Remarks for the July 4th Celebration by Ambassador Butenis
July 4, 2012
Thank you for joining us tonight as we celebrate the 236 years of the independence of the United States of America. I want to start with a very warm welcome to our chief guest, the Honorable Senior Minister for International Monetary Cooperation Dr. Sarath Amunugama.
The United States and Sri Lanka are old friends. Although formal diplomatic relations between the government of newly independent Ceylon and the United States were established in 1948, the contacts between our two peoples are over 200 years old.
Since the very beginnings of our two countries, the importance of democracy and the role of the citizen have been paramount. We are also celebrating the fact that 225 years ago, the Constitutional Convention opened in Philadelphia where our founders drafted that extraordinary document. Our constitution had flaws but one thing that made it so special was that it provided for the possibility for those who had been excluded from the protections of the original document eventually to enjoy the full rights of citizenship. It took time and it took struggle, including a bloody Civil War, but now all Americans enjoy the freedoms, privileges, and responsibilities of citizenship. It doesn’t matter where you were born, what ethnicity you are, what religion you practice. Our constitution guarantees all Americans those rights and, over time, has served to make America a better place and increasingly a more just and fair place to live.
As many of you know, I am finishing my assignment in Sri Lanka and will leave later this summer. While there are many wonderful memories I will take with me, I think most often of those individuals and organizations that are working quietly everyday to make Sri Lanka a better, more just place to live. I would like acknowledge some of the more impressive individuals and organizations that I’ve been fortunate to work with here. They don’t always make the headlines and some would prefer not to, but what they are doing will have a lasting impact on their country and their society. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I hope I don’t offend anyone by not mentioning them, but we cannot stay here all night, but it’s a representative list that also reflects some of the areas my Embassy has sought to support:
1) The Fathima Welfare Center. It has been my pleasure to work with these young women and I want to thank especially Mrs. Nilufer Akbar of the All Ceylon Women’s Muslim Association, which oversees the center and which provides a safe, nurturing home for orphan girls, and young women employed in Colombo.
2) Dr. Ajantha Perera of the National Recycling Program for Solid Waste, whose tireless work on recycling, environmental issues, and for bats (my passion) is making a real difference in changing attitudes.
3) Ravi Corea of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society – a man who has devoted so many years to help alleviate the human-elephant conflict, protecting this national treasure of Sri Lanka while at the same time helping human communities to share the same space with these noble elephants.
4) Cadet E.M.W Ambanpola (Class 2014 U.S. Air Force Academy) and Cadet S.F.C.D Thelisinghe (Class 2015 U.S. Naval Academy). These young Sri Lankan service men are devoting their lives to their country, and we are proud to support them by sending them to our U.S. Service Academies, where they are outstanding students and outstanding representatives of their country.
5) The American Chamber of Commerce. The Amcham’s work with the business community strengthens the relationship between our two nations. We are important trading partners. Some of you may not realize this, but the largest single export destination for Sri Lankan goods is the United States, taking over 20% of your exports. I’m proud to say that the economic relationship continues to be a strong tie between our countries.
6) Companies like Brandix, MAS, Aqua ‘N Green, Cargills, John Keells, Daya and Hayleys – who are working with USAID on Public-Private Alliances, providing thousands of workers with jobs to support their families and communities in vulnerable areas. We have contributed over $2 billion dollars in aid through USAID over the last fifty years. That commitment continues with these private sector projects.
7) Father Paul, of the Cuckoo’s Nest, whose years of dedication in Batticaloa are a remarkable tribute to a life well-spent, helping others.
8) The Sri Lankan Media – This country has benefitted tremendously from dedicated journalists who have literally risked their lives for the cause of the public’s right to know. Tonight I ask again for justice for Prageeth Ekneligoda, a political cartoonist who disappeared in 2010.
9) Visaka Dharmadasa of the Association for War Affected Women - Her tireless work bringing together those directly touched by the conflict, the widows, mothers, daughters, wives and sisters from all communities, is helping heal wounds so that this nation can move forward, reconciled and united.
10) Dr. Ajith Perera from IDIRIYA and Ali Zakky from Leonard Cheshire Disability for their passionate advocacy for our differently-abled fellow citizens.
11) Our Fulbright Commission, which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary. Thanks to this program, 647 Sri Lankan students have gone to the United States, while Sri Lanka has hosted 383 Americans as researchers, teachers, and students. This powerful legacy has touched generations in both of our countries and made both of our societies stronger as a result.
12) The SL-US Parliamentary Friendship Association, which was created through the personal effort of the Honorable MP Vasantha Senanayake and is chaired by our good friend, the Honorable Minister of the Environment Anura Priyadharshana Yapa. The work of this Association helps to bridge the differences that we inevitably find between our two countries. Maintaining that open dialogue, with representatives from all the major political parties is crucial in the years to come.
13) Anoma Wijewardena, internationally known artist and my personal friend, whose beautiful, complex, riveting work explores themes essential to Sri Lanka’s future as a humane society. Deliverance is Anoma’s current exhibition in three locations, including in front of the Dutch Hospital and I encourage everyone to see it.
14) Finally, I cannot leave Sri Lanka without recognizing the animal welfare organizations that provide protection and care to the community dogs, like Blue Paw Trust, the Tsunami Animal-People Alliance, The Animal Welfare and Protection Association, Sathva Mithra, and The Kandy Association for Community Protection Through Animal Welfare. Your work inspires us to be more humane and more human.
So you see that the U.S. –Sri Lankan relationship is multifaceted and complex, just as I have found Sri Lanka itself to be. On the political level, like those early American sailors who came to Galle, we have had to weather some storms. But we’ve come through, and I am certain of our future cooperation. As a friend, the United States will continue to partner with Sri Lanka as it moves from a post-conflict nation to one truly at peace with others and with itself.
The government has already done some very impressive work. When I arrived in 2009, the war had just ended and there were literally hundreds of thousands of IDPs that needed to be resettled. Now that’s down to just a few thousand. The government has also made great progress with the rehabilitation of ex-combatants. Demining is another significant achievement. And economic development is continuing across the island, helping all communities. But we know that there is still much to be done.
There is no greater challenge than helping a country come together after more than two decades of war. But we share a conviction with the Sri Lankan people that this can and must be done, and you have all the talent, commitment, and inspiration you need right here – as my very incomplete list of individuals and organizations so clearly shows. And you have a way forward in the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. So, I promise that the United States will remain committed with a variety of programs focused on youth: English language training for teachers, micro-scholarships to students; youth empowerment grants for civil society organization, local youth forums and social media outreach activities. Our development programs will continue to work with the public and private sector, helping especially those communities most affected by the conflict. Our economic and commercial section will continue to expand those already growing business ties to benefit Sri Lankan consumers and producers. In short, the United States will stay engaged over the coming years to build on this successful momentum, as all Sri Lankans come to see diversity as a strength, not a vulnerability. Everyone is needed as the people of this country strive for a better future.
I conclude by thanking everyone with whom I have worked over these last years. You have taught me a great deal about this amazing country and I thank you for the opportunity of learning, firsthand, how very resilient the people of this country are.
Please join me now in offering a toast, to President Mahinda Rajakapsa, to the people of Sri Lanka, and to the close ties between our two countries.