Lal Wickrematunge bids Adieu

Dilip Kumar

Australia is an important ally of Sri Lanka and diplomatic relations between the two countries date back to 1947. Sri Lanka by such consideration picked their diplomats to Australia and more so to the business capital of Sydney, after much consideration. When Lal Wickrematunge was posted to Sydney, late 2015 there was but curiosity among the vast group of Sri Lankan origin people who had heard of him as a student of St Thomas' Prep School and St Benedicts College, Newspaper Publisher and former Cricketer, administrator and not as a Diplomat. Sri Lankan Australians watched him carefully. Lal hit the deck running. Within months many asked if our new Consul General slept at all.He was present at the Buddhist Temple, Catholic Church, Hindu Kovil and the Mosque. He was on the Cricket pitch and Golf Course. No musical entertainment show, drama or a funeral was without his presence. Many a time he would buy a ticket and enter discretely to watch a charity concert and on other occasions be seen making a short but brilliant speech to an erudite audience. Above all he made friends. They were from a wide array of Australian Politicians to Sri Lankan professionals, University students et al.

Lal was the quintessential diplomat, humble to a fault, professional at all times but his easy manner made him approachable. Underneath that demeanor was a burning fire to portray Sri Lanka in more than fair light during many a telling time for his country.The real deal Diplomat he was, Lal did not show that he was victorious when he was winning such battles. He had that uncanny ability to make diverse groups come together as a cohesive unit. This was abundantly evident when he brought the diverse ethnic communities of Sri Lankan origin in Sydney and Queensland together under one umbrella after many years of staying clear of each other. Lankan national events were organised by a united group show casing that a single Sri lankan identity is but the most prudent way forward. A member of one community shared his experience after one such meeting with the Consul General stating that the diverse group left the Consulate feeling that coming together as Sri lankans was their idea and not that of the Consul General. Such was his persuasive skill. The forging of a common Sri Lankan identity by Lal was telecast on Australian TV as an example to all Sri Lankans worldwide. The TV presenter went as far as to say " one man in Sydney has achieved this remarkable success...." referring to Consul General Lal Wickrematunge.

He with his willing staff at the Consulate were professional and efficient. He led by example and his staff too were an extension of his thought process. The Sri lankan National days held at prestigious locations such as the UTS University Hall, The Great Hall of the Sydney University and the Conservatorium of Music were attended by over 500 invitees. There were cultural dancers, musicians of diverse Sri Lankan ethnic background performing, with some even flown in from Sri Lanka. As expat Sri lankans we felt proud to showcase our Culture, Music, Dance and Social standing to an Australian and World community. The Australian political and Business leaders as well as Diplomats from around the world were full of praise at the high standards of these events. You made us stand tall.

He took charge of a young lad who had lost his job, money, passport, his clothes, wandering around in an unstable mental state. Lal reached out to the lads old school mates and facilitated his departure back to Sri lanka. He stood firm together with his Consul Ms Pramuditha Manusinghe to seek the release of another lad unfairly incarcerated with a first degree terror charge with much success. He took Consular services to the sick, disabled and elderly to their doorstep. Seniors meetings in Sydney was never without the presence of Lal.

He did not shy away from the Sri lankan refugee community either. Recently Lal was spotted at a Cricket tournament where a team of Sri Lankan refugees named Oceans 12 took part eventually becoming Champions. The team were clamoring to be photographed with the genial Consul General who readily obliged. He asked the lads to come home and play cricket for their country of birth. He was at ease with humanity.

Sri Lanka has been hit by man made and natural disasters in the recent past and Australia has always put up their hand to support the small island nation. It was to Lal's credit that he had built up contacts with a few intellectuals whose advice he sought on many matters. On one such discussion I mentioned to him that Australian farmers in New South wales were reeling under a severe drought and it maybe a good idea to reciprocate Australia's benevolence. Lo and behold, within a couple of weeks he had mustered the expat Sri lankans to donate 150 crates of dry rations, all piled up in his official residence, to be delivered to the farming community in NSW, through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Sydney. Australian authorities will not forget the kindness shown by the Sri Lankan community nor the role played by the outgoing Consul General.

The Arch Bishop of New South Wales as the Chief Celebrant conducted a special memorial mass at the iconic St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney to commemorate and pray for the repose of the souls of the Easter Sunday bomb victims organised by the catholic community together with the Consulate General Office of Sri Lanka which drew a mammoth crowd. The church was packed to the rafters and representation of the Australian Government, both Federal and State were at a high level. During his brief speech at the candlelit vigil in the forecourt of the iconic Cathedral following Mass, Lal said to an emotional crowd " We have overcome with strength and fortitude, man made disasters before and we will do so again" . The crowd spontaneously broke into singing Sri Lanka Matha bringing tears to the eyes of all present. He was the master conductor and the people were his orchestra.

The stamp of success he leaves behind can be measured by no mean terms when Shemara Wikramanayake the CEO of Macquarie Group during an exclusive farewell to Lal paid glowing tribute to his brand of diplomacy which she said, was never seen before. High praise indeed. So was the encomiam from Head of DFAT, Sydney. Lal leaves behind an enviable legacy and big shoes to fill. The Australian Sri Lankan community as well as those who had the fortune to meet him, will miss him. Go forth and contribute as best as you always will Consul General Lal Wickrematunge.

Veni Vidi Vici.

Lal, Dilip, Shemara and Arun

Out going Consul General Lal Wickramatunge with Dilip Kumar, Shemara Wikramanayake and Arun Abey in a recent farewell dinner

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