure from Kuwait, but maintains that she will still retain a close relationship with the group. She mentioned how much she treasures each and every friendship that she formed in Kuwait.
Ambassador Wijeratne adds: “This country has so much to offer, from the finest dates to the most valuable friendships, and we will truly miss everything.”