US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives Ambassador Alaina Teplitz gestures during the interview with Daily FT at her residence Jefferson House US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives Ambassador Alaina Teplitz gestures during the interview with Daily FT at her residence Jefferson House
Dec 10, 2018

New US Ambassador opens up to Sri Lanka Featured

In her first interview since assuming duties, Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz shares key insights on her plans, US aspirations on Sri Lanka and US perspectives on some of Sri Lanka’s immediate and medium-term challenges 

A career member of the US Senior Foreign Service, the United States’ new Ambassador in Sri Lanka Alaina B. Teplitz describes her job as both “exciting and challenging.” This is because her arrival in Sri Lanka was at a time when the country is at crossroads in terms of democracy and politics, whilst the potential to achieve stability and prosperity is also high. Speaking to the Daily FT in her first ever interview with the local media, Teplitz, who has had extensive experience in Asia, shares key insights to her plans, US aspirations on Sri Lanka, and US perspectives on some of Sri Lanka’s immediate and medium term challenges. As the US and Sri Lanka mark 70 years of diplomatic ties, she strongly believes there are great opportunities to further enhance bilateral political and economic cooperation.US is Sri Lanka’s biggest export market, and has contributed over $ 2 billion in grants for various socio-economic development initiatives. In this frank interview, Teplitz focuses on a wide range of political social and economic issues. Following are excerpts.

By Nisthar Cassim

Q: When you found out that you had been appointed as the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, what were your initial thoughts?

A: It is an honour to be nominated as an Ambassador to any country, but I was especially happy because I have spent many years of my career in South Asia and the Southeast Asia region. It gave me a chance to build on that knowledge and understanding. Coming to Sri Lanka presented an opportunity to work on foundational issues, which are so important for the United States and our partner countries. We are particularly looking at our business relationships, people-to-people ties. These are close to my heart, and to do it in a place like Sri Lanka, where I can bring knowledge and experience, is exciting. The opportunity to serve as the Ambassador in Sri Lanka is both exciting and challenging. Exciting because of the opportunities with a more sophisticated economy in the region, and a chance to build deeper relationships. Looking at the other dimensions of our relationship, Sri Lanka is South Asia’s oldest democracy. Our relations have lasted for several decades, with a focus on strengthening democratic institutions, and on issues which both countries have interest in shared values. It is an opportunity to build on strong foundations. It is also challenging, since I arrived at a time (in October) when a serious political crisis was growing, and it has been certainly disappointing to see that crisis continuing. I hope that it could be resolved in a proper way. We strongly believe that it is for the elected representatives of the people of Sri Lanka to make a final determination. What is more challenging is how you deal with the aftermath of this crisis. There is certainly a trust issue among all of Sri Lanka’s partners that needs to be addressed. There are some damaging economic consequences from this crisis. I think there is some damage caused to Sri Lanka’s political and democratic institutions. These are things we are concerned about as a partner and friend of Sri Lanka.

Q: Could you recap the 70 years of diplomatic ties between Sri Lanka and the US, and what the key milestones have been?

A: I would emphasise that ties have been longstanding. Seventy years, in the modern era, is a very long time. To have a continuous relationship and to be working on issues of mutual concern between our two countries is noteworthy. Certainly the world has changed rapidly during the past seven decades, and as we look to the next 70 years, we have immense opportunities to further strengthen bilateral ties and focus on areas of mutual interests, which will lead to prosperous and stable future that both our people want. We need to look at our business opportunities, how to improve maritime security, to have the strongest possible connections in a number of other ways. For example, I’d like to see more Sri Lankans studying in the US to benefit from world class education. Currently, 3,309 Sri Lankan students are enrolled in various universities across the US. The number of Sri Lankans enrolled in graduate programs in the United States grew by more than 7%in 2017. I am sure that it is a number that can absolutely grow. This is integral to both countries, and especially to Sri Lanka, where these students can come back and contribute.

Q: Could you highlight some key achievements?

A: There have been many which have made US-Sri Lanka ties impactful. One is that the US has been a longstanding development partner of Sri Lanka, and the things we have been able to accomplish together have contributed to the sustainability of the economy, and helped Sri Lankans to take their future to their own hands and have the country grow. For example, support was provided to establish the Spice and Allied Products Association, to assist Sri Lanka to sell its exports in the international markets. It doesn’t sound sexy, but what’s exciting about it is that allowed Sri Lanka to sell tea and spices abroad on a more global level. That is the kind of help where I think we help one another, and allows an exponential growth going forward. It is not a one-off thing, but something that will pay dividends overtime.

I think that characterises our bilateral relationship. We obviously provided a lot of support meaningfully around addressing some of the health challenges here. Most recently, it was to do with testing for dengue. We have in the past, and continue to, strengthen the civil society including the media to play the important role to support or pursue fundamental issues, or be a check on the Government’s conscience for the people.

We have had many agencies such as USAID, have supported development, agriculture and dairy industry, sustainable livelihood, good governance, strengthening of civil society, environment conservation.

Since independence, the overall assistance in the form of grants from the US is worth over $2 billion.

The US and Sri Lanka signed its first economic assistance agreement in April 1956. Since then, theUS has worked tirelessly across sectors, including providing $134 million in tsunami relief, food aid for 4.3million Sri Lankans, and support for the elimination of malaria.

Via the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), we are focusing on how to improve the infrastructure in Sri Lanka. MCC’s initial grant, worth Rs. 1.2 billion ($7.4 million), was provided in July 2016 to support feasibility studies needed to develop a high-quality, evidence-based, and sustainable program, and in 2017, an agreement was signed to provide an additional Rs. 413 million ($ 2.6 million) grant to finalise compact development.

All our assistance is grants, and not loans which have to be repaid. We do this because we want to be a friend and partner, where we share mutual interest. Unfortunately, the MCC has been paused for the moment, until the resolution of the political crisis.

Q: What plans do you have in Sri Lanka during your tenure?

A: More than the current political crisis, there are several other things which ideally should capture our imagination and attention. Among those is strengthening our business ties, looking for opportunities for US investments here, and greater trade. Whilst the US is Sri Lanka’s largest export market, I’d also like to see more import of US products, investments, and businesses in Sri Lanka, and contributing to the growth of the country. I’d like to see progress in our mutual security challenges, including maritime. We have a common stance on sovereignty of nations, and a free and open Indo-Pacific Ocean region, upholding the rule of law so that there is free transit and trade. As Sri Lanka addresses some of the post-conflict reconciliation and accountability issues, we can further strengthen our military relationship. Another area is enhancing people-to-people connectivity, democratic institution building, and sharing of lessons learnt, public policy issues of mutual concern as well as good governance in the economic space, reforms, and transparency, fighting corruption and strengthening rule of law.

Q: How successful has the US and its diplomacy been in Sri Lanka, in terms of achieving broader goals in the past?

A: I have had the opportunity to speak to my immediate predecessor Atul Keshap, and those Ambassadors who served previously, and I am grateful to have received their wisdom and insights. The experience has been one where we have this long history of our bilateral relationship, and as a friend and partner, the ability to talk candidly and frankly with our counterparts in the Government, political leaders, and people of Sri Lanka. That is a strong and important characteristic of our bilateral relationship. Certainly my predecessors urged me to continue that tradition. I think it is even more important in this time of difficult political moments, and to have people understand that it comes with a long history of friendship. Other advice was to travel across the country, interact with everybody, and learn first-hand of the various issues. All our ambassadors have had different experiences with all of the people of Sri Lanka who make up this great country.

Q: So you are a strong believer that US diplomacy can work in Sri Lanka?

A: Absolutely. The US-Sri Lanka relationship started 70 years ago, and we are looking at the next 70 years. It is the long haul. As you know, we are building a new embassy building, with an investment of $ 281 million. These are not investments we make lightly, and my Government believes it is worth it and a demonstration of strong ties and future potential to expand.

After presenting credentials to President Sirisena, in recent weeks, I have met with most representatives of all of the political parties, though not yet formally with either Ranil Wickremesinghe or Mahinda Rajapaksa. During the meetings, we shared frank views and also listened to their concerns.

We have urged that the people’s elected representatives be allowed to resolve this within the framework of the Constitution. We do not prejudge the outcome of the Supreme Court proceedings, and we are prepared to work with any Government that emerges from this legitimate, transparent, and democratic process. We do not have favourites in this political contest. Our concern is our friendship with the legitimate Government, broadly speaking, but also with the people, and that we are able to move ahead in areas of concern, which includes strengthening the democratic institutions.

Q: In your view, what are the immediate and medium term challenges of Sri Lanka, which is an emerging economy?

A: I will flip your question around a bit. It is not about challenges but opportunities. Inter-regional trade in South Asia is the lowest on the planet, and scores behind in comparison to ASEAN, so there are opportunities to expand it. There are opportunities to expand business relationships with the US and beyond. This will be a boon to the people of Sri Lanka. The chief opportunity I see is prosperity. It is possible, as numbers show us that there is headroom to grow. To achieve that requires lot of commitment and inducement. The investment environment must be made easy and welcoming, as it can possibly be, as Sri Lanka does compete with other emerging and middle income countries for global investments. Sri Lanka has to put its best foot forward in that regard. The US investors will also look at the ease of doing business here. Corruption is a challenge, and the greater the transparency, the better. So, transparency coupled with efficiency is an opportunity for progress. The need and the potential to diversify investment opportunities is another opportunity, as the Sri Lankan economy is focused on tourism, apparel, agriculture, gems, etc., but there are opportunities for collaboration, such as in the tech sector. People-to-people connectivity is another, including knowledge and education, which is a win-win for both countries. So the future is full of opportunities, and the question is how far we can work together to realise the potential. It means addressing certain barriers that are preventing Sri Lanka and the US-Sri Lanka ties reaching full potential, be it economic, social, or governance. That is where I strongly believe the longstanding friendship comes in, and I think through partnerships, we are able to work together to find ways to overcome those barriers.

Q: Sri Lanka, in recent years, has been looking at diversifying its export markets and sources of investment, especially to the East, as a means to reduce the dependency on the US.Your views on how Sri Lanka can become more attractive?

A: In the short term, the political crisis needs to be resolved. As a friend and partner, we have urged Sri Lanka and the leaders of the country to move promptly, to resolve it in a transparent and democratic way. This is critical, as we know political instability sends a risk message to investors. Ending that messaging and restoring political stability is crucial. It is important to remember that, even if resolved, there is going to be a period required to restore confidence and trust in Sri Lanka for investors. We stand with the people of Sri Lanka, and hope the Government and the political leadership can resolve it quickly. We also have no dog in this fight. We are looking at an outcome that respects constitutional processes and transparency, and produce a legitimate Government. In the long haul, we have public policy collaboration, looking at what might make for a good investment environment. We work closely with the American Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka in this regard, making suggestions about changes to laws, regulations, practices, and procedures to facilitate investments. Annually, my Government produces a report, with inputs from many stakeholders, on transparency and commercial opportunities in Sri Lanka. This, together with the World Bank/IFC Ease of Doing Business Index, is a great roadmap to make the investment environment look better. We are also looking at on-the-ground activities where livelihood opportunities can be accelerated. The Public Affairs team of the Embassy is working on entrepreneurship, to help young people to bring their creativity to the marketplace, and the US Department of Agriculture is also working on the dairy sector to make it sustainable.

 Q: What role does the private sector and the civil society play in achieving some of the values championed by the US in Sri Lanka, in the immediate and medium term context?

A: In the immediate context, being clear about what is good for the future of the country is important. I have seen that a number of industry groups, including Chambers of Commerce and Industry, had come out and said “please resolve the political crisis”, as it is harming the business and economy and future opportunities. The business community and the civil society, speaking loudly and clearly about what they see as the way forward. Political leaders should take it onboard, understanding that the crisis has impacted well beyond the political realm. In the long run, removal of barriers to do more business and economic activity is important, as industry knows best. At the same time, businesses being accountable, and civil society probably holding them to account for their business transactions, and that transparency is very important. Sri Lanka has been grey-listed by the Financial Action Task Force, and needs to ensure that procedures are meeting that global expectation. Business also needs to come forward and work with the Government, to allow implementation of new laws and regulations that can have an impact for the whole country by getting off the Grey List. This is not a Government effort, but it is to benefit the economy and the business community. This reinforces the importance of transparency. If businesses also stand up and embrace global action against corruption, everybody will benefit, since the hidden tax of corruption will disappear from business transactions. That opportunity cost is huge for the economy in Sri Lanka, as it is in other countries.

 Q: Are you satisfied with the level of engagement and concerns expressed by the private sector and civil society, or their outcry with regard to the political crisis?

A: The industry Chambers have spoken out, which is important feedback for the political leadership, both in and out of Government, to hear. They have to understand how society, the economy, and the country is being impacted by the crisis. The full dimension of the crisis wasn’t clear initially, but of late, we have seen that the credit ratings of Sri Lanka have been downgraded, the currency has been under pressure, and private sector concerns of the fiscal situation have become apparent. I am glad that they have spoken out, as the signs of impact are evident.

 Q: In other countries, there have been instances of greater mobilisation of people, when it comes to protest. Do you feel Sri Lanka is matured enough to deal or resolve the crisis peacefully?

A: First and foremost, political crises do not have to be met with violent responses. That is not the way to have public expression about political issues. In fact, what has been happening here is statements from concerned groups of citizens, coming forward using the media and discussing it in public fora. These are the important things, and conveying that to the elected representatives. Certainly in the US we have our experiences of political disagreements, and demonstrations can play a part of that. But when they are peaceful and expressed in a proper way, the people get the message but the country isn’t damaged as a result, which is what happens if there are violent responses. Perceptions do matter. Even once the crisis is resolved, businesses will have a perception of political instability here. The same is true, or the damage could be more profound, were there to be unrest. As a democratic society, we respect the right of people to express their opinions. I would encourage that - if not, then how would political leaders know what to do, if they are not hearing what their constituents saying. But it must be in a civil non-violent way.

 Q: Some political actors and analysts have claimed that the current political crisis could trigger trade and other sanctions on Sri Lanka, or withdrawal of preferential treatments. US has aongoing GSP program with Sri Lanka. Can you comment?

A: We have not seen any official notice of such measures. The GSP program is on a continuous review, as part of best practices. I will say the political crisis is obviously a deep cause of concern. As I alluded to earlier, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) with grants worth $ 413 million is currently paused, as it is based on the foundation of respect for the rule of law and good governance. We are waiting to see how the crisis is resolved before we could resume our negotiations and go forward. So there is definitely an impact from the crisis on some of our bilateral opportunities. We are hoping that this is short-lived and something that we can turnaround quickly. We have to do our due diligence to ensure that we make these agreements under the right conditions and expectations, and that we’ve got full faith in one another as partners. Sri Lanka must, and has the opportunity to, restore the political reputation of the nation, which is very important going forward. Challenging politics can diminish that reputation.

Q: There has been an allegation that US is meddling with the internal issues of Sri Lanka, that it was once engaged in influencing the outcome of elections, and that in the current crisis, it is preventing the conduct of elections. Can you comment?

A: I don’t believe that being transparent about our hopes and aspirations for our partner and friend Sri Lana is interference. Certainly Sri Lanka’s leaders can take our leaf, take our opinions and hopes on board, due to our longstanding relationship and many mutual interests. So, that is hardly interfering in the sovereign activities of Sri Lanka as a country. All the activities we undertake here, we do so in collaboration with the Government, to take our development projects forward.

However, in terms of elections specifically, we have strengthened institutional support to the Elections Commission with technical capacity building. This is to support and strengthen systems, not to advantage one political party or individual over another. It is not to sway voters’ opinions. Furthermore, we are not preventing anybody from having elections. If an election is how this crisis would be ultimately resolved, we support the democratic process being observed, and respect it. So we are not preventing anybody from doing anything. However, we have called on the political leadership and President Sirisena to responsibly resolve this crisis, so that it is clear there is a legitimate, constitutionally mandated Government running the country, and that the democratic institutions of the country have been fully respected.

Q: Sri Lanka is seen as a very small market by some of the large economies, including the US. Additionally, the East is where growth is taking place and resources are being built, as opposed to the West. This has resulted in smaller economies like Sri Lanka looking towards the East, which has come under closer scrutiny and interest by regional giants. What is your view?

A: Being realistic about the comparative advantages of Sri Lanka and formulating a strategy to take best advantage is the economic path forward. Yes, Sri Lanka is a modestly sized market. I emphasised the importance of greater inter-regional trade, and Sri Lanka has goods and services to offer and a long history of maritime connectivity. So, taking advantage of those opportunities to deliver products and services to the market place does not have to be a country of a billion people. What is needed is more focused economic leadership, to push forward on the strong points that the country has. Likewise, there are investment opportunities, not only in traditional industries but tourism, services such as IT and logistics. It is not a matter of taking advice from one side or the other. We have a globally integrated economy, and Sri Lanka is part of that, so is US and others. We recognise there are opportunities everywhere, and international advice, and it is more to do with looking at economic facts on the ground, ensuring an array of options. I think, most importantly, working together to ensure that the playing field stays level. We talk a lot about fair and reciprocal trade arrangements, free transit off the seas. This is the foundation on which our commercial lifelines are laid, and it is important for sovereign nations to work together to make sure these ideas are more than just concepts, and that in reality we respect those rules in our quest to prosperity.

 Q: What is your take on geopolitics within the Indian Subcontinent, given the rapid growth in Chinese investments?

A: Sri Lanka enjoys a geographic position in the middle of very significant sea lanes and transit lanes that is an envy of many nations. The US acknowledges that, and we know we have a partner in Sri Lanka that shares our interests, making sure that those transit lanes and sky stay open for free navigation in this region and beyond. So we have a mutual interest, as do other nations who wants free transit. More broadly, the US enjoys strong relationships with India and China. We don’t always agree, but we do work together on many of the regional opportunities we see here, and I would expect Sri Lanka also to maintain its relationship with its major partners. We also want to see there are responsible and accountable investments going forward, leading to sustainable economic outcomes, that they deliver a real rate of return, and that Sri Lanka has choices and options about how to realise its economic future. One of the potentially damaging outcomes of the political crisis right now, particularly if it becomes prolonged, is narrowing the array of options Sri Lanka will have going forward. I mean that in terms of everything, from where Sri Lanka can obtain financing for debt, to the array of investors who are willing to come to a risky environment, and to partnership opportunities with Sri Lanka’s many friends. I am concerned that this array of options might shrink, and Sri Lanka won’t have the choices it should have about where it wants to go.

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US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives Ambassador Alaina Teplitz smiles during the interview with Daily FT at her residence Jefferson House in Colombo 7 - Pix by Daminda Harsha Perera

 Q: You are also the Ambassador to the Maldives, which where have been several new political developments. How do you view the future of the Maldives?

A: I attended the new Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s inauguration, and found out the happy and hopeful vibe of the people, which was very exciting. I called on the President and the Ministers of Foreign and Finance. There are definitely some challenges facing the new Maldives Government but I believe that they are very focused as to how to address those. The US is happy to be able to be a partner, and offered our support as the Government makes request to find ways to address the challenges. President Solih’s commitment to restore democracy and strengthening the economy is very genuine. For a country dependent on tourism, the new administration has an opportunity to restore the political reputation of the nation.

 Q: You referred to greater intra-regional trade. South Asia has a preferential trade arrangement, but there hasn’t been progress due to political differences etc. Do you agree?

A: Given my prior experience in the region, I think it is due to multiple issues. One is infrastructure and physical connectivity between and within countries. Another is regional energy infrastructure. A growing economy requires an abundant supply of energy, with an integrated grid. Another aspect is Non-Tariff Barriers, which are quite significant. Governments need to address these issues with commitment. There is opportunity here, and I don’t think it is a one way street.

 Q: US President Donald Trump is seen as a key campaigner for protectionism, which in turn has or is influencing other nations to adopt a similar stance. How would you justify some of the trade measures introduced by the Trump administration, in the context of recommending greater inter-regional trade within South Asia?

A: President Donald Trump has been very focused on fair and reciprocal trade. He has pivoted the importance of bilateral trade arrangements and ensuring that there is mutual benefit in those relationship. I don’t think that is bad advice for any country to consider. In terms of regional and global trade, a rules-based order in which those arrangements exist, so that we stick to the rules, thereby respect one another, and ensure advantages to all sides: that is what the US is interested in at the end of the day. We are definitely interested in cultivating foreign investments in the US and ensuring investments elsewhere, and hope that other nations would be open to seeking that kind of investment, and would want to ensure that their economies are open for that kind of investment. That is the path to prosperity.

 Q: As a diplomat, what keeps you going?

A: In search of positive opportunities. There are immense opportunities to both our countries and people. When we have a relationship based on mutual respect, common set of values and concerns, all I see is opportunities to partner and work together. Half of my job is to manage the government-to-government relationship, and the other is facilitating people-to-people ties, and ensuring that we have done our best to clear the pathway for American institutions and businesses to find natural partners in Sri Lanka and do what they do best. These are the things that end up binding our countries together, and build a future that we are all looking for, filled with prosperity and stability that everyone can enjoy. So my belief is that no opportunity goes unimagined and un-discussed. In fact we have to pick what we are going to work on a priority basis, because there are so many out there.

 Q: What would make you happy at the end of your term?

A:The best outcomes would be if the numbers go up: greater investment and trade, deepening of our relationships. There are also a lot of intangibles that would make me happy too. I would like to know that the US has been in a position to help the Sri Lankan Government in its commitment around reconciliation and accountability, worked together to strengthen the democratic institutions dealing with rule of law, etc. Sometimes this is accomplished by exchanges of people, having US experts visit Sri Lanka as well as inviting Sri Lankan authorities to see how it is done in the US. Sometimes, there is no easy answer to a modern country, hence sharing knowledge and experience can be often the best way for both to learn. I’d like to see the Peace Corps program up and running. I’d also like to see elections happen in a way to fully empower the people of Sri Lanka to choose its leadership and move ahead.

US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives Ambassador Alaina Teplitz

Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz was sworn in as Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives on 22 October 2018 and arrived in Colombo on 31 October 2018. She served as USimage fbc52137cf

 Ambassador to Nepal from 2015-2018. A career member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister Counsellor, she joined the State Department in 1991 and is the recipient of numerous Superior and Meritorious Honour Awards. In Sri Lanka, she hopes to build upon seven decades of partnership and cooperation in order to enhance prosperity, encourage democracy and ensure stability.

Focused on laying the foundation for successful 21st century American diplomacy, Teplitz held the Assistant-Secretary ranked position of Director of the Under Secretary for Management’s Office of Policy, Rightsizing, and Innovation (M/PRI) at the Department of State from 2012-2015. Under her leadership, M/PRI found innovative ways to reform bureaucracy and improve the way that the diplomatic service operates. Teplitz championed efforts to improve knowledge management, data use, and risk management.

Prior to leading M/PRI, Teplitz was Minister Counsellor for Management at the US Embassy, Kabul from 2011-2012. She managed a team providing oversight for US Government Chief of Mission civilian activities in Afghanistan, and planning for the impact of the eventual military force reduction. Teplitz also served as the Deputy Executive Director of the Near East and South and Central Asia Bureau’s joint executive office from 2009-2011, where she handled the South and Central Asia portfolio, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. Teplitz was the Director of the Management Training Division at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute from 2007-2009. Previous assignments include Management Counsellor in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Deputy Director of the Joint Administrative Services supporting three US Missions – the US Mission to NATO, the US Mission to the European Union, and the Embassy to the Kingdom of Belgium – in Brussels, Belgium. Her previous posts also include: Ulaanbaatar, Tirana, and Sydney.

Teplitz holds a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. She is married and has two sons.