Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Chennai, India
December 10, 2009

Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you again for coming. I’m here really on very short notice because part of my trip was canceled so I had an opportunity to come visit south India. I’ve visited Delhi a lot recently, but I haven’t had a chance to come down here, and so I wanted to come and see all of our friends in the Consulate and sort of catch myself up a little bit since I haven’t been to south India in a while.

We have such a rich bilateral agenda now with India. It’s a great opportunity for me to talk, for example, to a women’s group that I’ve just met with -- talk about a lot of the women’s empowerment initiatives that we’re doing together. I also met with some of the Sri Lankan refugees to hear their perspectives on the situation in Sri Lanka. But I always appreciate the opportunity to talk with members of the press and hear what’s on your mind.

I guess the headlines from my visit in Sri Lanka were that I was very impressed with the progress that had been made recently in terms of resettling IDPs, internally displaced people, from the camps in Manik Farm and elsewhere. I was told there are now approximately 115,000 IDPs who remain in Manik Farm and all the rest have been resettled. Those that remain in Manik Farm have freedom of movement, something we’ve been advocating for. So they are no longer being detained. There is the expectation that they will all be resettled by the end of January. That’s the date that President Rajapaksa has set.

I also had a chance to go out to Mannar and some of the villages around there to see some of the people who have already been resettled and talk to them. Again, I think the progress has been encouraging. The government has made a great deal of effort to make sure the people are given materials to rebuild their housing, tin roofs, so that they can have shelter over their heads. They’ve been give food rations so that they can support themselves until agricultural harvests can begin. Roads are being rebuilt, schools started, hospitals are being built, electricity is being extended into these areas that for many years have not had these kinds of services. So I think those are all very welcome steps and hope that they continue.

In my meetings with the government, we also stressed the importance of taking steps to provide for political reconciliation and devolution of power either under the 13th amendment or however the government and the people of Sri Lanka decide. We also talked a little bit about human rights. We think that’s an important part of the reconciliation process, to improve the human rights situation. Particularly the freedom of the media and the journalists who have suffered from harassment and intimidation of various kinds.

Overall, I left Sri Lanka with the sense that progress was being made, that they are about to have a very important presidential election at the end of January after which they will have parliamentary elections, and then later in the year they’ll probably have local government elections followed by provincial council elections. So again, I think all those will be important steps in helping to resettle the north and elect a new generation of leaders who can emerge in the northern part of Sri Lanka and help unify the country, rebuild that part of the country.

I’m also here to talk just a little bit about our bilateral relations, between the United States and India. I had a lot to do with the preparations for the Prime Minister’s very successful state visit with President and Mrs. Obama. That was I think a landmark visit in many ways. The President himself said that India is an indispensable partner in securing the future prosperity and security of the world.

I think what’s striking about our relations now is there’s a real sense of opportunity between our two countries. A real sense of promise. Opportunity, for example, to pool the talents of our business people, our scientists, and our educators to work together not only to expand trade but to tackle some of these big challenges like global health and agricultural productivity, clean energy. Also, I think there are opportunities to tackle some of these other big global challenges like counterterrorism and nonproliferation where it’s very notable that the United States and India for the first time are beginning to work cooperatively on these very important issues. That’s a very encouraging sign of the maturity of our relationship and the strength of our partnership.

I’m not going to go through all the different announcements that were made. I’m sure you’re familiar with them. I think we’re particularly encouraged by the opportunities to work in the area of education where India is going to be opening up its system to foreign investment and American universities of all kinds will welcome the opportunity to invest here in India, to partner with India’s universities.

I think also the clean energy and climate change dialogue that we have and the initiatives that our two leaders set forth will be a very important new area of cooperation between the United States and India. There’s no more important priority right now than to secure an agreement at Copenhagen, and then, longer term, to have our scientists and our business people develop new clean energy so that both of our countries can have a cleaner energy future. It’s a very important opportunity to partner together on that.

The other area that I would call attention to is in the area of health. We both announced the establishment of a Global Disease Detection Center. That’s going to be very important to health -- to not only detect new diseases that are emerging, but also discuss how we can treat existing pandemics -- such as polio, for example, is one of the ones where we think there is an opportunity now to finally end this terrible disease that has plagued countries like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan. We’ll be working to make that a priority. I think there are many other areas in the health field where we can cooperate.

Underlying all of this progress, I think, is the strong people to people ties between our two countries and the strong shared interests and shared values that our people have. That has really given a great boost to our relations. You’re all familiar with the 2.5 million Indian-Americans, Non Resident Indians, who live in the United States who do so much to serve as a bridge between our two societies, between our two economies. One of my priorities as Assistant Secretary will be to work very closely with the Indian-American Diaspora and other Diasporas to try to partner with them in as many ways as we can. Again, they want to do more to help India, and we would like to draw on their many talents. So again, we’re excited about some of those prospects as well.

Let me stop there, and I’ll be glad to take any questions that you have.