The new Sri Lankan Ambassador to Thailand H.E. Mrs. Samantha K. Jayasuriya still eagerly awaits to receive her credentials from the King Maha Vajiralongkorn Phra Vajiraklaochaoyuhua. But as Sri Lanka celebrates its Independence Day on Tuesday, February 4th 2020 we managed to convince her to sit and talk to us where she told us of the great honour that had been bestowed upon her to represent Sri Lanka in the dream destination for any Ambassador, the Kingdom of Thailand.
Did you arrive to Thailand from home, or were you posted somewhere else before?
Coming to Thailand directly from Geneva, Switzerland as a result of the promotion to Ambassador position.
Where are you born and brought up?
I was born in a suburban area 22km away from Colombo city. It was very much a village atmosphere in Kottawa when I was a child – today it is a transport hub, much changed in all aspects and simplicity.
At which age did you decide you wanted to become a diplomat?
I had no plans to be a diplomat. It was the wish of my parents to see I become a Doctor of Medicine and I did study bio science. The patients were lucky! I did not reach there, but ended up as a graduate in Agriculture Economics, from the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. When I was an Assistant Lecturer at the Faculty together with a few friends we applied for the open competitive exam for the Sri Lanka Foreign Service (SLFS) – it was on the last day of closing applications we did so. I passed the examination and a subsequent interview and was approved for initial training at the diplomatic academy in Sri Lanka. There is no one in my family or extended family who are diplomats.
How do you look at Thailand today? Have you had any obstacles since you arrived?
It is now four months since I arrived in Thailand and I am still in the process of settling in. This is my first time to visit Thailand. I look at the country as a land filled with positive lessons to learn and explore.
Do you see any similarities between your country and Thailand?
Thailand appears a home away from home in many fronts. The most fundamental fact is the way of life of people, the family bonds – extended family centred society. The Theravada Buddhist tradition has been the foundation of the relations between our two countries. It dates back to 800 years when the Theravada Buddhist tradition practiced in Sri Lanka was introduced to Thailand. That is why you have a chapter called “Lankawamsa’ here in Thailand. Similarly in 1753 when Sri Lanka (Ceylon) was under colonial occupation. It was from Thailand (Siam) that ordination was reestablished by Phra Upali Thero. Today the Buddhist chapter in Sri Lanka is called ‘Shaymopali Nikaya’ – or Siam Chapter. Since then there have been many exchanges through Buddhist monks. The Temple Wat Bowonniwet for example has specific buildings allocated for the monks who then visited from Sri Lanka, called ‘Lankawasa’. If you consider the architecture of some bell-shaped ‘stupas’ or ‘chedi’ in places like Nakhon Si Thammarat, they were inspired by Sri Lankan Buddhist culture. As is the white temple in Chiang Rai.
There are many socio-cultural similarities like the common celebrations such as the New Year in April. Here in Thailand you call it ‘Songkran Festival’, visit family and friends, temples and pay merit. In Sri Lanka people would pay gratitude to parents, elders, use it a period to reconcile and move on. The specific period where there is no auspicious time or the Sankranthi/Nonagatha people goes to temples.
Due to the influence of Sanskrit there are similar expressions, we greet by clasping the two hands together close to the heart and say ‘Ayu-bo-wan’ (May you have long life), Thais say ‘Sawadee’ giving a similar greeting.
Sri Lankans value family relations, respects for elders and priests. I wonder whether you know that we have two specific pali verses to worship our parents.
Do you have children? What age and where do they go to school?
We have one daughter who is 10 years and she is now attending KIS International School.
How do you look upon your work here? What does an average day look like?
It is very difficult to say there are average days, as each day brings new experiences. However, there are few things that I do as a routine each day. I take my daughter to school, so I wake up by 5.30am and leave home at the by latest 6.45am to beat the Bangkok traffic. On my way, I normally finish reading the morning newspapers, listen to the radio news, check emails and browse through the Sri Lankan and world news on the web. I am normally in my office by 8.30am if I do not have any appointments early morning outside the office. As I have both bilateral and multilateral responsibilities, no two days is ever the same, it is exiting and opens up new connections each passing day.
As with every Ambassador, I assume you have some goals you really would like to reach/fulfil before you leave Thailand. What are they?
We first established diplomatic relations way back in 1955 and as any new Ambassador, my first objective is to build on the good relations that has so happily co-exist and see ways of galvanising it further in every front, political, socio-economic, cultural and more importantly to enhance awareness about Sri Lanka among the Thai people.
As a new envoy, I take every opportunity to get myself acquainted with new knowledge in Thailand, the region, and to spread the message of Thai-Sri Lanka connections and the opportunities available to bring them closer and our ties stronger. Following the end of 30 years of armed conflict against terrorism, Sri Lanka has made considerable efforts and investment to ensure sustainable peace and reconciliation amongst all communities. Sri Lanka has risen as an attractive destination for investments and trade opportunities. We have also shared our experiences between the security forces on combating marine drug trafficking through naval training. Thailand has offered us many programmes on capacity building particularly in agriculture, fisheries, rainmaking, etc.
Trade between our two countries can be expanded and these are some of the areas that I wish to look at and expand during my tenure. Also, on the multilateral sphere, we have already exchanged views on partnering with the UN agencies particularly with the UNESCAP in sustainable development, preventing marine plastic pollution, migration, macroeconomic policies and financing for development.
I also try to meet and engage with all experts that come to Bangkok representing Sri Lanka so we could identify areas which the Mission can follow up and work on. The other important area is promoting Sri Lankan tourism or bringing it to the attention of Thai and international travellers. Sri Lanka as a varied and beautiful destination beyond that of just a cultural and the many Buddhist religious sites. For its relatively small size of 65,000 square kms, Sri Lanka already has 8 UNESCO Heritage sites, it is a bio diversity hot spot, in a few hours you can see the giants on land – elephants as well as in the sea, blue whales. Adventures, eco tourism, train rides across sweeping lush green tea gardens in the hill country, pristine beaches, stunning architecture and salubrious climates in the hills, spiritual practices including mediation and Ayurveda or Helaosu treatments that satisfy the mind and body. It has been twice named as the best travel destination by Lonely Planet and most recently as one of the best warm weather destinations. I hope to make everyone here familiar with the Temple of Tooth relic and the Sigiriya Rock Fortress and the 1st Century Frescoes as ‘must see’ places.
Everyone from Thailand or overseas would be interested in experiencing the food wherever they visit Sri Lanka. There is much similarity in some cuisines particularly coconut milk based curries and here in Thailand the famous Sri Lankan Ministry of Crab opened their restaurant last month in Soi 30 Sukhumvit following a long wait.
There are many places of interest on my wish list that I want to see in Thailand, particularly to explore the roots of the centuries old Thai-Sri Lanka relations. I am looking forward to connect with the people and the venerable monks to share this experience. Sri Lanka and Thailand are well connected by air through the daily flights operating between Colombo and Bangkok by Sri Lanka’s flag carrier ‘Sri Lankan Airlines’, and the national carrier of Thailand ‘Thai Airways’, and a budget airline ‘Thai Lion Air’.
When you have a day off, what do you do? Do you have any special hobbies?
A day off is precious, and if I can, I would prefer to stay at home and be lazy, read a good book or an article. Listen to some music, I love experimenting with cooking by going through some new recipes. Also, whenever I can, I scribble my free thoughts.
How many of your countryfolk are living in Thailand? When and why did Thailand become a desirable destination for your people?
There is a smaller Sri Lankan community, mainly long term residents doing business and working. I had my first meeting with them as a group when we celebrated the ‘Diwali-Festival of Lights’ at the Embassy. We all join in as a tradition on all important national events.
The Hambanthota port and the Ranong port in Thailand also has established business contract through on MoU.
We also play host to between 60/80,000 Sri Lankans that travel to Thailand for travel and business annually.
Do your country and Thailand have any exchange programmes for students today?
Compared to the numbers several decades ago, we do have a smaller number of student community mainly with AIT, Thammasat, Chulalongkorn, Mahidol Universities and Sri Lankan Buddhist monks who are studying at Maha Chulalongkorn University as well as academics serving as lecturers. I visited AIT and spent time with them getting to know with them and their respective areas of studies and projects, they are mainly post graduate students. I want to reference Ms. Dulani Chamika Withanage, an alumna of the Mechatronics programme at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), who is the key person associated with the development of Sri Lanka’s first satellite known as Raavana 1. I was particularly pleased to learn that the students are working on projects that address important issues useful to Thailand.
What do you believe is your most important task as Ambassador?
As this is my first time to be in Thailand what fascinated me in the first place was the discipline of people and service oriented nature. Their loyalty to the monarchy, religion and hierarchy are some of the indelible memories I would attach to describe Thailand.
To do my best to make Sri Lanka one of the ‘wish list destinations’ for Thai and expat travellers. To see both countries concluding a FTA and benefitting from it by expanding trade, services and investment, To do my part during my three year tenure to add value to our multi -faceted relationship.