On a sunny morning in June, I stepped in for a chat with Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Thailand, H.E. Mrs Kshenuka Senewiratne at the Embassy in Ocean Tower 2, which is just around the corner from where I live and also home to one of my favourite restaurants ‘About Eatery’.
While waiting a few minutes for the Ambassador who was busy on the phone to her home country, I was served the world famous, refreshingly flavoursome Ceylon tea. Meeting this vibrant personality at several events since 2015, indeed has been a pleasure. She makes a marked impression on you, not only because she dresses in beautiful saris, but also due to her beaming smile and vivacious demeanour. On inquiry about her attire, she explained that the sari is her dress code for all representational occasions.
That morning she wore a beige/red elegant thread work creation. Kshenuka was born and raised in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, until 1972. Her primary and secondary schooling was in Sri Lanka. Seeking to provide the best education for their children, Kshenuka’s parents moved to the United Kingdom. While waiting for a placement at a British university, Kshenuka was attracted to an announcement of staff vacancies at the local McDonalds which was about to become operational.
“Food and me have always been good friends” she says with a laugh. On application she was immediately hired. To her it was a good experience and a way to earn some pocket money. She explained how her parents gave up an extremely comfortable lifestyle in Sri Lanka simply to provide university education for their children. “As was McDonalds orientation, I worked in all areas of the operation, which included carrying heavy trays of buns, milkshake mix crates, boxes of frozen french fries and the arduous chore of cleaning.
The work was not gender sensitive and all the staff had to do the same work. This was hard at times but was fun too working with other youngsters, which made me see the world in a different perspective. After a while, I became a floor manager, and subsequently was offered to attend the management course. I politely declined, explaining that I would be commencing my university education in Salford in a few months and recommended investing that training in an employee who would be with the company long term. However,in recognition of my openness, the company decided to extend the management training course also to me.
During semester breaks, I would return to working in a McDonalds store in London. In 1981 Kshenuka graduated from Salford University with a BSc in Economics. Salford is located close to Manchester and is today a contemporary cultural city with gleaming architecture. After her graduation she went back to work for McDonalds in the accounts office during the week and in one of their restaurants during weekends.
Two years later the family moved back home to Sri Lanka. During her university years in the UK, having a penchant for international affairs and being a ‘people’ person, Kshenuka was attracted to diplomacy, and set out to pursue such a career by joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1985. Her first posting abroad was to the Permanent Mission to the UN in New York as Third Secretary.
Following a stint back in the Ministry in Sri Lanka, she was posted to Brussels, Belgium. At the end of that tour of duty she secured a “Chevening” scholarship from the British Government, to attend the University of Oxford. I was curious to ask what she had been studying, and was naturally thinking of languages when she mentioned Oxford. But she burst out laughing saying “Me and languages….. I have no head for that my course was on International Relations.
What happened then back in Sri Lanka I asked. “Well, I got into deep trouble” she said very seriously, and again laughed when she saw my shocked expression…. “I met my husband an engineer by profession…….”, I was relieved. “The poor guy had to give up his own world to follow me around my world” she said. I also had to ask if they have any children and was told that she has just one child…. her husband, as she jokingly said.
In early 2000 she returned to the UK as the Deputy High Commissioner for Sri Lanka, and subsequently in 2005 was elevated to the head of mission post of High Commissioner. She seemed to have experienced the UK both as a student and now as a professional diplomat. Kshenuka was later appointed as the Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Switzerland. “My appointment was during the terrorist conflict period in Sri Lanka, and the work particularly with regard to the Human Rights Council was a huge challenge.
Therefore I did not have much time to enjoy Geneva and explore Switzerland”, she remarked with regret. On Ksheuka’s return to Sri Lanka from Geneva, she was appointed as the Additional Secretary at the Foreign Ministry which was followed by a tenure as the Secretary, Foreign Affairs. Since 2015 she has been Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Thailand. “Thailand is home away from home” she lets me know. “Our two countries have much in common and I really love it here.” She explained that it was Sri Lanka that introduced Theravada Buddhism to Thailand and subsequent to her country being under the yoke of colonial rule, it had been Thailand that reintroduced higher ordination for monks in Sri Lanka.
Therefore she noted that the relations between the two countries dating back over 800 years, were well cemented by the Buddhist links. She explained that while the age old Buddhist connection between the two countries is well known, the lesser known fact is that the first Attorney General of Thailand who was appointed in the late 19th century had been a Sri Lankan. In this context she pointed out that while Thailand and Sri Lanka shared an age old relationship the official diplomatic ties only go back 63 years.
I asked if she has faced any complicated issues to date with her work in Thailand to which she vehemently replied, “Absolutely none, the Thai people are so warm and accommodating, therefore what could go wrong? I have often experienced a feeling of a special bond too when Thai people learn that I am from Sri Lanka”.
What do you see as your special niche in Thailand I asked? “Well, my main aim is to further strengthen the bilateral economic ties. In the 1980s Sri Lanka and Thailand were on par in terms of economic development. While Sri Lanka’s growth was stymied by the protracted terrorist conflict, Thailand’s economy boomed. Therefore today we seek to learn from the Thai experience.
The trade balance is in extreme favour of Thailand and following the official visit of H.E. the President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena and the return visit of the Thai Deputy Prime Minister H.E. Somkid Jatusripitak, measures are being taken to narrow this gap, which includes the negotiations for a FTA and finalisation of a Strategic Economic Partnership. We observe an improvement in the volume of trade and Thai investments to Sri Lanka,particularly in the hospitality sector.
We now have Thai hotel brands namely, Avani, Anantara, Amari, Ozo, Centara and Dusit Thani present in my country. The number of Thai visitors to Sri Lanka is on an upward trajectory. Since the Sri Lankan Presidential visit we have also been participating in the Thai International Tourism Fair”. I took the opportunity to ask some personal questions: what about indulging in exercise? “I exercise every morning before going to work, at least a one hour walk on the treadmill” she tells me.
Does this mean you are an early bird, I asked and she nodded. When you have some time off duty, what do you like to do? Her eyes light up and says “ I indulge in retail therapy and therefore love to stroll around the shops to pick up bargains”. She also lets me know that she enjoys cooking whenever leisure time presents itself and most of the representational entertainment is done at home, serving guests Sri Lankan cuisine.
“I love trying my hand at making desserts though that may not the best”…. She says. Sri Lankan food is more chilli spiced, and admits she prefers extra spicy food. “My husband though, likes the food much milder”. Kshenuka is also Ambassador to Laos and Cambodia. She likes travelling and exudes enthusiasm when she talks about her visits to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Hua Hin, Krabi and last but not least, Khao Yai (the wine district).
“Meeting this vibrant personality indeed has been a pleasure. She makes a marked impression on you, not only because she dresses in beautiful saris, but also due to her beaming smile and vivacious demeanour.”
“One of my favourite trips was to Kuiburi and its National park, where we saw many elephants in the wild which was amazing” she said. Another question I always ask is “How is your Thai?” Another big smile and say “my Thai is not what I wish it is, so let’s say, I speak Tuk Tuk Thai”. I used Feature “Meeting this vibrant personality indeed has been a pleasure. She makes a marked impression on you, not only because she dresses in beautiful saris, but also due to her beaming smile and vivacious demeanour.”
to say, I speak Taxi Thai and I suppose the level is more or less the same. If you would have the possibility to choose your next destination, where would it be? I asked. “Honestly, I don’t ever have such expectations, by which disappointment is avoided in the event it is not met. Work destinations have been given by the authorities on exigencies, which I have always abided by, considering the nature of the foreign service to which I belong”. A very smart answer, I thought.
My last question, “if you could pick one person to dine with, just of the two of you, who would you choose, this too not being your husband?” Now she had to think for a while but ended saying: “Well, I think George Clooney would be an interesting choice. I saw him when he attended the recent royal wedding. He looked so handsome and his wife Amal did too, I have to admit.” Time passed by very quickly and the Ambassador bade me goodbye for another appointment, but not before she graciously presented me with a gift of Ceylon tea, to be savoured in leisure.