Our Determination To Support President Sirisena’s Goal

By Samantha Power
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Samantha Power

Samantha Power

On my final day in Colombo last November, I hosted a town hall for local students. They reflected Sri Lanka’s incredible diversity – they hailed from every corner of the country, and represented all of its faith communities. And they asked me tough, probing questions on topics like accountability, human rights, reconciliation, and the role of women in society. These young people were inspiring – in their thoughtfulness, and their fierce determination to improve their country. It was clear that they want what everyone in this room wants for Sri Lanka: a country which is peaceful and democratic, and in which every citizen has a fair chance to build a better life. In just sixteen short months, President Siresena and his administration have given them new reason to believe that this goal is attainable. Today, through your work, you will help move Sri Lanka even closer towards achieving it.

Thank you, Ambassador Froman. Minister Samarawickrama, thank you as well.

 There were two reasons that I flew down from New York to join you today. The first is that I fell in love with Sri Lankan food during my visits, and I was told there would be string hoppers, curries, and pol sambol for breakfast. It appears I was misled.

Fortunately, the second reason for my trip down is far more important. I came because of the importance President Obama places on the United States’ bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka.  More specifically, I came to underscore the United States’ commitment to Sri Lanka’s continued progress, and our determination to support President Sirisena’s goal of ensuring that this progress delivers socio-economic benefits for all Sri Lankans.

Of course, the fact that we are here at all reflects just how much has changed since January 2015. That month, Sri Lankans cast their votes for a new era: one in which their leadership committed to seeking a durable peace, an accountable democracy, a new relationship with the outside world, and expanded economic opportunities for all.

In the sixteen months since that election, President Sirisena’s administration has made extraordinary progress towards these goals. The difference in the political and security climate is felt across the island. When I visited in November, the change since my last visit in 2010 was palpable. People told me that it felt like a climate of fear had been lifted: activists felt safe to work openly and criticize the government; journalists reported freely; political prisoners were being released; land was being returned to the people; and the internally displaced were going home. As part of its determination to deal with abuses of the past, the government had committed to justice and reconciliation processes which will serve all Sri Lankans. I have never seen a country take such swift strides in such little time.

But you do not have to visit Sri Lanka to see how much has changed. It is similarly evident in Sri Lanka’s new role on the world stage. To cite one example, after becoming a sad example of creeping authoritarianism, it has emerged since January 2015 as a global advocate on issues like human rights and democratic accountability. In an era when too many other leaders are trying to change constitutions to abolish term limits, President Sirisena’s government passed an amendment to Sri Lanka’s that reintroduced a two-term limit and reduced the power of his office. To cite another example, Sri Lanka demonstrated last November its emerging leadership in UN peacekeeping, when President Sirisena announced new military and police commitments – including infantry battalions, special forces, and combat logistics units. This was one of the most impressive and significant pledges made at President Obama’s peacekeeping summit.

Now, there is still much work to be done, including towards key goals like addressing corruption, advancing transitional justice, and improving the quality of governance. We are clear-eyed about the challenges still ahead, and that includes the one that brings us here today: ensuring that this progress also extends to Sri Lanka’s economy, and that it leads to improvements in the daily lives of all Sri Lankans. Sri Lankans are understandably impatient –they want to see a democracy dividend quickly. Now, achieving the socio-economic growth which Sri Lankans seek and deserve will take time, particularly given the legacy of war and the corruption and economic mismanagement of recent years. But the Joint Action Plan being adopted today will help make it happen. It will expand trade, encourage foreign investment, and spur growth – and in doing so, it will boost employment, income, and living standards.

This comprehensive effort will rightly work to empower women economically – a strategically important focus, given the long established economic benefits countries derive when they tap the talents and productive capacity of all of their citizens. Sri Lanka has already achieved impressively high rates of female education, with women making up 60% of university undergraduates – but the principles laid out in the Joint Action Plan, and the initiatives they facilitate, will help further break down barriers for women entrepreneurs, to the benefit of all Sri Lankans.

The United States we will seek to leverage our assistance this year to further support broad-based economic growth. Sri Lanka’s acceptance as a threshold member of the Millennium Challenge Corporation will provide another means through which we can provide financial and development assistance.

Let me conclude. On my final day in Colombo last November, I hosted a town hall for local students. They reflected Sri Lanka’s incredible diversity – they hailed from every corner of the country, and represented all of its faith communities. And they asked me tough, probing questions on topics like accountability, human rights, reconciliation, and the role of women in society. These young people were inspiring – in their thoughtfulness, and their fierce determination to improve their country. It was clear that they want what everyone in this room wants for Sri Lanka: a country which is peaceful and democratic, and in which every citizen has a fair chance to build a better life. In just sixteen short months, President Siresena and his administration have given them new reason to believe that this goal is attainable. Today, through your work, you will help move Sri Lanka even closer towards achieving it.

Thank you, and good luck.

*Opening Statement, US-Sri Lanka TIFA Council Meeting
 – Ambassador Samantha Power
 – April 28, 2016