Ambassador Julie J Chung’s Remarks to the 2023 Annual General Meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce

September 27, 2023

I am so glad to be back at AmCham to address the general meeting.  It’s been quite a year, hasn’t it?  A year ago, I was standing at your last AGM alongside Central Bank Governor Nandalal talking about economic collapse and what steps needed to be taken to survive.  A year ago, USAID Administrator Samantha Power came to Sri Lanka and announced $40 million in additional assistance to provide fertilizer for farmers.  And now, as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our countries this year, it’s a good time to reflect on the past, the present, and future.  I want to thank outgoing AmCham President Lakshan Madurasinghe, the AmCham Board, and Head of the Secretariat Vrai Raymond for your leadership during the most serious economic crisis in Sri Lanka’s history.  And I want to thank the new board for taking on the challenges that lie ahead.  And also thank State Minister of Finance Shehan Semasinghe here tonight for your tireless, ongoing efforts to implement tough but necessary reforms for a sustainable economy. Most of all I want to thank all of you in the audience for your strength and resilience in the face of unprecedented economic circumstances, and your commitment to ensuring that Sri Lanka not only recovers but comes back even stronger and wiser, not returning to old but tempting habits that could lead right back to where you started.  We’re not out of the woods yet.

This is the task that lies ahead of us.  When I came to Sri Lanka, investors were asking when Sri Lanka would seek the IMF’s help to access the tools and best practices the country needed to begin its recovery.  I want investors to ask now “where can I invest? How can I invest?”  Sri Lanka’s strategic location, strong infrastructure, and educated population could turn the country into a leader in a rising South Asia.  This crisis is an opportunity for Sri Lanka to learn from challenges of the past and move decisively toward a more stable, more inclusive, and more profitable future.

AmCham – all of you – should help to set the course.

This year, the 75th anniversary of relations between our countries, the United States is fully committed to a vision of a strong, resilient, and growing Sri Lanka.  A strong economy that plays a key role in global supply chains.  A resilient economy that can withstand the shocks in the global market.  A growing economy that is creating wealth and opportunity for everyone.

We’re backing this vision with real resources.  In 2023, USAID is providing $35 million to support Sri Lankan businesses and strengthen Sri Lankan governance.  The United States Development Finance Corporation has provided financial support worth $128.8 million to companies in Sri Lanka since the start of the crisis, with more in the pipeline.  This month, we welcomed the first delegation from the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office in four years for the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement Council meeting.  This visit will lead to an action plan on measures to strengthen trade and investment between Sri Lanka and the United States.  In August, our Ambassador for Cyber and Digital Policy visited to discuss how the United States could support the development of Sri Lanka’s digital economy.  The same month, our Special Coordinator for Anti-Corruption visited to discuss how we could support Sri Lanka’s new anti-corruption legislation and ensure that bad actors no longer rob from this country’s future.

I’ve seen the commitment of people in this room to the vision of a strong, resilient, and growing Sri Lanka.  During my tours of U.S.-tied companies like Microsoft, FedEx, Revlon, Dell, Hayleys, Sysco, and Walters Bay, I’ve seen firsthand not just your strength and resilience in the face of the crisis, but also your intrepid commitment to growth.  I’ve seen new investments, like Uber’s electric delivery bikes, that are helping to keep Sri Lanka green and creating new employment opportunities.  I’ve taken part in your corporate social responsibility projects, like the beach cleanup organized by Coca-Cola, and the home gardening project organized by UTE Caterpillar.  I was proud to help launch AmCham advocacy efforts, including efforts to support more women in the workforce.  Through investment, advocacy, and social responsibility AmCham has been part of the fabric that help Sri Lanka together over the last tumultuous year.

The next year will be a critical period for Sri Lanka.  This will be the year that sets the groundwork for Sri Lanka’s future, and it is up to you to decide what this future looks like.  Today I want to issue a call to action to everyone in this room.  I want us to think bigger.  Think beyond stability, to a future where Sri Lanka’s economy is a leader, not just in South Asia, but globally. Why not?

First, I want to hear what this future looks like.  I want to know what AmCham’s vision is for Sri Lanka in 2030 or 2040.  What needs to change to get us there?  How will these changes create new opportunities to grow your businesses and make people richer?  We need a vision that goes beyond stability – one that drives a generation of growth and creates wealth for everyone in Sri Lanka.  I want everyone to know what that vision is.

Second, I want us to invest in this future.  And not just with money.  Think about how you can engage Sri Lankan youth.  Show young people the values that AmCham stands for.  Start a paid internship program.  Start a mentorship program.  Adopt an entrepreneur and teach them to scale.  Create a new partnership with women’s group like the Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce, who I just met with yesterday at their AGM.  The United States believes that the young people of Sri Lanka will drive a generation of growth.  We are supporting this belief with our own time, creativity, and real money.  For example, we’ve created a Youth Forum with outlets in Colombo, Matara, Kandy, Jaffna and soon Batticaloa that offers young people all sorts of learning opportunities, including classes on entrepreneurism. And we have supported Hatch Works, a Sri Lanka-based accelerator that is teaching young people to build businesses.  There is a young person in Sri Lanka today who has in her head the idea for Sri Lanka’s first billion-dollar company.  We must ensure that this business can be built.

Third, I want you to fight for this future.  Sri Lanka is currently ranked 101 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.  Sri Lanka can do better.  It must do better.  The U.S. government has spent more than $100,000 and many hundreds of hours in the past year providing training to the Police, the Attorney General’s Department, the Financial Intelligence Unit, and the Bribery Commission.  These institutions need your support as well.  As part of the IMF package, the government will release a governance diagnostic showing what needs to be done to stop corruption from eating away Sri Lanka’s future.  Last week, the Civil Society Initiative on Anti-Corruption Reform for Economic Recovery released a report with concrete recommendations for action.  I urge you to hold the government accountable, call out corruption, and ensure the needed reforms are done.  This is a primary duty of the private sector.

Last month, the AmCham board met with U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen when he visited Sri Lanka for the first time since he was a child.  His Father was U.S. Ambassador for the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations, 50 years ago.  When he was living here, the Senator studied at the same school my son Mateo now attends – and some of your kids too!  This made me wonder what Sri Lanka my son will see when he comes back in 50 years.  Maybe he’ll come back as a senator himself, or an NBA star as his current dreams lie.  Will he see a country that fought back from its financial crisis and built an economy that delivers real opportunity and results for its people?  Will he see a country that succeeded in getting through its last IMF program and ensuring that democratic governance was pursued as much as economic governance?  The United States looks forward to working with AmCham to ensure these next 50 years are an unprecedented success and that we will have much to be proud of in the future.