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Local Sri Lankan becomes envoy

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 11, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- If you are of a certain age, you might remember when the lush tropical island off the tip of India was called Ceylon and was mainly known for growing some of the world's finest tea.

Then came independence from Britain, a return to the indigenous name Sri Lanka and a civil war that claimed nearly 65,000 lives -- hundreds of them from suicide bombings.

But something remarkable happened last week. Sri Lanka and the rebels, the Tamil Tigers, agreed to develop a government that would give the Tamils regional autonomy, a move that would end 19 years of fighting and resolve one of the world's seemingly insolvable conflicts.

"I think all parties are very committed and it's going to take something very dramatic to set the clock back," says Devinda Subasinghe, Sri Lanka's ambassador-designate to the United States.

Subasinghe, who turns 49 today, is a resident of south Pinellas and until recently was a vice president of Raymond James Financial Services. At first blush, it might might seem odd for Sri Lanka to name an ambassador who lives in Florida, went to Indiana University on a swimming scholarship and has spent most of his adult years in the United States.

But successfully straddling two worlds is what makes Subasinghe an "innovative choice," says a veteran diplomat who also lives in St. Petersburg.

"The United States is going to be a very key player in the future in what happens in (Sri Lanka) and to have somebody here who knows the system and who knows how things work is very important," says Jamsheed Marker, Pakistan's former ambassador to America.

In his 25-year career, Subasinghe has frequently returned to his native land -- where his parents and sister still live -- to advise leaders there on financial and economic issues. He also has been an adviser to the U.S. government and spent 12 years in Washington, D.C., with the World Bank, traveling often to Asia.

On a 1999 visit to Tampa Bay, Subasinghe met Raymond James chairman Thomas James and joined the company to develop its Latin American investment banking business. He had just finalized a major deal with two Costa Rican banks in August when Sri Lanka's new prime minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, asked him to become ambassador.

Elected last December, Wickremasinghe ran on the controversial platform of negotiating with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers. Since 1983, the group has used suicide bombings to assassinate one president and wound another in its quest to gain a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's 3.2-million Tamil minority. The Tamils, mostly Hindus, say they have been discriminated against by the largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority.

The two sides announced a cease-fire in February, and the government later lifted its ban on Tamil membership and eased travel restrictions to Tamil areas in the north. On Thursday, the Tigers dropped their demand for independence and agreed to regional autonomy, perhaps along the lines of Switzerland's cantons or the semi-autonomy Quebec enjoys in Canada.

The Tamils' willingness to negotiate likely stemmed from realization that the world's tolerance for terrorism has waned dramatically since Sept. 11.

"They've been fighting for almost 20 years and getting nowhere," Subasinghe says. "A lot of this had to do with fatigue and a realization since 9/11 that this is a no-no."

Despite Sri Lanka's small size -- 19-million people in an area the size of West Virginia -- its location in a volatile region and its newfound prospects for peace have raised the country's profile with the Bush administration.

After U.S. military intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, the administration undoubtedly would like to see a crisis solved by negotiation, not force.

Sri Lanka "provides a potential model away from conflict and introducing U.S. troops," Subasinghe says.

"The fact that it is a democracy that follows a free-market philosophy is also appealing to both Democrats and Republicans."

In a sign of increasingly close relations between the two countries, President Bush hosted the new prime minister in July -- the first visit by a Sri Lankan leader to the White House since 1984. The men, both in their mid 50s, reportedly hit it off.

Even if the peace talks succeed, Sri Lanka's economy will take a long time to recover from 19 years of war. Tourism has begun to rebound with the reopening of the Tamil areas, which include some spectacular beaches, but good jobs remain so scarce that hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans leave home each year to work in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries. Sri Lanka is looking to the United States for economic help, and that makes Subasinghe's financial expertise and new role especially important.

The Subasinghes will live in temporary quarters in Washington while the official residence undergoes renovation. He will shed the "designate" part of his title as soon as he presents his credentials to Bush, probably later this month. Subasinghe's wife, Helga, an artist, will also spend considerable time at the Sri Lankan embassy, developing exhibits that showcase the country's art and culture.

The couple's condominium on Isla Key will remain a second home. Their son, Oliver, is a senior at nearby Eckerd College and Helga's parents live in Temple Terrace. Subasinghe, once ranked among Asia's top swimmers, still does laps in the condo pool and calls Fort De Soto his favorite beach.

"I love Florida," agrees Helga, who was born in Italy but met her husband while he was in graduate school in Washington, D.C. "I know it's an honor to be made ambassador but I do love it here."

-Susan Martin can be reached at .

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