Remarks on the Occasion of the 67th Anniversary of Sri Lankan Independence

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
Washington, DC
February 5, 2015

usdos-logo-sealAs prepared for delivery.

Thank you, Ambassador Kariyawasam. It is a privilege and a joy to celebrate Sri Lanka’s National Day with all of you.

This year the whole world is celebrating with Sri Lanka. Following January’s elections, you have every reason to hold your heads high and take pride in what you have already accomplished in this young year.

We all know democracy is a work in progress. You have to look no further than America’s own journey to see that fact. We marched for civil rights and risked life and limb so all peoples could finally enjoy the right to vote. We still struggle with questions of race and economic opportunity. And we continue to work towards a more inclusive democracy to this very day.

Indeed, every step along the way we’ve had to renew our devotion to the principles of democracy, freedom, and liberty. And throughout our history, we’ve returned to the ballot box to do so – to choose our leaders; to debate the most vexing national issues with civility; and to participate in the peaceful transfer of power.

After the most successful election in your country’s history, Sri Lankans can stand proud alongside Americans as keepers of the democratic dream. The people of Sri Lanka – from Jaffna to Galle – sent a clear signal from the ballot box: that they wanted your country to take a step forward, to realize its tremendous potential, and to finally enjoy the fruits of peace.

And, sure enough, the new government has wasted no time in translating that promise into action.

Less than four weeks into taking office, President Sirisena is pursuing an ambitious agenda. The world took notice when he lifted restrictions on the media; restored independence to government institutions; and committed to respect human rights not just for some Sri Lankans, but for all Sri Lankans.

It was particularly moving to see members of the Tamil National Alliance join the celebrations in Colombo yesterday. President Sirisena’s remembrance of all the Sri Lankans who perished in the war and his pledge to never again allow Sri Lanka “to be traumatized by the shedding of innocent blood” was an important step towards healing your country’s wounds.

But my hope is that you will not stop there. In mending the rifts inside Sri Lanka, I hope you will turn outside, to the world, in order to share your story of progress and reconciliation.

Indeed, Sri Lanka has always been an outward looking nation – ever since sending ambassadors to Augustus Caesar’s Rome and crossing the Bay of Bengal en route to China thousands of years ago. More recently, your soldiers have worn the azure blue helmets of the United Nations and served with distinction in the Central African Republic and elsewhere. Our security forces have worked together before—including to fight transnational threats like piracy—and hope to do so again.

I believe it is time for your country to return to its rightful place as a respected member of the international community – and I think your people demand it. That was the message Assistant Secretary Nisha Biswal relayed during her visit to Colombo earlier this week. She assured President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe that we will be partners in their effort to build a peaceful, prosperous, democratic, and inclusive future.

We will support Sri Lanka’s efforts to expand democratic freedom and political rights; to prevent corruption and investigate financial crimes; and to promote sustainable economic growth. Sri Lanka’s trade with the United States generates tens of thousands of jobs for Sri Lankans—and we are eager to see that relationship grow with new trade and investment for the benefit of both of our economies. That commitment will also form the basis of our conversations with the Foreign Minister and Finance Minister, whom Secretary Kerry looks forward to hosting in Washington next week.

Sixty-seven years ago – when your country earned its independence – your first Prime Minister unfurled and raised the red and gold Lion Flag outside the Assembly Hall for the first time in over a century.

On that occasion, the first Leader of the Sri Lankan House of Representatives spoke to the crowd. He said: “We cannot allow our newly regained freedom to run the risk of remaining … a theoretical concept … We must see that it quickens into a life of greater happiness and prosperity for us all.”

Today, we can all feel the promise of that day quickening into life in a new way. We can all see a future for Sri Lanka brimming with happiness and prosperity. And we can all celebrate hand-in-hand, knowing that the next generation of Sri Lankans will know peace and pride like never before.

Congratulations on your anniversary. Thank you very much.