Sarath Kongahage, Chairman Rupavahini Corporation, lawyer, political activist, media personality and now ambassador-designate to Germany, spoke to Faraz Shauketaly on his impending appointment and work at Rupavahini Corporation. He dispelled rumours that he was being replaced at SLRC due to consistent internal dissent. Excerpts:
Q: On what merits were you appointed as Chairman, Rupavahini Corporation? Do you have qualifications that would have made you a suitable candidate as Chairman?
A: I can tell you what my background is and why I feel that I am a suitable candidate: I am a graduate in Mass Communications and started my working career at De Alwis Advertising, subsequently I was involved in cinema, theatre and music and went on to become Director Station, at Sirasa. I was then CEO of Rupavahini and SLBC, and Director Editorial and Acting Chairman at Lake House. I also have the necessary political experience and today it is a few days over one year that I have been Chairman Rupavahini. You may also know that I am an Attorney-at-Law, bringing a well rounded experience to this job.
Q: Since it is just over a year, how do you rate your performance? What difference have you made to this corporation?
A: Very satisfactory indeed: in three important sectors, Financial, Content and Relationships. The PR I have built up for Rupavahini with all sectors has been very satisfactory and kept up the interaction from all fields – be it business, from artistes, from the clergy, or political, in fact from all sectors. Financially we have made profits of over Rs. 42 million pre-tax compared to just Rs. 3 million previously. For my colleagues who have worked alongside me as a team, the harmony in terms of our human resources has been remarkable. I would say that my performance has been a good all round performance encompassing all aspects of our remit. Colleagues here deliver professional results within very exacting time scales.
Q: Your work at Rupavahini and your work as a successful lawyer – how has that impacted on your time?
A: Hugely – the demands that the Corporation itself makes is very necessarily huge. Long days and many hours burning the midnight oil so to speak; matters are compounded by the demands made on me by friends who call on me for at times the most trivial things and if I were to take more than just 10 calls from them alone it adds to my schedule. I have however balanced all that on the premise that friends will understand and so friendships have had to take a firm place on the backseat. I have in short, been forced to prioritise work with everything else including my personal life.
Q: So you have not tread on too many toes then? It is said that the President is unhappy with your performance here.
A: No I have not tread on any toes! On the contrary the President has asked me to take on yet another challenging role.
Q: Why, then are you being replaced? Is it not true that you are being replaced due to a huge number of complaints against you?
A: Certainly not. There is no such thing. I am in fact not being replaced but rather I have been given a promotion. In matters of protocol, an ambassadorial appointment is an elevation and of course as a true patriot I consider that to be a great honour to be able to serve my country at an international level.
Q: And exactly what qualifications do you have to hold that position?
A: Ambassadors – not only in Sri Lanka – are drawn from within a variety of life. Ambassadors are persons who have a diversity of experience and specialities. It is of course essential to be a patriot and have one’s country’s national interest at heart but apart from that a thorough understanding of various issues also helps. The speed with which communications is now available has meant that the days of ambassadors waiting to solemnly receive information from home to convey to the host government are mostly gone. It would appear to me at least that one of the key ingredients would be broadmindedness and be open to cultural diversity and being able to understand that. Ambassadors the world over whether representing a superpower or otherwise, will always need to be aware that every nation is part of an international system that depends on that system being somewhat successful as the world’s safety and harmony depends on it.
Q: How does one prepare to be a diplomat especially when one is not a career diplomat?
A: There is an intensive three month training programme carried out by the Ministry of External Affairs which started this week. Of course, I have also been trained otherwise too: in university, in politics, as a member of Parliament, in the courts, as head of various corporations and so on. My life experiences are rich in diversity.
Q: Is this training programme all it takes to be a diplomat?
A: Of course not, one needs a healthy overall experience. With the help of the Mission in Berlin, The External Affairs Ministry and the support of the government, the task ahead will result in a good tenure.
Q: Will you ask your wife to foreclose on her political career?
A: No, no not at all. She is heavily involved with her party work. She will not have much time to be the “ambassador’s wife” but as a good example of the democratic ideals practised by His Excellency the President, is the fact that he allowed a key official to be at Rupavahini whilst my wife is in the Opposition. Our professional lives have never crossed each other and has never been an issue.
Q: How important is addressing the negativity that sections of the diaspora engage in within Germany and Europe? How will you deal with that in a country like Germany?
A: There will be an active pursuance of inclusivity with all Sri Lankans and those of Sri Lankan origin in Germany. I consider all these people to be Sri Lankans who for whatever reason have found themselves away from Sri Lanka. All of them without exception have a homeland and I will further the dialogue we already have. I am a good communicator and I fully intend to exercise all my abilities to bring about understanding and unity amongst us all. Especially to dispel the misinformation.