Ayubowan, Vannakkam, Assalamualaikum, Good evening!
What an honour to have all of you join my colleagues and me this evening to celebrate Sri Lanka’s 70th anniversary of independence. We are indeed grateful for your presence.
A warm welcome to our chief guest, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Ambassador Thomas Shannon.
I also want to welcome representatives from the U.S. Congress. And I want to thank Congressman John Delaney of Maryland for sending us his best wishes.
Excellencies, Fellow Sri Lankans, friends,
This year we mark the independence anniversary under the theme One Nation. Now, it is common at a celebration like this to dwell on a few facts about our nation’s history and the current state of play vis-à-vis its development, politics and outlook. But since my motherland, more often than not, has been making headlines for many of the struggles we faced as a people, I would first like to make a brief mention of a few achievements we Sri Lankans are very proud of.
We are an island of just around 22 million inhabitants, spread across a landmass about the size of West Virginia. But we have historically punched above our weight in many key areas. Sri Lanka’s free education system ensures that no child is left behind and is largely responsible for our country’s literacy rate of 92 percent – the highest in South Asia and one of the highest in Asia. A free universal health care system makes modern medical care and traditional Ayurvedic treatments available to all at minimum or no cost.
While many parts of the world today debate and experiment with ways to achieve gender equality and having more women in positions of political, administrative and corporate power, our people were the first to elect a woman as a female head of government – in 1960 – and, women continue to equally share socio-economic responsibilities in our society.
Sri Lanka’s private sector has not just survived but thrived against insurmountable odds and established a world-class corporate culture led by internationally respected Sri Lankan professionals, pioneers and executives and is now poised to take on the world.
There are many more to add to this list – including the achievements of our beloved national cricket team.
But one of our greatest points of pride as a nation is our people’s lasting faith in our tried-and-tested democracy and its institutions. We are in fact the oldest democracy in Asia. Through prolonged conflict and times of economic hardship Sri Lankans have always turned up at the ballot box to take charge of their own destiny. Regular elections are as common a feature in Sri Lanka as its monsoon rains.
It is this solid confidence in our democratic system and commitment to democratic governance that will be the cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s future progress.
President Maithripala Sirisena in his address to the nation in Colombo on Independence Day stressed on the need to learn from our past experiences and work towards national harmony and reconciliation in order to develop the nation and ensure that all Sri Lankans can live in peace and never again be held back by communal strife.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in his message said “Freedom is fulfilled when human dignity and spiritual liberty are attained - in addition to social, political and economic freedom. Since being elected to power, he said, the Government has consistently focused on creating the right social and political climate needed to build a society that is indeed free and stable.”
This sentiment was echoed by Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana when he said “… all Sri Lankans should now work together shedding their differences, to create a better future for the generations to come and to compensate for the lost opportunities…”.
With all of this in mind the government of Sri Lanka recently launched Vision 2025, which underscores priority reforms to help the country become more competitive, prosperous and a dynamic modern economy.
Sri Lanka is always grateful for the support and encouragement of her friends in the international community in realizing key national development and security goals – the United States is one such friend.
That brings me to the other significant milestone we are celebrating in 2018. This year also marks 70 years of diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and the United States. The United States was one of the first countries to recognize Sri Lanka after its independence. And our very old friendship is, by all indications, stronger than ever.
Sri Lanka and the United States convened the second Partnership Dialogue last November in Colombo, in keeping with our shared commitment to democracy, rule of law, and the prosperity and well-being of our peoples. The Partnership Dialogue is an important platform to further strengthen and enhance bilateral relations in the widest sense, and to advance our common interests, including promoting regional stability and global security which is the basis for economic growth worldwide.
The United States is Sri Lanka’s largest export market accounting for more than a quarter of our exports. The two countries are also working together on developing Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector, especially the dairy industry.
Our development partnership reached new heights when in 2016 Sri Lanka was selected by the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation for a Compact Programme, a five-year grant programme that aims to reduce poverty and promote economic opportunity for Sri Lankans . MCC and the government of Sri Lanka have been working closely on developing the activities, which will continue in the coming years.
The two countries have deepened the military relationship in an unprecedented manner, to achieve mutually beneficial goals. Here, I want to mention the U.S. government’s announcement in November of its offer of a second U.S. Coast Guard cutter to the Sri Lankan Navy. The ship, once transferred, will become the largest ship in the Sri Lankan naval fleet and will enhance the capacity and the operational capability of our Navy to more effectively secure our maritime interests. The Sri Lankan military continues to receive professional military education and training in the highest U.S. military institutes. And the U.S. has been an invaluable partner in our effort to make the country mine free by 2022.
The two governments are also working to re-establish the U.S. Peace Corps programme in Sri Lanka and having U.S. Peace Corps volunteers returning to Sri Lanka’s English classrooms; and we are hoping to sign the bilateral agreement later this month in Sri Lanka.
Our shared values continue to bring us together and open avenues for further collaboration. We believe the U.S. is a natural partner for Sri Lanka as we strive for progress for our country and our people.
Here I have to mention the tireless diplomacy and hard work done by Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam in expanding this relationship during his tenure as head of mission in Washington D.C. Ambassador Kariyawasam, as you know, assumed duties as Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs a few months ago.
Before I conclude, I would like to congratulate our chief guest Ambassador Shannon on his many achievements in a career spanning 35 years. You just announced your retirement last week. The world we live in makes it harder to really just slip away in to relative obscurity after so many years of service. One of my senior colleagues once told me that nowadays you never really retire from anything for good. So good luck Ambassador Shannon!
Finally, ladies and gentlemen, please join me in wishing the leaders and the people of Sri Lanka, the strength in their journey to build a united, progressive, peaceful and prosperous nation; and for the continued strengthening of partnership and friendship between Sri Lanka and the United States.