Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
August 18, 2009

QUESTION: I’m going to read you at the back end of a report that we are doing today on the (inaudible) in Sri Lanka, and problems for the people there. In May, Sri Lanka declared it had won the war. Aid agencies say the big question is when will all the civilians who survived it get to live free lives, and that is from our reporter there on the ground -- you’re joining us from Washington. How concerned are you about those more than 250-odd thousand people who are filling camps in Sri Lanka?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, as your reporter said, the Sri Lankan Government achieved a very important victory in defeating the Tamil Tigers, and the United States certainly welcomes that. But now, it’s very important that the government take urgent steps to win the peace, and I think there are really two categories of steps: first, as you say, to work as quickly as possible to resettle the more than 250,000 internally displaced persons who are still in the camps, but then also to take needed steps to achieve political reconciliation.

QUESTION: What sort of leverage do you think you have at the moment?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I think that there are a number of countries that have expressed their concern that are important donors of Sri Lanka, and I think Sri Lanka wants to remain a respected member of the international community, wants to be seen as a country that is a pluralist, multi-ethnic state. So it has its own interests in taking the steps that we and others are advocating.

QUESTION: Will you prevent the aid getting to those who need it most if, indeed, the Sri Lankan Government doesn’t follow through on what you hope they will?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, the United States has been one of the largest providers of humanitarian assistance. We’ve provided more than $60 million, primarily in food aid, but in other kinds of assistance, for the internally displaced persons over the last two years. And in terms of our future assistance, a lot will depend on the steps that Sri Lanka does take in the two areas that I mentioned.

QUESTION: So the Sri Lankan authorities said that they do plan to let civilians return home from these camps, but they say they must screen them first to identify any rebel fighters. Your thoughts?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think that there are a certain number of former LTTE combatants who are still in the camps. Many of them took off their uniforms and potentially blended in with the internally displaced persons. So I think there – it is important to have a process to try to separate them out and to provide them with rehabilitation and an opportunity to start new lives. But it’s important that that process proceed as quickly as possible and that this resettlement process can take place. So we’re urging the government to register all of the civilians as quickly as possible, provide them with ID cards so that they will have freedom of movement and not be detained in these camps.

And finally, what will the U.S. do if the Sri Lankan Government fails to share power with the minority Tamils?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I don’t want to engage in speculation about the future. As I said earlier, we have told our friends in the Sri Lankan Government that the more progress they make in resettling the internally displaced persons from the camps and the more progress they make on political reconciliation, the more the United States and probably the other donors as well will be able to make available assistance for reconstruction, which is urgently needed in the northern part of Sri Lanka.

QUESTION: This sounds like a threat.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We don’t make threats. Sri Lanka is a friend of the United States, and there are a number of people in our society, both in the NGO community but also in our U.S. Congress and in our own Administration, who are very concerned about the situation there. And we make clear what our interests are, and the Sri Lankan Government has its own interests. And we do our best to try to reconcile those. But at the end of day, each state is a sovereign government, and we’ll make our own decisions.

QUESTION: And with that, we’ll leave it there, sir. We thank you very much indeed.