An Interview with Michele J. Sison, U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Republic of Maldives
Michele J. Sison, a career member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on June 29, 2012 as the U.S. Ambassador to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and Republic of Maldives. Sison previously served as the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon (2008-2010), U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (2004-2008), and Assistant Chief of Mission in Baghdad, Iraq (2011-2012). Earlier assignments include service as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs (2002-2004); Deputy Chief of Mission in Islamabad, Pakistan (1999-2002); Consul General/Principal Officer in Chennai, India (1996-1999); Consul General/Principal Officer in Douala, Cameroon; and tours in Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo, and Haiti. Sison also served as the State Department’s Director of Career Development and Assignments (2010-2011). She is the recipient of numerous State Department awards as well as the Presidential Distinguished Service Award, Presidential Meritorious Service Award, and the U.S. Department of the Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal.
The Politic: To start off, why did you join the Foreign Service?
When I was an undergraduate, I was very interested in public service. I realized that becoming a diplomat and serving with the State Department was really for me the best way to implement a people-to-people approach, in terms of building bridges across countries and cultures. As a junior in college — and a political science major — I was very much interested in looking at how to serve in this way. It sounds very simple, but I still think of what I do today — and this is 31 years after joining — as primarily building bridges between the United States and the countries in which I am posted, so as to increase mutual understanding and show people what is common and what sets us apart.
The Politic: Reading the list of all of your past assignments, I have to confess that it was dizzying just looking at the spread of locations in which you have served. How do you manage to switch your area of focus between so many different countries?
If you look at the geographic progression, I started off in Haiti and the Caribbean, spent four tours in West Africa before moving over to South Asia (India and Pakistan), went to the Middle East for three tours, and am now back to South Asia with Sri Lanka and Maldives. That is looking at the locations geographically.
I think of it, though, much more in terms of each location’s functional specialties. There are clusters of assignments in which economic development and growth were very much a focus, such as in Togo and Benin. I have done conflict resolution work in Cote d’ivoire in Pakistan, as well as in the post-war scenarios in Lebanon, Iraq, and now Sri Lanka. So, it is not just the geographic specialties for assignments that we look at but also specialization in these functional areas — developing growth, strengthening democratic institutions, and preventing and resolving conflict — that we have to look at in terms of the assignments and the challenges they present.
The Politic: How do you learn these macro-skills, such as conflict resolution and economy building?
Part of what we do as Foreign Service Officers, of course, is very much on-the-job, in terms of going into the career and thinking ahead on economic, political, counseling, or public diplomacy assignments. We have multiple specializations as we come into the job. There is also, of course, training involved at our Foreign Service Institute that supplements and complements the backgrounds of people that come into the Foreign Service. But not all of it is necessarily something you can learn out of a book — not even at our very excellent Foreign Service Institute in northern Virginia. Sure, we learn language skills and prepare for language specialization before moving out. And certainly, there are courses on a full range of topics — democratization, proliferation, energy reporting, finance, economics, and so forth — at the FSI. But again, a lot is in-field experience.
The Politic: Is there one experience, person or event in the United States or Sri Lanka that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies?
Let’s talk a little bit about my current assignment in Sri Lanka. Coming back to Sri Lanka post-conflict — I had previously been to the country, during an assignment in 2002-2004 — I became even more convinced that we needed to use our U.S. assistance more strategically than before to foster economic growth and strengthen democratic institutions.
For example, the former conflict zones still present a real challenge. In Sri Lanka, I have scoped out our civil society programs, which includes a few empowerment programs, and instead of focusing these only on the former conflict zones in the east, we have matched some of these zones with their counterparts in other parts of the country to build bridges internally. We are working in the northern province to ensure food security for the internally displaced, and we’ve also funded a number of economic growth projects for expanding the livelihood of opportunities. Additionally, we have stepped up our English language teaching programs because, again, this empowers young people and really promises a better economic future in their own job market.
When you ask about one experience or event, in Sri Lanka, the early months were spent travelling in the country to make sure our programs were appropriate and well targeted. That enabled me to better strategically focus those programs and refine our approach to what we have been doing for years: developing demining programs, disaster preparedness programs, agriculture, horticulture, and industrial public-private alliances. Preparing for an assignment gives you a wide variety of tools, but once again, it’s not until you get to the post and visit the grounds that you can really reform and see for yourself which kind of tools from that toolbox would be most appropriate to use.
The Politic: Both the Sri Lankan government itself and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), which is still on the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list, have been accused of human rights violations during the civil war. How has this affected American policy?
You picked up on a very important point — that throughout the conflict, particularly in the final period of the conflict, there were violations of human rights on both sides, and the accountability needs to be focused on both sides as well. There are a number of issues that the international community, the U.S., and other friends of Sri Lanka have focused on in the years since. In terms of what we have asked the government to focus on, there’s the demilitarization of civilian functions in the northern province, the creation of mechanisms to address missing machines, and land reform — because there are a number of land disputes, especially for persons displaced by the conflict.
Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is the government of Sri Lanka’s own proposed roadmap for peace. For the last two years, the U.S. State Department and the Embassy have played a key leadership role in a UN Human Rights Council resolution that calls for the Sri Lankan government to implement the LLRC’s constructive recommendations in addressing those allegations of human rights violations. The U.S. and others in the international community have been focusing on the fact that we would like to see the Sri Lankan government move ahead with the necessary work and implementation of the LLRC report, which is difficult.
The Politic: Astonishingly, Sri Lanka maintained its democracy throughout civil war, though President Rajapaski has been criticized for nepotism and corruption. Do you see this changing?
Sri Lanka has a proud tradition of democracy. There have been issues in the realms of rule of law and separation of powers, issues we as international partners have raised in the past year. The U.S., for example, expressed concern in late 2012/early 2013 about the impeachment of the Sri Lankan Chief Justice. Concerns were also raised about the harassment of journalists and activists who presented dissenting views or reported on sensitive topics — for example, the attacks on one of the Tamil language dailies in Uthayan this past April.
In addressing these issues, the U.S. seeks to strengthen civil society through the USAID, our human rights and democracy programs, the State Department, and our freedom of expression and media freedom projects. We lend support to activists working on these rule of law issues and provide capacity building and project funding support to journalists and editors. The U.S. also brings young people together in cultural and exchange programs across communities. There are issues to be addressed, but we consistently focus on the fact that our relationship with the people of Sri Lanka is enduring, and our engagement is both robust and multifaceted.
The Politic: What do you believe is the best thing that is happening in the post-conflict northern and eastern regions, and where do you seem room for improvement?
I think what we see is the ability of local communities to build through a number of our projects. For example, in the east, we just constructed a large market and transportation center, in a place where Tamil and Sinhalese communities had met for years — a town called Pullumalai, in the Batticaloa district. During the war, this crossroads community had disappeared — their transportation routes were disrupted so that there was no place to stop. The farmers no longer had any place to bring their fruits and vegetables to market and the women no longer had a place to sell their handicrafts.
We constructed a small road with concrete structure stalls, waiting areas, and a transportation center — this bus station — and the community has just come to life again. Working with local communities to build the bridges between communities that have been separated for decades — there was a whole generation who had not known this type of economic interchange, because the conflict lasted for almost thirty years — was a real joy. It was great to see our U.S. programming recreating this inter-community relationship, which had been there prior to the war.
Overall, there has been progress in the four years since the end of conflict. In particular, the U.S. has been very active in supporting demining and creating infrastructure for assisting the former IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). However, we do recognize that more needs to be done on reconciliation and accountability, so we have also done a lot of religious freedom work, in both Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
The Politic: The Maldives lacks religious freedom and practices Sharia law. In what ways do you encourage religious freedom?
Maldives has a tradition of moderate Islam. It has been a forthright and reliable partner in combating extremism as well as a host of other ills, including trafficking and terrorism in the Indian Ocean region. While it does face a number of political, economic and social challenges, I think partnering with the civil society organizations and working on the issues I just mentioned is helpful in strengthening the capacity of these civic organizations to bolster the country’s democratic institutions and promote national dialogue amongst the stakeholders.
The Politic: Are there certain things you are looking out for in the upcoming elections in the Maldives?
This is just the second time post-democracy, so we are really looking to support the ability of the Maldivian political parties and institutions — the civil society groups — to take a proactive approach towards the elections. It is important to ensure that those relevant institutions have the capacity to oversee the elections, through the elections and human rights commissions. We are looking to enable civil society to play their rightful role in promoting good government.
At the same time, we look to help improve the broad political dialogue and help strengthen the democratic space in Maldives through some of the small grants programs, because these are very new organizations — the police integrity commission, the human rights commission, and the intellectual commission. In particular, we are working with Transparency Maldives to promote the integrity of their own electoral progress. Just this summer, we have set up a new assistance program for electoral systems, working through civil society and voter education as well as voter outreach. In this early phase of democratic transition, this strengthening is critical to the Maldivian people’s acceptance of election results and to the launching of important post-election work on addressing economic and social challenges.
The Politic: There is talk that Maldives may eventually be submerged in water and that the country has been considering relocating. Could you expound upon that a little?
Maldives is a small island nation that has been a leader in climate change work — that is one of the reasons we are continuing to support them. The focus on a climate-resilient island model is a 7 million dollar program at this point. It looks at individual islands and a variety of tools and adaptive strategies seeking to prevent the intrusion of saltwater into their groundwater — because, of course, an island is only habitable if there is fresh water. The issues of saltwater intrusion and ground erosion are burning issues for the Maldivian government and are an important focus of our partnering and assistance in the Maldives.
The Politic: Before I ask the final question, is there anything that hasn’t already been discussed that you would like to emphasize?
Yes — I consider the year between my ambassadorial service in Lebanon and my service as Chief of Mission in Iraq as being spent very productively; I went back to the State Department and served as Director of Career Development and Assignments. I have to say that I cannot recommend enough a career in public service. Coming back to what I noted at the beginning of our conversation — building bridges — nothing beats the people-to-people approach. Serving abroad in an embassy, you are with the regional civic and political leaders, businessmen, students and academics, entrepreneurs, and journalists every single day for a number of years. You grow to understand the country in a way that a tourist visit could never rival.
Whether through international educational exchanges or private sector-private sector exchanges, these interactions of the last thirty plus years have really convinced me that we all benefit from sharing different approaches to addressing common challenges. The ability of a diplomat, even a young one, to create these enduring partnerships and consequently affect policy has been very unique — both very rewarding and very challenging. I hope that some of the Yale students who read this account will consider a career in the U.S. Foreign Service and look at www.state.gov/careers.
The Politic: What advice would you give someone interested in a career in the Foreign Service?
The advice would be to realize that this is public service, so there is an ability to focus on regions of the world and issues of personal interest to the individual. But it is also to realize that one might be asked to serve in an area — geographic or functional — that one has never thought of before, which is, to me, one of the very exciting aspects of the Foreign Service. When I joined in 1982, I had no inkling that I would be moving from the West African area to South Asia to the Middle East and back to South Asia. I certainly would not have foreseen something as dramatic as serving in Iraq during the 2011-2012 period of real transition to oversee our rule of law, police development, and prosecutorial and institutional development programs.
Being asked to serve in this capacity was not only a privilege but one of the opportunities that highlighted the ability of the U.S. program to strategically do so much — at the right time with the right people — to strengthen the institutions of the state. It means not only recording and analyzing developments in a country but practically making sure that our policies and programs go hand in hand, so that we do have partnerships that produce these positive outcomes of fostering economic growth and promoting democratic institutions. The ability to engage in public service and to play a hands-on role at the grassroots level — to use U.S. assistance strategically — is a privilege.
The Politic: How do you feel that the U.S. is represented abroad and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?
America and American interests are represented abroad through our U.S. embassies. But our U.S. embassies are comprised of people. It is not just the chief of mission or the ambassador, but every single American serving in that embassy — as well as colleagues from other parts of the U.S. government, whether it is the Department of Defense, Justice, or Homeland Security — who represents America abroad. All of these representatives promote and protect our interests — political, economic, and etc. — as well as regional interests in other countries. Strong partnerships with Sri Lanka and Maldives are especially important to ensuring that key shipping lanes remain open. Our strategic interests around the world are reliably supported by our embassies.
Embassy of the United States to Sri Lanka and the Republic of Maldives: http://srilanka.usembassy.gov/index.html