Pressing ahead to fulfil presidential visions

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Hardly had Sri Lanka’s new envoy to the Court of St James taken his new seat when he was firing on all cylinders. The high commission here has had heads of missions drawn from a wide variety of professions and vocations. A quick count tells me there were two former army commanders, academics, lawyers, one-time parliamentarians, corporate leaders, a doctor and, of course, career diplomats .

But this is the first time, in my memory, the mission has seen a former foreign minister occupying the seat. So London and the European continent are not unfamiliar territory to Rohitha Bogollagama who has worn many hats from diverse fields which makes him as resilient as the country he now represents at the ticking heart of the Commonwealth of which Sri Lanka is a founder member.

Among his tasks is to build Sri Lanka’s profile withing the Commonwealth bilaterally and multilaterally, so that it is better engaged with this 56-nation association with which Sri Lanka has been associated since our independence.

High Commissioner Rohitha Bogolllagama with our columnist Neville de Silva at the relaunch of the Island of Ingenuity

Moreover, this is the centre point for Sri Lanka to connect with one of its biggest markets, the UK, with a trade in goods and services valued at over £1 billion and a country with which Sri Lanka has a warm relationship and one which its one-time colony could have even warmer and close relations in the years to come, exploring the trade concessions that the UK now offers to developing nations.

He is already talking to the Indian business community about investing in Sri Lanka which too is offering concessions and incentives under new investment policies.

This resilience and his capacity to fit into many roles is what takes him to Ghana today as President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s special envoy to a UN- sponsored summit meeting of nations providing peace-keeping military contingents to troubled nations in many parts of the world.

Sri Lankan peace keepers have their feet on the ground in several countries and Sri Lanka would like to see more of its troops stationed in other troubled spots. Sri Lanka’s military has not only supplied troops but medical teams too.

His participation will allow Mr Bogollagama to connect up with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres so quickly in his tenure.

But between assuming duties in London less than two weeks ago, High Commissioner Bogollagama who is a workaholic as I have seen in his previous avatars particularly as foreign minister when he organised the successful SAARC summit in Colombo in 2008, has addressed several meetings including the important Third Commonwealth Trade and Investment Summit (CTIS).

Talking to the Investment Council’s Strategic Partners the High Commissioner highlighted the latest developments in the economic and investment climate in Sri Lanka and the new opportunities offered to investors.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe having undertaken the country’s economic recovery after last year’s virtual economic collapse has carved a more vigorous and dominant role for Sri Lanka’s diplomatic missions besides the customary bilateral and multilateral associations. He has urged that the missions play a frontline role in promoting trade and investment, vigorously opening to international view the technical and technological talent and expertise available in Sri Lanka.

When I spoke High Commissioner Bogollagama in his first meeting with the media, he stressed the importance of Sri Lanka’s geopolitical positioning as the “Centre Point” in terms of development and accessibility between the East, Far East, Middle East and the West.

Moreover, Sri Lanka’s geographical position places it at the centre of a huge market in South Asia with a population of nearly 2 billion, has created an immense advantage for the country.

In pursuit of fulfilling President Wickremesinghe’s vision to modernise Sri Lanka to meet future needs, he said that Sri Lanka with the correct infrastructure, common legal system, independence of the judiciary, ensured rule of law, the efforts made to enhance English language education, highly skilled and adaptable workforce, a very good road network and expanding tourism and other facilities, the country is on the track to attract new investments such a greenfield and high tech investments and for innovations.

So the Commonwealth with more than fifty member-states, some in search of locations with all the skills and facilities and attractive investment opportunities will find Sri Lanka ideally situated, he told the Commonwealth gathering to which the new high commissioner was invited as a speaker.

That provided him with an early opportunity to urge potential investors and companies in the Commonwealth network and indeed other nations outside it too, to come to Sri Lanka — “a nation on the rise” as he called it.

Last week I attended a re-launch of the “Island of Ingenuity” held at the High Commission. It was organised by SLASSCOM, a Sri Lanka association engaged in promoting software and technical expertise and the Sri Lanka-UK Chamber of Commerce, which Rohitha Bogollagama addressed to a packed audience that flowed out of the mission’s hall.

He told the mixed audience that the government had prioritised the IT/BPM industry as one of the key contributors of foreign exchange, and aimed at achieving a digital economy by 2030, essential for the country’s recovery.

The High Commissioner reminded that for decades Sri Lanka has been producing a highly skilled labour force which is adaptable to modern technology and innovation. Thus, it has become a global supplier of choice for the rapidly growing IT/ BPO industry.

Furthermore, the UK has been one of the largest Foreign Direct Investment partners of Sri Lanka with investments in diversified areas such as textiles, garments, electronic products, security printing, tourism and IT among others.

What was encouraging was the huge interest shown in the ‘new’ Sri Lanka during the post-event reception with many guests posing questions to Mr Bogollagama and the search for more data and information not only by those not too familiar with Sri Lanka but even those from the Sri Lanka diaspora, when they found the new high commissioner ready to engage with them and knowledgeable enough to respond promptly without having to turn pages of manuals or to direct them elsewhere for answers.

The interests shown by the community means that the high commissioner’s next move, among others, would surely be to visit some major cities in the UK where the Sri Lanka community exist in substantial numbers to engage with them- irrespective of ethnic or religious differences– and articulate as he does facilely, what he sees as a country on the rise and urge them to join hands to serve their one-time home.

One interesting feature I noticed as I moved around renewing old connections with those from the Sri Lankan diaspora and others, was sudden energy among high commission staff both career diplomats and administrative.

They seem more activated. What I found heartening and encouraging was a conversation I overheard. It was a staffer telling a person originally from Colombo I had known for many years, that they do not mind working hard and even late because the working atmosphere has changed and they feel wanted and part of a new beginning.

That sounds encouraging, particularly to me having worked at the mission for over two years and found that a friendly atmosphere pervading the institution and working environment and a sense of camaraderie with all staff,’ is so rewarding both to self and those one works with.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London)