Transcript of Ambassador Teplitz’s interview with Hiru TV

October 20, 2021

Hiru TV:   Ambassador, thank you very much for joining us for this interview.  It’s my honor as well on behalf of the Hiru media networks to conduct this interview, your final interview, as well as which is saying goodbye to Sri Lanka, somewhere you’ve been for quite a long time.

To get started off with how are you doing, and are you ready with wrapping up your duties, Ambassador Teplitz?  How are you going forward with things regarding that?

Ambassador Teplitz:  It’s always a challenge to leave.  My heart, my head, really wants to stay but it’s time to return home.  Sri Lanka is such a magnificent country.  It’s been such a pleasure and an honor to serve here.  But of course I’ll leave with many friends and hope to return at some point in the future.

Hiru TV:  I’m very glad.

So when it comes to, because an Ambassador is a symbol for the friendship and the ties that we have, so it is of course our honor to direct you a few questions before you do leave, and with regards to the current happenings that you have been involved with the past few weeks and the many months as well.

So let me get right into the questions with regards to what we need to get through with regards to today.

First of all, Ambassador Teplitz, with regards to the agreement to the Kerawalapitiya power plant where the majority stake of about 40 percent is to do with the U.S. company New Fortress Energy.  This has been a growing concern to the public and it is said that the agreement was promoted by you as well.  Would this lead to a monopolistic situation in the market where the public would suffer prices similar to the Shell issue that we faced earlier?

Ambassador Teplitz:  Let me start my response to that by saying that the enrgy sector Sri Lanka needs investment.  There needs to be power added to the grid.  Sri Lanka’s future in terms of attracting industry and business here as well as just the growing needs of the population are going to rely on plentiful energy at a reasonable cost.

The New Fortress Energy investment is being made by a private company, a private sector business with the government of Sri Lanka, so the U.S. government is not a part of this business arrangement although we support and advocate for U.S. businesses.  I believe they come with good technology.  They come with the ability to generate jobs.  They come with the ability to bring capital, money into Sri Lanka and generate genuine investments.  No loans obligating the government.  Instead the company is coming and taking on all the risk themselves.  So this private sector deal is a good example of how Sri Lanka can make business deals in the future that are going to benefit the country and benefit the people.

Hiru TV:  Thank you very much, Ambassador.  I think with regards to the, but however I would like to once again phrase that question a little bit towards the end because I don’t believe you answered that question.

Do you think that with this private company that is investing in the country, like you said businesses are definitely good when it comes to countries.  We should definitely partner up.  But do you think this partnering up, especially with regards to the specific factors in this field, the monopolistic situation in the market.  Do you think something like this would occur where the public would suffer in Sri Lanka, especially because you have been here on the ground, boots down and seen it happen.  Do you think something similar to the Shell price issue would happen in Sri Lanka?

Ambassador Teplitz:  The U.S. government is not a party to this business arrangement.  The only element of the business deal that I’m aware of are the ones that have been reported publicly in the media.

As I understand it, we’re talking about a minority stake in a single power plant.  So I guess the answer to the question is that I don’t see a monopoly challenge in this potential business arrangement.  I would just have to refer people to the government and to New Fortress Energy for more details.

Hiru TV:  I understand, ma’am.  Thank you so much for your response with that.  We really appreciate that.  Especially how you conduct yourself diplomatically.

And speaking of diplomacy, in regards to the consular affairs that we have going on, the travel restrictions, if I’m not mistaken, just yesterday President Biden released a new set of rules for the countries, lessening some restrictions as well.

Now there has been this lessening of severe restrictions if I’m not mistaken since yesterday.  To many countries, and Sri Lanka has also rolled out quite an effective vaccination drive that definitely you must have witnessed as well.  So since Sri Lanka has decided to give the third dose, booster vaccine, will the United States be wiling to provide, or interested in providing more Pfizer vaccines to Sri Lanka?  Apart from the COVAX agreement that is already in place.

Ambassador Teplitz:  President Biden has committed to providing vaccine globally.  We provided more than 200 million doses globally, 2.4 million of those to Sri Lanka specifically through the COVAX mechanism.  So that is our preferred option in terms of providing vaccine.  And of course the vaccines that have come to Sri Lanka as well as the vaccines donated globally through COVAX have all been at no cost to the host country with no conditions.  So I think it’s really important to understand that these vaccines have come out of the U.S. national reserves, that we’re providing them as part of the global effort to end the pandemic and deal with COVID-19 for the sake of all of us being able to return to a more normal life.  So I’m very pleased that we’ve been able to do that here in Sri Lanka as well, providing Pfizer vaccine the most recent arrival which was close to 800,000 doses that arrived just a few weeks ago.  Then Moderna earlier in the year.  Two separate tranches of that.

So I think this is a good complement to the really robust vaccination program that the Sri Lankan government has undertaken.  It’s really important for reopening the economy and for the safety of everybody.

And in recognition of some of the good results and the public health funds, the U.S. government just yesterday revised its travel notice to American citizens from level 4 to a level 3 indicating that the environment is a little safer for travel.

And of course we provide advice for American citizens.  It’s up to them to decide what they want to do.  But other countries in the world, Japan for example, are also at a level 3, also have this kind of advice.

The pandemic’s made it difficult, obviously, for travelers globally, and we do have to exercise caution, but I think the authorities here have worked very hard to keep everybody safe.  Sri Lankans as well as visitors.

Hiru TV:  So Ambassador, a quick follow-up to that.  With regards to – and thank you very much, first of all, for that amazing response.  But however, I’d like to ask you when it comes to the vaccine sets that have been delivered so far and that we are waiting as well.  Do you think that what other vaccines, apart from the COVAX vaccine that we have already received, what are we going to get to Sri Lanka, maybe free of charge in a grant, et cetera, how will these vaccines be receiving to Sri Lanka?  How will these be received?  When, what vaccine in specific, if you may answer.

Ambassador Teplitz:  COVAX is the global vaccine, it is the method to deliver vaccines to countries that are in need of them and all of those vaccines come free of charge.  They’re all through a grant.  There’s no obligation to the government.  And of course vaccines are being provided to countries that are most in need.

Separately governments, of course, have to procure vaccines for their own use, and whether seeking support from the World Bank or Asian Development Bank to help underwrite that or from their own national funds to procure those vaccines.  And I believe the government of Sri Lanka itself has invested in Pfizer vaccine purchase using its own funds.

So from the U.S. government, we are providing our contributions through COVAX.  In fact we have provided about $2 billion to the global effort to vaccinate everybody and to fight COVID-19, a portion of which has been received in Sri Lanka.

In addition to vaccines we’ve provided $18 million in in-kind equipment like ventilators or personal protective equipment as well as support to public health efforts, educating people about what to do in response, how to keep themselves safe in response to the pandemic.  We provided funding, for example, to help clean up the polling places after the parliamentary elections.  So I think that we are still looking at a future maybe we don’t quite know all the details of.  We don’t know where the virus is going to go.  But we’re trying to make sure that globally all countries are able to respond and protect their populations.  We’re quite proud of what we’ve been able to contribute here in Sri Lanka and I’m sure that this is not the end of our support.  This is just part of the ongoing effort here.

So the U.S. government does not sell vaccine, and let me be clear on that.  We don’t sell vaccines to other countries.  Countries may make arrangements with vaccine producers to purchase vaccine, but the U.S. government does not get involved in those decisions.  The U.S. government has provided vaccine free of charge to Sri Lanka and other countries around the world as part of our global commitment to addressing the challenge of COVID-19.

Hiru TV:  Thank you very much, ma’am.

And with regards to the travel restriction, if I may, another quick follow-up with that.  You said, you mentioned that Sri Lanka has been downgraded from a level 4 to a level 3 if I’m not mistaken.  How does this grant, what is the leverage we have for Sri Lankans living in U.S. when it comes to traveling to Sri Lanka and vice versa as well?  What are the specifics, if I may ask?

Ambassador Teplitz:  There’s no ban on Americans traveling to the United States from the U.S. government sites.  Of course visitors here must conform to government of Sri Lanka requirements, whether it’s a PCR test or whatever is needed, being vaccinated, whatever is needed.  So U.S. citizen travelers are free to choose their destinations and right now can certainly travel to Sri Lanka.  We do provide advice that they can read and then they can form choices about their travel.

President Biden has decided for incoming travelers to the United States that we will be asking travelers to be vaccinated and that will start on November 8th, and that was recently announced, so that might have been something that informed your question.  The best source for information on that is the U.S. Center for Disease Control.  We have a web site.  We also have elements of the U.S. Embassy web site that has more information on that.

I think, of course, as more and more people become vaccinated, that’s going to be very important as people begin to renew travel and travel globally to ensure that the virus does not spread or mutate further.

Hiru TV:  And a question about the vaccination drive.  Especially there is a myth circulating among the Sri Lankan public that if a Sri Lankan wants to go to U.S. or even to the European countries that especially you would require the Pfizer vaccine to be administered before coming to U.S.  Is it true?  Or any Sri Lanka could get any vaccine, any manner vaccine and come to U.S. provided that they complete the full dose?

Ambassador Teplitz:  Full information again is available on our Center for Disease Control web site.  I believe it’s a variety of vaccines that are acceptable.  So I would encourage travelers to look at that list, not rely on my memory but to look at that list.  But it is more than one vaccine that is acceptable, and travelers should always check out the travel requirements before getting on an airplane.  You know testing regimes obviously vary by country and there can be other challenges.  So these rules, as we have seen over the last 18 months of the pandemic, can often change from month to month and one of the things I’m pleased to be able to share with your viewers in advance is this November 8 change in the United States requiring that vaccination, but it is more than one vaccine, not just the Pfizer vaccine.  But I encourage travelers to look at that as far as the source for that, the Center for Disease Control web site.

Hiru TV:  Ambassador, once again to reconfirm it is on the 8th that these rules will be starting to be implemented, yes?

Ambassador Teplitz:  Yes, that’s my understanding.

Hiru TV:  Thank you very much.

All right, Ambassador, moving on to the final question that we have today for you.  With regards to the U.S.  The U.S. had an interest in the East Terminal of the Colombo Port.  Together with the Adani Group and Japanese investors sometime back.  However, the West Terminal is now signed off to the Adani Group as it is common notice.  On the other hand, our President has also confirmed to India that there will be no chance of Sri Lanka being used to threaten the security of India.  So although Sri Lanka has close ties with China as well in many development projects including but not limited to the Colombo Port City.

So my question to you, Ambassador, is now that the Adani Group is back with the Western Terminal and without the opportunity given to the Japanese, do you strategically think that there is a balance between the East and West Terminal investment?  And how is the United States policy on this?  Are you happy with this?  And in such a backdrop do you think that the U.S. is interested in encouraging other investors  to be a part of the Port City project and other development projects as such in Sri Lanka?

Ambassador Teplitz:  I think there are two big questions here.  The first relates to the port itself, the Eastern Container Terminal, Western Container Terminal.  So let me say first off, no U.S. company has bid on or expressed interest in the ECT itself.  However, the U.S. government, in fact me, in many public appearances expressed support for Sri Lankan government efforts to diversify the investments in the port.  We certainly think that it is to Sri Lanka’s advantage to have many economic partners and an array of investors that can help bring jobs and infrastructure here but also help create good trading ties and business linkages that are essential for not just Sri Lanka’s future but the future I think of the region.

And so in that sense it’s good to see that there is some investment and private investment in fact coming into the Western Container Terminal.  I’m sure that is going to help the Port of Colombo grow and that will only be a benefit to the country.  Ensuring that there is quality investment, that it is transparent and advantageous to Sri Lanka is critical.  All of the foreign direct investment should be fair and transparent and open.  And the Sri Lankan public really deserves no less.  So it’s good that this investment is moving ahead.

In terms of the Port City, I think that’s a different kind of situation that we’re talking about in general.  I’ve spoken before about concerns about Port City legislation, but before getting to that I just want to make a bigger observation about the ease of doing business environment.

Sri Lanka ranks at the bottom third of most of the business investments, whether it’s around transparency or ease of doing business or what have you.  That’s very concerning because I believe that Sri Lanka can benefit from attracting quality investments.  And quality investors want to be assured that they’re going to come into an environment where there is good contract enforcement, where laws and regulations meet international standards, where they won’t be exposed to corrupt practices.  They want to make sure that their risk as an investor is as low as possible.

So when we look at the Port City legislation, our main concern is that the legislation as written can open the door to poor practices, whether that is opportunities for corruption or illicit finance or money laundering, and I encourage the government as they work through the regulation that is going to be developed to implement this legislation, that they make sure that that regulation conforms to absolutely the highest standards.  Investors are going to be looking at that and looking for that, and I know that the government, the people want to make the most of the Port City investment.  The higher the standards, the greater the quality of the investor I think that is going to come at the end of the day.

Investments that generate actual jobs, investments that ensure that the economy here is growing not just a one-way street or a pseudo investment that ends up obligating the government or the people, those are the things to be avoided.  What you want are companies coming in with their own money who are ready to make a commitment and take the risk to invest in Sri Lanka.

Hiru TV:  Thank you very much, Ambassador.

Before we move on, ma’am when it comes to once again the Adani Group and how they have invested in one aspect of the terminal, one terminal in itself, do you think that the balance in itself would be ensured with one side being invested by the Adani Group and the other being open as well?  How is your view on that?  The balance of the investments with regard to the port?

Ambassador Teplitz:  I’m not sure exactly what you mean by the balance of the investment.

Hiru TV:  The balance – you mentioned the diversification if I’m not mistaken, ma’am.  So with regard to diversification, do you really think that, what is your policy on that diversification?  Is the U.S. interested in investing and encouraging investments in the Port itself? How would that balance work for yourself and your nation?

Ambassador Teplitz:  Certainly if there are U.S. companies that are interested in investing we would want to encourage them.  I’m not aware of any right now who are looking specifically at Colombo Port, but I do think for Sri Lanka a hub as it is, a logistics hub servicing obviously the far corners of the globe, the shipping that passes through here I’m sure carries cargo going a little bit of everywhere.  But primarily it’s cargo going to India or going to Bangladesh.  It’s within the region, it’s a transshipment hub.  So I think it’s critically important that Sri Lanka look again at the business linkages that will help build that connectivity within the region considering that that has been the mainstay of the shipping business here for quite some time.

Regional connectivity in South Asia is limited and could be much greater to the benefit of I think all countries here.  And it’s possible that private sector investment can help make that a reality.  So Colombo Port definitely has the potential to expand and I’m sure a diverse array of reputable firms can be invited in to help with that expansion.  Again, the country is only going to benefit where people are going to be employed and Sri Lanka’s reputation as a global shipping hub is going to grow.

The challenge becomes, if I can just branch out on your question, just becomes how to attract that investment.  And I think following through on deals, making sure that the arrangements stick, that they’re transparent, that again they meet sort of international norms and expectations, that the regulation that’s going to guide business, or the laws that are going to guide business going forward are clear, transparent.  Again, meeting international norms.  These are the things that are going to ensure that Sri Lanka is attractive.

And I would love to see more business connectivity here.  There is some investment in the tech sector.  New Fortress Energy represents an investment in the energy sector.  There are obviously longstanding ties with the apparel industry . But there could be more, and that’s something my team at the Embassy and I work on and we hope that our private sectors can put together those business to business agreements that are likely to grow the economy here even more than any kind of government directed investment.

Hiru TV:  To move on to one final question that is with regards to – one moment.

I just want to ask a follow-up final question in terms of trade. I know that the U.S. has been having the GSP plus opening  to get especially Sri Lankan garments into U.S., special passage.   Now U.S. also has been one of the largest basically importer of Sri Lankan goods to U.S.  So in that backdrop as outgoing Ambassador, what sentiments, investor sentiments would you carry to U.S. and to enhance and harness the passages that we already have and to open more?  What plans do you have for Sri Lanka in terms of business and investment portfolios?

Ambassador Teplitz:  That’s a good question.  Let me quickly clarify for your viewers that the United States does not have a GSP-Plus mechanism.  That’s a European Union authority.  We have a general system of preferences that our Congress right now is working to renew, but it actually doesn’t cover garments.

I will say, though, that the United States is the largest single country market for Sri Lankan apparel exports and that’s a very  dynamic sector and the apparel industry in Sri Lanka is very sophisticated and does a lot more, frankly, than just make clothes.  They are involved in design and a lot of other work, you probably know better than me.  But it’s a very sophisticated and longstanding relationship that’s benefited both of our countries and we appreciate it.

I certainly would love to see more trade happen between our countries, and two-way trade.  The United States has in the past provided animal feed to the agricultural market here.  U.S. beef exports might be welcome in Sri Lanka.  There might be other manufactured goods or items that Sri Lankans would want to consume from the United States.  And vice versa.  I’m sure there are other Sri Lankan products that could find a consumer base in the U.S. market, whether it’s for tea or cinnamon or processed agricultural products or other industrial components, for example.

I think there’s enormous potential in that space and the U.S. government does not direct our private sector.  Companies are free to find their own business arrangements.  We try and expose companies to information and make them aware of opportunities.  We try and connect business people where possible, but at the end of the day business people are going to make the business decisions.

So while we are trying to facilitate and boost that trade connectivity, this is one of the reasons why we’re always encouraging the government of Sri Lanka to look at the ease of doing business and ensure that it’s as competitive as possible to be able to attract the business that is out there.

This of course will contribute enormously to the growth of the Sri Lankan economy and I think generate jobs just in the same way that the apparel industry as a major export industry has been able to do.  But there’s going to have to be consideration to that requirement.

So you asked what the U.S. government is doing.  We’re working hard to make sure that there is an open opportunity for U.S. businesses, that they receive fair treatment, that they can compete fairly, and also that business people can get connected so that they can be generating jobs not just in Sri Lanka but also in the United States.  As I said before, our trade relationship, our economic relationship is a two-way street and there are Sri Lankan investors in the United States too.

One of the things that I talk about quite a lot when I’ve spoken with various audiences here is that the sum total of our relationship, our two countries’ relationship, is not just government to government.  It’s business to business and people to people.  The business to business piece I think is really critical for the future of both of our nations.

Hiru TV:  Ambassador, thank you very much and we hope that you will keep in touch wherever you go.  And hope if I may ask you as a personal note, where will you be posted next?

Ambassador Teplitz:  I’ll be going back to the United States to Washington, DC so that’s the next stop there.  It’s time to go home.

Hiru TV:  All the very best then.  Thank you.

Ambassador Teplitz:  Thank you very much.  And is it all right if I kind of say one final little wrap-up?

Hiru TV:  Sure.

Ambassador Teplitz:  As was said in the very beginning, being in Sri Lanka has been both an honor and a privilege and particularly because we’re two countries that should have a lot of things in common.  Both democracies.  And while the United States is very large, we also have a lot of close ties.  We have some island states as well.  So we have more in common than might be obvious.

And building on my earlier response, the people to people ties between our countries are also very important and that’s something that is growing.  I’d like to see grow more, but it’s growing on its own.  We have families that live in Colombo and New York, or Colombo and Los Angeles.  We have people seeking education.  We have all sorts of connectivity that’s growing from year to year.  And that means it’s really important that the relationship between our governments be as constructive and positive as possible.  Certainly we want to work to make that happen.  And while we do not always agree on issues, we have found ways to continue the conversation and I hope that in the future as the United States supports Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and prosperity and its democratic institutions and aspirations, that our conversations become easier.

Hiru TV:  Thank you very much, Ambassador, and thank you for attending and making sure you answered all our questions and with our follow-up questions as well.  We wish you good luck, on behalf of Hiru media networks and on behalf of Sri Lanka as well.  Good luck on your future ventures, and I hope you have a great stay for however long you will be staying.  Have a good day.

Ambassador Teplitz:  Thank you very much.

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