New US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Ambassador Michele J Sison, on Sunday presented her credentials to President Mohamed Waheed Hassan, and met with the Maldivian press.
Ambassador Sison replaces Ambassador Patricia A Butenis. She was previously US Deputy Ambassador in Iraq, as well as Deputy Ambassador in the United Arab Emirates.
She has also worked as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of South Asian Affairs, providing broad policy oversight of US relations with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
Ambassador Sison on Sunday morning met with President Waheed, Vice President Waheed Deen and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dunya Maumoon, and said she looked forward to meeting the Foreign Minister at a later stage.
“I have been reading about the Maldives for quite some time and am impressed by the warm welcome I received this weekend,” she said.
Asked for her early impressions of the country’s political situation and stability, Sison said it was “very positive. You have democratic institutions in place, you have a vibrant and dynamic media, all of the ingredients are there.”
“What troubles me, and I’m sure troubles the Maldivian people at this point, is that recent events have contributed to a slowdown in the normal political life of the country – for example the vital work of the Majlis. I know we all want to see the political system able to proceed so that important legislative drafts can be discussed and debated and normal political life moves forward in a productive manner.”
Sison said she was encouraged by the work of the current leadership dialogues, “which have the potential for real progress as the country moves towards elections, and I hope will smooth the way for the Majlis to move forward.”
Sison confirmed that she had read the report produced by the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) into the circumstances surrounding February 7’s controversial transfer of power, and noted that the US had “very publicly welcomed the release of the report.”
“I did receive a copy and highlight the summary for my staff. It was a subject of intense interest in Washington,” she said.
Sison said the US had “publicly commended the commission’s co-chairs for their leadership and commitment to a thorough and what we feel was an inclusive review process.”
“We consistently called for all Maldivians to respect the findings of the report. Now we look forward to the implementation of the recommendations and call on all to respect the findings and exercise restraint, and continue the vibrant political expression in the Maldives and channel it in a productive and non-violent manner.”
Sison however refrained from stating whether this stance meant the US would back the Maldives’ government’s bid to be removed from the agenda of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), the Commonwealth’s human rights and democracy arm.
“I know that the issue is very topical right now, and I’ve [received] various views from political actors and will continue to seek input,” she said.
Asked whether the US was concerned about a broad shift in Maldivian foreign policy from Western allies towards China, Sison responded that “a very simple answer is that the US, as a friend of the Maldives, is encouraged that Maldivian foreign policy is growing in terms of representation and cooperation.”
In her address, Sison noted that key areas of bilateral cooperation would include “furthering the hopes and dreams of youth and women. I really do believe that the US has a useful role to play in the Maldives, particularly in the maritime security, economic and education sectors.”
She announced the imminent arrival of a senior US educator who would be working with the Ministry of Education “on curriculum development and the general professional development of Maldivian educators.”
Ambassador Sison also remarked on the US’s training of the Maldivian police, which she noted would be “very visible this month” as the trainers focused “on the importance of community policing and protection of human rights.”
The US is currently providing US$7.1 million towards an integrated water resource system on Lhaviyani Hinnavaru and Haa Alif Dhihdhoo islands.
It is also contributing US$20,000 in funding towards cultural preservation and the restoration of pre-Islamic artifacts in the National Museum, which were destroyed by a mob that broke into the building amid February 7′s political turmoil.