In February 2017, my team and I at the Sri Lankan High Commission in Australia was informed that then-Prime Minister (PM) Ranil Wickremasinghe had been invited to deliver the keynote address and accept an honorary doctorate at the Deakin Law School graduation. We immediately communicated the news to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and inquired if the trip could be made into an official state visit - after all, that year marked the 70th Anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and Sri Lanka, and it was over 60 years since a Sri Lankan PM had made an official state visit to Australia. The request was well received, and the dates were fixed for February.
Earlier, the High Commission learnt that Sri Lanka Cricket had confirmed a brief tour to Australia for a three-match T-20 series in February 2017. It is a richly preserved tradition in Australia for the PM to host foreign teams on a full tour at the Manuka Oval in Canberra to an invitation game against the Prime Minister’s XI (up-and-coming grade cricketers across the states). We were delighted that Cricket Australia and the PM’s office agreed to host our national team in the spirit of commemorating the 70th Anniversary of diplomatic relations despite it not being a full tour.
Seeing both PMs, together with His Excellency the Governor General and Lady Cosgrove, observe the toss at the aforementioned invitation game on 15 February was a moment carved into the history of the relations between our two countries.
These fortunate coincidences heralded auspiciously our 70th anniversary, and before a packed Parliament House, PMs Turnbull and Wickremasinghe toasted the relationship as one built on “mutual respect and trust”. A blood donation programme was organized in collaboration with the Australian Red Cross Society for Canberra’s Sri Lankan community to commemorate the anniversary on 29 April. Moreover, at the Parliament of Australia, the 150th anniversary of our tea industry was celebrated with members attending from both houses.
The 70th Anniversary was also marked by the first-ever State visit by a President of Sri Lanka, just three months after the PM’s. For Australia to host a Prime Minister and a President of a country within such a short space of time was almost unprecedented in their history of foreign relations.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made reciprocal visits to Sri Lanka later that year. The visit led to the signing of meaningful agreements of mutual interest, including assistance for dengue control, a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, cooperation to counter human trafficking, prevention of chronic kidney diseases, mineral mapping of Sri Lanka and sports development. The recommencement of Sri Lankan Airlines direct flights to Melbourne after two years of lobbying by the High Commission was another significant achievement that increased exponentially the number of Australian tourist arrivals.
Unfortunately, the end of my tenure was marred by the 2019 Sri Lanka Easter Bombings which shattered dreams and destroyed lives back at home. The Australians understood our grief and empathised with us as our own kin. The first to sign the book of condolence at the High Commission was the Governor General himself who arrived at the Mission that very afternoon. A community farewell for me scheduled for that evening was converted to a multi-faith service at the famous Saint Christopher’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. Notwithstanding the short notice, the Governor General graced that event as well. As I accompanied His Excellency down the aisle to the front pew in a Church packed to capacity, the congregation at the solemn event appreciated the depth of the relationship between our two countries.
On 30 April 2019, my final day in office, I met with my wonderful staff for one last time. After singing the National Anthem at 9am (as was customary) I was deeply touched by the unexpected arrival of the Head of the Sri Lanka Buddhist Vihara to bestow a final blessing before I left for the airport.
As the connecting flight from Canberra to Melbourne took to the skies, I looked at the vast expanse of land beneath, and reflected on the generous hearts and minds I left behind. The memories I accumulated during my term in Australia will be cherished for a lifetime!
Somasundaram Skandakumar was Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Australia from 2015-2019.