FOREIGN MINISTER SAMARAWEERA: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It has been a great honor and our privilege to welcome the honorable John F. Kerry, Secretary of State of the United States of America, to the historic Republic building, which has been the home of the foreign minister of Sri Lanka since independence. In fact, Secretary Kerry’s visit is a momentous occasion for Sri Lanka, as it is the first official visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in nearly half a century – 43 years to be precise. And I believe that this important visit signifies the return of our little island nation to the center stage of international affairs.
This morning we continue the dialogue that began in Washington in February where I visited within one month of my appointment as foreign minister. In fact, during the talks held a little while ago, we agreed to build on a multifaceted, bilateral relationship and to forge stronger links between our peoples. And we also agreed to formalize our relationship through a partnership dialogue that will enable us to continue this engagement on a regular basis.
Relations between our two countries have existed since the adoption of the U.S. constitution, at which time records show that sailors from New England were anchored in the royal harbor. American missionaries, including Sir Henry Alcock, who jointly designed the Buddhist flag, which you will see everywhere today and tomorrow, had a vital role in founding and nurturing some of our best schools both in the north and the south of Sri Lanka.
Secretary Kerry’s visit to Sri Lanka also comes at a propitious moment. On one hand, Buddhists in every part of the country, and all over the world in fact, will be celebrating Lord Buddha’s philosophy of tolerance and non-violence tomorrow by lighting beautiful paper lanterns in their homes and on displays. And on the other hand, it also comes at a time when Sri Lanka is celebrating the passage of the 19th amendment to our constitution last Tuesday, which only one member of parliament opposed. This – and that was the apex of the 100-day program which introduced fair-reaching constitutional and democratic reforms.
Today Sri Lanka is well on its way to becoming a fully-fledged parliament democracy, laying the foundation for a new Sri Lanka, built on the pillars of democracy and ethnic harmony. This will allow us to reap the fruits of increased economic growth and prosperity, which had been eluding us for nearly two decades because of deadly conflict. Eventually, accountability in the new Sri Lanka will feature the
key component of the reconciliation (inaudible), and the architecture of a domestic accountability mechanism with international technical assistance, as promised by our manifesto, are now being planned.
In this context there are also several areas where the United States can assist us by enhancing local capacity and providing technical expertise. Sri Lanka, now a middle income country, can no longer, ladies and gentlemen, afford to rely solely on foreign aid. It is in our government’s best interest to attain foreign direct investment as part of our broader strategy to fix up the economy.
Sri Lanka has been considered a paradise for tourists for many years, but our government is now also keen to make Sri Lanka an investor’s paradise. In order to do so, we are in the process of cultivating a rules-based investment climate, and I hope that American investors will take advantage of the many new economic opportunities now opening up in Sri Lanka. Later today, Secretary Kerry will call on President Sirisena have discussions with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and I believe that these discussions will provide an opportunity for both sides to understand their respective priorities, and that the discussions will also heighten our existing close and friendly relations.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank Assistant Secretary Nisha Biswal for her unrelenting belief in Sri Lanka and its potential and for the support and encouragement we have received from her over the last few months. I hope there will be many more high-level visits to come, and today is just the beginning of a very, very special friendship between Sri Lanka and the United States of America.
I wish you, Secretary Kerry, and your delegation a pleasant stay in Sri Lanka, and hope that you will visit us again soon and that you may have the extra time to go around our beautiful island and see for yourself its natural beauty. Thank you very much, indeed. Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Foreign Minister. Is this working?
FOREIGN MINISTER SAMARAWEERA: It is.
SECRETARY KERRY: Can you hear me all right? It’s an enormous pleasure for me to be here with my friend, my colleague, Foreign Minister Samaraweera. And I want to thank him for an extraordinarily generous welcome here today. Is this not working?
FOREIGN MINISTER SAMARAWEERA: It is.
SECRETARY KERRY: Is it working?
PARTICIPANT: Not working.
SECRETARY KERRY: Not working back there. It’s working here. Let me just say – we’ll plow through it – I think my voice is loud enough that you’ll be able to hear me and we’ll go through.
I want to thank the foreign minister for an extraordinarily generous – good? Mangala has given me a really generous and very personal welcome here today, and it is an historic moment, one that I’m very proud and pleased to be able to share with him. And I’m grateful for his friendship and for the invitation, which he offered me when he came to Washington, to come here today in order to renew the relationship between the United States of America and Sri Lanka.
This is a paradise, a very beautiful island nation. It has enormous assets, wonderful, extraordinary people, and great, great promise for the future. And I pledged to him and to his delegation here today that the United States wants to work with Sri Lankans and help in any way we can to shape the future that the people of Sri Lanka want.
The foreign minister and I last met in February in Washington, and today we talked about the enormous progress that Sri Lanka has made in just a few short months – and progress that can be measured: progress on restoring democratic institutions; progress on creating more accountable governance; the passage of the 19th amendment, in which the president kept his promise to reduce the powers of the presidency and move them more to the people through a broader sharing, is an example of that; progress in combatting corruption; and progress on reconciliation that can lead to a much more enduring peace and to shared prosperity for all Sri Lankans.
So I am very mindful that as I stand here in Sri Lanka, more than 10 years after the tsunami on December of 2004, so many people are suffering in Nepal from the devastating earthquake that struck one week ago. And I want to commend the government and the people of Sri Lanka for quickly sending response teams to Kathmandu. The United States is also mobilizing a major response, but it’s indication of the sensitivity of this government and its sense of responsibility and its desire to be a part of the world community that it responded so quickly.
It is tragedies like the Asian tsunami, of the Nepal earthquake – or the Nepal earthquake – that underscore our need to work together to support one another in times of crisis, yes, but also in times of opportunity. And this is a time of opportunity for Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka today, I think many of us see a moment of extraordinary promise. The foreign minister recently gave a rousing speech to parliament, and I was particular inspired by his statement that the true safeguarding of sovereignty can be achieved only by fulfilling our obligations to our people and by preserving and upholding the multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious nature of our society.
He emphasized as well the importance of working closely together with other countries and with international organizations. Already we have seen those words actually backed up by actions. That’s what makes this government important, and it’s what makes this government different. Sri Lanka is now playing a role on everything from maritime security and trade to cyber issues and climate change. And I am particularly grateful to the foreign minister for hosting an event on cybercrime and for taking steps to become the first country in South Asia to accede to the Budapest convention.
But I know that you also have a tremendous amount of work to do here at home. You are working on creating an enduring peace and you’re working on providing prosperity for all of your people. Many challenges and difficult decisions obviously still lie ahead, and we talked about many of them this morning. But one thing that struck me was the readiness of this government to open its doors and to open its minds to different ideas and to new and more effective and efficient ways of doing things.
One thing about this Sri Lankan Government seems very clear: the president and the prime minister and the foreign minister are not afraid of tackling tough issues. They’re willing to make difficult decisions and they are committed to keeping their promises. We’ve seen that with the 100-day Plan. And as the government heads into the parliamentary elections this summer, Sri Lankans will continue to rely on their tremendous leadership and commitment.
So I am here today because I want to say to the people of Sri Lanka that in this journey to restore your democracy the American people will stand with you. We intend to broaden and to deepen our partnership with you. And to that end, the foreign minister and I agreed to establish an annual partnership dialogue between our two governments. I’ve also asked teams from across our government to mobilize quickly in order to provide technical assistance as the Government of Sri Lanka embraces these important reforms. And we will soon have members of that team from the Treasury Department and from the Commerce Department come here in order to work with the government on the economic measures that could be taken to provide for greater investment and greater growth. And as you know, President Obama recently nominated one of our most talented Foreign Serviceofficers – Atul Keshap – to be our ambassador to Sri Lanka.
So Mangala, thank you again for a very generous welcome. These are very important days here in Sri Lanka. And all of us need to rely on each other and we need to work together cooperatively. That’s exactly how we’re going to forge a stronger friendship, and that’s also how we’re going to forge a stronger partnership and an even better future for both of our countries.
What strikes me about Sri Lanka and the United States – and it got lost in the last years – is that the truth is we want the same thing for our people. We actually share the same values. We have the same aspirations for better jobs, for education, for health, for prosperity, for peace, for stability, for reconciliation. Those are the things that bring us together; that’s what brings me here today. And I’m very proud to be here to help renew the partnership and the friendship between the people of the United States and the people of Sri Lanka. Thank you, my friend.