Sri Lankan Ambassador visits Minnesota


On a two day visit, his Excellency Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke spoke with the Sri Lankan community, gave a speech at St. Cloud University, and visited the Buddhist Temple.

Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke, the Ambassador from Sri Lanka, arrived in Minnesota on Sunday night on an invitation to deliver an address to students and faculty at St. Cloud University. He spent two and a half days in this state before returning on Tuesday morning his office at the Sri Lankan embassy in Washington, DC.

Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke, in a presentation at St. Cloud State University, on April 21, 2008, focused on the dilemma Sri Lanka faces and about “rising to the challenge of battling terrorism while preserving democracy.” The title of his talk was “Sri Lanka: Democracy Vs. Terrorism – A Negotiated Settlement.” Speaking of the conflict that has waged in Sri Lanka for three decades, the Ambassador said, “democracy in Sri Lanka has indeed been tested more than once. And, it is an achievement of considerable significance, that despite the challenges it had to face over the years, the democratic fabric of our country yet remains intact.”

Mr. Goonetilleke said, during an interview over the phone, that his visit was twofold. Aside from his speaking engagement in at St. Cloud University, he said his trip to Minnesota was also an opportunity to meet with the Sri Lankan community of Minnesota, home to one of the largest Sri Lankan populations in the country. The Ambassador was also in the Cities two years ago to observe the opening of the Sri Lankan Buddhist temple. The temple, he said, was a place for the diverse Sri Lankan community to gather, whether they are Buddhist, Hindu, or of any faith.

He described the Sri Lankan community of Minnesota as well established and diverse. Many people have lived here for twenty or thirty years, making it a relatively old community. Most of the Sri Lankan immigrants here are professionals or students that came to Minnesota to study or do post graduate work.

As the representative of Sri Lanka in Washington, Ambassador Goonetilleke said that there were two big issues that his office is focusing on. His job’s first priority is trade. The United States is Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner, making up nearly thirty percent of the island nation’s international trade, he said. One of his country’s strongest markets is the textile and apparel industries. His office is currently seeking concessions in terms of trade with the US, in light of the devastation caused by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that damaged industry and disrupted Sri Lanka’s society and economy, as well as the recent ending of the quota system that had guaranteed trading rights with America. In general, the Ambassador is working to make sure that the consequential changes in the global economy and the United States’ international economic relationships do not have a negative impact on Sri Lanka’s trade.

“The second major issue I am focusing on relates to politics and the security of our country.” For the past thirty years, the Tamil Tigers have been in conflict against the government of Sri Lanka, waging a separatist war and demanding an independent state on the island. The Ambassador said that, due to the geography, resources and demographics, dividing the island of Sri Lanka was not feasible. He says that the Tamil Tigers, who have been on the United States Government’s list of terrorist organizations since 1997, has been using terrorism and violence in its campaign for a separate state. He said that the organization has developed an extended network that spans the globe that supports the movement in Sri Lanka, endangering the security of the country as well as its standing abroad.

Ambassador Goonetilleke says that front organizations for the Tigers have attempted to raise money in the United States in the name of tsunami relief, only to use the funds collected to support the rebel group back in Sri Lanka. He pointed to one case, where a “front organization” collected money, saying that it was for the victims of the tsunami, and then attempted to buy missiles and bribe FBI officials. He says that several of these people who were arrested in New York are due to stand trial later this year.

Recovering from the tsunami that devastated much of Sri Lanka’s coast has been a long process, Mr. Goonetilleke said. The fishing and tourism industries were hit especially hard, he said, and over one million people were displaced. He said that the United States and other countries were contributing to the reconstruction of infrastructure.

When asked about how the United States ought to react, or how it ought to be proactive, faced with the growing economic and political might of China and India, he said that the US should not be worried. It is “a natural development in an open market, in a global village.” “The emergence” of India and China, he continued, “as big powers should not be seen as worrisome – it is a natural consequence of what is happening around us. How can we make these changes positive, that is the question.”

The Ambassador said the Sri Lankan community in Minnesota was very strong. Students and others made long trips to see him at St. Cloud University, some even venturing over the plains of Western Minnesota from Moorhead.