By Bryce Hutchesson, Australia’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka
Seventy years ago, Charles Frost arrived in Colombo as Australia’s first Commissioner to Ceylon. He became High Commissioner early the following year upon Ceylon’s independence. Since then, Ceylon has become Sri Lanka, and 22 Australian High Commissioners have called Colombo home. As I sit writing this – in a city far different to the one Frost would have known – it is striking to reflect on how far the relationship has come in those 70 years.
It’s an increasingly warm and productive relationship of many growing parts.
Starting with the serious stuff – cricket. It’s just a game, but is also a bond that means Sri Lankans and Australians anywhere in the world have a starting point for a friendly conversation. You can’t put a value on that and the people-to-people links that come with it. We regularly see Australian teams visiting Colombo, including both our national men’s and women’s teams last year. A sports café in Colombo, owned by an Aussie couple, shows memorabilia from many of the old tours.
Then there’s migration. Name a sector of Australian society and there’ll be prominent Sri Lankan-Australians – academia, medicine, media, music, literature, business, politics, cooking, even stand-up comedy. We are proud of Australia’s large and vibrant Sri Lanka-origin community. They are Australians but also retain strong bonds with Sri Lanka. It means we know each other well and that is a vital asset.
There’s education, too. Through the Colombo Plan and Australia Awards we’ve funded over 1000 students to study in Australia since the early 1950s. Many more now study in Australia privately – around 7,500 this year. There is huge potential to build these education ties, through local delivery, student exchanges and research linkages. We’ve got a new alumni association that has got off to a great start. And we’re pleased about the growing number of New Colombo Plan students visiting.
Our economic partnership is becoming more important. Two-way trade in goods and services could soon exceed AUD 1 billion. This is not huge, but the potential is there. At present, trade covers lentils, education, garments, IT services, milk powder, wine and tourism, among other items. There’s opportunity – including for investment – in areas such as energy, mining and smart infrastructure. Sri Lanka is embarking on an ambitious economic reform program, and this – and growing business interest by the vibrant diaspora in Australia – offers the promise of increasingly close economic ties.
We are longstanding development partners. Over more than 65 years, Australia has provided around AUD1.35 billion in total aid to Sri Lanka. Our efforts helped Sri Lanka recover from the 2004 tsunami and, more recently, the aftermath of the devastating civil conflict. We have now shifted our focus from reconstruction and rehabilitation, to building skills and creating jobs in a more inclusive workforce – all priorities of the Sri Lankan Government as it seeks to deliver an economic peace dividend to all Sri Lankans. We have an active volunteer program here. Sri Lanka’s economic development is squarely in our interests.
Our countries share an interest in a stable Indian Ocean region. Cemeteries in Sri Lanka hold the graves of Australians who died in the great wars and this week we marked their sacrifice – as we do every year – at our dawn ANZAC Day service. More recently, we have collaborated closely with Sri Lanka to combat transnational crime, including people smuggling and human trafficking.
We are bound irrevocably as Indian Ocean maritime neighbours. It isn’t widely known, but Australia and Sri Lanka share a border – a search and rescue border out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Our security interests are increasingly aligned, and – as a peaceful and more settled Sri Lanka increasingly looks outwards – there is much more of common strategic interest for us to talk about in our region.
As befits an anniversary year, 2017 has already been busy. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe paid a formal bilateral visit to Australia in February – the first such visit by a Sri Lankan leader in decades. Deputy Foreign Minister De Silva was in Australia in March to look at opportunities for cooperation in several areas of innovation and research. And Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells visited earlier this month – very fitting given the significant contribution of our aid program in Sri Lanka over the years.
We’ve had musical performances, photo exhibitions, sporting engagements and lots of positive mainstream and social media coverage. Australia’s brand is known and liked. It does no harm at all when there are front page pictures of President Sirisena helping me to cut the luminous yellow and green coloured cake that we had to mark Australia Day earlier this year! We look forward greatly to welcoming President Sirisena on a state visit to Australia in another several weeks. And hopefully to seeing more Australian ministers in Sri Lanka as the year progresses.
Looking out over the next 70 years, to 2087, we’ll have despatched another 20 or so High Commissioners each way. There will have been glorious wins and sorry losses on the cricket field. Two-way tourism will be booming with direct flights. Many more Sri Lankans will know Australia well through education and family connections. Trade and investment will be flourishing. Sri Lanka will be a cosmopolitan prosperous hub, looking east as Australia looks west. In short, the relationship should be as bright as the sun that shines down on Sri Lanka at this time of year.
Charles Frost would be well pleased with what he kicked off 70 years ago today.
Bryce Hutchesson is Australia’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. He is a senior career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Mr Hutchesson has served overseas as Deputy High Commissioner in New Delhi, with earlier postings in Bangkok and Tel Aviv. He has also served in Washington with the Office of National Assessments. In Canberra, he has led DFAT’s South Asia Branch, Executive, Planning and Evaluation Branch and several branches responsible for international security.