A forward-looking ambassador

One of the youngest German ambassadors to Sri Lanka Jens Uwe Plötner, is hopeful of new
beginnings in Sri Lanka as he takes on his first a mbassadorship post. Smriti Daniel reports. Pic by Athula Devapriya.

When asked for a comment, Sarah Plötner only gurgles and offers a gummy smile. Focused on turning onto her stomach, clutching her feet and babbling happily, the three-month-old is oblivious to her new surroundings. Not so her parents. The birth of a beautiful daughter and his first ambassadorship has made 2009 a memorable year for Jens Uwe Plötner, the new German Ambassador to Sri Lanka. Six weeks into his stay, he and his lovely wife Meike are fully aware that Sri Lanka is a country in the throes of a profound transition, and with a presidential poll due in less than two months, he hopes to see a fair and peaceful election held.

“There are changes almost weekly,” he says of all the differences he sees in the country. As security is slowly relaxed both in the capital and across the country, he and his family have already begun travelling around the island. The scenery they’ve seen out of their car windows probably couldn’t be further from his previous postings in the Middle East and Berlin, where he served the Federal Foreign Office as a spokesman for Middle Eastern and UN-Affairs and more recently as a Deputy Chief of Staff. It was through the former that he met his wife.
Jens Uwe Plötner with his wife Meike and new born baby girl.

Incongruously, they associate the year they met with the beginning of the Iraq war. Mrs. Plötner was in charge of welcoming press delegations at the German Embassy in New York and despite the fact that they were posted in two different countries, the two had many chances to talk. As a U.N affairs spokesperson, Mr. Plötner had to make frequent visits to the U.S in early 2003.

“We were trying to convince our American friends to not go military in Iraq and in order to do that we were in the Security Council deliberations,” he says. He describes heated debates and crucial moments such as the session when then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell made his momentous and poorly corroborated announcement that the Iraqis were hiding chemical and biological weapons, were secretly manufacturing more banned arms and were reviving their nuclear bomb project. “As Meike once said, we met thanks to the Iraq war, but we’re both still against the Iraq war,” Ambassador Plotner says laughing.

But it was in an earlier posting in Israel at the turn of the millennium that Mr. Plötner really found himself in the thick of things when, just a day after his 33rd birthday, the second intifada broke out. The Palestinian uprising marked a period of heightened Palestinian-Israeli violence thatwould eventually claim over 6,000 lives. “On several occasions I was very close to terror and suicide attacks,” he says explaining that he grew familiar with the sound of nearby explosions. “It makes you feel sad for the friends one made on both sides,” he says, regretting the lack of a peaceful solution to that conflict.

When Mr. Plötner accepted a posting in Sri Lanka the war was still raging, and so he was prepared to live with some of the upheaval that characterised his time in the Middle East. “Now I’m in Sri Lanka at quite a different time. The war was won and now there’s a huge window of opportunity facing this country to win peace.”

His own appointment reflects this sense of new beginnings. The ambassador is one of the youngest to ever occupy such a position at the German embassy here, and he brings what might be described as a youthful enthusiasm to his task. He has plans to strengthen cultural ties between the two countries and hopes to look particularly at sport. Having heard that people like to play football down in Jaffna, he thinks it might be just the thing.

However, his number one priority in upcoming months will be to closely monitor the election campaign. “Longer term, one of our priorities is to help Sri Lanka develop the north and the east,” he says, adding that he intends to encourage German companies to invest in Sri Lanka. At a time when several countries have been vocal in their objections to the government’s handling of the IDPs, Mr. Plötner is looking forward. “I do feel that it has huge potential, especially now, when the war is over,” he says, adding, “I think it’s important to treat the IDP issue in the way which corresponds to the international standards that Sri Lanka itself has subscribed to.

That is why we were very relieved to see in the last month or so that the number of IDPs being released has significantly increased.” They hope to see the IDPs granted complete freedom of movement as they are resettled into safe environments that allow them to lead normal lives. “The political idea is to have one Sri Lankan identity but I think the identity will be even stronger if it reflects the diversity and understands cultural diversity as an asset.”

For his wife and him, settling down to a routine and normalcy in Sri Lanka may take time as well. In their home near Alfred House Gardens, the two have made a baby’s room – a first for this Ambassador’s residence. “People always said that Sri Lankans are very child-friendly,” says Mrs. Plötner, explaining that it is with great pleasure that she has found this to be true. Both husband and wife are savouring these first few months of their daughter’s life.

They are likely to remain in the country for at least four years, but “whatever happens afterwards, this time in Sri Lanka will be very special for us because it will be combined with Sarah’s awakening. Her first conscious memories will be from Sri Lanka,” says Mr. Plötner, smiling, as the baby rolls happily on her mat.

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