Unique opportunities to bloom
The change in Sri Lanka made the USA to change, said Sri Lankan
Ambassador to USA Jaliya Wickramasuriya in an interview with the Sunday
Observer during a brief visit to Sri Lanka. Ambassador Wickramasuriya
spoke of the hard work Sri Lankans in USA did to save the good name of
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: The SL Government is making every effort to eradicate
shadow LTTE movements existing internationally. In this backdrop what is
the situation in USA?
A: During the last two years we had a lot of pressure from
human rights groups and pro LTTE diaspora. Right now there is
comparatively nothing. The changes that took place in Sri Lanka changed
the mindset of the people in USA as well, especially at decision making
levels. Even the image of a Sri Lankan politician changed with what
President Mahinda Rajapaksa initiated - not only to eradicate terrorism
but in all his efforts to develop the country socially, economically and
culturally. But still there are a few groups trying to create problems.
According to our statistics, the pro LTTE diaspora who live among Sri
Lankan Tamils in USA is less than 2500. The total number of Sri Lankan
expatriates in USA is around 250,000. . As the numbers grow less, the
pro LTTE diaspora want to amplify their voice in order to maintain their
false image. According to information gathered each person fabricates
and sends hundreds of e-mails under different names to different groups
of people. It is this small number who makes our lives as well as their
own lives miserable. Earlier we knew that normal Tamil people were
blocked by pro LTTErs preventing them reaching us. Some used to get
letters of extortion. But today, any Sri Lankan, irrespective of
ethnicity can easily reach us, discuss and solve whatever the problems
Q: So Sri Lankans are living more peacefully with each other?
A: I work very closely with the Tamil diaspora. I meet these
different groups in the cities they live, in my outreach program. I
always tell them that this is the time to forget differences and unite
as Sri Lankans. Actually the normal Tamil diaspora was very supportive
of the Government efforts to end terrorism. But it was the extremists
who were creating the problems and blocked the other Tamils reaching us.
Q: As a person with long experience in the social, economical
and political areas, especially of the USA, how would you explain the
present responsibility of foreign missions?
A: Today as Ambassadors, it is our duty to work more
progressively in an accelerated pace. We have to work more aggressively
to counter pro-LTTE attempts in foreign countries. If ambassadors can
get together they can do wonders. I have an excellent team in the
embassy. I stress that we need to work as a team. When the war was on
security forces personnel had no sleep. Today it is our turn. So we must
not relax. Our service to the diaspora is 24x7. I have been living in
the USA, and to me, the embassy was the place from which I couldreach my
home. It is the same for every Sri Lankan living in USA. The foreign
missions must not forget why we are there. We go to those countries
because Sri Lankans live there.
Q: Sri Lankan embassies definitely need a strong back-up from
the respective Governments. How did you sort this out?
A: We have to be thankful to the US Government for their back
up. USA was the first western country to ban the LTTE. The Department of
Defence is always against terrorism. Even before the September 11 terror
attack on USA they imposed a lot of restrictions on terrorist groups and
on their activities inside the USA. The FBI named the LTTE as one of the
most ruthless terrorist organizations in the world. To be active amidst
these tight restrictions the LTTE formed the Tamil Rehabilitation
Organization (TRO) as a cover-up for their clandestine work. The FBI
found that the TRO was funding the LTTE and as a result the USA took
action to end its activities. Other pro LTTE organizations that were
registered faced the same fate with the strong control of the FBI. For
the Last so many years the USA was behind such organizations. Many LTTE
cadres, supporters connected to money laundering, arms smuggling,
illegal arms deals were arrested. The Sri Lankan Embassy works very
closely with the US Defence Department as well as US and Sri Lankan
Q: Are you satisfied with your success in your posting in
A: I’m extremely happy. After my posting in Washington, I had
to put a lot of effort as there was so much of pressure on Sri Lanka
from the world. It’s interesting to note that because of the pressure I
managed to meet seventy congressmen and about 40 senators, making them
aware of the true picture of the country. The pro LTTE diaspora who were
US citizens, were also addressing these congressmen and senators. With
priority naturally going to the citizens somehow I managed to create a
truly positive understanding. One of the results was getting a very
balanced report from the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. It was a
crucial point in the policy change of the US Government. Lead by Senator
John F.Kerry and Senator Richard Lugar, representatives came to Sri
Lanka to carry out ground work. They named the people they wanted to
meet and we fully supported their request. These two senators went all
over the country and met a wide variety of people.
Q: Most of the allegations levelled against Sri Lanka
regarding human rights violations have not been substantiated. Please
A: With the end of the war there was nonews published on war
and related incidents. Yet we come across reports by different human
rights organizations mainly relating to events of the past which are
erroneous. We make sure th at we correct such reports with true
statistics without delay.
Q: Re Sri Lanka, what are the main concerns of the USA
A: We are more closely associating with the US Ministries of
Trade and Commerce. And also the State Department and Defence
Department. They believe that through economic development we can come
out of the many problems faced. The US Trade Department supports us in
promoting US investments in Sri Lanka. Their main concern now is
reconciliation. Earlier it was the settling of IDPs. Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton congratulated Sri Lanka on resettling 90 percent of the
people within one year, during the special meeting with Sri Lankan
External Affairs Minister Professor G.L. Peiris. The world average of
resettling displaced people due to natural disasters, is 20 years. Our
problem is more complicated. Clinton said commenting on the Commission
on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation that it is a promising opportunity
to move forward. “Experience in other countries has shown that such a
commission that has the credibility within the country has a valuable
role in advancing accountability,” she said. We have a very cordial
relationship with the State Department. Having Robert Blake as the
Assistant Secretary of State is a great advantage for Sri Lanka. He is a
person with a sound knowledge on Sri Lanka with his experience as former
US Ambassador to Sri Lanka.
Q: How about promoting tourism?
A: Our job was on the political front. Now is a good time for
tourism and investor promotion. Focusing on this we facilitated a group
of professionals on a tour to Sri Lanka - ‘A signature tour with the
Ambassador’. They are travel writers, senior attorneys, location scouts
in cinema industry etc. They are ready to help us technically as well as
to build our contact network. Without contacts and marketing we can’t do
anything. Within three months I organized this group’s visit. There was
a lot of groundwork done since my posting in Washington as Ambassador.
They are travel ambassadors. They can convince groups of people in their
network to bring down more tourists to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is situated
on the other side of the world for Americans. However, they do visit the
Maldives, Thailand, India. US tourists spend much more money compared to
tourists from Europe. Most of the Americans interested in travelling are
retired elderly or middle aged people or professionals earning huge
salaries. I have educational programs at the embassy and my residence to
promote Sri Lanka to them. I always say “I can only show you 1 percent
of Sri Lanka with the presentations I make. To get the true picture it
is important to visit the island. Through direct communication today we
have over 600 USA citizens willing to visit Sri Lanka. We are going to
continue this and next year I will bring 250 tourists from America.
Q: Who is more concerned of the new situation in Sri Lanka. Is
it the political or the business community?
A: Both are equally interested in helping Sri Lanka. What we
have decided is that we will forget the extremists and go with the
moderates. The US Trade Department promotes Sri Lanka under the theme.
‘Make Sri Lanka your next business stop’. They have organized a special
conference to be held in Colombo from October 12 - 14. This conference
provides an excellent opportunity to the US businessmen to discuss
investment opportunities with senior government officials and investment
partners of Sri Lanka. They have scheduled a tour to Jaffna as well.
Q: The present Tamil Diaspora is the second or the third
generation who are clueless about the history of our country. As
Ambassador don’t you think you have a responsibility in bridging this
A: The most important is bringing the diaspora together. My
priority is to get help from the diaspora and build up enthusiasm for
visiting Sri Lanka. In fact during the last year I have sent nearly 200
Tamil people who have never been to Sri Lanka during their entire life
or for the past twenty years. Actually they contacted us, and we made
arrangements for them to visit Sri Lanka. We were so delighted to
receive their response expressing their joy after the visit.
Q: The present generation of the Tamil diaspora see and hear
what is being published in the international media or on the web. This
distances them further from Sri Lanka. How are we going to address this
A: The number one solution is basically the duty of parents.
Parents should try their best to keep children within their cultural
values even when in a foreign country. At the embassy we very closely
work with young Sri Lankans. We do a lot of activities centred around
youth. Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim youth groups interact with each other at
every activity. These young boys and girls are very enthusiastic to be
in touch with their brethren. It is very encouraging for us as well. We
need to get them together and we must educate them inculcating the habit
of living in harmony. If everything goes well, I hope we will be able to
organize a Sri Lankan tour for these youth groups. We have a complete
database of the youth and we regularly interact with them by e-mailing
newsletters. Every week there is some sort of an event for youth.
Q: How is the response?
A: Excellent. The youth groups are actively involved in
compiling databases on all Sri Lankans living in USA based on their
professions. It is easy to make them work together. I have appointed one
of my officers at the embassy to bring these groups together. It is
important to strengthen the unity among the Sri Lankan expatriates and
when more places are available for them to get-together the more they
feel close to their motherland. If not for the great support of the
diaspora our mission would not have been successful.
Q: Media plays a big role in showcasing a country’s image.
Shouldn’t we have a strong media network in the USA to project the true
picture of the country?
A: USA tourists are happy to be in Sri Lanka. So tourists
indirectly play a role in spreading the good news about Sri Lanka in
their respective communities. The New York Times carried an article in
January this year stating that Sri Lanka is the number one country to
visit. I work very closely with certain media personnel. But their is
another set of media personnel who will grab a negative point.
As the war ended US media did not write much on Sri Lanka as there
weren’t many ‘exploding’ stories. Communication is good with main
newspapers the Washington Post, New York Times, LA Times, Washington
Times, Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe.
The US media is publishing more positive stories about Sri Lanka
compared to earlier.