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 Post subject: New ambassador from Colombo with big plans
 Post Posted: Sun Jan 07, 2007 5:12 pm 
New ambassador from Colombo with big plans

Asitha Perera has arrived in Seoul at the right moment. He has planned several cultural events to mark the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Interesting ideas are aplenty with the new ambassador! There are currently about 12,000 Sri Lankans living and working in Korea and over 100 Korean companies operating in Sri Lanka, building high rises and operating manufacturing plants.


@ The Korea Herald
By Yoav Cerralbo

From the looks of things, the Sri Lankan Embassy in Seoul is going to be a hive of activity this year after the arrival of the new ambassador from Colombo.

Asitha Perera has arrived in Seoul at the right moment, just in time for celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The ambassador has planned several cultural events to mark this occasion, but none quite as grand as a parade down the streets of Seoul showing off his countries rich cultural heritage.

Generally, when countries celebrate a milestone such as this they hold the event in a swanky Seoul hotel where a limited few can enjoy the festivities, but what Perera plans will not only include celebrations in the nation's capital but also many other cities in Korea.

"In the (Seoul) City Hall area we can give a performance free of charge. Everything is not always about money," the ambassador told The Korea Herald. "Also we will serve free cups of tea and offer some of our traditional foods." Another interesting idea the ambassador came up with to add flavor to the parade is to bring in a baby elephant, adorn it in traditional Sri Lankan decorations, and put it on display in front of one of the major Seoul hotels, something the ambassador said had already caught the interest of the manager of a five-star hotel that might host the event.

He also has plans to simultaneously organize a Sri Lankan gem and jewelry exhibition.

"I also want to arrange two very comprehensive single country exhibitions: one of Korean products in Sri Lanka, and the other of Sri Lankan products in Korea," the ambassador said.

Perera will also bring in a Sri Lankan cultural troupe to expose Korea to some of the beauty of his small country, while at the same time generate some nostalgia among the Sri Lankan community in Korea.

Interesting ideas are aplenty with the new ambassador, and another one of them will help improve the living conditions of the Sri Lankan community in Seoul.

There are currently about 12,000 Sri Lankans living and working in Korea, mostly in the manufacturing sector.

"This is an emerging market for the Sri Lankan labor force because of the wages," he said. "Compared to Sri Lankan salaries the pay here is quite good."

He added, however, that regretfully conditions are not the best for them here, something they discover soon after arrival. But to help make their time in Korea more happy and profitable for their future back home, the ambassador has implemented a system where they are given the option to invest up to 50 percent of their salaries to build a home in Sri Lanka.

"This is a positive aspect which gives them a better sense of discipline. They lack a sense of discipline. They are not used to hard work," he said.

For the average Sri Lankan unskilled worker in Korea, three years is a great learning process and a good foundation, he said.

"We don't have any mandatory military service in Sri Lanka so I consider it an opportunity for Sri Lankans to go through some sort of military training where they have instilled in them some sort of discipline in terms of working hard and saving some money."

After they finish their three year contract, which is the average term for contracts in the manufacturing sector, they can go back home with some money in their pocket to invest in a home or a small company.

"Before I came here I set up a scheme for them. When they receive their salaries there would be a certain monthly amount debited from their account which goes to building a house for them. Two years after they come here their house is ready," Perera said.

Perera has also arranged that the Sri Lankan government supply them with free land as an incentive. Buying a house in Sri Lanka is a dream possible for Sri Lankan workers in Korea because, as the ambassador explained, their accommodation and food here is taken care of by their employers.

To help with the social problems back home, the ambassador - with the help of local government - gently suggest that the wives of the workers go live with either of the parents to help with the loneliness and pressures that arise from these situations.

"I'm also hoping to have a series of workshops on labor related issues. I want to get the participation from the CEOs of Korean companies that employ Sri Lankans, the Korean labor ministers at the district level, and Sri Lankan labor ministry officials to have an open discussion and have a frank exchange of ideas," he said.

Relations between both countries are classified as "very good" with over 100 Korean companies operating in Sri Lanka, building high rises and operating manufacturing plants.

"Koreans helped us immensely after the tsunami. We had more than 12,000 people succumb in the tsunami. A huge number were displaced and Korea came to our assistance, and is still helping us," he said.

While the ambassador is here he also wants to break into the ship building industry by having Sri Lankan companies build some of the components that are outsourced by Korean shipbuilding giants.

"I'm trying to focus more on Korean investment into Sri Lanka," he said. A big selling point for the ambassador is the free trade agreements Sri Lanka has with India and Pakistan.

"We have about 5,000 products which can be exported from Sri Lanka on a tax free basis. Consequently, I want to encourage Korean companies to come and invest in Sri Lanka. They will also get tax holidays and that's what companies are interested in. They will get tax holidays from 6-15 years so that they can repatriate their earnings back to Korea."

On top of FTA deals with India and Pakistan, Sri Lanka also has access to the European Union with over 7,000 items exempt from duties levied on imported goods, not to mention their geographical location with "excellent transshipment facilities."

To help facilitate Korean investment into the country, the ambassador proposed a free trade zone for Korean companies to not only operate from, but also live and enjoy their time in the country.

"So that's been done and the president agreed to that," he said.

Companies looking to open in Sri Lanka will be happy to learn that the country offers a one-stop-shop facility for all paperwork needed to open and operate any company. Also, the waiting time to open a company in Sri Lanka is about two weeks.

In the travel sector the ambassador said that there is much needed room for growth and he has proposed that the government push for direct flights from Colombo to Seoul. But for that to happen, he said. an increase of travel between Sri Lanka and Korea has to occur.

"So what I suggested is give the airlines uplifting rights for cargo and passengers to the Maldives and South Africa," he said.

Perera also suggested to his president that he provides land for a "very good Korean golf resort tour operator. If we have one good (Korean) golf resort operator it'll be easier to sell Sri Lanka to the Koreans."

He also wants to be proactive in his approach to increasing tourism and business to his country by taking investors to Sri Lanka on holiday so that they can see the country for themselves and make up their own minds.

Another positive aspect of doing business in Sri Lanka, the ambassador said, was that the president chairs a monthly meeting in keeping with the policies of the Mahindha Chinthanaya with foreign investors. The purpose of the meetings is to rectify any problems they might have while dealing with government officials.

One important facet of Sri Lankan relations with Korea will come later this year when the Korean prime minister pays a visit to Colombo. Dates haven't been agreed upon yet but this is one event that is high on the ambassador's agenda.

By Yoav Cerralbo (yoav@heraldm.com)

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