An exclusive interview with U.S Ambassador to Sri Lanka Alaina B.Teplitz
by A. Jathindra, Centre for Strategic Studies, Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, September 25, 2021
Ambassador Alaina B.Teplitz has served as the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives since 2018. Prior to this, she was the U.S. Ambassador to Nepal. A career member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Career Minister, she joined the State Department in 1991. She speaks to CSST on the Indo-Pacific, the Quad and human rights.
Can the current political situation in Sri Lanka be seen as a challenge to the United States? There is a reason to raise this question here. The United National Party (UNP), a pro-Western bloc, has suffered severe setbacks in Sri Lanka’s political history. The UNP has a long tradition of defining Sri Lanka’s relations with the West because it is a member of the International Democrat Union — a grouping of international conservative political parties. However, the party is currently in decline. Against this backdrop, can US-Sri Lanka relations be predicted to be in crisis? What is your observation?
The United States and Sri Lanka have a relationship built on shared democratic values and our joint commitment to making Sri Lanka as prosperous and as secure as possible – reinforced by our cooperation on important issues like maritime security, environmental conservation, and cybersecurity. We enjoy good relationships with Sri Lankans from across the political spectrum, and value partnership and dialogue with individuals from all of Sri Lanka’s diverse backgrounds.
As with any relationship, there’s often more we can do to strengthen ties and build understanding. That’s why it’s so important that we continue to keep open lines of communication with our Sri Lankan partners, so when we don’t see eye to eye, we can work together to understand each other and find solutions.
The foreign assistance we provide in Sri Lanka is fundamentally non-partisan. We endeavor to support the Government of Sri Lanka to develop a just and prosperous country that serves the needs of all Sri Lankans. For example, we support the Sri Lankan Parliament through an advisory committee chaired by the Honorable Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena. Through this assistance, which supports career parliamentary staff as well as members of Parliament from all parties, we are helping Parliament better address the needs of all Sri Lankans.
Other examples of this non-partisan support include technical assistance to the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus (WPC) of the 9th Parliament to carry out national-level policy dialogues on disability initiatives, the rights of women, and the prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as the ratification of the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Convention No. 190 (C190) on Violence and Harassment. Through U.S. support, the WPC and the Select Committee on Women carried out evidence-based policy debates to refine their legislative recommendations to Parliament.
We also provide technical and institutional assistance to encourage the consideration of gender at all levels of government. We are helping the government of Sri Lanka to plan and allocate resources through an equity and inclusion lens through drafting Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB) guidelines, performance indicators, and a chapter on GRB in the Ministry of Women and Children’s gender mainstreaming manual. Countries that promote robust female participation in their political processes, as well as their economies, are not only more just societies, they are more prosperous societies. We look forward to continuing to work with our Sri Lankan partners to encourage similar initiatives that will propel the economy forward and promote share prosperity.
In your testimony in 2018, you mentioned that Sri Lanka’s success in this endeavour will make it a stronger partner to the United States and contribute to our shared vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific’. The current government of Sri Lanka claims to adhere to neutrality in foreign relations. In this context, it is not challenging for Sri Lanka to be a strong partner in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, on the other hand, as China vehemently opposes the Indo-Pacific vision. Recently China has warned Bangladesh against joining the US-led Quad alliance and said it is ‘narrow-purposed’ In this context, do you think Sri Lanka can be a strong artner in the FOIP’s vision with a neutral policy?
Let me answer the question by first explaining what the Quad is. Four democratic nations dedicated to delivering results through practical cooperation – Australia, India, Japan, and the United States — came together to provide coordinated rapid humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami that devasted the region. This cooperation, known as “the Quad,” was born in crisis and evolved into a diplomatic dialogue and commitment to a shared vision for an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, resilient, and inclusive.
I don’t think there is any challenge for the United States and Sri Lanka in sharing a vision of a free, open, resilient, and inclusive Indo-Pacific. This shared vision is about upholding the overarching values and principles that are fundamental to stability, prosperity, and democracy in all countries. These principles include freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes; fair, transparent, and inclusive economic policies; and good governance and a commitment to the rule of law.
These principles are very broad, so let’s look at this from Sri Lanka’s perspective. Sri Lanka sits next to the Indian Ocean’s busiest sea-lane, through which about half the world’s container ships, a third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic, and two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments pass. Shipping depends on freedom of navigation. Without it, Sri Lanka won’t be able to fully leverage its geostrategic position and its port investments. And, as you know, the United States is one of Sri Lanka’s most important economic partners as the country’s largest single country export market — and this is also something that simply couldn’t happen without freedom of navigation.
Sri Lanka’s extensive Exclusive Economic Zone, or “EEZ” under the Law of the Sea Convention, is rich in marine resources, but that same strength means that it is a target to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which threatens marine ecosystems, food security, and livelihoods. That’s why both Sri Lanka and the United States have committed to working together to prevent illegally caught fish from entering global markets.
However, its desirable location also means that Sri Lanka is facing transnational criminal challenges, such as smuggling of people, weapons, and drugs. This is why maritime security is an area of shared strategic concern for the United States and Sri Lanka, and why the U.S. partners with the Sri Lanka Navy and Sri Lanka Air Force to improve maritime capabilities, including patrols and interdictions. Through this partnership, and with vessels donated to Sri Lanka by the U.S., Sri Lanka had one of the largest drug seizures in its history in March 2020.
Just to be clear: our shared vision for the Indo-Pacific is neither defined nor constrained by membership or political alignment. It is instead an effort to ensure that this vast region of the world is secure and prosperous, and that key principles such as the peaceful resolution of disputes and transparent, fair, and open trade and competition are respected.
President Rajapaksa’s manifesto, “Visions of Prosperity and Splendour”, advocates for these same principles and highlights the need to reform outdated legal procedures and laws to align more with international norms. Similarly, the manifesto highlights the need to improve transparency in economic policy formulation and speaks to the importance of creating a strong private sector and business environment. These are all goals shared by both the United States and Sri Lanka, and we look forward to building on those mutual objectives in the future.
There has been widespread criticism of China’s investment project in Sri Lanka. But the Chinese Ambassador described the Colombo Port City project and the Hambantota Port project as dual engines of Sri Lanka’s economic growth. But you warned that the Port City could be creating a haven for money launderers and other nefarious actors to take advantage. On the other hand, the government also seems to see the Port City project as an economic saviour. Are there opportunities for western countries, mainly US investors, to invest in the port city in this situation?
The United States continues to be concerned about some aspects of the Port City legislation that passed in Parliament. There appear to be openings for corrupt influences and the potential for illicit financing, money laundering, and/or other activities by nefarious actors who want to take advantage of what they perceive to be a permissive environment for illegal activity. U.S. companies are going to be wary of that.
U.S. companies considering investing in Sri Lanka want predictability and a clear understanding of the investment environment. They’re going to need to know that if they’re investing, they’re not going to be confronted with risks that could present problems for them, either from regulatory bodies, their own shareholders, or their boards of directors. Under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), it is unlawful for a U.S. company or individual to offer, pay, or promise to pay money or anything of value to any foreign official for the purpose of obtaining or retaining business. A U.S. company considering investing in Sri Lanka must be confident that they’re not going to be exposed to – or collaborating with – entities that could have economic measures levied against them by the U.S. Treasury or Commerce Department.
We recognize that the government in Sri Lanka wants to take advantage of the investment already made in the Port City project, and that’s understandable. Our simple caution is that for such a large infrastructure / development project, it is incredibly important to get the legislation and regulations right – and ensure the door is not left open to illegal activity and unfair competition. As a general principle, bad money – for example, if the legislation does not close loopholes that might permit money-laundering – drives away good money.
You mentioned “dual engines of Sri Lanka’s economic growth.” I think a more important question is “where will these engines take Sri Lanka?” The Hambantota port project incurred a tremendous amount of debt for the country, and ultimately Sri Lanka needed to lease out the port for the next century as a result. The Colombo Port City could possibly open Sri Lanka to a host of suspect economic practices and corruption. Who would benefit from that? Although some bad actors would likely benefit, the larger Sri Lankan economy would suffer. A country’s investments need to generate a positive return in order to benefit the people; investments that yield a negative return – either in terms of jobs, revenue, or reputational risk – are a millstone around the neck of future economic growth.
An economically strong and prosperous Sri Lanka is in the interest of both our countries. The private sector plays a key role in driving the global economy. Ensuring the right conditions prevail in order to attract high quality, U.S. private sector investment and to help Sri Lanka stake its claim as an attractive and reliable economic partner in the region should be a priority policy goal for the government.
China seems to be showing interest to invest in the North-East recently. But the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main political leaders of the Tamil people, strongly oppose this. There is an opinion that the TNA is saying this to satisfy India and the United States. At the same time, there is the reality that investment projects cannot be resisted beyond a certain limit because Sri Lanka has high economic needs. What is the general observation of the United States regarding China’s investments?
A good investment is one that provides an economic return, generates jobs, and leaves the country with a manageable debt burden, if debt is required. When a different country invests in Sri Lanka, every Sri Lankan needs to consider these important questions. Is it generating the return that was promised? Is it worth the debt burden that it incurs? What is the overall quality of the investment?
U.S. and Sri Lankan companies work together on many good investments in manufacturing, product innovation, and supply chains, bringing the best of both our countries to create quality goods. These relationships provide jobs to Sri Lankans and, through this spirit of collaboration, raise standards in a way neither of us could do alone. The results speak for themselves- world class sails, fishing flies, apparel, and marine technologies, not to mention software designed in Sri Lanka, by Sri Lankans, for the rest of the world to use. These business relationships ensure a constant flow of ideas between our countries and build ever stronger commercial relationships.
An example of a good investment is the recent agreement between the World Bank and Sri Lanka that will provide nearly $70 million in financing to improve dams and irrigation schemes throughout the country. The project will mitigate the impact of flooding, droughts, and landslides, as well as improve water quality and farmers’ yields. It’s projected to benefit 356,000 rural families.
Additionally, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) awarded over $260 million in financing to private Sri Lankan banks over the last six months that is being used to bolster the local small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector, strengthen private sector investment, and support women entrepreneurs. By empowering women in business, these agreements align with our shared goals of expanding financial inclusivity, tackling gender inequality, and increasing support for women-led enterprises.
Throughout our long partnership, the United States has supported almost every sector in Sri Lanka, from agriculture to education, health to housing, water and sanitation, environmental protection, infrastructure restoration, microenterprise support, and job skills training. To date, we have provided assistance worth more than 350 billion Sri Lankan rupees (2 billion USD) to Sri Lanka. Most of our projects are designed by our staff of Sri Lankan experts, and we work closely with the people, the private sector, and government of Sri Lanka to determine where the greatest needs are and how to meet those needs. The vast majority of our assistance comes in the form of grants rather than loans, demonstrating the United States’ commitment to the well-being of the Sri Lankan people.
We are always looking at ways to help lift lives, build communities, and establish self-sufficiency. And to do this, we are committed to ensuring that every American tax dollar we spend achieves real development results. For instance, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Biz+ project helped more than 60 businesses to start-up or expand. So far, that initiative has created 8,000 jobs and generated $25 million in business investments.
Another example – I visited MA’s Spices in Dambulla a couple years ago and saw first-hand how our support reaps dividends over time. Thirty years ago, the United States provided MA’s with marketing advice, quality control technical support, and equipment. In 2018, we provided another 57 million Sri Lankan rupees in support to help MA’s grow into a mid-size company. Today, this company has over 350 products for local and export markets and employs 400 Sri Lankans. They even won an award from the United Nations Food Systems for Best Small Business last month.
These are all high-quality investments that have produced jobs and generated economic activity for local communities. That’s the type of investment Sri Lankans are, hopefully, looking for.
Families of missing persons were seen with the American flag during their protests. It’s a testament to their confidence in the United States. However, there is a viewpoint among Tamils that expected progress on human rights matters has not occurred so far. On this basis, can it be assumed that US involvement in Sri Lanka’s human rights issues has not yielded expected results?
The United States supports free societies and human rights, and we believe that families of those who disappeared during the civil war and at other times in Sri Lanka’s history – families from all communities and all walks of life – deserve answers. A memory I will always have from my time in Sri Lanka is meeting with families still seeking answers about their loved ones and hearing the pain in their voices as they face a decade or more of absence after an enforced disappearance. Fundamentally, only Sri Lankans can resolve these issues and I think most Sri Lankans understand that it is in their own self-interest to promote reconciliation and inclusivity. And it is the human thing to do. What if that missing person was your loved one, and you were denied answers for years?
Victims of violence deserve justice, and a mechanism for accountability, for real reconciliation and peace to take root. Mechanisms such as the UNHRC assist in realizing this goal. A democratic government that is accountable to all its people should be willing to genuinely and credibly investigate and adjudicate criminal allegations while striving to meaningfully address the political, economic, and social issues that sparked the conflict in the first place.
When the United States defends democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, it’s not because we have perfected these ideals at home. We are always striving to form a “more perfect union,” and hold ourselves to the highest standard – and that process of self-reflection and growth as a society can sometimes be difficult and painful. But this is how democracies work – because, ultimately, government exists to serve the governed and to help our societies evolve peacefully.
We encourage our friends and partners to promote the liberties enshrined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We continue to support reconciliation efforts in the country and remain committed to a democratic, prosperous, and inclusive Sri Lanka.
The Tamil question in Sri Lanka is basically a political problem. The political problem can only be solved through a political solution. Although it’s twelve years since the end of the war, an initial consensus is yet to be reached on the issue. Even the 13th Amendment brought about by the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord has not been fully implemented yet. There is a view among Tamil political circles that the US is interested in a political solution. India has been expressing concern in this regard. In this context, what is the US position on a political solution for the Tamil people?
The United States supports good governance, human rights, and the rule of law for all of Sri Lanka’s diverse communities – and that includes working through barriers to them at the political level. The Sri Lankan government has committed to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and we support Sri Lanka in achieving those goals, especially SDG #16 calling for strong institutions and peaceful societies.
We acknowledge there are political dimensions to governance and human rights in Sri Lanka, and we urge progress on the political front. We support the implementation of constitutional provisions, and we encourage the government to hold provincial council elections. Further work could also be undertaken, and I know there have been many efforts over the years to negotiate changes to the political system and process that would ensure greater regional and local empowerment within the Sri Lankan state. While such changes are for the Sri Lankan people to decide, the United States believes that addressing the root causes of ethnic conflict calls for political solutions as much as other accommodations.
In the meantime, we know that, with some attention and sufficient resources, people on the ground can find ways to work through their differences. We have been supportive of political activity – in a non-partisan way — at a grassroots level for a long time. For example, there was a water channel in a community outside of Trincomalee that was neglected and causing conflict between two groups of neighbors, one Tamil and one Sinhalese as a result. The United States provided a small grant to renovate this channel, which is now managed by a multi-ethnic farmer collective that allows everyone to share the water for irrigation and benefit from flood mitigation. By addressing what was fundamentally an infrastructure problem, two groups in conflict are now on much better terms.
Many point out that Afghanistan’s return to the Taliban has given oxygen to international Islamic terrorist groups. Some warn that it could once again be a haven for transnational Jihadis. In this situation, are countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives likely to be affected? Sri Lanka is also a country affected by Islamic terrorism.
As Sri Lankans know only too well, terrorism is a global problem. President Biden recently said: “This is a new world. The terror threat has metastasized… well beyond Afghanistan. We face threats from Al Shabab in Somalia, Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria and the Arabian Peninsula, and ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and establishing affiliates across Africa and Asia.”
I think it’s important that we focus on solutions, and how we can work together to mitigate any possible threat. We must work together on law enforcement cooperation and maritime security, and we encourage all our partners, including Sri Lanka, to share intelligence and information. In addition, terrorist groups are financed by illicit organizations, narcotics, and other criminal activity, so international cooperation on transnational crime is critical.
However, it is vital that we combat terrorism without infringing on civil liberties and human rights. One of the benefits of globalism is we now have sophisticated mechanisms in place to ensure we combat threats in ways that don’t increase radicalization or cause innocent people to suffer the consequences. By respecting these rights and liberties, and working positively with all communities, we will ultimately reduce the chance of terrorism.