June 9, 2022
Derana 24: Sri Lanka in dire straits seeking assistance from friendly nations across the world to help us out of this crisis. India, China, Japan have discussed collaborating. How far is the United States willing to help Sri Lanka and what role will the US play in Sri Lanka?
To discuss all this and much more we have with us the new Ambassador of the United States here in Sri Lanka, Madame Julie Chung. A very warm welcome to you.
Ambassador Chung: Thank you so much for having me.
Derana 24: It’s just less than three and a half months. February, I think somewhere on the 18th or 17th, you took office. I think you’ve been here, it has been quite eventful. So much has happened in Sri Lanka during this time. How do you feel?
Ambassador Chung: First of all, I’m so excited and so humbled to be the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka at this critical period. As an immigrant to the United States I never imagined growing up I would be a diplomat, let alone the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka. So I’ve really come here three months ago to learn about Sri Lanka, to talk to as many people as possible, to travel outside of Colombo. I’ve already been to Kandy and Jaffna to hear firsthand about what the Sri Lankan people have on their mind.
And of course I know I come at a time of unprecedented crisis economically and politically, so it’s very important to build those bridges and partnerships to see how the United States can support Sri Lanka during this period.
Derana 24: You did say you were happy to revisit Sri Lanka. So ten years ago, I understand, you visited Sri Lanka. Was it on an official capacity or was it a visit to travel Sri Lanka?
Ambassador Chung: Ten years ago I was living in Bangkok, Thailand. I was posted there at the embassy. There was an inaugural flight from Bangkok to Colombo for the first time. And my husband and I thought, “what better time to visit this beautiful island?” So we got to travel around. We took the train everywhere. I was pregnant at the time but I managed to hike all the way up to Sigiriya. And then to come back ten years later to a place that I thought was so enchanting, but I thought I would only be as a tourist. It’s an incredible journey to come back and be a part of this experience now.
Derana 24: An immigrant. Living the American dream. I’d like to speak about all that. You’re quite an inspiration as a woman and somebody who had aspirations to become a journalist.
Ambassador Chung: That’s right.
Derana 24: I’d like to speak about that. But here in Sri Lanka, the crisis requires Sri Lanka to pay immediate attention. An economic crisis that developed into a political crisis and you walked right into it, I think, when you took office.
You’ve been having a lot of discussions, be it the opposition members, the ruling party, and for the first time in I think history we saw a US Ambassador meeting a leftist leader. We saw you having a lot of discussions.
So tell us why this is important for you to bring so many in the political spectrum to hold discussions.
Ambassador Chung: I think the role of a US Ambassador is to hear from everybody. Again, it’s not just about a government to government relationship. We have relationships with every sector of society. So it was important to me to hear from government officials, from opposition, civil society, journalists, social media activists, business people, to really hear the different perspectives because you can’t understand the country just through one lens. And once we get those perspectives, then to see where the common lines lie.
Derana 24: A protest that has been ongoing in Sri Lanka demanding the President’s resignation, a change in government, and then on the 9th of May we saw violence that cannot be accepted anywhere, and Sri Lanka has seen a change in a Prime Minister. What are your key observations in these past three months?
Ambassador Chung: It’s certainly been a turbulent time. I think the violent attacks on May 9th were shocking to the world. Not just Sri Lankans. We condemn the violence at every level. Violence against people, violence against peaceful protesters, violence and destruction of property.
Amidst, that, though, I think there is a growing opportunity. People are calling for change. They’re calling for institutional change. Calling for a transformation of a country. This is where the basic issues of democracy, transparency, good governance, people wanting a say and a stake in their country’s future. Those are all coming to light and that’s where I see an opportunity amidst the turmoil that’s going on in Sri Lanka now.
Derana 24: These discussions you’ve had with the political leaders, all party leaders. What do you understand is the requirement? Do you think they’re on the same page in solving the crisis?
And you have an understanding of what these calls are, but do you think Sri Lanka is in the right direction, understanding what the solutions required are, and working towards those?
Ambassador Chung: Well, talking to any politician from any country you will get a million different views and a million different ways of how to solve a problem. Same thing in the United States when you talk to American politicians. And of course there are differing views and approaches to how they want to see the solutions being solved.
However, there was one common thread that I found, no matter what party that I met with here in Sri Lanka. That common theme is people want a stable and prosperous and successful Sri Lanka. That is in no doubt. Everybody across the board. And that’s what we, the United States, want to see in Sri Lanka. A successful Sri Lanka. That is one common theme that we can all work towards.
So this is really a historic and pivotal moment. This is a time when the country demands unity, to come together and address these challenges together.
Derana 24: You did say we have opportunities and this is an opportunity to go in the right direction. What opportunities do you see for Sri Lanka at this juncture?
Ambassador Chung: I think the country has an educated workforce, great resources, and the people, the resilience of the people, the humor of the people, the passion of the people. I just talked to three students that just studied in the United States. University students. They went to Alaska, Wyoming and Alabama on full scholarships. And when I met them yesterday, I asked them, what do you think about Sri Lanka? And as you come back, what you have learned and your experience in the United States? They were all, each and every one of them, hopeful. They said in the United States, we learned a lot from the university system and the community building system, but we wanted to come back. Despite what’s going on. We want to help Sri Lanka to be strengthened and grow. That gave me hope, that these young people did not want to stay abroad, they wanted to come back and be a part of the change of this country.
Derana 24: Constitutional reforms, the 21st amendment to the constitution has been introduced. A draft which was put to the cabinet too as a solution to the crisis. What’s your view?
Ambassador Chung: I think it’s up to the Sri Lankans to decide what manner to take their political future. And as long as it’s a constitutional and democratic process, that’s what we support. It’s not our view as a foreign nation, as a foreign ambassador to tell Sri Lankans how to go about doing that. So I think it’s important to hear the views of how people see this evolve.
What’s important, though, is economic and political stability are so intertwined. As you address the economic crisis, you can’t ignore the calls for political reform that the people are really demanding.
Derana 24: One of our closest neighbors, Pakistan, we saw the political crisis there where then Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted in Parliament through a no-trust motion. He openly blames the United States for meddling and interfering in political affairs in the country.
Here in Sri Lanka there are concerns that the United States may have, or did interfere in the political crisis that ensued the economic developments and the crisis situation. So what intervention or part has the United States had in this crisis?
Ambassador Chung: My role as the US Ambassador here is to build bridges. To build those relationships. People to people, education to education, business to business. And to really help support Sri Lanka as it goes through this period. So I think that is our main goal, that is our main intention. And again, Sri Lanka’s success is our success.
I think as fellow democracies our values are aligned and we want to be helpful and share those partnerships and be able to see a successful, prosperous and democratic Sri Lanka.
Derana 24: The US State Department through certain agencies do fund projects in countries, not just in Sri Lanka but other countries too and Sri Lanka. Any particular funding projects that may have been directly related to Sri Lanka’s situation at present?
Ambassador Chung: We have a longstanding friendship and partnership here in Sri Lanka. Over 70 years. That crosses all spans of economic, commercial, cultural, educational, development ties. I keep meeting people who tell me when they were a child they used to get little biscuits that were provided by USAID from the American people. Now we’ve gone a long way from biscuits to now really institution building, technical capacity programs that will help build out Sri Lanka’s strengths in terms of investments. For example, USAID programs that help small and medium enterprises get the capacity and skills so that they can build out their business.
The Development Finance Corporation has invested $280 million in Sri Lanka to private banks so that they have the capital for small businesses to develop their businesses. We are a country that doesn’t direct our companies where to go and invest. Companies will make their own decisions based on risk factors and profit margins. But as Sri Lanka builds that capacity to draw investors from the United States or anywhere, that is where you see future growth.
Derana 24: You say build capacity. I’d like to speak more on that as we move forward. But in Sri Lanka how do you look to support Sri Lanka in this crisis situation? We see India pouring in with support; China has extended support and is ready to stand by Sri Lanka in negotiating outstanding debt with the IMF and restructuring process.
The United States, we have not heard of what visible funding we’re going to see. How do you intend to support Sri Lanka?
Ambassador Chung: We’re actively consulting with Washington and the United Nations on how to provide humanitarian assistance. But meanwhile we are the largest donor to the Food and Agricultural Organization and UNICEF and we’re looking for additional ways to provide that support.
Again, we’ve had years, years of support to Sri Lanka. Crisis or not. We are here as good friends and good partners. We have an ongoing food program, food and nutrition program so that thousands of children will have school lunches and have the nutrition to be able to continue going to school. We have a dairy production program that enables farmers to grow their dairy businesses, to be able to feed their families. These are just two of the examples where we have that ongoing support.
Again, I mention support to small and medium enterprises, to educational facilities so that students have vocational training.
So beyond the immediate crisis it’s important for Sri Lanka to think about medium and long term recovery and growth as we move on to a more prosperous country.
Derana 24: Does that mean bilateral support is not something that the United States is looking at, but to fund Sri Lanka in areas that need to be developed through your agencies? Is that the system that the United States works when funding projects in countries?
Ambassador Chung: I think we actually support bilaterally Sri Lankan programs, people, civil society in various ways that we can strengthen their capacity. But in addition to that, looking at the region, we have a number of regional programs in the Indo-Pacific that also help build out what we consider a safe and prosperous and stable Indo-Pacific region. Sri Lanka is, of course, at the heart of that.
Derana 24: You did mention, Ambassador, that we have to build up capacity here for investments to come in. Exports. Talking about exports to the United States, the largest single market that Sri Lankan exports benefit from and we earn our foreign reserves. We are in a crisis and in search of US dollars. Our reserves have shrunk.
How can the US support Sri Lanka in expanding our export market to the US? I don’t know what options are on the table, but what are the ways and means that you’re looking at in doing this?
Ambassador Chung: I think as the largest export market to Sri Lanka, again, as Sri Lanka needs more growth and more foreign exchange, that’s where the future lies. To continue growing upon that export market.
To have strong exports you have to have strong political stability and food and fuel, to make sure that manufacturers are able to create those products.
So we want to grow that export market. We have had trade investment discussions in the past and we hope to renew those because there’s great potential. And in terms of renewable energy, in terms of green growth, a lot of areas where we think there’s even more potential for the export market to the United States.
Derana 24: But in order to go there what areas do we need to fix here in Sri Lanka? We’ve spoken about red tape bureaucracy. Previous ambassadors too have spoken about it. But are there any representations made by our trade organizations or our investment agencies where we can iron out these issues in order to enable more and more American companies visiting Sri Lanka or investing here?
Ambassador Chung: I think you make an excellent point. It’s not just about government to government, but company to company. We do matchmaking between companies and businesses here. The American Chamber of Commerce is quite active here in trying to bring together companies and give them opportunities for investment.
But what companies are looking for is a level playing field. A good regulatory framework. 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. Companies want to come to Sri Lanka. There’s so much that Sri Lanka has to offer. And this is where that capacity is so important for good governance, for transparency, for good procurement processes and due process.
Derana 24: The approval times. Has there been any concerns in Sri Lanka or how the US can support Sri Lankan organizations, improve on these? You spoke about how the US funds projects through your agencies, but in improving our ‘ doing business’ environment.
Ambassador Chung: Absolutely. I think there are so many ways that we can work together to improve that business environment and investment framework environment. It’s important to again reduce that red tape that you’re talking about. To make sure there’s a one-stop shop for foreign investment and make sure that there’s no obstacles to investors as they look for opportunities in their country. That can be done in a wide range of ways, through chambers to business to business connections, through our Department of Commerce and Department of State.
I think we’re looking to enrich those relationships and those ways that we can expand that dialogue between our two countries.
Derana 24: With the change in the political situation in Sri Lanka, we have a new Prime Minister who is, he’s not even in office as much as you’ve been here in Sri Lanka. As long as you’ve been in Sri Lanka. But you were one of the very first to congratulate him on his appointment.
How does the United States view this situation? Are you happy and content with the way Sri Lanka has transitioned in managing this political crisis?
Ambassador Chung: I think that the new Prime Minister has a daunting task ahead of him and amidst this crisis you really need that political stability. I go back to that again. When you have a table, you need all four legs to be standing. You can’t have a lopsided table. That’s why political stability and economic stability go so much hand in hand. We welcome the steps to go to the IMF, to hire the debt and legal advisors. Those are positive steps. I think the Prime Minister also started off early in his term being very transparent and honest with the public about the challenges at hand and what he intends to do. So we hope he continues to communicate very regularly and transparently to the country about what his plans are and his solutions.
So initial steps I think are very positive. Again, working with the international community, with international financial institutions, the World Bank, IMF and others. This is a time when all of us, all the countries, we need to come together and support and help Sri Lanka in this very tough period.
Derana 24: The United States has been continuing its calls for Sri Lanka to move towards transparency, good governance and other areas to hold the high standards in democracies. In Sri Lanka at present, how do you view the parliamentary structure, the way in which we are operating while we manage this crisis? What changes do you suggest Sri Lanka make going forward?
Ambassador Chung: I don’t think these are US standards. These are really international standards of transparency and good governance. So this is something that I think is beneficial to Sri Lanka and the people of Sri Lanka. One should have these strong institutions and pillars in place. And that includes every stakeholder. Not just the executive government but parliamentary representatives, executives in business, civil society. We’ve seen a very active Bar Association that’s really played an important role in bringing debate and discourse into the public eye. And for all parliamentarians as well. I think there is a deep effort by the government to create more oversight parliamentary committees, to make sure that they are responsive to the people’s needs and demands. And we’re happy to help, again, develop that capacity within the Parliament as well.
Derana 24: I continue to ask this question because Sri Lanka is in crisis and we are seeking to find dollars — the much-needed financial assistance to pay for essentials — fuel, food, medicine, and domestic cooking gas. And there’s outstanding debt that we’re working to restructure. Sri Lanka stopped paying dues because of the ongoing financial situation.
How does the United States believe Sri Lanka can work within this framework with the IMF and other international and bilateral partners to overcome this situation?
And also, do you think this is a challenge Sri Lanka can overcome in the next, the short to mid-term period?
Ambassador Chung: That’s exactly right. The situation is dire. There’s no glossing over that. But Sri Lanka again has made the right decision to go to the IMF, in my opinion. Maybe they could have done it sooner, but now that decision has been made to take important steps for reforms. The IMF has laid out several reform structures. Again, the Prime Minister has already taken a few steps already in that direction. And as one of the largest stakeholders in IMF, the United States wants to support Sri Lanka as it takes these steps. That will open up financing opportunities not only from international financial institutions and multilateral banks, but individual countries as well.
And as it moves towards these IMF debt restructuring and financial reforms, it’s so critical that all creditors have comparable, equal treatment. That’s one of the very important components that many countries who undergo an IMF program have to deal and address, because one country cannot get a special deal. All countries really must come together and show their support to Sri Lanka.
Derana 24: I think India raised this concern too.
Pertaining to China, Sri Lanka is in debt to China. China has been a development partner here extending funds to Sri Lanka, and we are in debt to the Chinese government.
At the same time, India requested that Sri Lanka treat all creditors the same and no favors be made to China.
Is the United States still concerned about Sri Lanka moving into a debt trap with China?
Ambassador Chung: First of all, I don’t think it’s just an Indian concern. This is a concern amongst all creditors. That creditors be treated equally and comparably. That is a common standard at the IMF. We’ve seen instances around the world in different countries where certain companies and countries did not want that equal treatment and they wanted special favorable treatment. So this goes beyond India. I think many countries are calling for that equal treatment.
Derana 24: Will the US be able to help Sri Lanka with negotiations with the IMF?
Ambassador Chung: We don’t directly get involved in those negotiations. That’s a Sri Lankan responsibility. They’ve hired their advisors to directly negotiate. But we will certainly help within the IMF framework as Sri Lanka makes these steps to continue help encouraging the steps for reform that are open to financing and bring the precious dollars that are greatly needed in the country.
Derana 24: This is related to my previous question, too. In a time of crisis as this, we will move to obtain funds. We need loans. We need other forms of assistance. But the risk of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty being damaged or Sri Lanka inviting harmful elements is high.
Is the United States concerned of Sri Lanka’s territory or the kind of influence that Sri Lanka has from other nations?
Ambassador Chung: I think that’s up to the Sri Lankan people. Sri Lanka has relationships with countries all around the world and it’s up to Sri Lanka to determine how they’re going to handle those diplomatic relationships with any country.
You can’t go back and change history and go back in time but looking at where we are today Sri Lanka can change the trajectory of where it goes in the future. That means looking at deals of the past and seeing have those deals really brought what they promised? Have they brought prosperity to a broad swath of Sri Lankan people? Have they brought good environmental standards? Good labor standards? Good governance? Those are all questions for the Sri Lankan people. And as you move forward and make more decisions on infrastructure projects and other trade decisions, these are the same questions I think the people out on the streets are demanding an answer to.
Derana 24: We’ll take a short break here at Hydepark. We’re in conversation with the US Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Julie Chung. We’ll be right back.
Derana 24: Welcome back.
Ambassador, we’ve been talking about the developing situation in terms of the political crisis, the economic crisis. Moving back to the political crisis and the constitution reforms, you have had discussions with the Justice Minister and other stakeholders on how Sri Lanka should move forward. We spoke about transparency, good governance. But constitutional reforms particularly, has the US had any concern about how we move ahead? The Sri Lankan system is such that we have an Executive President and a Parliament which the Executive is the problem now to our protestors. At the same time, Parliament has been demanding to have more of a say in governance. What input have you given the Justice Minister and other parties you’ve had discussions with?
Ambassador Chung: Constitutional amendments are really for the Sri Lankan people to determine how to move forward, and it’s very complex. And in my conversations with ministers and parliamentarians, it’s really a way for me to better understand the different viewpoints and where the complexities lie.
What’s really interesting to me is that people are having this debate here in Sri Lanka. People are openly discussing, debating, having a discourse. That’s very important. That it doesn’t happen just behind closed doors but on social media people are giving their opinions, the Bar Association has been very active. People feel like they have a stake in their future. And as the debates continue, it’s important more than ever to bring in the voices and opinions of all those who are interested in the future of Sri Lanka.
Derana 24: We spoke of investment. Again, going back to our exports, apparel and rubber product exports the highest destination for Sri Lankan products. But for a long time Sri Lanka has been talking about the need to ensure that they have value-added production in Sri Lanka. But it seems that’s something still Sri Lanka hasn’t grasped.
Are there any ways and means that the US through the embassy could support Sri Lanka? Especially in the value-added services segment targeting the US consumers?
Ambassador Chung: I think you’re right. There are so many industries that traditionally we’ve had so many areas where we have had the export market go to in the United States. I think the future is green economy and renewable energy. I’m very excited that this has a huge potential. You have plenty of sun, you have plenty of wind here in Sri Lanka. I think renewable green energy is where so many US companies would be interested in coming in to Sri Lanka. We have a great USAID five-year program on renewable energy. We want to help again build out the institutions, the regulatory frameworks, the laws and policies, so that they’re prepared, and the due processes, so that companies will want to come in. And we’re specifically working on solar and possibly a floating solar project.
Again, that’s very, very feasible here in Sri Lanka. If you have the right elements in place there are companies that are really interested in coming into Sri Lanka to do that.
Derana 24: You spoke about renewable energy. We have a lot of sun. We have water. Unfortunately, we’ve depended far too long on fossil fuels and at times we’ve experienced up to 13 hours of power cuts during the recent time, before people went out to protest.
At the same time what’s evident is that renewable energy projects, there have been approval issues in the approvals process and the infrastructural space to encourage renewable energy projects. How can we move ahead here?
Ambassador Chung: This is exactly the kind of project that I was talking about that USAID is supporting. There’s so many obstacles or red tape to renewable energy. There needs to be a fresh, renewed look at how do we attract that? And not only from the United States, there are many European countries also very strong in renewable energy space. And given the climate change issues that we’re all facing, renewable energy will be more important than ever.
We’re also looking at electric tuk-tuks. That’s very simple and practical. And given the current crisis, that’s where I believe there’s an opportunity here. There’s an opportunity for people to think anew and think afresh about what renewable energy can do for Sri Lanka in the future.
Derana 24: Sri Lanka had a shift to organic fertilizer, a project that saw a lot of backlash because the transition period was limited and farmers had no option but to give up on their source of fertilizer. At the same time the US has been supporting sustainable agro-based economies. How can we move ahead here? Again, the question, because we are looking at solutions, Ambassador. And the agriculture industry is something that Sri Lanka has to revive. An agro-based economy that cannot even support its own citizens at the moment because we’ve resorted to importing most of our food items. And today resorting to support from our friendly nations.
But in a bid to support the agricultural industry, what perspective can you share with us?
Ambassador Chung: It goes beyond fertilizer. Fertilizer is a basic need in the agro-industry. But it also means transportation. How do you make these products? How do you take it to market? How do you transport them? How do you have a supply chain? These are much bigger things that connect Sri Lanka to the region, that goes beyond Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka of course is a great maritime hub. This is where the shipping lines all come towards. So how can you use this as a hub to export more agricultural exports to the region and throughout the world? But this is I think an opportunity where we can also look for ways to strengthen the agro-business. Rules, regulations and transparent processes.
Derana 24: The US has been continuously pushing Sri Lanka for accountability when you refer to UNHRC and the alleged crimes during the final stages of the conflict here in Sri Lanka. What of those allegations? And how does the US look to work with Sri Lanka in pursuing these calls?
Ambassador Chung: As fellow democracies we share the values of human rights, democracy, transitional justice, a free media. These are things so important to a democracy. And by the way democracy is not perfect and a democracy is messy. We have to always be attentive to ensuring that democracies stay strong. That’s why we share these values with Sri Lanka, because all these issues that we discuss at the UN Human Rights Council is not something that the US demands or the international community demands. The Sri Lankan people are demanding justice and accountability and a political solution to this country. The country can’t move forward if you don’t involve all the ethnic and religious minorities and their concerns.
I was able to travel to Jaffna early on in my tour, and met with some of the women, the mothers of the disappeared. And as a fellow mother, to see them weeping and talking about the questions that still are going unanswered, I think this is a question for Sri Lanka to answer to its own people. That means strengthening institutions as well. The UN Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka — I mean the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, the Office of Missing Persons, a number of different commissions and committees that have been set up that need resources, that need independence to be able to do their jobs.
I think if Sri Lanka gets this right it could really be a successful, inclusive democracy that will be prosperous for all Sri Lankans.
Derana 24: The Western world is viewed as elements that impose too much on a country as Sri Lanka or try to meddle in the matters of a sovereign nation. Let me take your memory back to the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact, if I have got the term right. Sri Lanka did not sign the agreement. There was a lot of concern that the United States was trying to bring in defense-related elements and certain agenda to Sri Lanka with ACSA, SOFA, MCC. Do you have any plans going forward to work with Sri Lanka in any new projects or agreements as the MCC or SOFA and ACSA going forward?
Ambassador Chung: It’s really unfortunate that the MCC did not move forward here in Sri Lanka. That was potentially $400 million in grants that would have helped the people of Sri Lanka, the infrastructure network and connectivity, and really bring a lot of benefits to the Sri Lankan people. There was a lot of misinformation and disinformation about that. A lot of fake news. People were really vulnerable to that fake news. The project has moved on, the funds have gone to other countries. It’s really unfortunate that this opportunity was lost.
But again, I think it’s important for us to move forward. Not look backward on something like the MCC. I’m looking forward to doing more things together with Sri Lanka and finding other opportunities to work together and develop —
Derana 24: Any agreements on the cards?
Ambassador Chung: There’s no agreements right now that are in discussion, but we’re looking constantly, we’re looking for other ways to build up that capacity in other programs, in other ways. But MCC, that funding has already been given to another country.
Derana 24: Are we looking at any defense related pacts, per se?
Ambassador Chung: That was another issue that came up during MCC. I think I can unequivocally say there’s no intention by the United States to ever create a military base here. Another big news item that was going on during the MCC period.
What we do want is a strong bilateral security cooperative relationship. We are doing that. We have already provided two cutters. There’s a third cutter that’s going to be on its way later this year. We have 200 sailors in Washington State and Seattle right now being trained on how to use that. That will help with search and rescue, with stopping drug trafficking, human trafficking, maritime domain awareness. We want to build upon that security cooperation. That’s what’s important.
Derana 24: We have had India and China being concerned about how certain projects in the country, investment related projects in strategic locations are given to either party. Has the United States or does the United States have any reservations in how our investment projects are given out to other countries? Especially super powers.
Ambassador Chung: That again goes back to the Sri Lankan people and what they want their future to look like.
As you welcome investments from countries around the world, companies will do their due diligence, looking at transparency, good governance, impact on the environment, impact on local labor laws. Those are all very important pillars. Those are questions to ask. Those are questions for investigative journalists to ask. As you go through that question process and investigative process, thinking carefully about how that investment will be sustainable and benefit the people of Sri Lanka, that’s what we’re concerned about. We hope that those investments will be really truly fruitful here.
Derana 24: You visited Kandy and Jaffna and I’m sure you have many other visits planned ahead. But essentially in a crisis situation as this and during the COVID period we went through an extended period of lockdown. We saw that women and children were the hardest hit and have to take the biggest burden of this situation. How can we look at supporting them with help from the United States?
Ambassador Chung: That’s right. The most vulnerable populations are the ones that are suffering even more during this period of crisis.
When I traveled up north, I was able to visit a demining site. The United States is the largest donor for demining here in Sri Lanka. Over $83 million. What that demining does is scour the land not only to remove those mines, but then provide space for people to create livelihoods, build homes on that land. That’s a direct result of how we can help improve the livelihoods of Sri Lankans.
Similarly in Kandy, I met with a number of women. Women entrepreneurs, who during COVID said they had lost all hope. They were trapped at home. Their husbands lost their jobs. They didn’t know what to do. And part of our program was to give them the tools, how to start a basic business, just creating handicrafts, just creating baked goods. How to use Instagram to market that. And the women came in with such hope. They didn’t make a lot of money but they started businesses when they thought there was no hope. They were able to empower their local communities as well.
These are the stories and the programs that really I think enrich our relationship and what it means to be a good friend and partner to Sri Lanka.
Derana 24: I’d like to turn to you, your personal story. Quite an inspiring story we have here I’ve read a little, I’ve heard a little about you. You wanted to be a journalist in high school, if I’m not mistaken.
Ambassador Chung: I was a reporter in high school and college for my school newspapers, and I really wanted to be an international correspondent.
Derana 24: An immigrant, immigrant family. Then you rise to the highest ranks in your field of work. Your first ambassadorial posting here in Sri Lanka, but you have been with the Foreign Service a senior member of the Foreign Service. You’ve served in Cambodia, Japan, Thailand. All this and still I think you live the American dream. Tell us a little about this. This is a difficult time in Sri Lanka. I think most of us are looking for inspiration of how you and your family came up during a difficult time that you may have faced.
Ambassador Chung: This is why I say my story is a humbling story. My parents, who were children during the Korean War, survived a war and they immigrated to the United States with nothing. With one suitcase and one rice cooker because they thought America wouldn’t have a rice cooker. And I was five years old at the time. I remember getting on that plane and crying and thinking what am I going to do in this foreign land?
We lived in a one bedroom apartment in southern California. We looked for food in trash bins, to see if there’s any food that could be salvageable and cooked. My mother was a dishwasher. My father worked at a factory. We all studied English day and night.
For America, for us, it’s a country of opportunity on merit. Again, we didn’t know anybody. We didn’t have any ties or connections. But we all worked hard, and especially my dad. He worked from the factory floor of an engineering company, worked his way up to an engineer, senior engineer. He became eventually the president and CEO of Aerospace Engineering Company where he worked on the Mars Rover and the International Space Station. If that’s not an American story of hope, I don’t know what else is.
And this is why I’m an optimist, no matter what. And here in Sri Lanka I know that many people are in despair and there’s a lot of challenges and difficulties every day for everybody here right now. But I also have hope that through this despair there’s opportunity, again, for the country to come together, to address these challenges and find a new way forward that will really benefit everybody in Sri Lanka.
Derana 24: Truly inspiring. I’m sure our young girls will get inspired. They’ll draw a lot of inspiration from your story. It’s quite important for us here in Sri Lanka as we move ahead.
You spoke about how you love traveling here and I’m sure there’s more for you to travel in the island. Let’s talk a little about tourism. This is an industry which has had severe blow since the Easter Sunday attacks and then COVID-19, the extended period of lockdown, and now here in Sri Lanka a crisis. And in recent time too, we feared a diplomatic spat between Russia and Sri Lanka due to a commercial flight. Russia is also among the top five tourists coming into Sri Lanka.
While we work to improve our tourism sector, do you have any challenges that Sri Lanka needs to focus on in improving them going forward?
Ambassador Chung: I think the tourism industry here has so much potential. It’s one of the tourism capitals of the world, I think. Two years ago it was featured as one of the top ten places to travel.
Right now during this crisis, tourists are not going to come if they feel they don’t have the fuel to take a bus to the southern beaches or to the northern hills. So I think it’s very essential, again, that political and economic stability, working hand in hand, in parallel be the first fundamental step. And beyond that, really supporting that tourism infrastructure . You already have the resources. You have a well educated tourism industry infrastructure, to really help build out the staff and the human resources. People will come. People will come to enjoy the diverse, beautiful tourism spots that Sri Lanka has to offer.
Derana 24: I hear you tried a lot of spicy food in Jaffna.
Ambassador Chung: That’s right. I love spicy food. Growing up Korean in my home, nothing is spicy enough for me. So one of my favorite foods was the Jaffna kool. It was so delicious. And I kept adding more chiles to it. So I’m ready to taste more spicy food here.
Derana 24: Here in Sri Lanka, you’re quite optimistic about Sri Lanka’s journey ahead. Young people are out there demanding changes to a system. You spoke about an American dream that came true. In real life, Ambassador, tell us how we can change the system here. That’s what we’re talking about. Young people are demanding a change in system. You have an experience of rising in the ranks of a system that has been in place for all Americans, whether you’re an immigrant, whether you were born in America. How can Sri Lanka approach this?
Ambassador Chung: This is why I’m inspired by the peaceful protesters out there right now. It crosses generations, from grandmothers to babies, different ethnic and religious groups and from all parts of the country. People again are demanding that change, that institutional change. They want to be a part of the change.
This is why due to the difficulties, this is a great opportunity for people to move forward. Now how do you transform protest into concrete change? That’s where the hard work comes in. I think that the young people especially have so much hope and excitement and passion about making sure their country is a country that they want to see their children prosper in. Now let’s get to work. Let’s work with all the different stakeholders. Putting aside some of the personal politics and make sure that this country prospers. And the United States wants to help in this effort.
Derana 24: You love sports, don’t you?
Ambassador Chung: Yes.
Derana 24: Have you had a chance to watch a cricket match yet?
Ambassador Chung: I’ve watched a cricket match on television. I wasn’t able to attend one in person. But I’m really excited to welcome my husband and my nine year old son to Sri Lanka in about a month or so, they’ll be joining me soon. I know they are interested in the various sports here and getting out there and exploring the beauty of the country too.
Derana 24: Where do you intend traveling?
Ambassador Chung: There’s so much on my list. I haven’t been up to the north beyond Kandy. So Nuwara Eliya. Of course in the east Trincomalee, the beautiful beaches there. Back up to Jaffna. I didn’t see much of the tourism spots last time. And of course the southern beaches and the wildlife, the amazing wildlife, the elephants and the leopards.
Again, I think there’s so much potential for that tourism industry to come back and to prosper, and we’ve seen that after the Easter bomb attacks, the tourism industry did come back. So I think this is a come-back country.
Derana 24: A resilient nation it is, Ambassador.
Finally, we’d like to hear a message from you. I know it has been just three months since you took office, but you walked into a crisis, as I said, in Sri Lanka. So much of developments and this is an evolving situation. We’re looking at improving an agro-based economy, manufacturing in Sri Lanka. But as I said before, your story is inspiring and we certainly would love to hear from you. What message would you finally have for us?
Ambassador Chung: I would say this is a defining moment in Sri Lankan history and this is a time when unity is important more than ever. Now unity does not mean everybody moves in lockstep and doesn’t disagree or have discourse. But healthy discourse is so important in a democracy. But moving forward to a prosperous, stable, democratic Sri Lanka for everybody, this is the moment when everybody can come together to build that.
Again, the United States is really here as a good friend and partner. And as I go around and meet people, it’s interesting. At first impression people are very stiff. They meet the US Ambassador. But once you get to know somebody and make that human to human connection, I think that means so much and goes such a long way. That’s why the relationships are so important. Not only between governments, but between people.
Derana 24: You have quite a following on Twitter. And as we said before, you’ve been meeting many Sri Lankans during this short span of time and from different segments of society and different sectors.
Thank you very much for your time here. Your first media interview in Sri Lanka.
Ambassador Chung: I’m very happy to be here. Thank you so much.
Derana 24: Thank you very much.
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