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Jaliya Wickramasuriya: From Tea Taster to Ambassador
The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal / April 2009

By Larry Luxner

WASHINGTON — On a breezy Saturday afternoon last month, 150 or so Tamil demonstrators lined up along Washington's Connecticut Avenue, waving homemade signs and urging passing motorists to honk their horns to protest Sri Lanka's latest military offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels, who have been fighting for a separate homeland in the north for 25 years.

"Two, four, six, eight, Sri Lanka is a racist state!" chanted a college student with a megaphone. Others held up placards reading "Genocide should not be a celebration" and "Stop censorship: Let journalists do their job."

Less than a block away, D.C. police protected hundreds of diplomats, dignitaries, expatriates and others celebrating the 61st anniversary of Sri Lankan independence. One speaker after another, including the son of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, paid tribute to the country's "brave young soldiers fighting the terrorists," while religious leaders representing Sri Lanka's Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities solemnly prayed for national reconciliation.

No one even mentioned the noisy protesters down the street.

"We just ignore them," says Jaliya Wickramasuriya, Sri Lanka's ambassador to the United States. "Most of these people don't know why they're standing there. They have never been to Sri Lanka. They're being used by the terrorists."

Nevertheless, Wickramasuriya admits he's concerned. In late January, sympathizers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — which the State Department considers a terrorist group — picketed the Sri Lankan consulate in Chennai, India; up to 40 students were detained by police.

In Toronto, thousands of Tamils from across Canada formed a human chain stretching for several city blocks around the Sri Lankan consulate, protesting against what they call the genocide of the Tamil people in their homeland. And on Feb. 3, the night before Sri Lanka's independence day, its embassy in Berlin was attacked by unknown assailants who smashed heavy boulders through the mission's double-glass windows. No injuries were reported, though the German mission is now under heavy police guard.

"We are fighting the most ruthless terrorist organization in the world," Wickramasuriya said in an exclusive interview. "Our government is facing a big problem right now. These terrorists are keeping innocent Tamils as human shields. And anybody who talks against them, even their own people, will be killed. In fact, the Tigers have killed more Tamils than Sinhalese."

The 48-year-old Wickramasuriya makes for an unlikely ambassador. Born and raised in Weeraketiya, a small village in southern Sri Lanka, he's a former tea taster and a close relative of President Rajapaksa. He sometimes comes across more like a corporate executive than a diplomat.

"I have a great staff here, so my idea is to run this embassy like a CEO," he told us during our interview at the four-story Sri Lankan Embassy, which fronts Wyoming Avenue. "We have nine diplomats. I train them like the senior management of a company, and I direct them with my expertise of Sri Lanka. I think it's more interesting than doing it the traditional way."

Wickramasuriya began his professional career at the age of 18, when tea industry veteran Merrill J. Fernando hired him as a management trainee. Fernando's company, Dilmah, would one day rank among the world's largest tea exporting firms. He still considers Fernando his guru, crediting the entrepreneur with giving him the confidence to work in the tea business anywhere in the world.

"At that time, there were tea tasters, but not many tea experts. We were exporting only bulk, loose tea, with no value added," he said. "In 1980, Fernando imported the first tea-bagging machine into Sri Lanka."

Wickramasuriya worked at Dilmah for 20 years, eventually starting his own company, Ceylon Royal Tea, which markets top-quality tea under the brand name Chami.

"I did something different from those other companies," he said. "All of them are selling tea for tea drinkers. I thought I should market my tea to coffee drinkers, so I started with North America. That's how I came to the United States. In the U.S. there are 300 tea companies, most of them traders or brokers. Our success in the United States was that we are Sri Lankan, we have our own facility in Sri Lanka, and we go directly to the buyer with no third parties involved."

Ceylon Royal Tea exports its products to Target, Wal-Mart and other large U.S. chains through an Atlanta-based subsidiary set up by Wickramasuriya during one of his many dozens of trips to the United States.

"I'm promoting Ceylon tea as the best in the world," he said. "In fact, we're thinking of opening a couple of tea houses in the United States — especially New York and Los Angeles. There are a lot of tea drinkers here."

But now that he's ambassador, Wickramasuriya has very little time for tea — so his brother Prasanna is running the family business, leaving him more time to focus on the war and how Sri Lanka will heal itself after the fighting stops.

Since the early 1980s, the central government has been locked in battle with the LTTE, which claims to represent Sri Lanka's Tamil minority. According to the 2001 census, Tamils (who are predominantly Hindu) comprised 12% of the island's 20 million inhabitants, while the Sinhalese (who are mostly Buddhist) made up 74%. The remaining 14% is divided among Muslims, Christians and other minorities.

Wickramasuriya, a Sinhalese Buddhist, says he has no personal grudges against the Tamil minority; one of his cousins married a Tamil, and his sister married a Muslim. He says his priority right now is to protect Sri Lanka's Tamils from the LTTE.

"Our main concern is getting the civilians out of there," he said. "If the international community pressures LTTE to release the civilians from their clutches, this could be finished in two weeks. But since we're worried about civilians, it will take longer. Our president has given strict instructions to the armed forces not to injure even one civilian."

He added: "Anybody who is coming to our side is treated like a civilian. Many ran to our area when they started firing, and a lot of them got killed." The increasing number of suicide bombings against civilians, he said, "means the terrorists are angry with the civilians who have escaped."

Sri Lanka's current bloodshed has its roots in the period immediately after the country's 1948 independence from England, when the country was still known as Ceylon and dark-skinned Tamils found themselves routinely discriminated against by the Sinhalese-dominated government.

In 1949, the so-called "estate Tamils" of Indian origin — who had worked Sri Lanka's tea plantations for generations, were stripped of their citizenship — leaving them stateless. Seven years later, the Sri Lankan parliament made Sinhalese the official language, prompting widespread violence. Ethnic tensions were further aggravated by state-sponsored colonization schemes that sought to increase Sinhalese influence in the Eastern Province, which Tamil nationalists considered to be their traditional homeland.

Armed struggle against the central government in Colombo began in 1983 with the rise of the LTTE and other militant groups, though the Tigers eventually decimated rival groups. Even today, many Tamils complain of harrassment, and it's not uncommon for Sinhalese-speaking police officers to search and interrogate busloads of Tamil workers in the streets of Colombo, an ethnically mixed city.

Wickramasuriya points out that in 1997, the United States became the first country to ban the LTTE as a terrorist organization. The European Union and Canada followed much later.

"We are thankful to the U.S. government for that," he said. "After that, the LTTE started a new organization to collect money, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO). The FBI investigated them and banned TRO also."

The ambassador, who acknowledges past injustices against the Tamil minority, says the LTTE speaks for barely 1 percent of Sri Lanka's Tamils — and he resents the news media's use of the term "civil war" to describe what's going on in his country.

"There is no civil war in Sri Lanka," he insists. "A civil war is between two ethnic communities. This is a war between terrorists and civilians. The LTTE is a terrorist organization similar to al-Qaeda, and their leader [Vellupillai Prabakharan] is like Bin Laden."

Things started heating up when President Rajapaksa took office in November 2005. Rajapaksa, who considered a 2002 truce between the government and rebel forces to be treasonous, launched an all-out war against the LTTE, eventually succeeding in recapturing about 95% of the territory under rebel control.

Wickramasuriya defends the president's decision to scrap the 2002 peace treaty, saying the Tigers were simply using the accord to buy time to re-arm themselves.

"For two years, they equipped themselves with weapons and land mines. The government lifted the ban on cement, and they built bunkers," he said. "The government was giving them everything; they even got planes during that time. We lost so many lives because of that peace accord."

But it’s almost impossible to verify what’s going on in the conflict zone itself, because both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE have kept reporters away from the fighting. In early January, one of the country’s best-known journalists, Lasantha Wickramatunga — editor of the Sunday Leader — was assassinated by gunmen on motorcycles as he drove to work. Wickramatunga, who had received numerous death threats throughout his career, had been highly critical of the government’s campaign against the Tigers, and in his last editorial accused Rajapaksa of pursuing the war as a “recipe for electoral success” to stay in power.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said the Rajapaksa government was to blame “because they incited hatred against Wickramatunga and allowed an outrageous level of impunity to develop as regards violence against the press.”

Yet Colombo’s man in Washington denies that his government practices censorship or intimidates journalists in any way. “We prevent journalists from going to the actual conflict area because we are worried about their safety,” says Ambassador Wickramasuriya, noting that eight American journalists have recently been issued visas to go to Sri Lanka and even accompany army troops on guided tours of the conflict zone.

On Feb. 12, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted the Tamil Foundation, a Maryland-based charity accused of funneling money to the LTTE. Treasury official Adam Szubin said the Tigers have "relied on so-called charities to raise funds and advance its violent aims."

The order freezes the U.S. assets of the foundation, which is headquartered in the small town of Cumberland, Md., and prohibits Americans from engaging in any transactions with the group. But the foundation's owner, a kidney specialist named Nagaratnam Ranjithan, says his private charity has nothing to do with the Tigers and is only interested in improving the lives of Sri Lanka's Tamils.

Meanwhile, Jayantha Gnanakone, leader of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit group Tamils for Justice, says he aims to "expose human-rights violations and bring war criminals to justice." His organization has hired conservative Washington lawyer Bruce Fein to publicize what he calls President Rajapaksa's sinister attempts at ethnic cleansing.

"The Sri Lankan government has a secret plan to militarize the Mullaittivu district and install a huge army base, bring in Sinhalese and colonize the area," he claimed. "That's why they're trying to remove all the civilians from that area and push them into internment camps."

One thing both sides can agree on is that the suffering has been tremendous — and that Asia's longest-running conflict won't be ending anytime soon.

"In the short term, it will be a bloody mess, and in the worst-case scenario for the Tamils, there will be intense guerrilla warfare," said Gnanakone. "And they will give it back as hard as they get."

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