February 23, 2023
Honorable Speaker, Honorable Members of Parliament, I am delighted to join you here at Parliament today to relaunch the Sri Lanka – U.S. Parliamentary Friendship Association. I want to thank in particular Honorable MP Chandima Weerakkody for taking the initiative to revive this important association, and express appreciation to so many Members, from across political parties, who are interested in joining.
It is especially fitting that we’re inaugurating the Association this year, as we’re marking the 75th anniversary of bilateral relations between our two countries. Since the beginning, our relationship has been based on shared values, deep commitment to democratic principles, as well as rich people to people relationships that encompass the business sector, education, arts and culture, and well beyond.
I’m proud that the United States is the #1 destination for Sri Lankan goods. I’m also proud of all the other ways we work together, like the U.S.-Sri Lankan Fulbright commission which is 70 years strong and the cross training and partnership between our militaries including the beautiful coast guard cutter we recently gifted to help boost Sri Lanka’s maritime security. For 75 years, the U.S. and Sri Lanka have built a relationship based on people, progress and partnership.
Over the last year, the American people have stepped up to support the people of Sri Lanka during this crisis period. We’ve announced $270M in new support in the last year alone – funding for school lunch programs, fertilizer for farmers, nutritional support for pregnant women and children. Ensuring this assistance reaches the people in need has been a tremendous priority for me, and I hope that it has gone a long way to support the people who you represent.
I know it is a challenging time, but now is also a time of hope and opportunity for Sri Lanka. Together, you will be writing the future of your country. I am sure it will not be easy, but please know how much I value your dedication and your work.
An independent legislative branch is at the heart of the democratic principles that our countries share. Both the United States and Sri Lanka have systems of checks and balances, with national legislatures intended to serve the interests of the public, foster open discussion and transparent decisions on policy, and provide oversight of other government agencies.
I know that to outsiders the day-to-day work of Parliament can seem messy and chaotic at times, with often heated arguments among members, and between members and the government. And that is certainly the case with the U.S. Congress, and with countless state and local legislatures. But all these fiery debates and pointed questions, over issues that understandably can be very contentious, are essential to allow an airing of all views and ensure government continuously reflects the will of the people.
Alongside our common democratic principles, the United States and Sri Lanka share many key goals, like building accountable institutions, ensuring political representation for all communities, and creating economic opportunity to build a prosperous future for all. Our relationship with Sri Lanka is multi-faceted, encompassing trade and investment, educational and other exchanges, and development assistance to advance these goals – all the more important to strive for as Sri Lanka grapples with perhaps its biggest challenges in its history. Our two countries are also collaborating in tackling regional security challenges, like narcotics trafficking and trafficking in persons, and global problems like climate change.
Parliament has a crucial stake and interest in all aspects of U.S.-Sri Lanka ties, and we greatly value the direct relationship we have with Parliament. I am very proud of the cooperation the U.S. Government has had with this legislative body through USAID since 2015. Just to name a few accomplishments, thanks to USAID assistance, Parliament has a fully functional media center and an archive of over three million documents, and its outreach and research capacities have increased. In addition, USAID has supported new audio-video/visual equipment in committee rooms to strengthen Parliament functions, including public outreach. USAID has also provided support for the establishment of sectoral oversight committees, which I understand Parliament is now in the process of reconstituting. We are also very happy to have supported the establishment of the Interim Parliamentary Budget Office, which is an important step that increases Parliament’s ability to analyze and set priorities on public finances.
We are eager to continue this cooperation, to strengthen one of the pillars of Sri Lanka’s democracy for the public good. We are also excited about restarting visits and exchanges between Parliament and the U.S. Congress. For a few years these activities had stopped, unfortunately, due to the COVID pandemic, but a few months ago a delegation of staffers from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came to Sri Lanka, and we expect more delegations to follow suit in the coming months – not only of staffers but also members of Congress. And we are also interested in restarting parliamentary study tours to the United States.
One of the most promising platforms for fruitful exchanges between the two legislatures is the U.S. House Democracy Partnership. Since Sri Lanka joined the Partnership in 2016, it has conducted numerous engagements with Parliament, both MPs and staff, including one visit by a delegation of members of Congress. Now is the perfect time to resume Sri Lanka’s active participation in the Partnership. Through this platform and other exchange initiatives, Parliament could benefit from Congress’s experience in areas such as research and strengthening oversight mechanisms. And in turn our Congress has much to learn about the opportunities and challenges the Parliament faces in reflecting the diversity of views across Sri Lanka’s communities and political parties and playing its full role in policymaking.
I hope that the Sri Lanka – U.S. Parliamentary Friendship Association can serve as a forum for discussions on all these potential opportunities and more, and to build more bridges between Members of Parliament and the Embassy as well as officials in Washington. Congratulations on kicking things off today, and I look forward to the Association’s activities in the future.