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Ambassador Profile: Sri Lanka's Jayantha Dhanapala
The Washington Diplomat / January 1997

By Larry Luxner

When Sri Lanka's Jayantha Dhanapala entered an essay contest at age 17, writing on "The World We Want," he had no idea he'd win a three-month trip to the United States -- let alone represent his country in Washington someday as ambassador.

Back then, the world knew Sri Lanka as Ceylon, and ethnic fighting had not yet scarred the tropical beauty of this Indian Ocean island nation famous for its tea and cinnamon exports.

"As a boy of 10, I remember having to memorize the Gettysburg Address," recalled Dhanapala, the son of a schoolteacher and 10th in a family of 11 children. "Having had the experience of living in the United States. I switched from wanting to be a journalist to wanting to be a diplomat."

Dhanapala, now 58 and a seasoned expert on weapons policy, among other things, says he's never regretted that choice. Last year, the Sri Lankan chaired a global review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in Geneva. Following that gathering, the New York Times called him "a diplomat mostly unknown outside the arms-control world until he was elected to preside over this conference," and hinted that he may be in line as a future secretary-general of the United Nations.

For now, however, Dhanapala is an unassuming, soft-spoken career diplomat, with a quick sense of humor and a deep feeling of responsibility to his country.

"I have been coming to the United States since 1957, and have noticed a general improvement of knowledge about Sri Lanka," he told us recently. "And I've been struck by the fact that in almost every state I visit, there are always Sri Lankans."

Dhanapala is certainly no stranger to Washington. He studied at American Univer-sity, graduating with a master's degree in international studies, before joining his country's foreign service in 1965. He also attended the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, where he learned Chinese.

In 1984, after stints in Washington, London, Beijing and New Delhi, Dhanapala was appointed ambassador and permanent representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in Geneva. Three years later, the UN chose him to head the Geneva-based United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research -- a post he held for five years before returning to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital.

In addition to Chinese, Dhanapala speaks French as well as two of the three major languages of Sri Lanka -- Sinhalese and English.

Located just off the Indian coast, Sri Lanka is a largely Buddhist Sinhalese country of 18 million, with a complicated ethnic and religious mix of Hindus, Muslims, Tamils, Christians, Malays and other minorities. Ruled for hundreds of years by the Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British, Sri Lanka won its independence in 1948 -- a year after India -- and is today a sovereign republic, with membership in the British Commonwealth.

A brass plaque outside the Sri Lankan embassy at 2418 Wyoming Avenue proudly announces the name of the country, "Embassy of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka," in three alphabets. But Dhanapala says that name itself can be misleading.

"In political terms, we have been a democracy since 1931, and in 1977 we moved to free-market policies," he points out. "The latest publication of the Heritage Foundations ranks us 27th in economic freedom in the world."

At the moment, Sri Lanka has a per-capita income of $714 -- the highest in South Asia. The UN's Human Development Report 1996 gave Sri Lanka a "human development index" of 0.698 -- ranking it 89th among the world's nations, right behind the Dominican Republic and Western Samoa, and just a shade better off than Turkmenistan and Peru.

"The political relationship between the United States and Sri Lanka is a very stable and normal one. We have no problems between us," said the ambassador. "We're also very happy with our trade relations, but what I'm most interested in is to try to expand the level of U.S. investment in Sri Lanka, and that has been one of my primary targets of this assignment."

To that end, Dhanapala last year helped organize the Sri Lankan-U.S. Business Forum, which in December held its second annual meeting in Washington.

"Tea provides an interesting analysis of how a post-colonial economy undergoes changes. When the British were the colonial masters of Sri Lanka from 1796 to 1948, tea was our main commercial crop. But we have diversified our economy, and today, garments are our largest export, and the United States is our No. 1 trading partner."

Currently, some 50 U.S. companies employ 10,000 Sri Lankan workers in huge industrial free zones, churning out everything from rubber latex gloves to Calvin Klein blue-jeans. Other large investments involve the assembly of ceramic tiles, jewelry and semiconductors. New Orleans-based Freeport MacMoRan, for example, is negotiating to sink $300 million into a phosphate-mining venture.

In December alone, Sri Lanka's Board of Investment signed nine investment agreements worth $26.8 million, including an $11.6 million luxury housing project for the suburbs of Colombo, a $9.3 million British garment factory to employ 500 people, and a Sri Lankan-German-Swiss venture to manufacture membranes for export.

"We have one of the best sets of incentives in the region, but the main investors in Sri Lanka have so far come from Japan, Korea, Singapore and Australia -- very little from the United States," he said. "Only in the last two years has there been an upswing. I believe it's largely an information gap. We have not marketed ourselves sufficiently. I'm trying to rectify that."

Yet Sri Lanka's biggest stumbling block isn't a lack of marketing or public-relations savvy -- but rather the country's never-ending ethnic strife. Over the past 13 years, an estimated 50,000 Sri Lankans have died in clashes between government forces and militant guerrilla demanding a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's sizeable Tamil minority. The violent rebel insurgency, centered in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, has taken its toll on the nation's economy -- forcing President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her People's Alliance government to slash food and farm subsidies to pay for a mushrooming defense budget as her army steps up the battle against the Tamil Tigers.

Pointing to a portrait of the 50-year-old leader, Dhanapala says "our president has the distinction of having had both her father and mother as prime ministers of Sri Lanka at various times. She's shown remarkable political courage trying to solve our problems."

Dhanapala said that following the violation of a delicate ceasefire in April 1996, "we have had no alternative but to protect the rest of the country from these terrorists."

"This government has made substantial progress both on the political front and the military front, and in finding a negotiated solution to the problem," he added, "with the recognition that the Tamils have perceived grievances which have to be looked at."

Sri Lanka's man in Washington stresses that, contrary to some news reports about Sri Lanka, the fighting is not a religious war -- since there are Hindus and Christians on both sides of the conflict.

Interestingly, though he was baptized a Christian, Dhanapala is now an agnostic and veers toward Buddhist philosophy; his wife Maureen is among the 7% of Sri Lankans who happen to be Christian. They have two children: daughter Kiran, an economist, and son Sivanka, a lawyer currently working for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Bosnia.

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