Interview
Robert O. Blake
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
June 29, 2009


QUESTION: Okay. Let’s start with Sri Lanka. You know, I watched your testimony on Thursday. Do you see – well, here – two things: One, let’s start with the IMF agreement. While the fighting was going on and as it approached its --

QUESTION: -- latter stages, the Administration officials made very clear to me that they were simply not going to support an IMF agreement and then she said it publicly about three weeks after I reported it. And has that position changed? Is the Administration more open to an IMF agreement now?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I would say that where we are now is that we’re waiting for the Sri Lankan Government to submit the letter of intent, which is their signal that they intend to apply. When they do so, then we’ll take a look at it along with all the other members in the IMF Board. My understanding is that the IMF may be going out there fairly soon to kind of do a working-level visit of some sort. At some point thereafter, presumably, there will be a letter that will come forward and then we, like the other board members, will take a look.

I would just say that there has been some progress on the humanitarian front, and we hope that there will be more progress. For example, we think that access by the UN, by humanitarian NGOs has improved into the camps in Vavuniga. But even there, that there’s more progress that needs to be made. For example, the ICRC, the International Committee for the Red Cross, has still not gotten full access into the camps for its very important protection activities.

I think another area where there’s been some progress is the government recently announced that all fishing restrictions have been lifted. Fishing, as you know, has been heavily curtailed during the fighting because of concerns that fishing boats might be used to smuggle arms or other goods to the LTTE. And now, with these fishing restrictions lifted, that will make a very big difference for livelihoods not only in the north, when people are resettled, but also for Tamils in the east who were resettled last year. I think that will help a lot for them.

So that’s – but just to finish the point --

QUESTION: Please.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: There are still a lot of other areas where progress needs to take place. I would say that demining is one very important one, where the demining process has started, but we hope that the government will be in a position to issue a timetable about when certain areas will be demined, and then after that, when people might be resettled into those areas.

The government, as you know, has made a pledge that they hope to resettle a majority of the IDPs, the internally displaced persons, by the end of the year, which is an ambitious goal. An important part of that will be their success in carrying out a good demining program. And the United States has indicated that we’re willing to help with that, to help expedite the – to provide demining assistance to help, and to proceed with that.

QUESTION: Just so we’re clear, when you said that there are other issues where there needs to be progress, you were talking about where there needs to be progress on the humanitarian issue. You did not mean to suggest that these are in any way conditions or factors that will affect your decision in terms of an IMF agreement (inaudible)?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, no, – these are not tied to the IMF side of it, but they’re all part of the larger part of achieving progress and achieving reconciliation. And I’d say those are the two things that the United States is most focused on right now, which is, again, humanitarian progress, the resettlement, but also on the question of achieving political reconciliation and --

QUESTION: Let’s go to the question of reconciliation.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sure.

QUESTION: You know, you specifically referenced Article 13 in the testimony –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thirteenth Amendment.

QUESTION: The 13th Amendment, excuse me. Do you see any evidence, much evidence, that the Sri Lankan Government is willing to reach out in meaningful ways to the Tamil and other minority populations so as to be more inclusive, or do you not yet see that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’d say that the President has spoken about the need to reach out to the Tamil people, and he’s taken some actions. For example, he recently had a meeting with a large number of Tamil businesspeople where he wanted to hear their views and listen to what might be done. And so I think that was an important outreach.

The government has spoken about the need to engage the Tamil Diaspora, and again, I think that would be very important, something that we have encouraged, particularly in places where there are large numbers of Tamil Diaspora, like London, Paris, Washington, D.C., Australia, et cetera.

In terms of legislative actions, I don’t think there’s been too much progress yet in terms of, for example, the 13th Amendment or any kind of actions to finish what’s called the All-Parties Representative Committee process. So that remains to be seen, what they plan to do. They’ve talked of their plans, but again, those haven’t been implemented yet.

QUESTION: What would you – in simple terms, what would you like to see them do?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, it’s not so much what we want to see -- it’s really what the Tamils themselves want. And I think that one of the things that we’ve encouraged them to do is to undertake a serious dialogue with the non-LTTE Tamils in Sri Lanka. For example, there’s what’s called the Tamil National Alliance. These are people mostly who represent the eastern and northern parts of the country who are members of parliament, but then there are others who are simply parliamentarians and who, we believe, have an important role to play.

One of the difficulties that the government faces is that the LTTE was brutally efficient in assassinating all the moderate Tamils who might provide an alternative to their own leadership, because they were determined to be the sole voice of the Tamil people. As a result of that, there really are very few Tamils left. Many people left the country, and then many others were intimidated and just didn’t want to join politics because of the threat that the LTTE posed.

That kind of lingering effect poses a problem for the government now about who do they engage, because there really aren’t that many Tamils there. But it does underline the need for them to engage those that are there, and also to try to talk to other Tamils who are not necessarily politicians, but, for example, people in the camps. There are 300,000 – almost 300,000 Tamils in the camps. There are committees that have been set up already that provide sort of informal representation, and perhaps the government could engage those people, for example.

So there are a number of ways they could do it. But the underlying point is that it’s important for them to do that, and then to follow through on that dialogue.

QUESTION: Turning to India, if I may, what do you – I have a whole slew of very specific questions, but what do you hope will come out of the Secretary’s planned trip there next month?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The principle objective of the Secretary’s visit is to announce with her counterpart, Foreign Minister Krishna, the elements of the new partnership between the United States and India, and also, I think, to put to rest this notion that somehow India has become less important in this Administration, now that we’re spending so much time on Afghanistan and Pakistan and devoting so many resources to that important question. I think after the Secretary’s visit, people will have a very clear sense of the great importance that we attach to our bilateral relations with India and our ambition to expand those relations not only on the bilateral side, but to work together to tackle some of the global challenges like nonproliferation, climate change, global trade talks, and so forth.

QUESTION: Is Todd Stern going to come on that trip, do you know?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We haven’t determined the participation yet.

QUESTION: Okay. Yeah, I mean, this notion seems to have – it’s as if people expected there would be a huge amount of engagement in advance of their election.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right. Okay, so we had to wait for the elections and then – almost immediately after the government was formed, we began a very intensive process to look at all of our bilateral dialogues and all of the new possibilities. We’ve been engaged with our friends in the government. You saw Under Secretary Bill Burns made a very important visit out there with me and others, and that was to prepare, again, the ground for the Secretary’s visit. Now, she’ll be going out there sometime in the second half of July.

QUESTION: Sure. Can you sketch out for me some of the areas where you see opportunity? I mean, you mentioned some of the multilateral ones –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right.

QUESTION: -- but where you see an opportunity for deeper engagement?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I’d say one very clear one will be education, where, as you know, under the previous government, there was a minister who really wasn’t interested in allowing greater foreign participation in the education sector. And the new minister is a gentleman by the name of Kapil Sibal, who is a former minister of science and technology and a very dynamic and forward-leaning individual, and somebody who has been to the United States a lot, understands our country, and very much favors opening up the higher education sector to foreign participation.

As you know, there are 90,000 Indian students in the United States. But India faces both big opportunities and big challenges, because with such a young population, it has a large number of young people who are going to be entering into university – the university age over the next 20 years, and they have fairly limited capacity right now to accommodate all of those. Many people go overseas, those that can go overseas. But many simply don’t get the education that they need.

There’s a great need to not only build more universities. If they can have foreign partners like the United States, that will help a great deal to ensure that those are of high quality and that they offer the kind of curricula that the new globalized India will need to compete.

QUESTION: Do you expect there to be specific announcements in that regard?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t know how much detail we’re going to go into, but we’re certainly going to be talking about all of these issues. I mean, education is just one of several that we’re going to be talking about.

QUESTION: Can you sketch out some of the other ones?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I think I don’t want to get – I don’t want to --

QUESTION: I get it, I get it.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: -- you know, get ahead of the Secretary of State on this. But she has talked already about things like women’s empowerment, like agriculture, science and technology. There are a number of areas where we hope to do more. And again, I’ll leave it to the Secretary to announce some of the specifics.

QUESTION: Sure. I spent a lot of last year writing about the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal, and I read and re-read and re-read, you know, the Henry Hyde Act until my head hurt. And – but there are a couple of things that I want to ask about that. The legislation, if I’m not mistaken, requires, actually, a couple of things that have to take place a part of the implementation. Two of those, I think, are the reports to Congress on ensuring that U.S. exports to India are – that their end use is acceptable. And then secondly, on – here I can’t read my writing, but I think this one is that implementation would not contribute to strengthening India’s nuclear weapons program. And I think those both have to be done by the one-year anniversary of the act coming into force, which is December.

How are you doing on those two reports?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I mean, you know, those --

QUESTION: If you don’t know, that’s okay.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We’re more focused on kind of the big picture issues, which was the signing of the Additional Protocol, which took place, the report on their safeguarded facilities to the IAEA, and then now, we hope the government will announce at some point the two new nuclear reactor park sites that will be allocated to American businesspeople to develop nuclear reactor parks in India. So they’ll be in two different states, that will be an important signal. And then the other will be the parliamentary passage of nuclear liability legislation that will enable our companies to invest and export in India.

QUESTION: On –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: On the civil nuclear side.

QUESTION: Understood. On the first issue, I’ve got to figure that’s something you would hope either to announce or to celebrate when she visits.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes, one would hope so. But again, I don’t want to get ahead of the process.

QUESTION: True. And am I correct in understanding what you said as to imply that those two sites would be explicitly reserved to U.S. companies?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes. I mean, there will be others that will be for other companies as well, so it’s not an exclusive for U.S. companies. We’re one of a number of countries that will benefit from this.

QUESTION: And this is not something that I have followed closely, but every time I ask about it, the liability issue, people always say it’s a sine qua non for U.S. industry –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Correct.

QUESTION: -- because of Bhopal.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Correct.

QUESTION: People also say – and again, I don’t follow it much at all – that there is tremendous, almost visceral ambivalence in India about this, precisely because of Bhopal. So why should we sort of indemnify American companies, given what they did there? Do you sense that, and do you have any doubts about parliament approving such a law eventually?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I must say I haven’t heard those kind of doubts being expressed to us, at least at the government-to-government level. We – again, we hope that parliament will act because this is – this benefits India as much as it benefits the United States, in the sense that India has a tremendous need for the energy that these reactors will generate. And it also is the capstone of this – all that we’ve been working for in – towards in this civil nuclear partnership.

QUESTION: Karlygash told me – and I saw you –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yeah, I think I’ve got to run, actually.

QUESTION: How much time have we got? We done?

STAFF: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Are you saying, yes, we’re done or we –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We are done, but we can take one more question if you want.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks. You can’t talk about Afghanistan-Pakistan because that’s Dick Holbrooke’s thing.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Correct. I can do it in general terms, but --

QUESTION: No, no, no, I’m not going to waste your time on that. But here’s a question that I think is relevant that maybe you can address, which is India-Pakistan relations. What would you like to see there? What – you know, post-Mumbai, are there ways that the United States could be helpful in trying to foster that dialogue? I’m not talking about mediation. I’m not going to put out a story saying United States to mediate. But can you give me some sense of your feel for where that is post-Mumbai and what, if anything, the U.S. can do to try to nurture that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, let me just say on that that the United States welcomes the dialogue that has taken place. Prime Minister Singh and President Zardari met in – at the SCO summit. More recently, the two foreign ministers met on the margins of the G-8 in Trieste last week, and there’s now talk that the foreign secretaries may meet at some point in the future. These are all certainly very welcome steps.

In terms of a U.S. role, I don’t see any U.S. role. These are all meetings that have been arranged by the two sides, and again, I think that they’re doing very well on this. And that’s all I need to say.

QUESTION: Fair enough. Thanks for your time.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Okay, Arshad.

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