By Mangala Samaraweera –
I am delighted to be here in Washington. It has been a good two-day visit and what better way to wind up than talking at the prestigious National Press Club, known as the place where news happens. I am aware of your Club’s storied history and I am indeed honored to be amongst all of you.
Let me start by quoting Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s words at Sri Lanka’s Independence Day celebrations here in Washington a few days ago. He said; “After the most successful election in your country’s history, Sri Lankans can stand proud alongside Americans as keepers of the democratic dream.”
Coming here after a very productive meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry this afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, I believe I can safely say Deputy Secretary Blinken’s words underscore the importance of our friendship and resonates with an era of renewed relations between Sri Lanka and the United States.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Sri Lanka and the United States of America, are two countries that share common values and ideals based on our commitment to democratic principles and governance. We enjoy long standing ties. In fact, people to people contact between our two countries pre-date the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1948 by about 150 years. I have come with the message that we want to broaden and strengthen these ties and I have discussed with Secretary Kerry about the way forward.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today the USA has emerged as a major economic partner and remains the single largest export market for Sri Lanka. 23% of our total exports are absorbed by the USA. The United States is the second largest foreign direct investor in our country with over 70 American companies based in Sri Lanka. We have continued to benefit from trade concessions under the System of Generalized Preferences (GSP). The United States is therefore an important stakeholder in our country’s economic development.
Sri Lanka’s location in the Indian Ocean has since time immemorial made Sri Lanka a transit and destination point for travelers of the seas. Sri Lanka in the past few years, has invested considerable resources in expanding facilities at its maritime ports with the aim of becoming a major trans-shipment hub. The Sri Lanka – US partnership must take into account the island’s strategic location.
As I mentioned at the outset the common thread that binds our two countries are our values and ideals of democracy. This solid base gives us much scope to work together. What happened in Sri Lanka just over a month ago, when Sri Lanka elected a new President by the use of the ballot and not the bullet, is more than extraordinary in today’s global political context where popular uprisings against the status quo have become the norm. It was an election fraught with challenges but the will of our people prevailed in the end. To quote President Obama, Sri Lanka’s election is “a symbol of hope for those who support democracy all around the world.”
My visit to Washington so soon after the election was with the objective of briefing the United States Government on the road map which the new Government in Sri Lanka has drawn up to implement the pledges given to the people of our country during the election.
The government of President Maithripala Sirisena is deeply committed to strengthening democracy, independence of the judiciary, respect for the rule of law and ensuring that all communities in Sri Lanka enjoy the dividend of peace that has dawned in our country. In his speech on Independence Day last week, President Sirisena stated, I quote “the biggest challenge today is to unite the hearts of the people of the North and South through a national reconciliation process for co-existence.”
Our government has launched an ambitious 100-day Programme. We want all Sri Lankans and the international community to realize that we are fully committed to implementing our road map. In the last one month we have taken significant steps to strengthen the independence of the judiciary, to appoint civilian Governors to the Northern and Eastern Provinces and thereby giving the Provincial administration a new impetus. We are drafting legislation to re-establish the independent public service, police, judicial and elections commissions, a Right to Information Act. We are tackling corruption and abuse of power and we are committed to fulfilling our obligations to our people through the establishment of credible domestic mechanisms. We are reaching out to minority communities and ensuring that they are included and heard in all national processes.
The vision of the founding fathers of the United States, as well as that of the people of the United States over many generations has created a prosperous society that places a premium on hard work, merit and education. Thus, over the course of its history the US has shown resilience and strength to rebound from any setback. We believe that Sri Lanka can learn from your country’s history and that the opportunity is before us to take our country forward to a new era of peace and prosperity. In this journey we consider the United States as an important partner.
Sri Lanka recognizes the goodwill and friendship that has been expressed by leaders and policy thinkers in the US towards Sri Lanka. These sentiments have once again been reiterated by Secretary Kerry this afternoon. Sri Lanka is keen to build upon this manifest goodwill. Close interaction at all levels between the two countries will help deepen and expand our partnership. My Government therefore hopes to continue the dialogue with the United States, which has commenced today following my meeting with Secretary Kerry, to take our relationship to greater heights.
Secretary Kerry asked me an important question today: What can the US do to help Sri Lanka?
Ladies and gentleman, as Sri Lanka moves forward on a new course that it is charting out for all its people, based on good governance, rule of law, justice and equality for all in the framework of a united country, what we need are friends – to support us and to stand by us to build a peaceful, prosperous and secure Sri Lanka. I am more than certain that we already have one such friend in the United States.
I thank you.
*Remarks by Mangala Samaraweera, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka at the National Press Club, Washington DC on February 12, 2015