Transcript of Ambassador Teplitz’s interview with Awarelogue Initiative

August 31, 2021  

Question:  As your tour of duty comes to an end in Sri Lanka, what were the most significant developments of your ambassadorial term.  

Ambassador Teplitz:  Serving as Ambassador to any country really is an honor and a humbling experience.  Sri Lanka’s a magnificent country.  It’s been really exciting to travel around, to meet people and of course as I said before, it is a place of huge potential.  So it’s been an honor to serve here, and I’m very much going to miss the people that I have come to know and love.  

Thinking about the significant developments, I look back at three years and I’m of course – it’s been three years of tumultuous experiences for all of us.  There are the three issues I think that people really focus on.  Of course constitutional crisis of late 2018, the Easter attacks, then two rounds of elections, and of course the pandemic.  So I guess four things people focus on.  I of course have focused on these events as well.  How could you escape them?  

Sri Lanka is one of the oldest democracies in the region.  Sri Lankans I think having very strong democratic traditions, the desire to continue those traditions, we’re very excited with the independence that Sri Lanka of course showed in helping conclude the 52-day crisis of that period, the constitutional crisis.  

Then we had the terror attacks in 2019.  Absolutely heartbreaking.  I really mourn with the people of Sri Lanka and the families of the victims.  I am proud, though, that since that day we have been able to, at the request of Sri Lankan authorities, assist with the investigation.  And of course we have also indicted three of the people we think contributed to carrying out those senseless acts of violence.  

And then the pandemic.  We can’t really escape that.  That’s around us all the time and we’re experiencing another lockdown in Sri Lanka to try and get ahead of the latest surge.  

It’s really clear that this is a global problem that requires global collaboration and solutions to get ahead of.  So a big contribution I hope that we’ve been able to make has been direct vaccine donations to the COVAX facility to Sri Lanka.  So the United States donated 1.5 million doses of Moderna, then another 100,000 doses of Pfizer last week.  So these have all been free of charge.  This is on top of the $15 million that we have provided to support public health measures, medical response.  Some of it’s been in-kind with ventilators and rapid diagnostic tests.  And we both believe about the future, the post-pandemic economic recovery.  So the pandemic has been an enormous sort of elephant in the room that we really can’t escape.  

But in response to your question, I really want to focus on some of the things that are maybe not so obvious, and I’ll just briefly touch on three issues that I think are deserving of some attention and I would consider to be maybe the real developments of my time here.  

The first is the growing appetite of Sri Lankans for innovation.  Innovation in the economy, innovation in society.  And I could this really from the very beginning of my time.  The Embassy hosted a Maker Fair in 2019 and that built upon our years of working with young people to encourage them, frankly, to build their dreams, literally build their dreams, whether they were making robots or self-regulating gas burners, or developing software apps.  I just read about the young Sri Lankan boy who built a solar powered tuk.  This streak of creativity and innovation is out there and it’s really obvious that there’s a place for it here and it’s just sort of waiting to blossom so that it can build the economy of the future.  

So I think that appetite for innovation is something that I’ve seen only get stronger over the last three years, and something we want to continue to encourage.  From the U.S. perspective we’re doing that in small ways.  We committed $265 million through three private banks to finance small and medium enterprises, particularly those that are women owned.  We’ve been helping other Sri Lankan businesses to mature and we’re continuing our support to young people and entrepreneurs.  

The second development I think that is out there, of course, is some of the humanitarian work we’ve done together. We have a long history of collaborating around disaster response but we’ve done another kind of humanitarian work that really was necessary after the conflict and that’s humanitarian demining.  

So with our funding, $80 million since basically over the last decade, the last 10 or 12 years or so, that has supported training with international experts and the Sri Lankan government and the actual activity of clearing this really dangerous detritus from the war so people can return to their homes, the economy can be restored, in those areas, and people are free to move about.  

I’m sure you know, maybe many of your viewers know that Sri Lanka was one of the most densely mined places on the planet and with our support and the support of others, nearly 500,000 landmines and other explosives have been safely removed.  

So I feel like this is an enormous contribution.  It was accomplished by Sri Lankans literally clearing mine impacted areas inch by inch.  A huge contribution to the peace and stability of the country.  And not just from the last three years, obviously a longer period, but I think that this, as it’s hopefully going to come to a close in the next couple of years, has been a big contribution here.  An enormously significant development for Sri Lanka.  

Lastly, I would mention another thing that’s become clear to me over time, but I think as we look at the economic woes introduced by the pandemic, it’s the need for an outward focused national economic vision.  I think there’s always been a need for that.  People talk about that.  Lots of Sri Lankan economists write OpEd pieces about this.  But it’s clear that in this era having that coherent vision is really going to make a difference for this country.  

And Sri Lanka does have a history of economic resilience, and you’ve got a lot of innovation.  They’re just talking about sort of innovation on the small scale, but there is big scale innovation too in the apparel sector where Sri Lankan business owners have really made a name for themselves globally.  I think there’s a real foundation to build on there.  And Sri Lankan entrepreneurs, even during the pandemic have shown that they can fill niches, build delivery services from scratch or do other creative things.  But that innovation alone is not enough to make the economy prosper.  You’ve got the appetite, now you’ve got to have the facilitative environment.  I think that greater economic success is definitely possible if the right policies are in place to facilitate exports, to encourage entrepreneurism and to attract foreign direct investment.  

I think people realize this and they really want to capitalize on the promises of successive governments to make Sri Lanka business friendly and to really create this economic boom.  

So I encourage the government to continue to look at how to make policies that are going to be more economically successful.  I know that women, young people are ready to step right up and help Sri Lanka live up to its full potential.  

Question:  Trade is a crucial component of U.S.-Sri Lankan relations.  Could you describe the current status in 2021 and the importance that the United States attaches to it?  

Ambassador Teplitz:  The United States is Sri Lanka’s largest single country export market.  We’re building on years and years, decades and decades of ties, and that trade right now accounts for nearly $2.5 billion of the $10 billion of goods that Sri Lanka exports annually.  So it’s a very significant proportion of Sri Lanka’s exports.  

The United States exports to Sri Lanka as well.  In 2020 that was $354 million, which was an increase of almost 98 percent from 2010, so it’s growing, but clearly there’s a trade balance in Sri Lanka’s favor.  

So the relationship is a really strong one and it’s one that is growing and one I definitely want to encourage.  My team and I are always looking for opportunities to make that relationship stronger.  And to make that relationship a two-way street.  

We recognize the size of the Sri Lankan economy, American exports here may not grow too much more but we do see major Sri Lankan companies investing in the United States which is I think also a real benefit to both countries.  These partnerships have produced cutting edge wearable technology among other things, leading to innovations in the field.  And I think there is potential in sectors beyond apparel.  That’s been the traditional basis of our trading relationship.  We’ve got small trade in agricultural products and some other things, but the mainstay of it has been apparel exports.  

I think looking at energy, technology, you name it, kind of the sky’s the limit and that we have more opportunities to build that relationship.  I think the key to this comes back to that economic vision thing which is that cultivating transparent economic environment with consistent policy-making that makes Sri Lanka internationally competitive is really going to unleash the training potential.  Not just between our two countries but more globally.    

The U.S. has been a longstanding partner with Sri Lanka with regard to economic advancement.  U.S. companies continue to express interest in investing here and we’re going to continue to be committed to fostering sustainable economic growth.  And I hope that all of these commitments can ultimately add up to an even stronger trade relationship going forward and the U.S. can remain that largest single country trading partner.  

Question:  Sri Lanka and the United States have a strong common denominator, democracy.  How were these democratic values strengthened during your tenure?  

Ambassador Teplitz:  As democracies, the United States and Sri Lanka really should share common goals.  Things like good governance, rule of law, respect for everyone’s human rights and their civil liberties.  These are the foundations, the values of democratic societies.  

I’ll just mention I guess three ways that I think values were strengthened during my time here, but obviously building on the foundational work of many others that preceded me.  

One is helping to bring more women into Sri Lanka’s political space.  I think that we look at democracy and we understand the model to be one where communities are represented in governance.  But I think we find, and this is true in the United States as well, that in many places that representation completely represents a segment of the population.  It doesn’t include women in the numbers that we are present in society, so more women really need to be at the political table.  

So we have helped with that.  We’ve done a couple of things.  We worked with the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus to initiate national level policy dialogue on issues that were of importance like sexual harassment in the workplace, land rights for women, and discussing how to address disabilities.  This really led to better informed conversations and recommendations for legislation.  So I think that was a big help.  

We also worked with female politicians, helping to support – politicians I might add of all parties on a non-partisan basis, but helping support their skills building in terms of just how to campaign.  Then once you win an election, what do you do?  How do you listen to your constituents?  How do you then participate in governance in a way that benefits the community?  

So in these small ways we’ve tried to build on the steps Sri Lanka itself has taken through the quotas at the local council level, but trying to both encourage and capacitate women to really take their place on the political stage.  So I think that’s an important contribution.  

Another thing I want to mention, of course, is our work-around promoting the rule of law.  There are challenges in the United States certainly around equal access to justice, but this is one of the bedrock values of any democracy and it’s clearly one that’s very difficult to achieve.  We’re proud to have partnered with the Ministry of Justice, with the Attorney General’s Office, and Sri Lanka’s judiciary to help increase the effectiveness of the system.  I know the current Justice Minister is very committed in this regard.  

One of the things we did most recently was to help establish a training center with the Attorney General’s office to help train new personnel in his office and provide continuing legal education.  This is really important so that lawyers are able to stay up to speed on latest developments and can move promptly through cases so that working on case management – and I hope we can continue to contribute more in this space as it’s obviously a key issue for Sri Lankans.  Looking at the large number of people held in remand, looking at just how long it takes to process a case through court.  And that in a democracy you want justice to work.  

Swiftly and impartially and really deliver for the people that need it most.  

Thirdly, just thinking about the democratic value piece, and this has probably been the most difficult of the things I’ve worked on in my time here.  We’ve endeavored to remind and support Sri Lanka of its commitment to SDG-16, Sustainable Development Goal 16.  This is the one that addresses peace, justice and strong institutions.  

Then of course there are numerous other international conventions to which Sri Lanka is a party that speak to the same issues.  It’s been a difficult conversation.  Addressing human rights, I think is tough.  But we also believe it’s really important not just for ourselves as Americans which we endeavor to do at home but also with our partners, and particularly our democratic partners.  

We do need to address human rights issues, the past and the present.  We need to deal with the injustices of the past and the present.  And in our view a democratic government that is accountable to all of its people should be willing to genuinely and credibly investigate and adjudicate criminal allegations.  

In doing so, while striving to meaningfully address political, economic, and social issues that spark conflict or have the potential to spark conflict in the future.  Talking about rule of law, looking down at the really hard issues that rule of law is meant to help us parse and provide a framework so that peoples’ rights can be respected.  Human rights then becomes an obvious extension of all of that.  

So the United States really remains committed to supporting the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka.  We remain fully engaged with the Sri Lankan government on this topic.  We are hoping to advance reconciliation, transitional justice and a lasting peace for all Sri Lankans.  

And we’re committed to just having the difficult conversations and helping make an enduring difference in Sri Lanka.   

Question:  Sri Lanka’s geographical positioning has attracted continuous attention.  How do you see Sri Lanka vis-ap-vis the Indo-Pacific concept?  

Ambassador Teplitz:  The United States does have a vision for the Indo-Pacific region, a region I would point out that we’re a part of.  And that vision is the region should be free and open.  It’s a vision that sees nations, as independent, as strong, as prosperous, a vision where relationships among nations flow from a spirit of respect that’s built on partnership and not domination.  It is an inclusive vision.  So no nation is excluded from this concept.  But I also recognize that it’s very esoteric.  It’s not very practical.  What does free and open really mean when we’re talking about this vision of the concept?  

So free and open, for example, is referring to freedom of navigation.  Things like ensuring that ports and commercial sea lanes can continue to contribute to the country’s economic wellbeing because there is free transit and safe transit. 

For a country like Sri Lanka with aspirations of becoming a regional hub, a shipping hug, a logistics hub.  This is really important to ensure that Sri Lanka’s investments in ports in particular are going to pay off.  So this Indo-Pacific concept is one that is actually really practical in implementation.  We think there’s a need to respect international law and rules-based norms in approaching territorial disputes, looking at trade and investment, behavior in cyberspace.  Even standards on development assistance and infrastructure projects and in approaching things like human rights and democratic governance.  This is how the world has prospered over the last 70 years by having international law and a framework to address these issues.  We think it’s a good formula and it’s one that we really need to continue.  It’s one that’s benefited Sri Lanka, other countries around the globe, and of course the United States.  

So the investment is in this idea and continuing to ensure that countries can trade and interact in a mutually beneficial way.  

Question:  Your diplomatic career included postings in Dhaka and Kabul.  What impact does the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan have on South Asia as a whole and Sri Lanka, in particular?  

Ambassador Teplitz:  It’s clear that the situation in Afghanistan is an evolving one, and as the G7 leaders said last week, we’ll judge the Afghan parties by their actions, not their words.  In particular, the G7 leaders said we reaffirm that the Taliban will be held accountable for their actions on preventing terrorism, on human rights in particular of those women, girls and minorities, and on pursuing an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan.  I think that kind of sums up some of the issues that we’ve got there, some of the challenges that we’ll be looking at.  

The United States has suspended diplomatic presence in Kabul.  We’ve transferred our operations to Doha and Qatar and we’ll be working there to continue to support engagement.  This is going to include a relentless effort as Secretary Blinken has said, to help Americans, foreign nationals and Afghans as they leave Afghanistan, if they so choose.  That’s clearly going to be a challenge for many countries going forward.  

The Taliban has pledged to let people freely depart and we intend to hold them to that agreement.  More than half the world countries in fact join the United States in insisting that the Taliban let people travel outside of Afghanistan freely.  There was a statement issued just a couple of days ago, and just a little while ago the United National Security Council passed a resolution that enshrines that responsibility, laying the groundwork to hold the Taliban accountable if they renege on that promise.  

So I think for the region and internationally, the course is really strong on this issue and we do plan to hold the Taliban to their commitment on freedom of movement.  And of course we’ll be working to help secure safe passage.  

I think if we also broaden our horizons beyond that kind of imminence of humanitarian needs, we’ve got to also stay focused on counterterrorism.  The Taliban in particular made a commitment to preventing terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base for external operations, but while we want to hold the Taliban accountable to that and we have expectations to that, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to rely on them or that.  I think this is also really important for the region where we’ve seen terror attacks over the last couple of years including as we were discussing earlier here in Sri Lanka in 2019.  We really need to remain vigilant in monitoring the terror threats and working with partners to address terrorism so that it’s not something that is a feature of our world going forward.  

I think those are some of the issues that we’re going to have to look at as we address the situation in Afghanistan and look at the ripple effects of that going forward.  

Question:  You worked tirelessly to enhance the bilateral connectivity between Sri Lanka and the United States.  How satisfied are you with the progress made?  

Ambassador Teplitz:  As I touched on in my previous answers, the United States and Sri Lanka, we have a long partnership and relationship that’s 70 years old.  So like with any relationship there’s always something we can do to make it better, make it stronger, to improve our communications.  A couple of thoughts I might offer up, our people to people ties have become enormously important in that relationship.  It’s not just G to G.  It’s not just government to government.  But our peoples are developing connections of their own.    

Just one small way I would say is looking at how many Sri Lankans study in the United States.  We had over 3,200 students from Sri Lanka in the United States in 2019-2020.  Now the pandemic has obviously impacted that number a little bit, but people study there, they make friends, the build relationships.  We might end up with family ties as a result if people may even settle in the United States, or Sri Lankans come back here and then Americans come join them here.  So we really appreciate that this linkage is contributing to a much stronger connectivity between our ties.  

Most years we have seen some 30,000 Sri Lankans visit the U.S.  Sixty thousand Americans would visit Sri Lanka annually.  That’s not insignificant.  That’s a large number of people back and forth who are getting to know one another and experiencing one another’s cultures and perspectives.  We also have had exchange participants going back and forth between the U.S. and Sri Lanka and focused on maybe very specific professional programs or subjects that are of use here.  So this includes teachers, students, government officials, student leaders looking at everything from disaster management to how to run an effective judiciary.  These professional ties I think also increase understanding in both directions.  Certainly we don’t feel that we have the right answer for every problem, but we’re willing to share our experience and learn from the experiences of others.  

And the people to people ties really build on a strong kind of people to people partnership here in Sri Lanka which has been our development relationship over the last 60 or so years.  I think through USAID alone we have supported every sector in Sri Lanka — agriculture, education, health, housing, water, environmental protection, job skills training, micro enterprise support.  Just about everything, we’ve tried to be there as Sri Lankans have needed us, including in disaster response.  So I really think we have cultivated a relationship of understanding where the American people and the Sri Lanka people have an affinity.  

On the economic front we also have business to business ties that are growing.  We talked a little bit about trade and the best trading partnerships and certainly that the investment partnership will grow.  I think the private sector is really the key economic driver for both of our countries and that growing two-way street of trade and investment is where we’re going to see both of our nations prospering.  I’d really like to see more of the innovation and problem-solving also that has delivered sort of revolutionary items to both our publics, whether that’s using recycled plastics in garments or carbon neutral manufacturing, or wearable technology, especially some wearable technology really targeted at women.    

I think there’s a lot of potential to address some of the big challenges we see if we’ve got our private sectors working together and driving not just investment relationships, but partnerships going forward.  

That connectivity to me is hugely important and it isn’t uni-dimensional.  So I think as we work towards having a dynamic relationship with Sri Lanka, one that’s respectful, one that’s engaged, certainly from my perspective, we’ve got to understand that that relationship is multi-dimensional and we’re not just looking at the official government side of things.  And that to have a strong, inclusive and united Sri Lanka, you know, people are such an important part of that and I think the connectivity between our countries is certainly going to stand us in good stead for the next 70 years and beyond of our relationship.  

Question:  One term ends and another begins.  What are the fondest memories you take with you from Sri Lanka?  

Ambassador Teplitz:  It’s hard to pinpoint a single memory that’s out there.  There are so many great experiences I’ve had and wonderful people that I’ve met, and beautiful places that I’ve seen.  I have had the incredible honor of traveling around the whole island.  

The pandemic slowed me down a little bit, so the last few months I haven’t been able to get out as much, but I have met people, whether it was in Nuwareliya or Jaffna  or down in Weligama or Puttalam , Batticaloa or Trincomalee  , or Kandy, Anuradhapura.  I have been there and I am struck of course, always by the warmth and hospitality of people.  But also their concern that there be a good relationship between our countries and that we continue that partnership and enduring partnership I think that has characterized our ties.  

I’m also struck by, again, coming back to the enormous potential of the people and the country here and the great future that I hope is in store for the Sri Lankans that I’ve met.  There’s a moment I remember thinking as I was meeting with a group of female entrepreneurs in Jaffna, they had really stepped up and were engaged in sort of cottage industries, small-scale manufacturing but they were ready to market their goods and get out there.  They were ready to be the business people of the future.  I thought if this is the spirit of the country, there are no barriers.  Sri Lanka is really going to do well.  And I think the U.S. as a friend and partner can prosper alongside.  

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