Ambassador Chung’s Remarks to the 2022 AGM of the American Chamber of Commerce

Thursday, September 29, 2022

President Madurasinghe, Governor Weerasinghe, honorable members of the board, and friends at AmCham – thank you for the invitation to speak with you this evening.  I know all of you in this room are not only spectators but real advocates for strengthening the investment and trade climate, and democratic institutions in Sri Lanka to make this country better.  I want to applaud your leadership in entrepreneurship, transparency, good business governance, and strong corporate social responsibility.

Congratulations to Coca-Cola and its AmCham partners on a successful International Coastal Cleanup Day at Crow Island Beach.    I was there and brought an enthusiastic group of embassy staff with me. I’ve got to admit, the garbage strewn across the beach, including tires and old toys, looked overwhelming when we arrived, but bit by bit we felt a sense of service and accomplishment as we cleaned one patch of that beach and filled our trash bags.  I was particularly impressed by the women of Clean Ocean Force, a local NGO, who go out and clean the beach every day.  They told me that there is a real need for the private sector to work more closely with NGOs on projects like this.  Lakshan, I’m sure Coke HQ would approve you joining them to clean the beach each morning before going to work.  Tell them the U.S. Ambassador said it was okay.

Now, let us all take that same enthusiasm for cleaning the coastline and focus it on helping grow Sri Lanka’s economy as well.  We all know that Sri Lanka is facing one of the most challenging moments in its history, but I believe there have been real signs of improvement in the past weeks.  We no longer see days’ long fuel queues in our neighborhoods, power cuts have gotten shorter, and people all over the country are settling back into their daily activities. I even saw some tourists at the Temple of Tooth in Kandy this week on World Tourism Day. There is one thing this summer has shown us and that is the resilience of the Sri Lankan people.

We are very pleased that Sri Lanka and the IMF reached a staff level agreement. I know the Central Bank Governor was integral in the efforts to make that happen.  The $2.9 billion program, if approved by the IMF board, would help restore macroeconomic stability, safeguard financial stability, protect the vulnerable, implement structural reforms, and most importantly address corruption, all to encourage Sri Lanka’s economy to growth at its full potential.  While we are all celebrating this very important milestone, now is not the time to become complacent.  Much more hard work lies ahead.  Now more than ever, the private sector can make a difference in creating a more inclusive and sustainable economy.

In his speech to Parliament, President Wickremesinghe committed his administration to establishing a “State-Owned Enterprise Restructuring Unit” to recommend how to reform Sri Lanka’s loss-making government-run companies.  The work on these critical reforms must start immediately and the results need to address the root causes of this crisis so that the country finally enshrines international standards of good governance and transparency for the benefit of all Sri Lankans.  Similarly, there should be swift action to establish and convene the Parliamentary Committee on Ways and Means, National Debt Management Agency, National Agency for Public Private Partnership, and the other committees and agencies laid out in the president’s speech. We support these efforts.

Before the IMF board will approve Sri Lanka’s 17th assistance package (and we hope it is the last), the government must negotiate with its official creditors to provide adequate financing assurances.  I am encouraged to hear President Wickremesinghe and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka Governor talk about the need for equitable and comparable debt treatment.  The United States, through the Paris Club, looks forward to collaborating with Sri Lanka in this effort.  The president asked all creditors to “sing from the same hymn sheet.”  We call on all parties to come to the negotiating table and join the choir.

President Wickremesinghe also highlighted the importance of trade and investment to Sri Lanka’s economic recovery and his desire to tap into foreign direct investment.  For this to be successful, the business environment and investment framework environment need to improve.  It is important to reduce red tape and make sure that there are no unreasonable obstacles to investors as they look for opportunities in Sri Lanka and bring in the foreign capital that the country desperately needs.  Concerns about consistency and transparency in government decision-making, and above all, a lack of predictability, are the primary reasons American firms tell us why FDI has not grown faster.  What our companies want is a level playing field, a good regulatory framework, and trust that their arbitration and their contracts will be honored.  When you have that kind of strong investment climate, then companies will want to come.  I know you know this all too well.  This is an area where AmCham can leverage its relationships with policy makers and companies already connected to the international markets that the president wants to tap into, including ours in the United States.

Just last week, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation – better known as DFC – was on the ground in Colombo and met with a wide range of private sector representatives, including this chamber.  The purpose of the meetings was to explore the most effective ways for the United States to support Sri Lanka’s economy and burgeoning businesses.  We are proud to have already provided nearly $400 million in financing to Sri Lanka’s private sector and we are eager to expand this support.

The United States is still Sri Lanka’s largest single country export market, making us a key and unparalleled element to Sri Lankan prosperity.  Our bilateral trade amounts to about three percent of Sri Lanka’s GDP and supports at least 180,000 Sri Lankan jobs.  Sri Lanka, with AmCham’s help, can expand on this economic relationship and grow its exports to and investments in the United States.

This is a defining moment in Sri Lankan history, and a time when we all must come together:  government, private sector, civil society, and the international community.  We must do whatever each of us can constructively do to solve the problems of the day.  For seventy years, the United States has provided foreign assistance and trade opportunities to help grow the Sri Lankan economy and support the prosperity of the Sri Lankan people.  The United States continues to stand by Sri Lanka during these challenging times.  During her visit to Sri Lanka earlier this month, USAID Administrator Samantha Power announced $40 million in aid to help farmers buy fertilizer and other key agricultural inputs and another $20 million in humanitarian assistance.  This comes on top of $120 million in financing for Sri Lankan small and medium-sized businesses, $27 million for the Sri Lankan dairy industry, and over $30 million in new humanitarian, technical, and food security assistance to benefit Sri Lanka’s most vulnerable communities.  Reinforcing that aid, Ambassador Cindy McCain, who represents the United States to the United Nations food organizations, visited schools, agricultural research and community centers to hear first-hand from recipients and implementors of humanitarian assistance.  The U.S. is the largest contributor to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and Ambassador McCain’s is a crucial voice in that organization speaking in support of Sri Lanka.

Earlier today, we re-opened our American Center in Colombo with an enthusiastic crowd of young people. In the past, these Centers served as traditional libraries and resource centers, and now they have expanded to providing information on scholarships, exchanges, Makers’ Labs, and high-tech resources like 3D printers and virtual reality goggles! This event reminded me that, more than ever, we need to listen to the young people of this country, to hear their calls for reform and a stronger Sri Lanka.  Those of us in the room may not be young anymore, although we are young at heart, and it’s time for us to return to that spirit of optimism and curiosity as we work to strengthen the economy and trade opportunities for Sri Lanka.  The United States remains a friend and partner for Sri Lanka’s prosperity, and I look forward to watching Sri Lanka not only survive this economic crisis, but thrive, becoming stronger and better with all our help. Thank you.