Interview
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
August 13, 2009


QUESTION: So it’s three months since the end of the conflict now in Sri Lanka, but still 300,000 people are in (inaudible) camps where there is no freedom of movement and conditions are not ideal. Are you putting any pressure on Sri Lankan Government to release these people?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, first of all, thank you for the opportunity to join you on this program. We have had continuing dialogue with the Government of Sri Lanka about the conditions in the camp and the need to release all of the IDPs who are there now and to allow them to be resettled as quickly as possible back to their homes. As you know, the government has recently started a 180-day clock and they’ve promised to resettle the majority of the IDPs during that time period, so we think that’s a very important commitment and we hope they abide by that. And as you mentioned, we think another very, very important part of this is to ensure freedom of movement for those that remain in the camps. And the way to ensure that is to first have the government fully complete the registration process and, just as importantly, to issue the IDPs identity cards. And after they have those identity cards, they will be able to move more freely inside and outside of the camps, which is the customary international practice.

QUESTION: Well, you talked about the governments that promise to resettle these people by the end of this year, but looking at the rate at which (inaudible), many believe that it will not happen as such. And the Sri Lankan Government says that it needs more money, more aid from the international community for resettlement and rehabilitation. Are you planning to give any more aid for this program?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, the United States has been one of the largest donors already in terms of humanitarian assistance. We’re the largest food donor. All of our money goes through the World Food Program, and over the last two years we’ve given slightly less than $60 million in humanitarian assistance for the internally displaced people.

Going forward, we have said that our ability to provide money for reconstruction and for resettlement and livelihood and other activities will depend a lot on the progress that Sri Lanka makes in terms of abiding by its commitment to resettle the IDPs as quickly as possibly, and secondly, on the progress that is made towards political reconciliation and devolution of power.

QUESTION: Were you surprised by the recent comments by the Sri Lankan president that he would consider any formal political solution (inaudible) after the election, which is likely to be next year?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We were surprised. We hope that the president can announce sooner than that what his plans are for devolution, because we think that the recent elections that were held, both in the north and in the south, underline the divisions that still exist within Sri Lanka. And so it’s important now that the conflict with the LTTE is behind them for the government to reach out to not only the Tamils but to all of the other communities, the Muslims and others, and to really bring the country together and consolidate the opportunities for peace.

QUESTION: So what do you think is likely to happen if the government keeps on delaying announcing a political (inaudible)?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I think there’s a possibility that they will alienate the Tamil community further and again exacerbate the divisions that I talked about earlier, and perhaps even give new opportunities for the LTTE to organize. Certainly, the LTTE is now flat on its back having lost most of its leaders. But don’t forget that the Tamil diaspora is still very energized. We just had a meeting – I just hosted a meeting two days ago with a broad cross-section of representatives of the Tamil diaspora in America, and I think they are all still very upset about the conditions in the camps and about a lot of the discrimination that they feel the Tamils in Sri Lanka are subjected to.

So it’s very, very important for Sri Lanka to engage in their own dialogue with the Tamils, not only inside Sri Lanka but outside, and, again, to hasten this process of reconciliation as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: So you go there as ambassador – American ambassador in Colombo during the time of the war. You were keenly watching all those developments.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes.

QUESTION: And were you disappointed with the way, for example, the international community did not put any pressure on the Sri Lanka Government to any way to stop civilian casualties, to stop the civilian deaths in the northern part of Sri Lanka?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I was involved in all of those activities, and I wouldn’t say I that I’m disappointed. We made extraordinary efforts to try to protect civilians and to make clear the need for both sides to protect the lives of civilians while these hostilities were going on.

QUESTION: But the Sri Lankan Government went ahead with its offensive anyway.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: They did. And as a result, large numbers of civilians, unfortunately, did lose their lives.

QUESTION: But will you be supporting any move, either by the UN or by the human rights groups, that they should conduct an international investigation, international probe into the civilian deaths?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, for now, our priority is to work with – to ensure the resettlement of those in the camps and, again, to promote the reconciliation process as quickly as possible. But we do believe that accountability is important. And in the first instance, it’s the obligation of the member state, in this case Sri Lanka, to ensure accountability. And we think that that accountability will be a very important part of the reconciliation process.

And I don’t want to suggest that there’s any particular cookie-cutter approach to this. Every country has pursued different avenues – the South Africans one model, the Rwandans another model. And I think it’s up to Sri Lanka to figure out what is going to be the appropriate model in its case so that, again, they can reach closure on this chapter of Sri Lanka’s history and promote a pluralistic and multiethnic society that will ensure that all of the communities of Sri Lanka have equal rights and can live in peace with each other.

QUESTION: Do you think it’s a truth and reconciliation model would suit Sri Lanka, or they should develop their own model?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think they should develop their own model, and I think that part of the dialogue process is to try to understand what will work best for Sri Lanka. And it’s really not for America or any other foreign country to try to dictate what that model might be.

QUESTION: So let’s come to the issue concerning India. India, as many Tamils say, they say that they seem to be supporting the Sri Lankan Government at this point, and it’s not putting any pressure on the government to come out with a political solution or even for resettlement. Now, in your current role, do you intend to put pressure on India to change its current Sri Lankan policy?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, India is one of our closest allies, and it’s not really for us to put pressure on India to do anything. We maintain a very good and active dialogue with India on Sri Lanka and on all of the countries on India’s periphery – Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and so forth. And I think that the positions that the United States and India have with respect to the situation in Sri Lanka are very similar. And we have, I think, largely the same appraisal of the situation and also what needs to be done.

QUESTION: I just want to come back to this issue of aid, because the Sri Lankan Government is talking about this again and again in recent days. Are you going to put any specific conditions? Are you talking about any specific conditions before talking about the big donor aid in terms of a massive reconstruction or rehabilitation program?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, as I said earlier, I think our focus for the moment is to ensure that the 250,00-plus internally displaced persons are resettled as quickly as possible to their homes, and that this process of reconciliation and devolution is pursued as quickly as possible. And we’ve told our friends in the government that the faster the progress can be made on both of those issues, the more that the United States will be able to be generous in providing assistance.

QUESTION: So when you were there in Colombo as ambassador, you were talking about this issue. You were outspoken with (inaudible) north and eastern part of Sri Lanka, meeting with the Tamil people. But then, as some section of the government did not like it, there were lots of (inaudible) articles against you and they were criticizing you. Were you kind of disappointed (inaudible) personal experience there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I feel I was in Sri Lanka at a very crucial period in Sri Lanka’s history. And we tried to do what we think is right and to follow America’s principles and America’s values. And I think those are the same values that the vast majority of Sri Lankans embrace.

Certainly, I came under criticism from extremists on both sides, but I also got a lot of support from the moderate middle who oftentimes were intimidated and didn’t feel like they had the opportunity to speak out. But I received many, many messages privately of support for the positions that we were taking both publicly and privately. So those gave me great encouragement to continue the policies that we did, and we’re continuing to do that now, even though I’m in a new position.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for your time.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to be with you.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, sir. Good luck. Have a nice day.


[This is a mobile copy of Interview With BBC World Service South Asia]