Story and photos by Isaac D. Pacheco
From space, Sri Lanka resembles a viridescent teardrop spilling into a vast expanse of blue at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent—a green tourmaline set delicately among a sea of glittering sapphires. The analogy is fitting for a country internationally renowned for its vibrant gemstones and verdant topography. Powerful biannual monsoons feed Sri Lanka’s lush landscape, sustaining a dazzling array of flora and fauna among several distinct biomes. The country’s plentiful rainfall also nourishes a fertile agricultural region, where some of the world’s finest spices and teas are cultivated.
“Sri Lanka is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. It has rainforest waterfalls, tea plantations, beaches, the biggest collection of leopards in a national park, amazing natural habitats, and historical sites,” said U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie J. Chung. “It’s a wonderful place to travel and explore … a place where people can work hard but also have a great lifestyle.”
Chung leads a 632-person cohort at Embassy Colombo, which operates out of a new $314 million embassy campus in the nation’s business capital and most populous city. The ambassador and her team of American diplomats and locally employed (LE) staff partner with Sri Lankans to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives, strengthen bilateral relations, promote economic cooperation, support democratic values, and address shared global challenges such as climate change and maritime security.
“One comes to Sri Lanka not just for its domestic issues, but how it fits into the whole puzzle of the region, how it fits into the Indo-Pacific, how it fits into both Southeast and South Asia. That’s why I think it’s so relevant at this moment in time,” Chung added.
Sri Lanka’s advantageous climate, bevy of natural resources, and strategic location have made it a nexus of maritime trade since antiquity. Beginning in the 16th century, Sri Lanka became a hotly contested prize between the Portuguese, Dutch, and British empires, all of which relied on the country’s sheltered ports and agricultural wealth to sustain colonial ambitions in the region. Modern Sri Lanka’s religious, culinary, and linguistic diversity reflects the influences of its many inhabitants over the centuries, as well as its proximity and cultural ties to neighboring India.
Home to 22 million people and the busiest port in the Indian Ocean (the Port of Colombo), Sri Lanka continues to play an outsize role in global trade and regional security. These attributes make the island nation a key part of the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, which calls for a free and open, connected, prosperous, and secure Indo-Pacific.
“This is a major thoroughfare and transit point for cargo, for shipping lanes that connect Europe to Asia. It has been so for centuries. The port and the maritime issues are so critical for us on the trade front, but also in terms of looking at the security of the Indo-Pacific region and making sure other countries like China follow a rules-based international order,” said Chung.
In recent years, Sri Lanka has become the focal point of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), resulting in significant Chinese investment and influence in the country. BRI investments include white elephant projects like the Lotus Tower and Mattala Airport, the “world’s emptiest airport,” that have led to debt sustainability issues and security concerns, and raised troubling questions surrounding Sri Lanka’s territorial sovereignty. The United States regards a strong and independent Sri Lanka as essential to regional stability and maritime security. To this end, the Embassy Colombo team is working to advance partnerships and policies that support Sri Lanka’s continued sovereignty over its airspace and waterways.
“Illicit trafficking of drugs, people, and other contraband items is a major challenge for Sri Lanka. As an interagency, we are helping Sri Lanka tackle these problems,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Tony Nelson, Embassy Colombo defense attaché. “Maritime security and maritime domain awareness are our primary areas of engagement here because a strong Sri Lanka that can see what is going on in its territorial waters, and act upon issues, helps the region become stronger.”
In 1948, a national movement for political autonomy in Ceylon led to the country’s independence from more than two centuries of British colonial rule. The establishment of the self-governing Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka followed in 1972. Sadly, the nation’s early years were marred by violence, as Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic factions fought for representation in Sri Lankan government and society. Conflicts surrounding religious and linguistic differences (among other complex issues) boiled over into a 27-year-long civil war between the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant separatist group based primarily in the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka that employed insurgency tactics such as the use of child soldiers, assassination, and then-novel suicide bombings to spread terror. According to U.N. estimates, the civil war claimed 80,000-100,000 lives between 1983-2009 and resulted in the displacement of more than 800,000 Sri Lankan Tamils.
“Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war ended just 14 years ago, recently enough that it profoundly affects how people see their country and their future,” said Heidi Hattenbach, Embassy Colombo public affairs officer.
Today, Sri Lanka continues to address the fallout of its civil war through reconciliation and accountability initiatives that seek to bring together communities that were torn apart by the multigenerational conflict. The United States is supporting Sri Lanka’s efforts to build a more unified society through youth outreach, English language programming, and other initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions and promote inclusion.
“Part of the work that we’re doing in the human rights space is to help Sri Lankans have the tools and support they need to address the past and build a better future—a country where all Sri Lankans are equal,” said Hattenbach. “Recognizing that language can be a dividing line between communities, we’re focused heavily on providing English language resources. Through our American Corners and English language programming, we’ve been able to bring diverse groups of young people together and give them a language in common, which has made a huge difference in their ability to understand each other—to understand their differences and all the things they have in common. Our Youth Forum helps young people work together to become change-makers in their own communities, and hopefully future leaders of their country.”
Representing a cross section of the host nation, Embassy Colombo’s LE staff team brings a wealth of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity into the workplace. Naomi Marshall, a resource coordination specialist for the public affairs section and a member of post’s Foreign Service National (FSN) committee, says communication and representation are just as important within the embassy community as they are outside. She and other members of the FSN committee nurture open and respectful dialogue with their colleagues and Department of State leadership to enhance employee quality of life and bolster team cohesion.
Based on FSN committee feedback, the embassy recently added a second translator for many town halls, and is also now including Tamil text alongside Sinhala and English on internal printed materials. These efforts, and others like them, not only improve collaboration within the embassy, but also visibly reinforce the Mission’s public commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.
Sri Lankan efforts to build consensus among the nation’s many ethnic, religious, and political factions have faced significant setbacks in recent years. The country was rocked by a series of ISIS-related suicide bombings at three churches and three hotels on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019. The attacks, which have come to be known as the Easter Bombings, killed 269 people and injured 500 others. Reactionary policy introduced by the Sri Lankan government in the aftermath of those attacks led to the persecution of peaceful Muslims throughout the country, reopening old wounds. The U.S. continues to emphasize the importance of respecting human rights and rule of law as Sri Lanka addresses the root causes of radicalization and violent extremism, and works to rebuild trust among its historically marginalized minority communities.
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“Sri Lanka is the region’s oldest democracy, and that’s something to be very proud of. It is, for all intents and purposes, an open and transparent society. But it’s undergoing some difficulties,” said Gabe Grau, USAID mission director for Sri Lanka. “This country is very sensitive to foreign interference, and it’s very easy to misconstrue what we do as foreign interference. So we have to walk a very fine line in media, civil society, and reconciliation to ensure that not only is the government aware of what we’re doing, but also that the public is aware of why it’s important to do.”
The Easter Bombings and subsequent COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns dealt crushing blows to Sri Lanka’s vital tourism industry. These external stressors, along with decades of questionable borrowing practices, unsustainable debt servicing, and financial mismanagement of state-owned enterprises limited Sri Lanka’s ability to invest in critical sectors, severely weakening its already flagging economy. An ill-conceived government ban on chemical fertilizers in the fall of 2021 was the final straw, decimating tea exports and propelling the once prosperous country into economic collapse. In April 2022, Sri Lanka defaulted on its international loans for the first time.
“Over the past year and a half, Sri Lanka moved from upper middle income to lower middle income. And it’s projected to continue to decline as the poverty rate increases from 12% to 30%,” said Grau. “In the midst of this economic decline, a lack of citizen voices and growing sense of disenfranchisement essentially kickstarted the democratic reform movement, Aragalaya (struggle).”
Facing rolling blackouts, food insecurity, fuel shortages, and hyperinflation, desperate Sri Lankans took to the streets in early 2022 to demand the ouster of then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Protestors torched the prime minister’s residence and occupied the ceremonial presidential palace before order was restored in the months after the Rajapaksas fled the country in the summer of 2022. Since then, Sri Lanka’s new government, led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, has worked diligently to rebuild amid the ongoing economic crisis.
“If you look at the increase in poverty and hunger and in people suffering in this country over the last couple of years, it’s mind boggling. So addressing the short term humanitarian needs of the population has been essential, and I think that USAID, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and our colleagues across the interagency are doing a phenomenal job of that,” said Hattenbach. “We’re not just standing with the Sri Lankan government, but we’re also standing with the Sri Lankan people and with their vision of the future.”
On March 20, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) board approved a $3 billion loan to Sri Lanka that will provide the country with a financial lifeline while it rebuilds its capacity to generate revenue and service debts. While the recent injection of IMF funds and ongoing U.S. technical assistance are aimed at helping the Sri Lankan government implement reforms that will improve economic growth and resilience, these measures are not a panacea. The country still faces a steep road to recovery as it navigates a large debt burden, a shortage of foreign direct investment, and a weak public sector.
“In the past year we have been focused on the political transition that came out of the crisis last summer. We have also been dealing with the economic side of that, interacting with a range of contacts across the political and economic spectrum on the way forward, which culminated in the IMF deal that was just approved,” said Susan Walke, Embassy Colombo political and economic counselor. “We also work very closely with our USAID counterparts, with the Office of Technical Assistance at [the U.S. Department of] Treasury, and with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is located out of Delhi but is a big part of what we do on humanitarian assistance.”
American diplomats seeking opportunities to positively impact the lives of others while engaging in meaningful policy work have found in Embassy Colombo a challenging and rewarding assignment. No longer a “hidden” gem, Sri Lanka’s balmy climate, surplus of natural wonders, cultural diversity, and rich history make it an obvious choice for adventure seekers and those who enjoy exploring the world beyond their own backyards. As the country emerges from a transitory period of political and economic tumult, it is once again welcoming visitors from around the world and demonstrating the hospitality and warmth for which Sri Lankans have long been known.
Whether and how the country embraces reforms that improve transparency, accountability, and democratic best-practices will determine how quickly it regains its former prominence within South Asia. However, the nation’s recent uptick in tourist visits, reemerging agricultural sector, and strategic position within the burgeoning Indo-Pacific provide hope for a brighter and more prosperous future.
“Sri Lanka is a microcosm of a whole range of U.S. interests—trade, environment, human rights coming out of a conflict, climate change, professionalization of security forces, a democracy that is really being tested right now, economic hardship, maritime security, geopolitical interests—you can see all of these issues that the U.S. cares about at play here,” said Walke. “Sri Lanka is a key example of why small countries matter.”
Isaac D. Pacheco is the editor-in-chief of State Magazine.