By Maxmilian Wechsler
AMONGST this country’s international diplomatic corps, HE General Shantha Kottegoda, the Ambassador of the Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka, may well lay claim to the most remarkable entry on his CV.
For this quietly-spoken, humble man is actually a highly decorated former Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, whose awards include the Weera Wickrama Vibushana Medal, conferred for individual acts of bravery of a military nature. The award is equivalent to the UK’s prestigious Military Cross. He is also a former chief of staff of the Sri Lanka Army and one of the main negotiators in bringing about the end of the civil war that tore his country apart for years.
General Kottegoda’s military career dates back to 1969 when he joined the Sri Lanka Army shortly after leaving college. Commissioned as a second lieutenant two years later, he was appointed commander of the Sri Lanka Army in July 2004.
General Kottegoda served in the Sri Lankan armed forces during the protracted war between his country and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), whom he repeatedly referred to as “terrorists” during this interview. However, he not only fought them on the battlefield, he was also a member of the delegation nominated by his government at the peace negotiations facilitated by the Royal Norwegian government held in Sri Lanka, Bangkok and Oslo.
He was the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Army Buddhist Association and other organizations such as Chairman of the Defense Services Sports Board. And in 2009, he was a consultant for John Keells Holdings PLC, responsible for providing guidance and direction on all security related matters of the company.
He has written two publications: ‘Conflict in Sri Lanka, Challenges Faced by the Sri Lanka Army,’ and ‘Counter Terrorism – Dilemmas Faced by the Armies of the Developing World.’
General Kottegoda, who was born in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka (though his ancestors came from the south in a village that bears his family name), is renowned for his diplomatic skills. These came to the fore during the peace negotiations, some of which were conducted here in Thailand.
“Basically, I am a professional military man who served in the armed forces for 36 years and retired in December 2005,” he said. “On my retirement, I was appointed as Ambassador of Sri Lanka to Brazil from April 2006 to March 2008. This is my second assignment as Ambassador.”
Asked if it was difficult to make the transition from a military life to a diplomat, he answered: “Since my retirement from the military in 2005, I have adjusted myself to civilian life even though I still love my uniform.
“My first visit to Thailand was in 2000. As you may be aware we fought a ruthless war for 30 years with the terrorists in northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. We had several attempts at peace negotiations and these included three long rounds of talks in Thailand at the Rose Garden Hotel. I represented the Sri Lankan government as the military adviser. At that time I was the chief of staff of the Sri Lanka Army.
“We negotiated there with the leaders of the terrorist group (LTTE). The government of Thailand facilitated the talks, which weren’t successful at that time because the terrorists were just using the time to regroup, reorganize and to fight again.
“Therefore, our head of state, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, finally gave orders to the armed forces to go all out and to destroy the terrorists. As a result, in May 2009 our armed forces successfully eliminated the terrorists. We are very grateful to the Thai government for facilitating the talks and their unconditional support to solve the problem.”
The General assumed his ambassadorial duties – usually a three-year term – in Thailand on October 15, 2011 just as Bangkok was experiencing severe flooding.
“I am the representative of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and my duty and responsibility is to work toward enhancing bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and Thailand,” he explained.
“In addition, we have over three hundred Sri Lankans living, studying or doing business in Thailand, so we are responsible for looking after their needs and providing them with consular services. I am also ambassador for Cambodia, Lao PDR and the Permanent Representative to UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific,” General Kottegoda said, adding that he enjoyed serving in Brazil.
“As ambassador to Thailand I have more responsibilities because Thailand and Sri Lanka have very close cultural and religious ties going back many centuries.
“Thailand and Sri Lanka established formal diplomatic relations in 1955 but before that we had a consulate here. We opened an embassy in 1977 and moved to the present space in Ocean Tower II on Sukhumvit Soi 19 in 1997.
“We are happy here. There are six officials including myself from Sri Lanka and four Thai nationals working at the embassy,” General Kottegoda said.
The premises of the Sri Lankan embassy are decorated with photographs of spectacular Sri Lankan Buddhist temples and the scenic beauty of Sri Lanka.
“The relations between our two countries are very good. It should be also mentioned that the governor of Ayutthaya province visited Kandy (the English name for the city of Maha Nuwara or Senkadagalapura in the centre of Sri Lanka, the last capital in the era of the ancient Kings of Sri Lanka) in August and signed an MOU declaring Ayutthaya and Kandy twin cities. At this moment there are a lot of bilateral activities between our countries in the sphere of culture, politics and tourism.”
The Ambassador then gave some information on important visits between the two countries, starting with the latest in August when HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn visited Sri Lanka for four days at the invitation of HE President Rajapaksa. The Princess participated in several cultural events in Colombo organized by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Accompanied by President Rajapaksa and First Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa, the Princess visited the Temple of the Tooth (Dalada Maligawa) in Kandy and also attended various activities and visited places of religious, historical, and cultural significance, such as monasteries and the National Museum.
“The Princess’s visit came during celebrations of the 260th anniversary of the establishment of the Siam Wong, or Siam Nikaya in Sri Lanka. In 1753 the Venerable Phra Upali Maha Thera, abbot of Wat Dhammaram in Ayutthaya, headed a delegation of Siamese monks to the Kingdom of Kandy in Sri Lanka. His mission was to ordain monks, which led to the revival of Buddhism there.
“At that time, Buddhist religion in Sri Lanka had gone into a serious decline under successive Portuguese and Dutch colonial rule. The ruler of the Kingdom of Kandy, Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe, then requested King Borommakot of the Ayutthaya Province to help restore Theravada Buddhism in the country to its original state. Largely as a result of this endeavor Buddhism was re-established in Sri Lanka. The revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka reflects the unique Thai-Sri Lankan religious relationship,” General Kottegoda said.
“As for early visits, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) paid a visit to Sri Lanka twice, in 1897 and 1907, on his way to Europe. While there, His Majesty visited various historic shrines and temples. He laid the foundation stone for the construction of Chulalongkorn Memorial Hall at Sri Paramananda Temple in Galle. At another temple, a stone pillar was erected to commemorate the visit of the King.
“King Amanda Mahidol (Rama VIII) came to Sri Lanka with his brother, the present King of Thailand (Rama IX) and the Queen Mother in January 1939. HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej and HM Queen Sirikit paid a visit to Sri Lanka in 1950. HRH Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn paid an official visit to Sri Lanka in January 1993. HRH Princess Chulaborn visited our country in August 1999.
“More recently, President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Thailand in June 2012 and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra visited Sri Lanka in May and June of this year. We also have ongoing high-level political consultations and meetings between our countries. I would say that the good relationship between our two countries has been further enhanced by the current leaders of both countries.”
“Trade between Sri Lanka and Thailand is good but could be considerably improved. The balance of trade is in favor of Thailand, which exported goods worth 2.4 billion baht in 2012. For 2013, the figure as of July was already up to 4.6 billion baht. Thailand imported from Sri Lanka in 2012 goods worth 1.4 billion baht and the total to July 2013 is 786 million baht.
“We import from Thailand vegetable products, garments; dry, salted and smoked fish; sugar; frozen foods; fabrics and other textile products; spare parts and accessories for motor vehicles; chemicals, iron, steel, plastics, paper, air-conditioners and parts, and other electrical machinery and parts.
“We export to Thailand rubber products, gemstones like our famous blue sapphires, which are the best in the world, jewelry, fabrics, coffee, tea, spices, chemicals, electrical machinery, household articles and furniture.”
General Kottegoda said that with the war over, the number of tourists visiting his country is rapidly increasing. “Sri Lanka has great natural scenic beauty. One of the main foreign exchange earners has traditionally been tourism, but due to the war that raged for 30 years it was brought almost to a stand-still. Now, everything has improved because Sri Lanka is now very stable, united, forward looking and still beautiful. Tourist arrivals for 2012 from all over the world were almost one million which of course is nothing in comparison to the 22 million tourists who came to Thailand, but we are a small country. Sri Lanka is the venue for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November 2013.
“Lonely Planet has named Sri Lanka as the number one destination in the world to visit in 2013. We are looking to bring tourism up to 2.6 million visitors a year by 2016. There’s a lot of infrastructure and hotels coming up in Sri Lanka at this moment. For example, the five-star Shangri-La hotel has been built in Colombo. Investors are coming to Sri Lanka and investing in the tourist industry.
“As ambassador to Thailand, part of my goal is to promote spiritual tourism in Sri Lanka. Almost 95 percent of the Thai population is Buddhist. Both countries mainly practice Theravada Buddhism. In the sacred city of Kandy in the central province, and the city of Anuradhapura in the north-central area, there are tooth relics of the Lord Buddha. We also have the oldest documented Bodhi tree grown from a cutting brought from India in 288 BC, from the tree under which Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment.
“Today these are the most sacred places for Buddhists. There are so many amazing places in Sri Lanka where Thai Buddhists can go to pay homage. Thai Buddhists in general are not educated about Sri Lanka,” added General Kottegoda.
“I don’t have exact figures on the number of Sri Lankans visiting Thailand, but I do know they have been increasing over the past two years. Most Sri Lankans come to Bangkok for shopping, tourism, sightseeing as well as business.”
“The climate in Bangkok is a little warmer than in Sri Lanka, though we have more rain,” said General Kottegoda, who is married with two children, a son and a daughter, both residing in Brisbane, Australia.
“Thailand is a nice place, and the people are very friendly. They have smiling faces. I like Thai food, but my wife Sonia likes it even more than I do.
“There are many nice places to visit here. Besides Bangkok and Ayutthaya, we have travelled to Kanchanaburi, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Chon Buri and several other Thai provinces since coming here. We really like Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai – they are very beautiful.
“There’s nothing I don’t like in Thailand except the traffic in Bangkok. The drive from the embassy to my residence is normally 10 to 15 minutes, but one day I was on the road for almost two hours. Sometimes we get caught in traffic whilst going to a National Day reception. For the Russian one held at the Dusit Thani Hotel I was stuck on the road and missed it even though I left two hours early. When we have to go to pick up VIPs at the airport, this can also be a long trip at times. But despite the bad traffic, I still like Bangkok,” General Kottegoda said.
“Many Sri Lankans speak English because they work abroad or plan to do so. The literacy rate in Sri Lanka is about 91 percent. Sometimes when we go to a restaurant in Bangkok it is not easy to communicate exactly what we want to order. Of course, most Sri Lankans who reside in Thailand for 10 or 15 years are able to speak Thai very well.”
At the conclusion of the interview, the ambassador mentioned his most memorable experiences in Thailand so far: “First was the presentation of my credentials to HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and meeting with him on May 7, 2012. Second was the visit of my President to Thailand in 2012, followed by the visit of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck to Sri Lanka this year, and the visit of HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn in August. I accompanied both to Sri Lanka.
“In the regional multilateral sphere Thailand and Sri Lanka closely cooperate in the Asian Regional Forum, Asian cooperation Dialogue, Bali Process on people smuggling, and other international forums.
“In fact, in the international arena, Thailand has been very supportive of Sri Lanka all along, especially when the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a US-backed resolution against Sri Lanka for violation of human rights. I must stress that we didn’t violate human rights but eliminated one of the most ruthless terrorist outfits who were a menace to the world.
“The terrorists were using this region, including Thailand and Cambodia, who also helped to curb them. That’s why we are so grateful to them for the support that allowed us to completely eliminate the terrorists who were one of the most brutal and ruthless terrorist organizations in the world. It used car bombs and even female suicide bombers. One of them assassinated the former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Madras in May 1991.
“The terrorists operated a very efficient international network, particularly targeting the western world. The Tamil diaspora lobbying was very effective. They successfully lobbied the media and politicians.
“Now all that is over. Sri Lanka is a very peaceful country. In short, it is a tourist paradise.”
About Sri Lanka
THE Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is an island country in the Indian Ocean south of India. The country occupies an area of 65,525 kilometres with 1,330 km of coastline consisting of dazzling landscapes and beautiful beaches.
With a cultural heritage going back over 2,500 years, Sri Lanka has eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 15 national parks with some incredible wildlife and approximately 350 waterfalls. The highest mountain in Sri Lanka is Pidurutalagala (2,524 meters) and the highest waterfall is Bambarakanda (263 meters). There are almost half a million acres of tea under cultivation.
The country is a republic, gaining its independence from the British on February 4, 1948. The population of Sri Lanka is more than 21 million, about 70 percent Buddhist. Sri Jayewardenepura is the centre of administration and Colombo is the commercial capital of the country.
Sri Lanka is primarily an agricultural country, producing rice, sugarcane, grains, pulses, oilseed, spices, tea, rubber, coconuts, milk, eggs, beef and fish. Industries include the processing of rubber, tea, coconuts, tobacco and other agricultural commodities, telecommunications, insurance, banking, textiles and petroleum refining. Sri Lanka exports mainly garments and apparels; tea and spices; gems including diamonds, emeralds and rubies; coconut and rubber products, and fish.