printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Humanitarian Situation in Sri Lanka


Remarks
Richard A. Boucher
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
March 6, 2009

Share

Via Conference Call

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: It’s good to talk to you all. I wanted just to talk to a few people today and take your questions. First, we are expressing our condolences, as the President did the other day, for the policemen killed and the people hurt in the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. There’s a lot of concern about that attack. We will watch for the Pakistani authorities to investigate, and find out who did it. It’s certainly something that’s shocked us all and raised a lot of concerns here. I telephoned the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister today to express our condolences to him.

Second, there is a lot of concern about the situation in Sri Lanka itself. There are probably 150,000 to 200,000 civilians, innocent people caught up in the fighting; as many as 70,000 people stuck on the coastal area in the so-called safe zone. We’ve seen incidents of shelling back and forth, we’ve had problems with access for food. The fundamental problem is these people have to be allowed to leave. We’re calling on the Tamil Tigers to let these people leave the zone safely and go to places that are outside of the conflict areas.

It’s very important that the continuation of the fighting not be allowed to cause an escalation of the suffering for the people of that region, for the Tamil people of that region.

We’re also supporting efforts by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and international non-governmental organizations to get assistance to the displaced people. The United States provides over half the food for the World Food Program distributions. We’ve provided more than $36 million of assistance for people working in this area. So we’ve been very concerned about the situation of displaced people.

We’re glad to see the government is managing to get some additional food supplies in this weekend. We’ve supported the International Committee of the Red Cross evacuations of the sick and wounded. So there are a lot of things going on, but we’re really trying to look at the humanitarian situation and just make sure these poor suffering people get taken care of, and to call on all the parties to allow humanitarian access and evacuations, and to allow the people caught in the middle to get to places of safety.

That’s what I wanted to say at the beginning and I’d be glad to take questions.

QUESTION: Thank you. Can I start with Lahore?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Yeah.

QUESTION: You told about the attacks on Lahore. Do you see a link with the Tamil Tigers or other Sri Lankan groups?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think the basic answer is I don’t know. I don’t know of any link like that at this point, but what we need to do is let the Pakistani authorities conduct an investigation. I think they’ve said they have some people in custody and they have some leads and information, so we’ll look to see what they say about this.

QUESTION: You would have reason to believe that the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] or others had links with al-Qaida in the past?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I don’t know of anything like that.

QUESTION: I wanted to know if by this attack the terrorists have attacked really all of South Asia. This [inaudible]. What are the attacks trying to achieve? And what do you think the Pakistani policemen, security forces tried to save Sri Lankans very bravely? What will you say about that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think your first question, what are these attacks trying to achieve. Frankly, God knows. I don’t have any idea. Right around the same time there was an attack on a Sufi Shrine up in Peshawar. Attacks on the cricket team, and the Sufi Shrine, I mean who are these people? What are they trying to do? It’s not just to disrupt modern schools and things like that. They’re going after the very, as you would say, the very soul of South Asia, the very heart of the Pakistani people. I think all of us understand very clearly that all of these terrorists are really a threat to any aspirations the people of Pakistan have to living a normal life, living a modern life. I haven’t a clue why somebody would want to attack targets like these and people like these.

I do know that the Pakistan security services are fighting valiantly. You just saw in the attack in Lahore seven of them, I think it was, six or seven of them died trying to protect the cricket team. That’s what they’re sworn to do, that’s what they’re called upon to do. But they are heroes who died in the line of duty.

QUESTION: Have either the Sri Lankan authorities or the Pakistani authorities sought any kind of help with the investigation?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: So far I don’t think they’ve needed it. We are of course always available to do whatever we can in these circumstances. They’re quite aware of that. We have close ties with the Pakistani authorities who do these investigations. But at this point I don’t think there is any particular help that we’ve been asked for.

QUESTION: Have you offered any help?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: The offer is always there. It’s just in the normal course of business to say that we’re there to say any kind of help we are glad to provide, but they haven’t identified anything at this point, anything in particular.

QUESTION: Coming back to Sri Lanka, there is a news report in Sri Lankan media about U.S. rescuing the civilians trapped in northern part through military, airlifting them. What are the plans right now, how the U.S. is helping the Sri Lankan government in rescuing its civilians trapped in the northern part of the country? Can you elaborate a little bit about? And also about the news reports coming into Sri Lanka?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Right now we’re supporting government efforts to get food and supplies into those areas. We’re supporting the International Committee of the Red Cross and the international --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I was answering a question about what are we doing to support the efforts of the government and what about the prospect the United States itself might be able to evacuate some people.

In terms of supporting the efforts to take care of these people, as I said, we support the efforts of the government to get food and other supplies in there; support the efforts of international NGOs and the International Committee of the Red Cross to take care of people. The best would be for the different groups just to allow people to leave the zones of conflict through safe passage and get out to their homes and villages, and to safe towns and places to go.

Should there be a safe environment to go in and move some of these people, I’m sure we’d be glad to help. But at this point we need the parties, including the Tamil Tigers, to stop the fighting, to talk about the terms of ending hostilities, and to allow access to the displaced people and to allow the displaced people to leave.

QUESTION: Mr. Boucher, basically what we want to know is whether the U.S. is going to be involved in the evacuation of civilians who are trapped in the Vanni region. Reports say the U.S. Pacific Command is being involved in these plans. Is it true?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: We’ve had some people out there to look at the situation, to identify what the possibilities might be, and as I said, we’ll do whatever we can to help these people. But it’s not possible to do an evacuation until you have a permissive environment, until you have the parties not threatening these people, and then allowing them to leave.

So what we’re calling for today is that all the parties, especially the Tamil Tigers, need to allow these people to leave the conflict areas, need to allow these people passage out of the so-called safe zone, and need to let them find places of safety.

QUESTION: Mr. Boucher, one more question. Basically there is a view, especially among a section of the Tamils that the new Barack Obama administration in the US will be taking a slightly different view on the problems of terrorism. Is that going to affect your world view? Or is it going to change your view of Sri Lanka?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think first and foremost you’ve heard from President Obama and Secretary Clinton an absolute determination to deal with the problem of terrorism and to deal with it using all the tools of policy, meaning military means, intelligence means, but also through economic development, better government, and better diplomacy. So it’s a very comprehensive approach but it’s a very determined approach as well.

In terms of Sri Lanka I would say we’ve been involved in many aspects of the problem. We’ve always said there needs to be opportunity for Tamils, there needs to be respect for Tamils and their place in society, and there needs to be political arrangements to have a stable political governance situation on the island. But those remain goals that we continue to press and I think it’s important to lay out that vision. But let’s also remember that respect for Tamils means that they shouldn’t be trapped in the middle of conflict zones. The Tamil Tigers, by trapping them, by continuing the conflict, are just increasing the suffering of the Tamil people. So it’s very much time for them to allow safe passage, for them to allow these people to leave.

QUESTION: What are the tools available to you to ensure that this happens?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think we’re speaking out, we’re providing assistance, we’re talking and working with the government, and we’re trying to use our influence wherever we can.

QUESTION: [Assistant] Secretary Boucher, you said earlier that you were encouraging talks between the Tigers and the government.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I don’t think I said that. I said I encouraged the Tigers to stop fighting and to be willing to talk about how to end the hostilities.

QUESTION: Thank you for clarifying that.

Can you see the U.S. playing any sort of role in brokering talks?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: We’ve supported the past Norwegian efforts. I’m sure there’s always opportunities to do something. But we have to emphasize first and foremost, as I said, let’s take care of the people who are trapped right now. Let’s get them to safety and see some willingness to end the hostilities and stop the fighting.

The Tigers have been shelling out of this, shooting shells out of the safe zone and we’ve called upon the government not to shoot back, but first and foremost the Tamil Tigers have to stop shooting. That’s what we’re asking them to do. Stop the violence, let the people find safety, and then talk about how to end the hostilities.

QUESTION: Can we come back, Mr. [Assistant] Secretary, do you see the Tamil conflict spreading across the region into South India perhaps? There is also some kind of a domestic [inaudible] India consequence on this.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I don’t see why it should. I think the situation in Sri Lanka is quite different.

Let’s do one or two more.

QUESTION: I want to ask you about the Lahore incident. After this tragic incident the Pakistani and Sri Lankan foreign ministers met and they expressed their resolve to work together and said that [inaudible] would not come between the ties to these two countries. What would you say in [inaudible] countries to work collectively in [inaudible] and curbing this terrorism?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think we’ve all seen that terrorism is a threat to all of us, and that all kinds of terrorism are a threat to all of us. Whatever the supposed reason of these groups, whether it’s Taliban affiliations or the Tamil terrorist groups or others that have operated in other countries -- Maxilites, Maoists, God knows how many there are in this region. All these groups are a threat -- they undermine the countries where they’re located, they undermine the region.

So it is important to take a regional approach which was why when I was just in Bangladesh I talked to the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, about her proposal to have a regional counterterrorism group and said that sounded like a good idea to us. We would hope the countries of the region would find ways to cooperate against terrorism. And of course any way that we can support that we would try to do so.

Who wants the last one?

QUESTION: You said that the terrorists are on the soil of South Asia and that they are after the Pakistani people living a normal life. How urgent is the situation? Can you put a time line to it? And if actions are not taken within a year or so, it will be too late, at least as far as Pakistan is concerned and that ultimately the terrorists will have the upper hand?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I can’t really. Obviously we’re very concerned when we see attacks expanding, attacks in new places. We see efforts by the terrorists to prevent the government from going into places like Swat Valley. There are a lot of concerns. But I also know there are a lot of people fighting back.

We just had Pakistani and Afghan delegations here in Washington working with us on the review of policy to look at how we can put together a common strategy to beat the terrorists and provide economic opportunity and good governance for people in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I met with the Mayor of Karachi today and talked to him about what his people are doing, what he’s doing in Karachi to try to stabilize that city and give people a good life.

On my list trip I visited the Marriott [Hotel] in Pakistan and the Taj Palace [Hotel] in Mumbai and you see people all over are rebuilding, that are determined to provide a better life for people and who are determined to fight back in all kinds of ways, whether it’s rebuilding the hotel or improving government or actually like the Pakistani soldiers and military using their arms.

So I think there are a lot of people that are trying to push back. We want to work with them. So I couldn’t give a time line and say we’ve got to do this in this time line, we’ve just got to keep pushing back in all kinds of ways.

QUESTION: When you said you would support [inaudible], Mr. [Assistant] Secretary --

[Multiple voices]

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I’ve got two different people talking and I --

QUESTION: -- fleeing civilians. But the Tamil Tigers have been saying at least to us, the BBC, that they are ready for a ceasefire only the government is not willing for a ceasefire. Don’t you think that Western countries, especially the U.S. can also apply equal pressure on the Sri Lankan government at least to order at least a temporary ceasefire to facilitate the movement of, the evacuation of civilians?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Okay. This is an extra question. The last question was the last one, so let me try to answer it and then we’ll say goodbye.

We have made very clear we think both sides need to stop the fighting. We’ve seen the government has allowed a safe zone. We’ve called on them not to fire into the safe zone even when they are fired upon. But we have also seen the Tamil Tigers to continue shelling out of that safe zone. We’ve seen them continuing hostilities in other places. So we believe it’s time for them to stop fighting, to allow these people to go safely to other parts, to safe places, and then to be willing to discuss how to end the hostilities.

Making political calls and statements doesn’t really count when you’re still lobbing shells and shooting guns. So it’s time to stop shooting the guns.

That’s I think where I’m going to have to stop. I’m sorry I have to go, but it’s good to get a chance to talk to you all.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.



Back to Top
Sign-in

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.