17th June 2001

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He bridged cultures across the world

A tribute by Justice Christy Weeramantri to Dr. Nissanka Wijeyeratne on the launch of his collection of poems last week.

I have known Dr. Nissanka Wijeyeratne since we were students at Royal College. He was a year ahead of me but we knew each other and I remember, in particular, his special interest in Sri Lankan history-for which he won the Junior and Senior prizes awarded by Mr. Donald Obeyesekera.

Even in his school days, Nissanka was known for his reflective turn of mind. This, coupled with his great love of history, made him a most perceptive and informed contributor to discussions even at schoolboy level. After our days at school, I had the privilege of meeting Nissanka regularly. I had occasion to meet him professionally when I was a practising lawyer and he was Deputy Immigration Controller. We also met both officially and unofficially over the years.

My closest contact, however, was with him when he was Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the Soviet Union. It was in this diplomatic setting that I was best able to observe how his vast fund of knowledge blended so gracefully into the job he was doing for Sri Lanka and for the building of bridges across world cultures. I realised that here was a born ambassador combining a knowledge of the ancient and modern, east and west, as ambassadors need to do. Indeed, when I met foreign dignitaries who had met him in his international role, they conveyed to me their of admiration at the erudition of our ambassador.

Nissanka has an intimate knowledge of all the major periods of Russian history and a particular eye for the cross-cultural currents of thought which reached the vast country from civilizations as far afield as India and China. He also showed an intimate knowledge of Russian contacts with Buddhism and of the Buddhist communities in the USSR.

Nissanka can discourse, at a moment's notice, in great depth and with much authority on almost any civilization or historical period you may care to mention and he sees the interconnection of these as few others can. I myself have profited greatly from my conversations with him over the years on these topics and gained considerable insights in relation to the interactions between the major religions and cultural traditions of the world.

If an ambassador's role abroad includes a dissemination of knowledge of his home country in his host country, Nissanka discharged this role admirably. Sri Lankan history was his area of specialization. Here again he would grip his listeners with his detailed description of our ancient culture. He was able to make connections between civilizations as few others could. He could trace the linkage between Sri Lanka and other countries through the ancient trade routes as well as through the missionary routes.

I have heard admiring comments regarding Nissanka's global perspectives not only in Russia but also from associates in UNESCO (of which he was at one time an Executive Committee member.) In fact, his love of scholarship lay behind the proposal he made at UNESCO for the revival of the ancient library of Alexandria. But for Nissanka's initiative, this historic step of renewing what was once a treasury of human knowledge may never have been taken.

Another aspect of Nissanka's ambassadorship was the excellent relationship he had with his staff. He showed a deep concerned interest in the conditions of service and the welfare of every staff member of whatever rank. His relationship with the Sri Lankan student community in Moscow was equally warm.

I also have vivid memories of a well-attended reception he hosted for me at which a number of notable personalities from the legal and diplomatic scene in Moscow were present. In his speech, Nissanka held them enthralled with the historical connections he brought out and with his description of Sri Lankan history and philosophy. I have thus seen at first hand the enormous respect he commanded as our representative in Moscow. His vision knows no boundaries of race or religion or time. He is a universalist and humanist in the true sense of these words.

(The writer is a former Vice-President of the International Court of Justice)

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