Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United States Prasad Kariyawasam expressed his optimism for political and economic reform in his country at a speech in the Intercultural Center on Wednesday night.
The event, titled “Sri Lanka: A Tale of a Resilient Democracy,” was organized by the Asian Pacific Forum and the Asian Studies Program.
Asian Studies professor Irfan Nooruddin, who moderated the event, said that Kariyawasam’s speech is an example of the School of Foreign Service’s growing interest in the South Asian region.
“[The visit] is part of a broader agenda to build the presence of South Asia in the SFS,” Nooruddin said. “Some say South Asia has been neglected in most conversations. … But the ambassador’s visit is a step in the right direction to bringing its issues and importance to the forefront of discussion.”
Kariyawasam served as Sri Lanka’s diplomat to India, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland before becoming ambassador to the United States. Throughout the discussion, he provided examples from his political career to explore a wide variety of topics.
Kariyawasam began by stressing the importance of democratization in Sri Lanka.
“Democracy is a work in progress, and it was hard to say our government was democratic,” Kariyawasam said. “Sri Lankans decided … to go through with a free and fair election, and the democratic institutions were strengthened.”
Sri Lanka, which gained its independence in 1948 after 150 years of British rule, is the oldest democracy in Asia. Since it became independent, the country endured a 25-year civil war between the government and minority ethnic groups.
Kariyawasam said that although the conflict ended in 2009, the government still faces significant challenges in overcoming its history of oppression.
“[The] last government was authoritarian and operated with impunity,” Nooruddin said. “Yet the mood has moved from pessimism to optimism with the revitalization of democratic principles. Sri Lanka is once again a bright spot for democracies.”
As the conversation progressed, Kariyawasam addressed Sri Lanka’s improving relationship with the United States. In September, both countries agreed to draft a resolution that would focus on post-civil war reconciliation efforts in Sri Lanka.
However, the ambassador said that the relationship between the two nations has not always been favorable.
“There were many areas of dissonance in the relationship, especially in the areas of human rights,” Kariyawasam said. “Since the elections, we are increasingly on the same page.”
Kariyawasam said that Sri Lanka is also positioning itself to continue strong economic growth. The country’s gross domestic product growth rate has remained above 6.5 percent since 2009, a higher rate than those of India and Pakistan.
According to Kariyawasam, the Sri Lanka’s positioning as a trade hub is important to its economic prosperity and international relationships. Seventy percent of the world’s oil passes through the region, providing incentive for Sri Lanka, India and China to strengthen their relations.
“We are in the intersection of a power play with world commerce and world powers,” Kariyawasam said. “Our partnerships and the liberalizations of our economy will only allow for further prosperity.”
Amanda Zhu (MSB ’17) said she was unaware of the country’s recent social, political and economic progress prior to Kariyawasam’s speech.
“Sri Lanka is usually talked about tangentially in relationship to China and India,” Zhu said. “But people should be paying attention to it more. The shift into a more democratic government is a success story, but so are its economic and political developments. Its regional importance will only expand.”
Yohan Senarath (SFS ’17), a student in the Asian Studies Program, said Kariyawasam is one of the most effective political operators and commentators in Sri Lanka.
“I find him to be an oxymoron in the world of diplomacy. He is genuine, insightful and incisive when it comes to providing sharp analysis on the relevant issues,” Senarath said. “These qualities are what make the ambassador one of the most respected diplomats working today.”
Senarath said that he hoped the conversation will change commonly held perceptions about Sri Lanka.
“Most Americans consider Sri Lanka a noteworthy country, but not at the level of importance that is shared by actual policymakers,” Senarath said. “You are only likely to see the nation feature more prominently as future issues centered within the region continue to play out.”
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