TAMILS KNOW RECONCILIATION AND REDEVELOPMENT IS REAL – AMBASSADOR WICKRAMASURIYA
By Ravi LADDUWAHETTY
A lot of Sri Lankans in the US, especially Tamils, have gone back to Sri Lanka and they know that reconciliation and redevelopment is real. They are truly astonished and upbeat about what they find, said Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States Jaliya Wickramasuriya during an interview with the Daily News.
“During the conflict, some Tamils would tell me that they can’t be seen talking publicly with me or at the embassy. That’s over. Our discussions are in the open, and we receive a lot of support from the Tamil community,” he said. Sri Lanka is open for business, it is prosperous, growing and peaceful, he stressed.
Q: Tell us about the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report. We saw reports that Sri Lanka’s status had improved, but that it is still Tier II. What does that mean?
A: We have been working for several years to improve Sri Lanka’s status in this report. This is what has happened this year:
Each year the US State Department ranks more than 180 countries on their enforcement of international and domestic human trafficking laws to prevent slavery, prostitution, child labour and so forth. There are four rankings: Tier I, Tier II, Tier II Watch list and Tier III.
For several years Sri Lanka has been ranked at ‘Tier II Watch list.’ That means that while the State Department believes that we are aware of human trafficking laws, we are not strictly enforcing them. That is their view. We have held a different view.
If you stay on the Watch List too long they drop you to a Tier III ranking – the worst.
We worked hard in Washington this year to make the State Department aware of our prosecution record and other initiatives that the government has taken to protect people, especially those who work abroad, such as establishing shelters in countries where many Sri Lankans are working. And of course our Defence Ministry has done a lot of work on this issue, enforcing new regulations and measures to protect Sri Lankans.
So this year our status was elevated off the watch list to Tier II – that is a notable step up. I would say that the bulk of the countries in the report are Tier II, including countries like Japan and Switzerland.
The work of the embassy staff in Washington on this issue was instrumental to this change. We have also worked with the US Embassy in Sri Lanka on this issue; that embassy sends its own report on Sri Lanka to the US State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, which puts together the report.
Q: What have you done in Washington regarding the Channel 4 video?
A: This issue of course was first in Geneva and London, and then it migrated to America when PBS, which is the BBC of the United States, did a story about the Channel 4 video but did not show the entire video, just a few minutes of it.
PBS interviewed me for the report but only included a minute or two of our interview. I think the flaws of the video have been made very apparent- from the negligible source of the video to the sound dubbing to the incredible lack of information on who is supposed to be in it – that I don’t think I need to go into detail about that. Clearly this is propaganda; you can find all of these allegations on Tamilnet going back several years.
It is also clear that this propaganda dump is intended to throw a wrench in the progress that we are making on reconciliation and redevelopment after so many years of conflict.
In my interview, I told PBS that Sri Lanka would pursue any tangible evidence of crimes. And frankly, that is what credible journalists should be doing – working to identify who is in the scenes. That’s what journalism is. Instead, Channel 4 has just taken a video that was given to them, broadcast it and wrote a script of allegations to fit.
They have not done the real work of journalism. Credible journalists would have withheld the broadcast of this video until they had done the reporting to be able to say exactly what it was showing us. They failed at that. It is an incredible failure of their journalistic duty. No one talks about this but that is really what is at fault here.
In the US the response to the video I would say has been muted. There are many other issues on Americans’ minds, from the war in Afghanistan to the economy. But the Channel 4 allegations are damaging. And it does not help that organizations like PBS have drawn attention to what is really just shoddy journalism.
I am talking one-to-one with members of the administration and Congress about this. We want people in Washington to have an accurate picture of the situation in Sri Lanka, and not one dreamed up by the pro-LTTE diaspora.
Q: What about the Darusman Report? What does the US government think of it, and what are you doing to prevent the UN from launching an international investigation?
A: The US government has voiced its concern about the Darusman Report. Those who have followed Sri Lanka know that the allegations in it are stale ones that the LTTE has made before.
The fact is that some people are spreading a negative story about Sri Lanka because they have a negative agenda. They see the successes in Sri Lanka and they know that their dream of more violence and strife is slipping away as people who suffered through years of conflict embrace peace.
We talk about this with members of the Senate and House who we have been meeting with, and with those within the administration. We want them to understand that the report is deeply flawed, and that it is also sloppy work and not representative of events at the end of the conflict.
Sri Lanka has a very, very good story to tell about the way it conducted itself in this conflict, how it saved nearly 300,000 civilians and how it has helped them rebuild their lives. There isn’t another country, another society that has done this in modern times.
For that reason, we tell our American friends, the Darusman Report is misguided. The panel of experts went well beyond their mandate, and were apparently unable to apply the discipline that is required in accurate fact gathering. This report is sloppy and its lapses are easily apparent to any serious person.
Q: What are you doing to promote Sri Lanka in the US?
A: If you have a close look at the Sri Lankan embassy’s activities, you will see a number of initiatives during the last three years in which we have actively promoted our country. There are a good many positive developments here, and they help all Sri Lankans.
For instance, in March, I brought 12 US companies here to consider investments and expanded operations. They included big names like Boeing, Coca Cola, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, John Deere and Caterpillar, Textron-Bell Helicopters. All of these companies are very interested in investing here, and they are moving ahead with those plans.
In fact, these businesses just wrote an extremely supportive letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and to the US Commerce Secretary and US Trade Representative. It expresses their support for Sri Lanka and their optimism in the future of Sri Lanka.
These companies obviously carry a lot of weight in their communities and in Washington. We are very fortunate to have developed alliances with them.
This trip in March was just our latest effort to generate business interest in Sri Lanka. As you know, for the last two years there have been maybe four US business delegation trips to Sri Lanka involving more than 100 companies. At least 40 companies came in October 2009 for a private-public partnership investment conference, and about 70 attended the same conference in October 2010. Many of these are Fortune 500 companies from the US and also from India.
These are companies that do their homework. They can see the value in Sri Lanka as a great place to do business. They see Sri Lanka as a country earning an eight percent GDP at a time when the world’s major economies are struggling with just a few percent GDP, if that.
This interest sends a message to the world: Sri Lanka is open for business, it is prosperous and growing and peaceful. Their interest will generate even more business for Sri Lanka.
Apart from business development, I am also personally involved in promoting Sri Lanka in the US as a tourist destination. In August I will lead our second Signature Tour with the Ambassador. Last August I brought 25 American professionals from Washington, DC to see Sri Lanka. I’m doing the same this August, and probably expanding the group to 50 or so. We will see everything, from Colombo to Galle to Kandy to Anuradhapura to Jaffna. I want them to get a real taste of what we’ve got.
I have also hosted dinners for travel writers and have met with other groups in Washington that want to sponsor tours to Sri Lanka. Tourism has become one of our busiest sectors in the embassy.
My residence has become a popular destination for travel and food writers and editors. We do a lot to promote Sri Lankan culture – dancing, music and art – and food. People in America love Sri Lankan food. A Washington television station did a feature on Sri Lankan food, visiting my residence to see how it is prepared and to taste it. We held a cultural show at the International Monetary Fund, and a celebration of Sri Lankan food – complete with chefs from Colombo at the World Bank.
Our travel promotion efforts are bearing fruit. The New York Times last year named Sri Lanka its number one travel destination. And a number of other travel-related publications and websites, including National Geographic, Lonely Planet and the DailyCandy, have followed suit.
We have met with the Marriott and Hilton hotel companies and with the travel agents association in the US to help expand their involvement in Sri Lanka. I know that hotel companies are especially interested right now. Marriott told us that their first hotel in Asia was actually in Colombo years ago, and that they are excited about returning.
Q: What about the Sri Lankan community in the US. Are they united?
A: I have travelled throughout the US to meet with Sri Lankans living there. People are pulling together now as never before.
During the conflict, some Tamils would tell me that they can’t be seen talking publicly with me or at the embassy. That’s over. Our discussions are in the open, and we receive a lot of support from the Tamil community.
I travel throughout the United States to meet with local Sri Lankan communities. But I often hold additional meetings with Tamils to hear what they have to say and to speak with them about reconciliation. I want them to know that reconciliation isn’t just talk, but that it is happening.
A lot of Sri Lankans in the US, especially Tamils, have gone back to Sri Lanka and they know that reconciliation and redevelopment is real. I have received numerous reports from Tamils who went back expecting the worst, based on what they had been reading. Their reports to me are extraordinary – they cannot believe the progress and changes taking place. Many have not been back since childhood. They are truly astonished and upbeat about what they find.
That is why I work so hard to encourage travel to Sri Lanka. I want people to experience firsthand what is happening there, and how peace works.
As you know, there are 350,000 to 400,000 Sri Lankans living in the United States. Out of that, a very, very small percentage is working for front organizations who are spreading the negative story of Sri Lanka. Most of the Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims are moderate people and very supportive of our efforts.
In fact, last month nearly 100 Sri Lankan-Americans travelled to Washington for a single day of meetings with members of Congress. Sri Lankan Day in Congress also featured a lunch with these Sri Lankans, who are all American citizens and voters, and members of Congress and their staffs. The embassy helped arrange Congressional meetings for these people. They wanted to share their views of Sri Lanka with the Congress. And those efforts continue. We have a very active citizens base that is meeting with government officials to share their point of view of Sri Lanka. They are countering the negative publicity, and they have received a warm reception in Congress. Politicians in the US are concerned about their voters’ voice, so it’s best that the story of Sri Lanka come from the voters who are Sri Lankans.
Q: What do Americans expect from Sri Lanka in the future?
A: What they have right now – a stable, peaceful democracy that is also a regional ally and a solid, fair trading partner and a great place to do business.
The conflict, of course has cast a shadow, but after more than two years of peace, the policies of President Mahinda Rajapaksa are being borne out. As you know, any President of any democratic country wants to do what the people of the country need, to be prosperous, protected and content. What President Rajapaksa has done far surpasses those goals.
With the brave work of the military and the support of the people, he has ended a long conflict and turned the country in a new direction, where everyone in Sri Lanka can benefit from the common goals of our nation. What the people wanted was peace and development and the ability to live without fear. President Rajapaksa has restored the very basic human right of freedom from fear to all 20 million Sri Lankans.
Americans who look closely at Sri Lanka, who understand Sri Lanka, also understand that important change. Anyone who goes to Sri Lanka, especially those who travelled there during the conflict, can see the difference.
More and more, Sri Lanka is earning credit in the United States for defeating terrorism and winning back democracy for all of its citizens. That, I feel, is a tremendous feat. And so we have to remain vigilant to ensure that it is sustained.