By Thilak S. Fernando

Fifty-one years ago ‘Ceylon’ was known for its three major exports, Tea, Rubber and Coconut. After five decades, however, multiple of changes have taken place including very name of the country; many Sri Lankans have chosen to live abroad for numerous reasons.

Today, in the eyes of the international community the main focus on Sri Lanka appears to be the on going civil war and alleged human rights violations. Within the country itself, the general public does not appear to get involved, understand or contribute towards the economic growth of the country (except the business community). They are either naive or do not pay much attention to Party politics. Maintaining the political trend from the time ‘ Ceylon’ received her independence Sri Lankan politicians and their supporters have been dabbling in this mysterious game. Recent Wyamba elections bear witness to the extent how Sri Lankan politics have deteriorated at the dawn of a new century.

Of late, Sri Lankan expatriate communities scattered around the world have taken an interest in their motherland. Sunday newspapers (which are in circulation in many countries) and the Internet facilities are constantly up dating the expatriates’ knowledge giving a better over view of their mother country. There are many organisations in the UK, for example, that are engaged in numerous activities, mainly in countering adverse publicity on Sri Lanka; equally many organisations are helping various causes ranging from disabled soldiers, Maharagama Cancer Hospital and setting up orphanages, local dispensaries, school libraries etc.

During a recent visit to New York what struck me was the role played by the Sri Lankan expatriate community in New Jersey. Quite different to UK operations they have become a working force in local political activities to enhance their talents to work towards increasing greater interaction between the USA and Sri Lanka.

I had the opportunity of meeting with Anoma Akmeemana, the force behind a newly formed Sri Lankan Caucus in the United States Congress. Anoma received her education at St. Bridget's Convent, Colombo, where her mother Amaseeli Senadhipathy de Silva was a popular teacher. She is petite, quite unassuming, a firm believer in her owns convictions and determined to help her motherland. Known as a political activist in New Jersey she is the District Representative for the Democratic County Committee in the State of New Jersey, a Member of the State Committee's Asia Council and represents Sri Lanka in the Democratic Committee’s Asia Caucus. She takes an active role in women’s affairs and is the Vice President of the League of Women Voters, the leading Women’s Organisation which promotes political responsibility for citizens and acts as the Public Relations person for the Arts Council in Livingston, in her own town.

The bi-partisan caucus was organised as an outstretched programme offered by the United State Senators to meet with the people of various countries through their caucus representatives. The Sri Lankan Caucus consists of fifteen US Congressmen of both parties – Democrats and Republican - its Committee has a Chairman, Co-chairman and a Vice-Chairman. Some of the present members in the Sri Lankan Caucus are Congressmen Frank Pallone (Democrat) Chairman of the Committee, Robert Menandez, Vice Chairman, Donald Payne, William Pascrell Jnr, Steven Rothman, Rush Holt and one Republican woman Marje Roukema. Each month the Committee meets in the Congress to discuss issues pertaining to Sri Lanka and this really acts as a base to strengthen the ties between Sri Lanka and the USA with a mutual understanding towards socio-economic developments. The Sri Lankan Caucus’s main areas of concentration will be human rights, environment, drug trafficking and information technology.

According to Anoma the Sri Lankan expatriates in the United States have been able to dramatically alter the attitude and thinking patterns of the American people in various US cities. They have been able to establish schools for their children, initiate business ventures and been able to integrate into the socio-economic fabric of the USA by imposing new service demands on the government.

Trade and investment between USA and Sri Lanka have been steadily growing over the years. In 1998 Sri Lankan exports to the USA reached nearly US$1.5billion as against US exports to Sri Lanka amounting to US$370million. Anoma says the only way both countries can benefit would be by extensive research and hard and dedicated work to improve the existing trade patterns and practices. She is aware of the few hiccups the business sector might face right now and says the very idea of forming the Sri Lankan Caucus was to study such problematic areas by its members towards a mutual benefit of both parties.

On 12 September 1998 Anoma Akmeemana convened a meeting with the Sri Lankan community in New Jersey in the presence of the Chairman Congressman Frank Pallone to explain the role of the Sri Lankan Caucus in US Congress where several other regions of the US members of their Congressional districts joined hands to work as a single unit in the USA. In response to a question raised by Senator Torricelli as to how specifically he could help Sri Lanka, Anoma stated that the Caucus group was able to brief the Senator that despite the difficulties Sri Lanka is experiencing as a result of the on going civil war the country’s economy was growing at 6% annually and is at present very favourable for foreign investment. It is expected that when Senator Torricelli became a member of the Foreign Relations Committee in January 99 he would be in a better position to assist Sri Lanka. According to Anoma the Senator Toricelli and Congressman Frank Pallone are seriously considering visiting Sri Lanka in the very near future.

The Board of Investment (BOI) appointed Honorary Representatives in key economic target countries including USA, Germany and Italy to assist in its international promotion efforts. In January 1999, Anoma Akmeemana was appointed as Sri Lanka’s Investment Promotional Consultant for the East Coast of the United States of America.