Nepal and Sri Lanka enjoy 65 years of cordial relations since the diplomatic ties between the two countries were established in 1957. Little discussed in the public sphere, the relations between the two countries are shaped by common Buddhist heritage and multifaceted engagements in trade, SAARC, cooperation in international fora and investment. In a recent interview with Nepal Live Today’s Abiral Gautam, Ambassador of Sri Lanka to Nepal Himalee Subhashini Arunatilaka shed light on the multiple aspects of the relations between the South Asian island nation and Nepal. Excerpts:
Sri Lanka and Nepal relations date back to 1957. How do you look back to the evolution of the bilateral ties since then?
Although we started formal diplomatic relations in 1957, our ties go back much further. We have come a long way since the establishment of formal diplomatic relations. There have been a number of very high-level visits between the two countries. The last one from Sri Lanka was by former President Maithripala Sirisena who came to Nepal in 2018 for the BIMSTEC Summit and President Bidya Devi Bhandari went to Sri Lanka in 2017 to take part in the International Day of Vesak. Even before that we have had a number of high level visits between our two countries. All the former executive presidents of Sri Lanka since 1978 have visited Nepal.
Apart from that, our leaders have also met and renewed friendship on the sidelines of international and regional forums. The most recent one was COP26 where Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa met the Prime Minister of Nepal Sher Bahadur Deuba in Glasgow. There have been very good connections between our leaders. So the political relations have been very good and very friendly.
Cultural relations between Nepal and Sri Lanka have been very strong since ancient times particularly because of the Buddhist links and because Lumbini is in Nepal, it is considered a special place by Sri Lankan people. Today Nepal and Sri Lanka also enjoy cooperation in many other sectors, including education, defense, and sports.
Kathmandu and Colombo have started direct flights. What potentials do you see in enhancing people-to-people relations and tourism promotion of the two countries?
With the operation of direct flights, there are a lot of opportunities and the Embassy has really been working very hard with the tourism industry to promote more tourism between the two countries. I am extremely happy to see the commencement of direct flight between Kathmandu and Colombo by Sri Lanka Airlines, the national carrier of Sri Lanka during my tenure. The direct flight started on August 31 and now there are four flights a week. This has been a huge boost to promote tourism. Travel companies in Nepal had been telling me that the lack of air connectivity was a huge obstacle to promoting tourism. The first hurdle has therefore been overcome. The next thing to be done is to promote the two destinations. Sri Lanka can also be an ideal destination for medical and health tourism.
I personally feel that SAARC is very important because that’s the only regional organization we have for South Asia.
Sri Lanka offers unique attractions for Nepali visitors being an island and rich in cultural heritage. Sri Lanka is home to many Buddhist sites that are visited by Nepali tourists. We also have a number of Hindu sites of importance, particularly sites that are associated with the Ramayana. So I think Nepali visitors, who are majority Hindus, will find it very interesting. Nepal is home to Lumbini. A large number of pilgrims come to Lumbini every year from Sri Lanka. I would like to see Sri Lankans also visiting other parts of Nepal. We need to promote the two countries also for joint tourism promotion activities, marketing Nepal’s mountains and Sri Lanka’s beaches. So many opportunities are there.
What are the potential areas of trade and investment between Nepal and Sri Lanka?
I see the export of seafood as a big opportunity in the Nepali market when it comes to potential trade in commodities. Then there is ceramics. Sri Lanka has very good quality ceramics and we are talking to a Nepali company for import but it has been delayed due to the pandemic. Nepal can be a potential market for spices, especially Sri Lankan cinnamon which is the best in the world, as well as black pepper.Then there are rubber products, textiles and apparels and ayurvedic products. Our apparel companies are very high-standard and internationally renowned. I think there are a lot of opportunities to develop cooperation in this sector as well. Another area is gem and jewelry and we are already discussing it with the Nepali authorities. When we talk of economic relations, I think we need to talk beyond trade and investment and also look at technical cooperation as well.
We are discussing with our authorities to help Nepal’s tea industry. I was told Nepal needs assistance to develop its tea auctioning process. Our tea board was very positive to receive a study visit but it has been delayed due to the pandemic.
When you talk of investment, Sri Lanka offers a very good destination for Nepali companies to set up manufacturing industries in Sri Lanka for export as it has very good air and sea connectivity. If any Nepali manufacturing companies want to export, Sri Lanka can be a good location for them. We have a very good road network within the country that can access any port, and the ports connecting to export markets. There are also opportunities in the banking and insurance sectors. These are the areas that have prospects for future engagement.
Currently, we have three Sri Lankan companies working in Nepal in hydropower, entertainment and IT. The Embassy has facilitated interactions between private sectors practically in construction, tourism, and gems and jewelry; and even now there are discussions going on particularly in the construction field for joint ventures. Sri Lankan private companies are very interested. The Embassy is facilitating those discussions. We also work closely with the Nepal Sri Lanka Chamber of Commerce and Industry and connect companies who want to trade in commodities.
Nepal and Sri Lanka were among the countries to bring SAARC into life. Today SAARC appears to be in a dysfunctional state. How could this South Asian regional institution be revived?
It’s up to all member countries, not only Nepal and Sri Lanka. But of course, being member countries from the inception, I think we can play a role to encourage all the other members to revive the regional body. I personally feel that SAARC is very important because that’s the only regional organization we have for South Asia. And I think regional integration is very important, particularly in the post-Covid context when countries are looking at their neighboring countries for tourism, trade, and other things. So, in that context, we might get left behind if we don’t revive cooperation with our neighbors. It’s up to all of us to revive that. Although the summit has not been held, there are many things that are taking place within SAARC on culture, education, and other areas. It is the political engagement that has stalled. So, it’s up to all member countries to revive it.
How can shared prosperity be achieved in the SAARC region?
All the SAARC countries are interlinked by civilization, culture, and religion. And we are neighbors. Whether we like it or not, it’s our reality. So, one country’s prosperity in the region or the lack of it will affect all the others as well. It is not a journey we can take alone. It’s a collective journey. And if the region can prosper together then I think we can play an important role internationally. So, if all the countries started looking at SAARC as a collective thing, then we might see progress.
Can you share with us some unknown or little-known sides of Nepal-Sri Lanka relations?
Sri Lanka and Nepal have been friends for a very long time. Formal diplomatic relations were established in 1957 as mentioned earlier. But our relations go back to the time of Lord Buddha. Mahavamsa, the chronicle of Sri Lanka’s written history in the Pali language, talks about three visits by Lord Buddha to Sri Lanka. It also talks about a marriage between a Shakya Princess from Nepal, who was a niece of Prince Siddhartha, to the second King of Sri Lanka. So these are the ancient civilizational links that bind our peoples and the friendship between the people of our two countries is the bedrock of our bilateral relations.
Nepal is home to Lumbini. A large number of pilgrims come to Lumbini every year from Sri Lanka. I would like to see Sri Lankans visiting other parts of Nepal as well.
I also want to mention the important role played by Sri Lankan Buddhist monks to help revive Theravada Buddhism in Nepal in the 1940s. Nepali monks and nuns continue to consider Sri Lanka as an important seat of learning in Theravada Buddhism.
Sri Lanka has also been among the first countries to provide emergency assistance with men and material when the earthquake struck in 2015. We have also reconstructed the historic Ananda Kuti Vihar and assisted in the reconstruction of Rato Machindranath Temple which was damaged by the earthquake.
What has been your favorite thing about Nepal as you’ve been here for two years?
I would say the people. The people of Nepal are very friendly, hospitable, and welcoming. I’ve always felt very much at home here. That has been the biggest plus point. Working in Nepal has not been difficult at all. Yes, of course, we had a pandemic. But it was beyond anyone’s control. It has been a real pleasure to serve as Sri Lankan Ambassador in Nepal.