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Alum Thilini Kahandawaarachchi on embassy work, research, and China in the Indo-Pacific

February 16, 2022

South Asia Center graduate student assistant Shelby House recently spoke with alumna Thilini Kahandawaarachchi, JSIS South Asia Studies MA (2015). A former lawyer and Fulbright student at UW, Kahandawaarachchi now works as a Senior Political Adviser at the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Read more about her writing, research, and career below.

SH: What led you to apply to the South Asia Studies program at UW? How did your MA prepare you for your next steps, and what were your favorite aspects of the program?

Thilini Kahandawaarachchi

Thilini Kahandawaarachchi

TK: I came to JSIS because I received a Fulbright Scholarship and UW was where I was placed. What I liked most about JSIS was the interdisciplinary nature of the programs. For example, the program enabled me to take some courses from the China Studies program and the Public Policy program, which really benefited me in my research and even some of the work that I do now. I was in the process of changing careers from law. Therefore, for a number of opportunities I was looking at, a master’s degree was required. For me, the JSIS MA program opened many doors for careers in international relations. Since returning to Sri Lanka, I have worked at several diplomatic missions based in Colombo and also the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the UN Migration Agency. Currently, I work as a Senior Political Adviser at the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo.

What is your work like at the Norwegian Embassy?

My work at the Norwegian Embassy involves keeping track of local political developments and foreign relations of Sri Lanka and the Maldives, with a focus on Norwegian interests and priorities. I regularly write reports on political, human rights, and development-related issues in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. In addition, my work involves writing speeches, messages, policy statements and media statements and maintaining good relations with various stakeholders from civil society, government, as well as the media. I also manage Norwegian Foreign Ministry’s financial support relating to local projects on good governance, democracy, and human rights. Though the pandemic has put limitations on travel, my work also involves a lot of travel to keep track of projects that we support and to speak with various stakeholders both in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

What was your research about during your time at JSIS? Has this influenced your current work?

Based on my personal and academic interest in China in the Indian Ocean region, I closely follow what motivates South Asian countries to reach out to China for financial investments. Particularly in Western media, Sri Lanka is portrayed as the poster child for the negative consequences of Chinese investments. However, many do not consider what motivates small developing countries like Sri Lanka to reach out to China as opposed to other countries or agencies.

My MA thesis (“Politics of Ports: China’s investments in Pakistan, Sri Lanka & Bangladesh“) at the University of Washington was based on that research, but so much has evolved in China’s ties with the South Asia region since then. When I was writing my thesis, China had just announced its Belt and Road Initiative, but seven years on, here we are and China is almost omnipresent throughout the Indo-Pacific.

To continue my personal academic interest in China in the Indo-Pacific, I now serve as a Senior Researcher attached to the Consortium of Indo-Pacific Researchers, a US-based think tank. At present, I look at China’s relations across the Indo-Pacific or the Indian Ocean region. This summer, the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs published one of my articles on how China’s Belt and Road Initiative has expanded Chinese influence all over the Indo-Pacific. I argue that rather than harping on about China’s “debt-trap diplomacy,” the United States and its allies must step up their engagement with the small (but strategically significant) Indian Ocean states to gain effective control over the Indo-Pacific.

What are you working on now? What’s next for you?

Currently along with a colleague from the Consortium of Indo-Pacific Researchers, I am working on a special issue of the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs on China’s influence on the Indian Ocean island nations, which will hopefully be out by summer 2022. I am also working on improving my Mandarin skills and sitting for my HSK exams to improve my ability to research Chinese foreign policy perspectives, but I still have a long, long way to go until that level of Mandarin fluency.

Since graduating from UW, I received a diploma in Hatha yoga and became a certified Hatha yoga instructor, so I also regularly teach yoga in my free time.

Learn more about the South Asia Studies MA Program and JSIS Graduate Programs.