IST (India Standard Time) UTC/GMT +5:30 hours
Capital City Colombo
Currency Sri Lankan rupee
National Day 4 February
HER EXCELLENCY Ms Manisha Gunasekera is one of very few Sri Lankan career diplomats to be appointed as High Commissioner in the UK. “Until now, the post has largely been handled by political appointees,” she explains. “My selection is probably due to a combination of factors, but also due to the political leadership’s recognition of the need to have a professional handling a station as important as this. On my part, I feel it is a great responsibility to deliver and do justice to the confidence that they have reposed in me.”
Ms Gunasekera assumed duties as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to the UK in October 2018. Of her appointment, she recalls the telephone call from her Foreign Secretary. “It came out of the blue, and I was really surprised,” she exclaims. Arriving in London has reminded her of her posting in Paris 21 years ago. “That was my first exposure to Western Europe. It has been wonderful to return to one of Europe’s great centres of culture. I’ve travelled to London many times as a tourist, but it’s quite different to be living and working here.”
From a young age, Ms Gunasekera knew that she wanted to work for an institution that challenged her. “My maternal uncle was one of Sri Lanka’s renowned Foreign Secretaries. When we were small, he was someone we all admired and looked up to. Indeed, his son went on to be Foreign Secretary too. I didn’t consciously try to emulate them, but I’m sure that exposure was a strong influence on my choices.”
She joined Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service in 1996. After the aforementioned posting in France, Ms Gunasekera was sent to Japan as Counsellor, her first exposure to handling an important political brief. “Although Sri Lanka and Japan are both Asian countries, geographically they are a long way apart and the values and cultures are intriguingly similar and different.”
As Director General for East Asia and Pacific at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ms Gunasekera handled two state visits to Sri Lanka from the Prime Minister of Japan and President of China. This provided her with a wealth of experience for her assignment as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, during which time the two countries celebrated 40 years of diplomatic relations. One of the most memorable moments of her career was receiving a state visit from her President to South Korea in November 2017 in honour of the occasion. “It was a unique opportunity to be part of such a high-level engagement. We also signed many agreements, including a highly significant one on economic cooperation between Sri Lanka and South Korea.”
As Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative at the UN in Geneva, the High Commissioner gained a decent macro perspective of global politics. “But at same time,” she concedes, “while dealing with sensitive issues like we did on the Human Rights Council, it’s essential to have a nuanced understanding of how bilateral relations operate to gain expertise in multilateral diplomacy.”
Now in London, Ms Gunasekera remarks that Sri Lanka and the UK have a special, historic relationship spanning centuries. “Bilateral relations cannot be compared with any others we have. Our high achieving Sri Lankan community has been here since the 1950s. In terms of business, the UK is Sri Lanka’s second single largest export destination, so it’s important that our trade relations are safeguarded.” She will be working to attract UK investment in key sectors and projects, including for the new financial city in Colombo.
Ms Gunasekera continues: “Sri Lanka is also focused on leading Indian Ocean initiatives on ocean affairs, blue economy and climate change. We would like to have synergy with the UK in these areas.” The posting also provides Ms Gunasekera with “a unique opportunity to engage with Commonwealth countries.” Cultural relations are also an essential part of the agenda, with a strong focus on sports diplomacy. “There’s the upcoming Cricket World Cup, and of course we’re the Asian champions in netball. It’s a broad portfolio,” she remarks.
Regarding Brexit, she’s aware of the importance of staying on the same page as the UK government. “In the EU market, Sri Lanka receives preferential access to the GSP+ scheme. We’d like to maintain these preferential arrangements after Brexit. Perhaps there will be greater interest from the UK to forge relations with Sri Lanka and other Commonwealth countries. After all, Sri Lanka is fast emerging as a regional hub and is located in one of the fastest growing regions in the world.”
What does High Commissioner Gunasekera think is Sri Lanka’s greatest diplomatic challenge? “Sri Lanka’s location – at the centre of the Indian Ocean and close to global sea lanes – means it’s location is of strategic importance in geopolitics, which is both an opportunity and a challenge. The challenge is to maintain good relations with all global players, while maintaining our national interests.”