US Ambassador Julie Chung met senior journalists for a roundtable meeting on 7 July, to discuss concerns regarding the Sri Lankan Government’s interactions with its citizens and the outside world, particularly in regard to the International Monetary Fund, Russia, and China.
Following are excerpts of the
What do you think about deploying military personnel to control tense situations islandwide?
A: We’ve called on peaceful protests from the very beginning when we saw the protests starting. And we’ve called on the Security Forces, both Police and Military, to exercise restraint. People have the right to protest. At the same time, we know that law and order must be maintained, that people should not resort to violence or destroy property. But I think when you see incidents like this week with the military kicking individuals standing in the fuel queue, other issues of aggressive actions, that is not a good signal for the rest of the country. The Military and Security Forces are here to protect and uphold democracy for its own people, so we are constantly monitoring the situation and how the Security Forces are reacting to these protests. But this is where we have continuously called for restraint by those forces.
Amid this crisis, the forgotten part is the accountability and reconciliation process in the country. You visited the North and met the relatives of missing persons and civil society. So where does the US stand on the reconciliation and accountability process? What is your stance on the Office on Missing Persons and Office for Reparations?
A: Meeting the mothers of the missing was the most emotional thing in Sri Lanka. I have a small child too. For them, with real genuine emotion and tears to describe what they’ve gone through as a family, that is very, very hard to listen to. The US of course always stands by human rights and democracy and justice and accountability, and we are once again a member of the Core Group at the Human Rights Council. One of my purposes of going to Jaffna and meeting all these groups and to publicise it, was to also remind society that even amid the economic crisis, you can’t neglect the broader, long-term human rights and accountability issues. There are so many challenges that have not been resolved with the ethnic and religious and minority groups. That has to be also addressed. We are looking forward to working with our Core Group partners and others at the Human Rights Council. There is much work to be done with commissions like the OMP. We have called for constant resources and independence and strengthening of those institutions that really meet the needs of the people. That is an area of improvement where we will support whatever ways to build the capacity of these commissions, but I think it’s the government’s role to really make sure that these commissions are functioning, independent, and are working.
With your return from Washington recently, there was a Treasury Department delegation that visited. What kind of assistance and support is the US State Department and the Treasury planning for Sri Lanka?
A: The Treasury visit was timely. I think they really wanted to assess on the ground and talk to people, the Opposition, the President, Prime Minister, Central Bank and private sector to really understand the present situation, because it’s been evolving and changing so fast. And I think our Treasury Department also works very closely on IMF. And as a member, a stakeholder of the IMF Board, for them to understand what’s being done, what measures and reforms have been taken, and what steps still need to be done, and what are the challenges, that was the purpose of their visit. We don’t deal directly with IMF negotiators. In addition to procurements and public finance management, I think revenue management is also an important priority for the IMF. So, these are areas where we talked about bringing Treasury technical advisers to support Sri Lanka during this period.
There is a feeling that Sri Lanka did not get the desired support internationally. Do you agree with that? Do you think this led Sri Lanka to seek Russia’s support? The President called his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. How does the US view this?
A: Sri Lanka has to make its own decisions on how they deal with each country and have diplomatic relations or communications with any country. So, it’s not up to the United States to tell the Sri Lankan Government how to interact with other governments. I know that there’s an interest in obtaining fuel and oil support from Russia. And to clarify, the US does not have sanctions against third countries that import oil. We have sanctioned Russian oil into the United States, but that’s also because we have the productive capacity and energy capacity already in the US. So, there are no third country sanctions by the United States. There are sanctions in the world globally on Russian banks and logistics and transportation and financing. So, that’s something that the Sri Lankan Government should be aware of and take into consideration.
Also, President Putin has initiated this very brutal, unprovoked, unjustified attack on a sovereign country. Let’s just not forget that. I know that seems very far away from Sri Lanka, but President Putin is trying to change world order and just single-handedly invaded a country in Europe without provocation. The bombing we’ve seen of hospitals, schools, and malls. This is atrocious. We have stood by the people of Ukraine and the democracy and sovereignty of Ukraine, and so we will continue to work with our democratic partners in Europe and throughout the world to make sure that Putin’s war machine and its finances are inhibited and to call for Putin to stop his invasion and attacks on the Ukrainian people. But again, in terms of Sri Lanka’s relations with Russia, they will have to determine what path they want. If they consider Russia a reliable partner, a good democratic partner that will actually bring benefits to the Sri Lankan people, that’s what the Sri Lankan Government has to assess. There’s been some misinformation out there that for some reason the international community is holding back support or assistance to Sri Lanka at this time of need, and I have said this, that the US supports the Sri Lankan people and I think most governments, most countries will also say that. They support the people of Sri Lanka. This misconception that somehow countries are waiting for a change of government before they give aid or assistance is inaccurate. International banks and governments are not going to give financing to a country in debt distress, and in deep debt restructuring needs. Of course, that also requires political stability and the strong steps towards good governance. That’s what we encourage and that’s what IMF will encourage.
Over 200 people were killed in the Easter Sunday Attacks and the Catholic Church and rights groups are seeking justice. What is your view and how is the US involvement ensuring them?
A: There is still a demand for justice and accountability by the victims’ families and by the country in general about what happened and who was behind those attacks. Of course, the US was asked very initially, right after the attacks, to come and assist. Our FBI was here on the ground and was able to eventually indict three co-conspirators in the US. There are still questions unanswered. I think the slow pace of the investigations has been frustrating. We’re calling on all the authorities to make sure that the pace of these investigations continue, but I think now it’s been three years and it’s going to be more challenging the farther time you get away from the attack.
Recently, you met the Chinese Ambassador. China and the US are countries that have competing interests in Sri Lanka. What is the new understanding between the two countries in dealing with Sri Lanka?
A: The US and China have diplomatic relations. We have robust trade and investment relations. So as a member of the diplomatic corps, I thought it would be useful for me to call on him, and we had a really fruitful discussion on various things and various areas where the US and China have found areas of mutual interest worldwide. There are many areas where we work with China. There are other areas where we are in strategic competition with China as well. But again, it’s up to each country to determine how they develop relations with any foreign country. But in our discussion, we just talked about the conditions in Sri Lanka.
The need of the hour is forming an Interim Government or a better caretaker government, which seems unlikely at this point. Without political stability, there is fear that neither the IMF nor any country will help us. The US has also brought up political stability. How important is it for Sri Lanka to have a caretaker government?
A: We’ve always called for political stability and economic reforms. Now, how the Sri Lankan Government and people do that is up to the Sri Lankan people, whether it’s through constitutional processes, amendments, or a caretaker, Interim Government. These are all options, but for the people and the Government of Sri Lanka to determine. That’s not our call.
What I see is a lot of stalemates in politics and a lot of disagreements. Again, as you said, the politicians really need to look at the needs of the people and should really try to come together to make sure the needs of the people are met. Now, how to do that during a political stalemate, that is the challenge and that is the question. I’m not going to predict what’s going to happen. But what I am enlightened by is the voices of the people being out there, but also people even talking about constitutional amendments and reforms. I don’t recall it even being in the public discourse about a year ago. So, the fact that more people feel courageous and brave to talk about these issues, to call for institutional change, to have this public discourse, it’s very important. We must continue to encourage Sri Lankans to challenge, to ask the Government to be accountable, and have debate and discussion, but also find ways to come together and address the most immediate needs.
The US is again in the Core Group in the Human Rights Council. So, in 2023, is there any idea to bring another resolution regarding Sri Lanka? Also, you met Tamil National Alliance representatives, including MP Sumanthiran. Is there any discussion about the political solution for the Tamil people in the country?
A: The HRC resolution discussions are ongoing. We’ll see how those discussions progress. But I think the important thing is, again, to call for changes and improvements, and there are a variety of human rights and reconciliation issues that have been pending in Geneva for so long. That includes reform of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, that includes looking at the proscribed list, and includes the accountability mechanisms and commissions where they need to be strengthened. Also, we welcome the amendments that initially happened earlier this year, so, we’re continuing to call for the PTA that fall along international norms and standards. I think there are many considerations that will be made ahead of the September discussions, but I think no decisions have been made on what type of mechanism will be moving forward. I meet TNA leadership regularly and we have had interesting discussions on a political solution. Of course, we support the mechanisms and the ways towards that political solution. I think until all ethnic and religious groups feel they have a stake in this country, full genuine reconciliation will not happen. So we really call for that. And we understand also the strength of the Diaspora communities in the United States and in many countries. For them to feel the confidence levels to return, to invest in this country again, and to be a part of that voice for a change in democracy, it’s important that the Diaspora groups are also engaged and I know the President met the TNA president earlier this year. We’d encourage continued dialogue similar to that front.
Recently, there was a letter addressed to four foreign ministers of the Quad from US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair, Senator Robert Menendez, suggesting that the Quad can do more to help Sri Lanka in this crisis. There are divergent views about the Quad’s purpose in South and Southeast Asia. Do you think if the Quad as a collective was to get involved in assisting Sri Lanka in this crisis, it would further complicate Sri Lanka’s geopolitical standing?
A: On the Quad, we have very like-minded shared values on democracy, on human rights, on freedom of navigation. I think those are similar values that we share. It naturally converges that we will have similar approaches on our foreign policy. It is not a security format, by the way, it’s ways to again find opportunities to develop investment and trade, in the Indo-Pacific region, to reinforce our support for democracy. So, this is a useful framework. It by no means is meant as a format to be for or against any country.
We regularly meet those like-minded countries and have similar goals and visions of how we can support countries in the Indo-Pacific. So, I think it would be seen as a positive that any Quad engagement, whether it’s in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. But at this time, there is no Quad project I would say, specific to Sri Lanka. We each have consulted and provided assistance in our own ways.
On Sri Lanka-US security cooperation, I would say our security cooperation remains robust. As you know, we have a very strict vetting system, so, we make sure that anybody that we train goes through that vetting system. But we have provided two Coast Guard cutters and there’s a third coming. Those cutters are meant to address piracy, trafficking, humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR), and maritime security, and all those things are meant through the Coast Guard gift to Sri Lankans.
You mentioned that a Millennium Challenge Corporation Agreement is not on the cards, but do you expect that the US will be the biggest market for the Sri Lankan apparel sector? In the present situation, is the Trade and Investment Framework (TIFA) Agreement being looked at or an interim request for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA)? There were some talks with the previous administration on extending the TIFA talks moving towards an FTA. Also, any update on the New Fortress Energy Project? Is it going on or is it being delayed right now?
A: We had TIFA talks several years ago, but it was put on hold during Covid. We’re certainly open to having TIFA talks again, but I think just now is not the right time because of the present economic situation. I don’t think we’ve had any discussions about an FTA. I think TIFA is something that would be the natural next step to discuss with Sri Lanka at the right time.
I understand the New Fortress Energy Project was approved before my arrival and Cabinet greenlighted it. I don’t know the present state of that, but it’s been approved and it’s being considered, various implementation methods. But again, I think whether it’s NFE or any investor, they are closely monitoring the situation. If you don’t have fuel to get around or materials to import, it’s going to be a challenge for any foreign investor. So, before things move forward, they’re going to have to take all these into account. But as far as I know, the NFE project is in place.
Compiled By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan