Remarks by Ambassador Chung at the 2022 American Chamber of Commerce AGM
Thursday, September 29, 2022
President Madurasinghe, Governor Weerasinghe, honorable board members and friends of AmCham – thank you for inviting me to speak to you tonight. I know that all of you in this room are not just spectators, but real advocates for strengthening the investment and trade climate, and democratic institutions in Sri Lanka to make this country a better place. I want to applaud your leadership in entrepreneurship, transparency, good corporate governance and strong corporate social responsibility.
Congratulations to Coca-Cola and its AmCham partners for a successful International Coastal Cleanup Day at Crow Island Beach. I was there and brought with me an enthusiastic group of embassy employees. I have to admit the trash strewn on the beach, including tires and old toys, looked overwhelming when we arrived, but little by little we felt a sense of service and accomplishment as we cleaned up a part of this beach and filling our garbage cans. Bags. I was particularly impressed with the women from Clean Ocean Force, a local NGO, who come out and clean the beach all daytime. They told me that there is a real need for the private sector to work more closely with NGOs on projects like this. Lakshan, I’m sure Coke HQ would approve of you joining them cleaning the beach every morning before you go to work. Tell them the US ambassador said everything was fine.
Now, let’s all take the same enthusiasm for shoreline cleanup and also focus on growing Sri Lanka’s economy. We all know that Sri Lanka is facing one of the most difficult times in its history, but I think there have been real signs of improvement over the past few weeks. We no longer see long fuel lines in our neighborhoods, power cuts have gotten shorter, and people across the country are getting back to their daily lives. I even saw tourists at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy this week on World Tourism Day. There is one thing this summer has shown us and that is the resilience of the Sri Lankan people.
We are very pleased that Sri Lanka and the IMF have reached a services agreement. I know that the Governor of the Central Bank played a vital role in the effort to make this happen. The $2.9 billion program, if approved by the IMF Executive Board, would help restore macroeconomic stability, preserve financial stability, protect the vulnerable, implement structural reforms and to The most important fighting corruption, all to encourage the Sri Lankan economy to grow to its full potential. As we all celebrate this very important milestone, now is not the time to become complacent. Much more hard work awaits us. Now more than ever, the private sector can make a difference in creating a more inclusive and sustainable economy.
In his speech to Parliament, President Wickremesinghe committed his administration to setting up a “State Enterprise Restructuring Unit” to recommend reforms for Sri Lanka’s loss-making state-owned enterprises. Work on these critical reforms must begin immediately and the results must address the root causes of this crisis so that the country finally enshrines international standards of good governance and transparency for the benefit of all Sri Lankans. Likewise, there should be prompt action to establish and convene the Parliamentary Ways and Means Committee, the National Debt Management Agency, the National Agency for Public-Private Partnership and the other commissions and agencies set out in the president’s speech. We support these efforts.
Before the IMF Executive Board approves the 17th aid program for Sri Lanka (and we hope it will be the last), the government must negotiate with its official creditors to provide adequate funding guarantees. I am encouraged to hear President Wickremesinghe and the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka speak about the need for fair and comparable treatment of debt. The United States, through the Paris Club, looks forward to working with Sri Lanka in this effort. The president asked all creditors to “sing from the same hymn sheet”. We call on all parties to come to the negotiating table and join in the chorus.
President Wickremesinghe also stressed the importance of trade and investment for Sri Lanka’s economic recovery and his desire to leverage foreign direct investment. For this to succeed, the business environment and investment framework environment must improve. It is important to reduce red tape and ensure that there are no unreasonable obstacles for investors when seeking opportunities in Sri Lanka and attracting the foreign capital that the country desperately needs. Concerns about consistency and transparency in government decision-making, and most importantly, the lack of predictability, are the main reasons US companies tell us why FDI hasn’t grown faster. What our companies want are a level playing field, a good regulatory framework and the confidence that their arbitration and their contracts will be honored. When you have that kind of strong investment climate, companies will want to come. I know you know it too well. This is an area where AmCham can leverage its relationships with policy makers and businesses already connected to international markets the President wants to tap into, including ours in the United States.
Just last week, the US International Development Finance Corporation – better known as DFC – was on the ground in Colombo and met with a wide range of private sector representatives, including this chamber. The purpose of these meetings was to explore the most effective ways for the United States to support Sri Lanka’s booming economy and businesses. We are proud to have already provided nearly $400 million in financing to the Sri Lankan private sector and we look forward to expanding this support.
The United States continues to be Sri Lanka’s largest export market, making us a key and unprecedented part of Sri Lanka’s prosperity. Our two-way trade accounts for about three percent of Sri Lanka’s GDP and supports at least 180,000 Sri Lankan jobs. Sri Lanka, with the help of AmCham, can develop this economic relationship and increase its exports and investments in the United States.
This is a watershed moment in the history of Sri Lanka, and a time when we all need to come together: government, private sector, civil society and the international community. We must do all that each of us can do constructively to solve the problems of the day. For seventy years, the United States has provided foreign assistance and business opportunities to help grow the Sri Lankan economy and support the prosperity of the Sri Lankan people. The United States continues to support Sri Lanka during these difficult times. During her visit to Sri Lanka earlier this month, USAID Administrator Samantha Power announced $40 million in assistance to help farmers purchase fertilizers and other essential farm inputs. and $20 million more in humanitarian aid. This is in addition to $120 million in funding for Sri Lankan small and medium enterprises, $27 million for the Sri Lankan dairy industry and over $30 million in new humanitarian, technical and food security assistance. for the benefit of the most vulnerable communities in Sri Lanka. To reinforce this assistance, Ambassador Cindy McCain, who represents the United States to United Nations food organizations, visited schools, agricultural research centers and community centers to hear first-hand from beneficiaries and implementers of humanitarian aid. The United States is the largest contributor to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and Ambassador McCain is a crucial voice within that organization speaking out on behalf of Sri Lanka.
Earlier today, we re-opened our American Center in Colombo with a crowd of enthusiastic young people. In the past, these centers served as traditional libraries and resource centers, and now they have expanded to provide information on stock exchanges, exchanges, Makers’ Labs, and high-tech resources like 3D printers and glasses. virtual reality! This event reminded me that, more than ever, we need to listen to the young people of this country, to hear their calls for reform and for a stronger Sri Lanka. Those of us in the room may no longer be young, although we are young at heart, and it is time for us to recapture that spirit of optimism and curiosity as we strive to strengthen the economy. and trade opportunities for Sri Lanka. The United States remains a friend and partner in Sri Lanka’s prosperity, and I look forward to seeing Sri Lanka not only survive this economic crisis, but prosper, grow stronger and better with all of our help. Thanks.