Germany-Lanka relations in retrospect
President Maithripala Sirisena will make an official/state visit to Germany on February 15. State visits are viewed as a crescendo of bilateral diplomacy. British Scholar-Diplomat Sir Ernest Satow’s ‘Guide to Diplomatic Practice’, mentions of the visits of heads of state to other sovereign states, from historical times, and the facilities, and ceremonials accorded. Depending, on the diplomatic level of these visits, and the level of friendship, they are categorised as state visits, official visits, working visits or private visits. Each country has its own practice and norms in relation to the ceremonies and honours accorded to a visiting dignitary.
Some media reports said last time a Sri Lankan leader visited Germany on a state visit was some 43 years ago. This is not correct. As Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Germany, I was privy to the state visit of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga from March 12th to 16, 2001. As our relations with Germany were excellent, the visit had all the ingredients of a state visit. They included: the Invitation from Germany’s Head of State Johannes Rau, military honours on arrival and departure, playing of the national anthems, residence at Adlon Hotel, the historic State Guest Palace, meetings with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, bilateral meetings, visit to Bavaria, ceremonial welcome by its Minister-President Edmund Stoiber, presidential dinners, and witnessing German opera and of course, reception by Sri Lanka’s ambassador. It was a successful visit spearheaded by the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. A similar reception probably awaits President Maithripala Sirisena, too.
Lanka-German relations, at that time, were at their zenith, and two notable achievements were Germany’s pledge to persuade the European Union to proscribe the terrorist outfit LTTE, and make the fund-raising activities of the LTTE diaspora illegal. These factors paved the way for the defeat of the LTTE in 2009. One person who sacrificed his life in this endeavour was Mr. Kadirgamar.
There were discussions between the two business delegations, but some of the proposals did not materialise due to the terrorist menace. One such proposal was to set up a BMW plant here and make Sri Lanka its South Asian hub. We hope the new proposal to locate here a Volkswagen plant will give a boost to Sri Lanka’s industrial sector.
On the educational sphere, Germany agreed to provide university facilities for Sri Lankan students. Though these openings are being utilised by Sri Lankan students, the momentum is slow. German Stiftungs (foundations) were to assist Sri Lanka in varied development segments. However, due to our short-sighted foreign policy, some of these were temporarily closed, but they are being re-established now, indicating a new thaw in relations. The GTZ (now GIZ) has been supporting livelihood projects to help low income groups. Small and medium enterprises and industrial projects are also being supported. It is a welcome move by the German Government to look afresh at the links forged over the years to strengthen bilateral ties extending to more than 64 years.
If one goes back to antiquity, the people of Sri Lanka and Germany had the same beginnings, as taught in the migration of humans from the ancient Aral-Caspian Depression. Some moved north while others moved south. Sri Lanka became a Buddhist Religious-Cultural centre, while Germany became part of the Holy Roman Empire. Until, the age of Great Explorations in the 16th and 17th centuries, the two regions had only a few contacts, except for some seafarer or a traveller who moved along the old Silk Route. The island was known in antiquity as Taprobane. Eighth century German literature describes Sri Lanka as a ‘land of legends, elephants, and precious stones’, as written in Rhabanus Maurus, the Abbot of Fulda.
Even at present, Sri Lanka is a land of dreams for many Germans. Germans were not invaders or colonizers. They were intellectuals and financiers whose support was sought by other European colonisers. German sailors wrote books on their travels, and one such was the ‘Collection of Travels to Eastern and Western India (Sammlung von Reisen in das Oestliche und Westlich Indien), published by De Bray. Another publication was the Map of the World (1569) by the famous Cartographer, Mercator. It included Ceylon and it was shown to us by our teacher Professor George Thambyapillay in the 1960s.
Germans served in the Dutch fleets in the 17th and the 18th centuries, and notably, Dutch Governor Baron Gustav Wilhelm Von Imhoff, who later became the Governor General in Batavia, present Indonesia, was of German origin. Eminent names like Wolf, Spittel, Schneider, Lorenz, and Drieberg who have contributed to the Sri Lankan literature and science have links to German families. Writers such as Major Raven Hart who wrote ‘Germans in Dutch Ceylon’, give a glimpse of Sri Lanka in the 17th century. German Chroniclers such as Von der Beer, (1636-1642), Christof Schweitzer (1676-1682), and Langhanz (1705) also provide interesting accounts about Ceylon. A notable contributor was Prince Waldemar of Prussia.
These historical antecedents are important to understand German ethos vis-a-vis Sri Lanka, as Germany, like Sri Lanka, experienced vicissitudes of fortune. In 1871, Germany was unified and became an empire under Emperor Wilhelm I; Otto-Von Bismarck was the Chancellor. During this period Germany started commercial ties with the outside world and started plantations in Ceylon. John Hagenbach and Christian Boehringer, Saloman, Gabriel, and Maurice Wolmster were pioneers — and Sogama Estate in Udapussellawa is one such plantation. Entrepreneur Phillip Freudenberg started the coffee trade in 1876. He was also appointed as the consul and official representative of the German empire in Ceylon. By 1903 the Germans established a German Club opened by the son of Emperor William II, Prince Albert of Prussia; it was located in front of the Colombo Museum.
With the First World War, German property was confiscated. The Second World War too had a negative impact on business and trade-relations.
On cultural links, famous Indologist Wilhelm Geiger (1856-1953) laid the foundation for the systematic study of Sinhala Grammar. He made critical editions of the Pali Text in English to Mahawamsa and Chulawamsa. It is said he received inspiration from Archaeological Commissioner Paul Goldschmidt, who was a German. Another German Protestant Missionary, Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg (1682-1719), laid the foundation for Tamil Grammar, and translated religious books to Tamil.
The present period
Emerging from the ashes of two world wars, the Federal Republic of Germany under Konrad Adenauer became a world power like Japan in the 1950s and 60s, although there was the German Democratic Republic created by the Cold War divide. The Germans never gave up until the two Germanies were unified in October 1990 following the fall of the Berlin Wall when Helmut Kohl was chancellor.
Sri Lanka became a member of the United Nations in 1953 while Germany became a full member of the UN in 1973. The delay was due to cold war politics. Nations go through such turmoil but they should have the will and capacity to come out of them. Both Sri Lanka and Germany have that courage to face adversity and win the day.
Sri Lanka after Independence became one of the leaders among the newly independent countries — and commencing from the Colombo Powers Meeting and Bandung Conference, it played a key role in the Afro-Asian movement and later in the Non-Aligned Movement. Friendly relations with countries, with international prestige and standing was crucial for Germany, as it was on the path to recover its lost glory, and was keen to establish diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka.
Since 1872, Germans had their consul responsible for Ceylon, starting with H.H. Kramer. During the world wars, the consulates were closed by the British, and business ventures were confiscated. When Sri Lanka gained Independence, there was a need to begin diplomatic relations. After negotiations led by Sir Oliver Goonetillike, Sri Lanka’s first High Commissioner to London, diplomatic relations with Germany were established , with Dr. Georg Ahrens taking up the post as the first German envoy on December 3 1953 while top Civil Servant Glennie Pieris, Prof. G.L. Pieris’ father, was sent as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Germany.
The Sri Lanka embassy was located on a picturesque hillock at Bad Godesberg in Bonn, the administrative capital. After Germany’s reunification in 1990, Berlin became the capital. By the end of 1990s, most foreign missions and government offices had shifted to Berlin. After a few years, in keeping with the policy of reorientation of foreign missions under Lakshman Kadirgamar, Sri Lanka’s mission was moved to Niklasse Strasse in Berlin, after establishing a Consulate in Bonn. The year was 1999. As ambassador of Sri Lanka, I was fortunate to be instrumental in the relocation and organising the state visit of President Kumaratunga in 2001. Our consulate in Bonn was later shifted to Frankfurt.
Except for a brief period when Sri Lanka was to recognise GDR in the 1970s, the relations were expanding in substance and meaning. Even in the admission of Germany to the United Nations, Sri Lanka helped sort out differences with GDR, suggesting that both countries be admitted.
Sri Lanka’s ties with Germany prospered in the varied segments.
Goethe Institute that promotes German culture and educational policy was established in 1956 in Sri Lanka. Prior to this, Herman Hesse, a Nobel Prize winner in Literature produced his work, “Siddhartha”, in the first decade of the 20th century and visited Sri Lanka in 1906; Marie Musaeus Higgins founded Musaeus Collage in 1892; Dr. Paul Dhalke founded the Buddhist Haus in Berlin in 1923.
Besides establishing German Tech in 1959, German financial assistance for the development of the Port of Colombo began to arrive in 1961. The cement factory in Kankesanturai, the paper factories in Valachchenai and Embilipitiya, the iron foundry at Enderamulla were some of the industries started with German assistance.
The German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation (BMZ) has been giving aid through German Technical Cooperation (GIZ) to more than fifty projects, including reconstruction and reconciliation projects in the north. The Chamber of Construction Industry was granted financial support to train craftsmen in the North and East during the early post-war period. Now the GIZ is directly handling the programme. The German Development Bank (KFW) through a government programme grants soft loans to small and medium enterprises. It has also given loans to the electrical power rehabilitation programme in the Jaffna peninsula.
Several German foundations (Stiftungs) named after German leaders — Konrad Adenauer Foundation of the Christian Democrats, Friedrich Ebert Foundation of the Social Democrats, Friedrich Naumann Foundation of the Free Democrats and Helmut Kohl Foundation of former chancellor Helmut Kohl — support programmes aimed at improving democratic value systems, education and institutions. It was a moving decision of Chancellor Kohl to grant aid to finance a hospital in Galle, where he was stranded for some time during the 2004 tsunami while holidaying in Sri Lanka.
Germany built the Randenigala, Rantambe and Kirindi Oya irrigation dams in the 1980s under the Accelerated Mahaveli Programme. Sri Lanka should be grateful for the financial outlay of 1.2 billion German Marks (then currency), and also 380 million German Marks as direct technical assistance, to brighten the lives of millions. In the 1980s, Germany was Sri Lanka’s second biggest development partner. It became a leading investor, operating more than fifty BOI projects, which were adversely affected by the terrorism.
Trade and Investments
Germany is Sri Lanka’s fourth largest trading partner and there is much potential for trade relations to be developed. Sri Lanka exports textiles, garments, rubber, tea, plastics, transport accessories, vegetable products, machinery and allied goods and imports fabrics, iron and steel products, motor vehicles, paper products and beverages to Germany. The trade turnover is more than Rs. 8,000 million.
Germany has signed an Investment Protection Agreement with Sri Lanka. Today, more than 170 BOI-approved German ventures operate in Sri Lanka.
Tourism between the two countries developed in spite of terrorism with more than 50,000 arrivals a year. Some Germans operate tourist inns in the south. There is a lot of potential for development of the tourism sector, by promoting allied segments such as Ayurvedic treatment, meditation facilities and the study of Buddhism.
Sri Lankans in Germany
There are around 60,000 Sri Lankans in Germany; a majority of them migrated to Germany after the 1983 ethnic problems. Sri Lankan students who migrated have become professionals. There are medical doctors, hoteliers, and public servants. There are also Tamil Diaspora members who are opposed to the reconciliation efforts in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s gift
The greatest gift that Sri Lanka could give to the West, including Germany, which suffered ignominiously due to two world wars, was the Buddhist Doctrine. Sri Lanka’s links with Germany through Buddhism had their origins in 1903, with Anton W.F. Gueth, a German, being ordained as a Buddhist monk. Known as Ven Nyanatiloka Thera, he did immense service to humanity as the Maha Thera of the Island Hermitage in Rathgama Lake in Dodanduwa. He was considered a Bodhisatva. When he passed away in 1957, Sri Lanka paid the highest honour to him by having a state funeral at Independence Square. He had many erudite pupils such as Nyanaponika, Nyanatassa, Nyanamoli, Anagarika Sugathananda, and Vappo.
Ven Nyanaponika, (lay name Siegmund Feniger) was a great writer on Buddhism. He lived in a Kandy hermitage. One of his students, Bhikku Bodhi, became the principal speaker at the United Nations in 2000, on the occasion of the Declaration of Vesak as a Day of International Recognition.
A branch of the Maha Bodhi Society of India and Sri Lanka was established in 1921 in Germany by Dr. Karl Siedenstueker, and a small Buddhist Community exists today in Utting near Ammersee. The Buddhist Haus of Dr. Paul Dhalke, established in his own property, was later converted to a Vihara by the Most Ven. Mitirigala Dhammanishanthi (lay name Asoka Weeraratne). He did yeoman service to the doctrine and its teachings through his German Dharmadutha Society established in 1954. Helped by Prime Ministers of Sri Lanka and other philanthropists, the Berlin Buddhist Vihara in Fraunau was established in 1957. Today, there are Buddhist Viharas in Bonn, and in places, where Buddhists live.
German cooperation is crucial today as Germany is the most economically and politically strong country in Europe under Chancellor Angela Merkel, and President Joachim Gauck. The coalition government comprising the Christian Democratic Party, the Christian Socialist Union and the Social Democratic Party is similar to Sri Lanka’s Unity Government. At a time Sri Lanka is planning a new constitution, and the electoral system, it would be useful to study the German systems closely, especially the Basic Law and the Personalized Proportional Representation system.
(The writer is a former Sri Lanka Ambassador to Germany.)