Fare thee well Lal Wickrematunge – diplomat extraordinaire
By Aubrey Joachim
Diplomacy – the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and tactful way. Lal Wickrematunge epitomises this definition to the letter. It is for this reason that he is being felicitated by hundreds of Sri Lankans from multiple groups and social organisations in New South Wales leading up to his departure from Sydney mid-October.
His four year stint as Sri Lankan Consul General in Sydney has come to an end all too soon. There has not been a predecessor who has achieved as much as Lal has during his time in office. Perhaps the most important on the list of achievements has been his attempt to bring the whole community together and projecting a united Sri Lankan diaspora. Let’s hope that what he started will continue.
Lal had the uncanny ability to engage with every Sri Lankan group with ease. He even inculcated this mindset within the Consular staff. The Consul General’s choir – including himself – was a regular participant at the Sri Lanka Catholic Association Christmas Nativity play as well as the Wesak celebrations at the Buddhist temple. They sang Christmas carols with equal eloquence as they sang Bhakthi Gee. The choir comprised Buddhists, Christians as well as Muslims. He and his team also associated with the Hindu and Muslim communities. He made it a point to attend as many social events of Sri Lankan organisations – be they old school associations or other associations. He was equally comfortable at a ‘peduru party’ as he was at a Bell Birds dance party.
His ability to harness the community was unrivalled. Religious or ethnic background did not matter to Lal who as a Sinhalese Buddhist was the first non-Catholic to captain the cricket team of St. Benedict’s College in Colombo. His best friends included Tamils, Colombo Chetties, and Burghers – his neighbours in Kotahena. Even in his Consular role he knew whom he could call upon to get an outcome – a wealthy Australian Sri Lankan business person to fund an event or multi-ethnic Sri Lankan volunteers to contribute their trade skills at the Buddhist temple when needed.
The ultimate proof of his ability to bring all Sri Lankans together irrespective of religion or ethnicity was when he worked with the Sri Lankan Catholic Chaplain in Sydney and the Archbishop of the Sydney diocese to bring together the largest gathering of Australian Sri Lankans to a memorial service for the victims of the Easter Sunday bombings at the premier Catholic Shrine in Sydney – St. Mary’s Cathedral. He showed Australia what a united community the Sri Lankans can be.
Diplomacy is also – the profession, activity or skill of managing international relations, by a country’s representative abroad. Lal was not a professional diplomat, yet he could out-do those schooled in professional diplomacy by a mile. For a start his command of the English language was beyond excellent. Facing a TV camera or being grilled by journalists was not a challenge but an opportunity looked forward to. His media background was an advantage. He was not only articulate but able to critically unravel and address issues. Whenever he was required to bat for Sri Lanka he played a good innings. Lal however did not just talk – he walked the talk. His tenure as Consul General saw a number of innovative trade promotional events that portrayed Sri Lanka’s products and services as well as tourism opportunities. He thought outside the box.
Each February 4th Lal organised the Sri Lankan independence celebrations on a platform that demonstrated a perspective of the country that showed the wider Australian community as well as the diplomatic circle with whom he developed a rapport the rich historical and cultural tapestry of Sri Lanka and made the Sri Lankan diaspora proud of their homeland. He was able to use his influence and ingenuity in organising these events. He himself was a proud Sri Lankan.
Lal always put the development of the country front and centre not only in the promotion of trade or tourism but also in doing whatever he could to lift the competencies and educational standards in Sri Lanka. Perhaps his last demonstration of negotiation skill in this context was convincing a leading Australian university to open a campus in Colombo not only for the benefit of Sri Lankan students but also to attract regional students to an education hub in Colombo.
Lal Wickrematunge the man will also long be remembered for the selfless manner in which he carried out his role. He had no personal agendas. No long term diplomatic ambitions, no offspring to benefit from his posting. It can truly be said that he did it for his country and his countrymen. He treated all his consular staff with equal human dignity be they professional diplomats or mere minor staff and drivers. He was a genuine human being.
In concluding it will be fitting to ponder the words of the famous poet Rudyard Kipling in his poem ‘If’. It truly portrays all that is good and virtuous of the person that is Lal Wickrematunge.
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
Fare thee well Sir, in whatever you do and in whatever direction you go. Sri Lanka needs more of your ilk.