Interview with H.E. Manisha Gunasekera


This year marks the 70th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence. Asia Society Korea caught up with Ambassador Manisha Gunasekera to share some thoughts on her life in Korea as well as Sri Lankan-Korean relations.

1.    You came to Korea in September 2015. Can you tell us about your life in Korea briefly?

Yes I arrived in Korea in September 2015, and I am close to completing 3 years of my tenure here.  This is a fairly long period in which to get to know a country.  

Since the commencement of my tour of duty in Seoul I have had a very busy time focusing on enhancing Sri Lanka’s bilateral relationship with Korea.  A good part of my first 6 months was spent meeting key interlocutors and institutions on the Korean side with a view to further strengthening our cooperation.   During my tenure here, there were many high-level visits between Sri Lanka and Korea, including exchange of officials visits by the two Foreign Ministers of the two countries, as well as the state visit of my President Maithripala Sirisena to Korea on the invitation of President Moon Jae-in in November 2017 in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two countries.  Last year we also organised many Sri Lanka promotional events and activities to celebrate the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations.  

Most importantly, I have been working hard to profile Sri Lanka, which is a small and beautiful island nation in the Indian Ocean located at the southern tip of India, in a positive light for the Korean people.  The Korean people I met were curious to know more about Sri Lanka and there was much I could say about my beautiful country.  I was greatly supported in this endeavour by the excellent team in the Embassy.

So I must confess that my first year was extremely busy leaving me little time for leisure or relaxation.  But despite my busy schedule, I took the time to visit various regions in Korea, discover Korean culture and food, and to also get to know Seoul city.  During my many travels, I was fascinated by the lush greenery and beauty of Gangwon province and completely bowled over by the beauty of Jeju island.  During the few weekends that I have been free, I spent time visiting museums, special exhibitions, shopping and book browsing.  One of my favourite haunts is Kyobo book shop in Gwanghwamun square in Seoul which has a most eclectic and up to date selection of English books.  So I can truly say that my stay in Korea has been an exciting journey of discovery for me right from the start. 

2.    As a foreigner, what was the most interesting or intriguing aspect of Korean culture that you found?

Well I find the Korean people to be most intriguing.  They are friendly, passionate and full of emotion.  I find this to be an interesting character trait.  This in my view is a very positive quality as it shows that Korean people engage with whatever they do from the heart.  It has endeared me to them. 

Apart from that, I find the coexistence of high tech and traditional Korean culture in the same space to be an extremely interesting phenomenon.  Korean people are well groomed and tech savy.  On the other hand we also see Seoul replete with historical monuments and palaces from the Joseon period, as well as traditional and historic Temples located in the mountains all over Korea with a most distinct Temple food culture.  This can be fascinating to a traveler passing through Korea.  Korea invests a lot in keeping its rich traditions and culture alive. Most of the major Korean events which I attend as Sri Lanka’s envoy are well organised with the opening ceremonies well-choreographed, projecting to the world a blend of traditional Korean culture, k-pop and tech savvy modern Korea leading the fourth industrial revolution.  This is my image of Korea and what I will always carry in my heart and mind. 

I must also add that the K-wave or hallyu is very popular in Sri Lanka as well as in South Asia.  My friends’ teenage kids love k-pop, and many Sri Lankans of all age groups, including my mother, are fans of Korean drama which are now shown on our television as prime time series.  The historical Korean drama Dae Jang Geum was a mega hit in Sri Lanka a few years ago.  This has also resulted in the famous Korean actress Ms. Lee Young-ae being a household name in Sri Lanka with a wide fan base. 

3.    You stayed in Japan from 2004 to 2007 as a Political Counsellor of the Embassy. What are some of the similarities and differences between Korea and Japan in your experience?

Yes, my stint in Japan as a mid-career diplomat gave me my first insights into East Asian culture and was an asset in subsequently taking up my very first ambassadorial post as Sri Lanka’s envoy to the Republic of Korea.  East Asia is very different to South Asia or even Southeast Asia.  I had a certain vision of Japan since my childhood, which was one of colourful seasons, beautiful Japanese dolls and festivals and lanterns.  Much of modern European aesthetic is heavily influenced by Japanese art or japonism.  

But having lived in Korea for almost three years now, I have been able to look at this more deeply and more objectively.  For example, I have now received much more information on Korean influence on Japanese culture, as well as the impact of continental Asian influences transmitted through or emanating from the Korean peninsula on Japanese culture and society.  This is today the object of serious academic study and continues to yield fascinating results.

I see many similarities between Japanese and Korean cultures, but I also see differences, and the difference can be more subtle and more interesting.  But it is important not to generalise too much on this topic.  If I were to talk about differences, Japanese Temples are different from Korean Temples in art and architecture; Japanese food is very different to Korean food; Japanese language is different to Korean language; and the list goes on.  But one very important similarity that I do see is the discipline and work ethic of the Korean and Japanese peoples and their approach to life, which has served both countries well in their miraculous economic advancement.  I greatly admire these qualities which deserve emulation in other parts of the world. 

4.    Are there any similarities or common cultural traits between Korea and Sri Lanka?

Indeed there are.  First and foremost, both Sri Lanka and Korea are Asian countries.  There is therefore a distinctly Asian cultural identity threading through both our countries.  This is a very fine thread, sometimes barely visible.  Both our countries are therefore steeped in values which one could call Asian, such as respecting our  parents, looking after our parents in old age, respecting our elders and seniors, extending warm hospitality towards visitors, presenting gifts as tokens of appreciation, maintaining close links with extended family, being extremely polite, and the list goes on.  If one were to look at food habits, both our people grow and consume rice as a staple food.  

Another important cultural dimension which brings our two countries together is Buddhism.  While Buddhist links between Korea and the Indian sub-continent can be traced back to 5th century AD, Buddhist links between Sri Lanka and Korea go back to 13th to 15th centuries.  Thus there have been Buddhist cultural exchanges between our two countries since ancient times continuing to date.  In modern times, the famous Sri Lankan Buddhist revivalist of international repute Anagarika Dharmapala visited Korea in August 1913. He brought with him Sacred Relics of the Buddha which are enshrined in the Pagoda (stupa) in the Jogyesa (Temple) in Seoul.  

Today, Sri Lanka is highly respected by Korean Buddhists including the main Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism as a repository of the authentic Theravada tradition of Buddhism.  Many Korean Buddhist monks and scholars visit Sri Lanka and study the ancient Pali language and Buddhist civilization.  Reciprocally, many Sri Lankan Buddhist monks live and study in Korea, including in Dongguk University.  Having said this, I must emphasize that Sri Lanka is a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country where many religions and ethnicities co-exist. 

In brief I would like to say that we must value and treasure these commonalities in our respective cultural identities, and celebrate our ‘Asianness’. 

5.    Sri Lanka is famous for black tea and Buddhism. What other cultural aspects would you recommend to those who have the chance to visit Sri Lanka?

Yes Ceylon tea is world famous and considered to be the best tea in the world.  Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth largest producer and the third largest exporter of black tea.  Ceylon tea’s distinct flavours are influenced by a unique combination of climate, soil, precipitation, elevation and sun.  This is similar to the case of wine growing.  While Sri Lanka is a small island nation, it has an enormous range in elevation, so that the flavours and the colours of the black teas produced vary greatly according to region.  A classic Ceylon tea flaour is generally bold and brisk with delicate floral or spicy fragrances, and has medium-to-full tannins.  Most Ceylon tea is orthodox tea as it is processed by hand.  Eleven tea-growing regions are found in the country, the best-known are in the central highlands of Uva, Nuwara Eliya and Dimbulla.  Ceylon teas are traditionally hot teas, either taken black, or with lemon or milk. Today they are also the most popular base for iced teas in the world. 

I am happy to say that there is an expanding niche market for Ceylon tea in Korea.  Many young Koreans are enthusiastic about the health benefits of tea and are getting introduced to the mysteries of tea drinking.  There are many Korean who want to become connoisseurs of tea, and we encourage them by introducing them to Ceylon tea varieties.  The Sri Lanka Embassy takes every opportunity to promote Ceylon tea in Korea.  

I spoke about the importance of Buddhism in Sri Lanka earlier and will say a little more on this later. 

Apart from Ceylon tea, I would like to highly recommend that Korean visitors sample Sri Lankan food, including our famous seafood such as crab and lobster, when visiting Sri Lanka.  

I would like to also recommend that Korean tourists visit Sri Lanka during the famous Kandy Esala Perahera season in August, to watch this beautiful and majestic pageant of traditional Sri Lankan dance, music and culture.  It is a unique festival of light and sound in the world very popular with Western tourists. 

6.    What are some aspects of the Sri Lankan culture that you hope to promote in Korea?

Well as I said, I am deeply committed to promoting Ceylon tea and the health benefits of tea drinking in Korea.  

Apart from this, I encourage Korean people to visit Sri Lanka, a top tourist destination in the world.  Tourism is also one of the most lucrative and fast growing industries in Sri Lanka.  This beautiful island known as the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ is seen as very exotic.  

Sri Lanka is a unique tourist destination which offers the tourist a remarkable combination of experiences.  Within a mere 65,610 area lie 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites, 1,330 kilometres of pristine coastline,  15 national parks and eco-resorts with abundance of wildlife including elephant, leopard, and high biodiversity, nearly 500,000 acres of lush tea estates, 250 acres of botanical gardens, 350 waterfalls, 25,000 water bodies, and ancient cities and cultural sites which are 2,500 years old.  Sri Lanka’s centuries old Buddhist heritage is of particular interest to Korean Buddhist tourists.  Sri Lanka’s coastline is famous for whale watching (the Blue whale) and water sports such as wind surfing.  

I want more Korean people, both young and old, to visit Sri Lanka and discover this resplendent island.  The three direct flights a week by Korean Air between Seoul and Colombo offer excellent connectivity.  There are also many other connections one can take to visit Sri Lanka from Seoul. 

There is also great potential for Koreans of the Buddhist faith to visit Sri Lanka and discover the countries’ ancient and authentic Buddhist heritage beginning from 3rd century BC, according to recorded history, when Buddhism was first introduced to the island from India.  For example the oldest recorded tree in the world, a sapling of the great Bo tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya in India, still exists in the ancient capital kingdom of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka.  The famous Temple of the Tooth in Kandy which is a UNESCO world heritage site holds the sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha.  These are venerated by Buddhist the world over.

Additionally, I would like the Korean people to discover Sri Lankan food.  We hold a Sri Lanka food festival every year at the Millennium Seoul Hilton which is very popular with the Korean people.  Given Korea’s increasing exposure to gourmet cuisine and international culinary trends, the combination of spices, coconut milk and exotic flavours, as well as the cosmopolitan nature of Sri Lankan food, influenced by many peoples and cultures of the East and West over centuries, is extremely attractive. 
7.    2018 marks the 70th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence as well as South Korea’s establishment of government. What do you expect for Sri Lankan-Korean relations in the future?

Sri Lanka and the Republic of Korea celebrated 40 years of diplomatic relations on 14 November 2017, and the Embassy held a series of Sri Lanka promotional events in Korea including a photo exhibition, a food festival, a festival of internationally acclaimed Sri Lankan films, and performances by a well-known dance troupe in Sri Lanka, to celebrate this important milestone.  Sri Lanka and Korea also issued two stamps to commemorate this milestone.  A highlight was the state visit of President Maithripala Sirisena to Sri Lanka in November 2017 which led to the elevation of our bilateral relations in every sphere.  
Building on this momentum, a key priority for me is working towards an increase in Korean investment in Sri Lanka, as well as a significant increase in bilateral trade and tourism between the two countries.  Further cooperation in the cultural sphere including enhanced people-to-people contacts is also important.  This is where we find synergy with President Moon Jae-in’s New Southern Policy and Sri Lanka’s own policy of greater cooperation and integration with Asia.  Sri Lanka is also a proactive player on cooperation in the Indian Ocean, and we see increased interest on the part of Korea in the Indian Ocean region.  We hope to build further on these synergies and complementarities in the future. 

I also want to safeguard and enhance our cooperation in the employment sector, where approximately 26,000 Sri Lankan workers are engaged in the manufacturing, construction and fishery sectors in Korea under the Korean Government’s Employment Permit System (EPS).  It is important for us to remember that these Sri Lankan employees contribute significantly towards the economies of our countries. They are also our youth who learn from best practices in Korea and work towards improving their lives in Sri Lanka following their return to the country after ending their contracts.  The Sri Lankan Government is deeply appreciative of the employment opportunities provided by the Korean Government. 

But if I were to summarize in one phrase what my expectations are of Sri Lanka-Korea relations in the future, I would simply say that, more than anything else, I would want Korean people to discover Sri Lanka and its many facets and beauty.  This would be ‘serendipity’ (or coming across something wonderful unexpectedly), which is a word in the English language whose origin is associated with Sri Lanka.