Last update:Wed, 08 May 2024

All except snow

behoerdenspiegelBildA Conversation with the Ambassador of Sri Lanka, Upali Sarrath Kongahage

The island in the Indian Ocean that is about 54 kilometres to the east off the southern tip of India has already had many names. The original inhabitants called it Lamka. Later, it was referred to as Tambapanni, Taprobane and Singhala. Under Portuguese rule it was called Ceilao and finally Ceylon by the Dutch and British colonial masters. When the island, which is with its 65,610 km2 a little bit smaller than Bavaria, regained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1948 the name was not changed. "Never change a winning horse," said the government in the capital Colombo, "wait and see—we have more important things to do."

In 1972, almost one quarter of a century later, the charismatic head of government and first female prime minister of the world deemed her island nation to have developed into stabile democratic country. "No," said Sirimavo Bandaranaika, "we should call it Sri Lanka." Whether the name is taken out of the Hindu epos Ramayana that speaks of the legendary Lanka as a prosperous and highly civilised nation not unsimilar to a far eastern Atlantis is another story. There is no historic evidence for this legend, only that this name means something like "honourable island".


Some 20 million Sri Lankans live there today. With 314 inhabitants per square kilometre, these are more than in Germany, where "only" 229 people live in the same space. In spite of the crowded space, the islanders are "well-off" after the end of the civil war in 2009. However, there are huge regional differences regarding the economic development. Colombo and the region around it are the economic centre, which is responsible for half of the economic output. The economic growth in real terms amounted to 8 percent (2009: 3.5 percent) between 2010 and 2011, which is the strongest growth for the last 32 years. A growth rate between 7 and 7.5 percent is also expected for 2012. Unemployment dropped in 2010 from 5.7 percent to 4.9 percent. A problem, however, is the growing youth unemployment, which amounts to about 13.7 percent. In its regular assessment of economic benchmarks, the IMF confirmed that Sri Lanka met the other agreed targets.


Therefore, this is not a bad start for Sri Upali Sarrath Kongahage, who became Sri Lanka's ambassador in Berlin last September. The 60-year-old lawyer is a soft-spoken diplomat who knows also other tunes. After his work as a lawyer and defence lawyer at Colombo's high courts, he became chairman of the state-run TV, Director Editorial & Actg. Chairman for Lakehouse, Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd and advised the information ministry from 2007 until 2010. From 1995 until 2000 he sat as MP in parliament and is thus very well prepared for his first job as ambassador.

"The role of an ambassador," says Sarrath Kongahage, "has changed dramatically during the course of time. People expect me to use applied diplomacy. Diplomacy means to shape the official relations between governments of independent nations by means of intelligence and tact, or expressed in a shorter way: peaceful business relations. This requires communication. A good ambassador is characterised by such an ability. This applies to both my dispatches back home and the dealings with official representatives and people of the host country. I am trying to promote Sri Lanka's appearance in Germany and to carry out an active trade diplomacy since this has gained importance in modern diplomacy. And I want to bring both countries closer together in order to facilitate political, social and cultural exchange."

There should be no problem for achieving this since the bilateral political relations are good. What is more, the German culture institutes with seat in Sri Lanka, the political foundations, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) or the South Asia Institute are respected and valued as reliable partners.


"It can be said without exaggeration," said Ambassador Sarrath Kongahage, "that our relations to Germany have not only been close since the establishment of diplomatic relations 60 years ago but almost historic. Sri Lanka is, for instance, already mentioned in the 8th century by an archbishop from Mainz who wrote about an island called "Taprobane", which was full of gems and elephants. The German mathematician, geographer and cartographer Gerhard Mercator (1512-94) drew one of the earliest maps of Sri Lanka in his world atlas in 1569.

The first German settlers arrived in Sri Lanka from Idar Oberstein as miners and goldsmiths in 1841. Since then, our gems have been exported to this town in Rhineland-Westphalia. In addition, one of the first cars to be imported to Sri Lanka belonged to these settlers. And even today many Opel and Volkswagen are driving on our streets."


Not only tea, cinnamon or spices—the tropical island in the Indian Ocean offers almost anything except snow in an impressive diversity. Old ruins and a modern capital, white beaches and deep green tea plantations are only a few hours apart by car. In addition, the country delights the visitor with a rich flora and fauna. Elephants are romping around in the national parks and whales and dolphins off the coast. What is more, Sri Lanka is a top destination for Ayurvedic treatment.

No wonder that Hermann Hesse exclaimed when he arrived in Colombo with the ship in 1911: "It is the paradise, really the paradise." As the author of Siddhartha, many other early travellers were enthusiastic about the island. More than 100 years ago, the naturalist Ernst Haeckel spent many months in the south of the island in Welligama, the place of the famous stilt fishermen, which he called Belagama, "the beautiful village". And Wilhelm Geiger, Germany's most famous Indologist, wrote in his diary around the turn into the 20th century: "For the first time I saw here the entire fairy-like, eyes and ears bewitching magic of the tropical vegetation."

"Germany-born Marie Musaeus Higgins was a pioneer on the field of girls education. She arrived in Sri Lanka on 10 November 1889 and lived there 35 years until her death. The Musaeus College is still remembering her today. John Hagenbeck's book "25 Years in Ceylon" was a bestseller in German in the 1920s and is characteristic for the already then very harmonious relations." "On 10 January 2012, a stamp with a blue sapphire from Sri Lanka was issued on the occasion of the celebration of the birthday of former Federal President Christian Wulff, which I regard as a great appreciation for my country." Ambassador Sarrath Kongahage has "arrived" to Germany. Therefore, he does not want to change with nobody even for one day: "I would like to work as a defence lawyer or in the media only at the end of my diplomatic career."

Source: Behoerden Spiegel, October 2012