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South and Central Asia: Sri Lanka National Day Reception

(As Prepared for Delivery)

Thank you, Ambassador Kariyawasam, for that kind introduction, and for all the great work that you’ve done during your tenure as Ambassador in Washington to strengthen the ties between our two countries.

It’s my great honor to be here tonight to celebrate Sri Lanka’s National Day with such a fine gathering of friends and colleagues.

On National Day, Sri Lanka and its friends around the world commemorate the country’s peaceful path to independence just 69 years ago. And while Sri Lanka may be relatively young – as nations go – the United States and Sri Lanka are old friends.

In fact, American seafarers sailed to Ceylon as early as 1789. Through the early 1800s, American ships transported ice from New England to Galle harbor, where we established formal diplomatic and trade relations in 1850 with the appointment of John Black as our first commercial agent. During our civil war, Ceylon exported graphite that the Union used in foundry crucibles to make steel, and later for the pencils that schoolchildren used in their grammar books.

Today, Sri Lanka has the potential to become the next Asian Tiger. It boasts one of the most strategic maritime locations in the entire Indo-Pacific: at the nautical crossroads of Africa, South Asia, and East Asia, with the Strait of Hormuz to its west and the Strait of Malacca to its east. Forty percent of all seaborne oil passes through the former and half the world’s merchant fleet capacity sails through the latter, making the sea lanes off of Sri Lanka’s southern coast some of the world’s most important economic arteries.

In the 21st century, a country’s most important economic asset is its people, and Sri Lanka can harness its ambitious and entrepreneurial population to achieve great things. That’s why the United States is supporting Sri Lanka’s small- and medium-sized enterprises, helping to create jobs, promote investment, and improve the business climate. And this work isn’t just good for Sri Lanka; it’s also good for our economy here, because a larger and wealthier Sri Lankan middle class means more customers for U.S. products and services.

Those efforts are buttressed by our work with Sri Lanka’s economic ministries to promote competitive and transparent procurement and with Sri Lanka’s law enforcement agencies to help root out corruption. We also launched the Partnership Dialogue last year, which allows us to cooperate like never before on issues such as governance, human rights, economic development, women’s empowerment, clean energy, security, and the environment.

All of this cooperation wouldn’t be possible without the democratic progress Sri Lanka has made and its renewed commitment to reconciliation, accountable government, and freedom of expression.

The United States will continue to stand with you as your friend and your partner. While our level of cooperation today is unprecedented, there is always more progress to be made. Sri Lanka can become a leader in contributing to peacekeeping operations across the globe, promoting human rights abroad, and ensuring maritime security throughout the region.

On that last point, I’d like to conclude with a couple of quick stories that demonstrate how quickly our strengthened bonds have paid off, to real benefit.

Last September, a sailor on the USS Hopper, one of our guided-missile destroyers, needed emergency medical attention – but the Hopper was over 160 miles from shore and had no air assets available. Our ship requested assistance from the Sri Lankan navy and began sailing toward the island as fast as possible. Two Sri Lankan Navy fast patrol boats met the Hopper offshore and sped the sailor to the mainland for treatment. The Hopper’s commanding officer reported that the “trust and interoperability” between our navies, established through exercises and exchanges, had saved a sailor’s life. For that, we are most grateful.

Coincidentally, the second story also involves the USS Hopper, which last month sailed into Colombo for a five-day port visit. Sailors from the Hopper and the Sri Lankan Navy shared tactical training for rescue operations and ship inspections at sea – and also enjoyed a few games of soccer. But before the sailors left, they traveled up to Galle and visited an old graveyard, where they cleaned up the newly-discovered gravesite of none other than John Black – who over 160 years ago became the first U.S. official to represent the United States in Sri Lanka.

As the friendship between our nations continues to grow, I have no doubt there will be many more such stories that show how our relationship helps us pursue not just our common interests in trade and security, but also our common values of democracy and liberty. Thank you, and I wish all our Sri Lankan friends a very happy and memorable National Day.

Distribution channels: Human Rights