Good evening. It's a real pleasure for me to be back in Sri Lanka and to see many friends and colleagues. I'd like to begin with a brief statement and then I'd be happy to take some questions.
It's been over six months since I left Sri Lanka as Ambassador and began my duties in Washington as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs. I left Sri Lanka only days after Government forces captured the last remaining territory held by the LTTE. The defeat of the LTTE has created a tremendous opportunity for the people of Sri Lanka. For the first time in over a generation, Sri Lankans live in a country that is not divided by war or marred by terror and violence.
To bring unity and peace to the island, the Government and people of Sri Lanka must now undertake the difficult process of reconciliation and reconstruction. The United States welcomes the recent progress by the Government of Sri Lanka to return a majority of these Sri Lankans displaced by the war to their homes and allow increased freedom of movement to those still in the camps.
I visited Manik Farm yesterday morning and saw evidence of this progress. I was pleased to see that those living in the camps have greater freedom to come and go. I also visited some returnees in the Mannar area and witnessed some of the ongoing demining activity, where again progress is being made.
I met with President Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Bogollogama, and I have also met with other political leaders during my visit. Everyone agrees that there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done. Large areas of the North remain heavily mined and reconstruction of infrastructure is at its beginning stages. The United States stands ready to continue our assistance in these areas. We have already contributed approximately $6.6 million for demining activities in the North. We will continue our support for demining and are working with the Government of Sri Lanka to identify how and where our resources can be most effective.
In all my meetings with Government and non-governmental leaders, I expressed my country's hope that the Government and opposition will work together to develop a consensus on reconciliation and power-sharing arrangements that can be implemented to ensure that all Sri Lankans can participate fully in the democratic process and that democracy can be restored in northern Sri Lanka, so Tamils and others in the North can enjoy a future of hope, dignity, and opportunity.
Next month, Sri Lankans will decide who will be your next president. It is an historic election for your country. For the first time in decades, a united Sri Lanka will vote in a national election. The United States does not take sides in elections in other countries, except to express our strong support for a free and fair democratic process. I am confident relations between the United States and Sri Lanka will grow no matter which candidate is victorious. The United States is still Sri Lanka's most important trade partner, receiving over one quarter of Sri Lanka's total exports, more than any other single nation. In areas such as education, science, and culture, as well, our bilateral relationship has benefitted people in both of our countries.
An important element of reconciliation is safeguarding and protecting the rights of all Sri Lankans. In practice, this means that journalists should be able to write their perspectives and report on events freely, without fear of reprisal; that individuals should be able voice their differences openly; and that people who have violated the rights of others should be held accountable for their actions.
In closing, I shall continue to work toward a stronger and closer partnership between the United States and Sri Lanka. Ambassador Butenis - who is in the United States to attend a conference for U.S. Ambassadors - is a strong voice for enhancing and deepening ties between our two nations. She and I firmly believe that our relationship will develop and grow in the months and years to come, as Sri Lanka makes progress on the priorities I outlined above.
And with that, I am pleased to take a few questions.
Question: During General Sarath Fonseka's visit to the United States a couple of weeks back, there were reports that the US Department of Homeland Security had asked to question him. There was no comment from the Americans. What actually happened? Did you actually want to talk to him? To coerce and press charges against the Defense Secretary?
A/S Blake: The State Department is not responsible for any investigations of the kind that you are talking about so I really don't have anything to say about investigations against specific individuals.
Question: Mr. Blake, are you satisfied in the manner in which resettlement is taking place in the country?
A/S Blake: I am. I think there has been a great deal of progress in the last couple of months, and I really welcome that progress, both in the numbers of people who have been resettled, but also in the fact that now freedom of movement has been granted to those who remain in the camps, so I just hope that progress will continue.
Question: Mr. Blake, immediately after the war there was some uproar against Sri Lanka, but now according to your comments, Sri Lanka is on its way of rising from the ashes of the war. Do you think the international community must help Sri Lanka without dragging its feet by mentioning all kind of past things, and they should look on the new situation? What is your comment on it?
A/S Blake: Well, I don't really want to comment for the rest of the international community. Just speaking for the United States, as I said, we welcome the progress that's been made on the resettlement process and the granting of freedom of movement and I think that, as a result, we'll be able to continue to support providing food to those who have been resettled. We've been one of the major donors of food assistance in the last year to the people of Sri Lanka and particularly to those who have been displaced by war.
In terms of our future assistance, I think the amount we'll be able to provide will be dependent to a certain extent on the progress that is made on some of those other areas that I talked about, things like political reconciliation and progress on human rights, and to the extent that there is progress on that, we'll be able to increase our assistance and again, normalize our relations.
Question: This is the first country which has prepared a human rights allegations report against Sri Lanka. What happened to the report and what is the future?
A/S Blake: You are referring to the war crimes report, not to the human rights report. The war crimes report, as you all know, was sent to the Senate. That was a requirement that was levied on us by the United States Senate, and we were pleased to comply with that requirement. The next step is for the Government of Sri Lanka to take action on that report. As in other countries where accusations of war crimes have been levied, we look in the first instance to the host government to take action on those crimes that have been identified, and so that's the same here in Sri Lanka.
Question: I have a question on US policy and the role of the lobby industry in the United States. There are reports that US congressmen and senators are influenced by lobbyists who are paid by LTTE front organizations, they work for LTTE front organizations, and this in turn influences US policy and the statements that are made and so on in relation to Sri Lanka. Can you comment on that?
A/S Blake: I can tell you that any lobbyist or anybody indeed who works for a foreign terrorist organization would be investigated and probably arrested, so I can tell you that there..
Question: (unclear)....front organizations....(unclear)
A/S Blake: Well, I don't know. I can't comment on who is an LTTE front organization and who isn't. I think what's important is that the Sri Lankan Government continue, they have an embassy in Washington and like all other embassies should respond to whatever charges they find objectionable. It is up to them to respond to those.
Question: A well-known LTTE activist by the name of V. Rudrakumaran is said to be working freely in the US despite his direct links with the LTTE. Will you arrest this man?
A/S Blake: Well, I wouldn't say that Mr. Rudrakumaran is a well-known LTTE activist. He has been an advisor on various peace delegations in the LTTE, and to the best of our knowledge, he has not committed any crimes in the United States. If people have information to the contrary, we'd welcome that information. As a general matter, let me just say that the United States took one of the strongest and most principled stands against LTTE terrorists of any country in the world. We were one of the first countries to designate the LTTE as a foreign terrorist organization back in 1997. We have taken numerous actions against individuals who were found to be supporting the LTTE in one way or another, so I would stand our record on dealing with the LTTE against that of any country in the world.
Question: Sir, do you think the target of the Sri Lankan President of resettling all the IDPs by January 31 is realizable and achievable?
A/S Blake: I think it is, yes. Certainly, given the progress of the last month or two I think that it is certainly achievable. I hope that it can happen because it would be a very strong and a very important step forward.
Question: Did the State Department follow a recommendation of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee report?
A/S Blake: I am not exactly sure what recommendation you are referring to. As I said earlier, we look in the first instance to the government of Sri Lanka to respond to the allegations that were raised in the report.
Question: The recommendations that were released yesterday.
A/S Blake: Again, I am not sure which recommendations you are referring to.
Question: It basically recommends that the US Government take a much less confrontational attitude toward Sri Lanka. That is what the report recommends, according to news reports.
A/S Blake: Again, I wouldn't say that we have taken a confrontational attitude against Sri Lanka. We've had a longstanding friendship with Sri Lanka that goes back many, many years. As I said earlier, we welcome the progress that has been made on the humanitarian side and we hope that further progress can be made on political reconciliation and on human rights.
Question: Mr. Blake, in your statement you mentioned the need for political reconciliation and power sharing. In your talks with the government officials, did you see any steps being taken in this direction?
A/S Blake: I had the impression, and I think that the President himself has said many times, that they will not be taking any major steps before the elections, but after that they will turn their attention to further steps in the area of power sharing. It is really up to them to explain what those are.
Question: Mr. Blake what is your assessment on the condition and facilities of the IDPs still in Manik Farms, and also the conditions of the returnees in Mannar, which you visited, to start their lives again?
A/S Blake: I think overall the conditions in Manik Farms are pretty good. Again, there were a lot of concerns that there might be overcrowding and also flooding as a result of the monsoons. And I think because of the recent steps that the government has taken to resettle more than half of the IDPs who were in Manik Farms, there is really no question about flooding now. Those who are still in the camps have access to health care and education. In terms of those who have been resettled, I was able to visit some of those outside of Mannar, and from what I can see, the government is making great efforts to provide again, health and education. Schools are back up and in operation in some cases, electricity lines are being laid to these villages, things like roofing materials are being provided so that the IDPs can provide shelter for themselves. Food, of course, is being provided and initial livelihood assistance as well. So, I think a lot of progress has been made.
Question: Mr. Blake, you have been talking about the US taking a principled stand on the fears evolving in Sri Lanka.
A/S Blake: Yes.
Question: Now, taken together with the New York Times report.
A/S Blake: I am sorry, which New York Times report are you referring to?
Question: I am talking about the memorandum that is supposed to come out next week, or in the course of this week, according to a New York Times story, that the American government would take a, shall I say, softer approach with things in Sri Lanka.
A/S Blake: The Senate report?
Question: Yes. This has not gone well with the Tamil community. They fear this is a signal to the government in Colombo that past sins will be overlooked.
A/S Blake: I think I have already answered that question.
Question: If there were greater US geopolitical concerns in this area? Where does the Tamil community stand? Where do their rights stand? What about the previous violations against them?
A/S Blake: Well again, I think I have already answered that question, that we are still very focused on what will be done in the areas of political reconciliation and human rights. And as a general matter, let me say that we have had a very good dialogue with members of the Tamil diaspora in the United States. I have met with them twice personally to hear their various concerns and to talk to them. I have encouraged the government to do the same thing because I think it is very important for the government to hear out the concerns of the Tamil diaspora and I think some steps have already been taken in that regard.
Question: What message would you have for the Tamils who are very concerned about the new stance of the American government?
A/S Blake: First of all, as I said earlier, I dispute that there is a new stance. I have already explained our policy on that.
Question: Mr. Blake, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has made a mention that perhaps the United States is losing out in mending or improving ties with Sri Lanka, and you were also the Ambassador to Sri Lanka, now what are the changes which you expect to undergo after this observation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee?
A/S Blake: Again, I think I have already answered that question. I think we will make this next question the last.
Question: Mr. Blake, you used the word ‘normalized' to indicate Sri Lanka and US relations, so I can come to the conclusion that it was not normalized before. Is it because of Sri Lanka's relations with countries like Iran, Burma, China and Libya?
A/S Blake: No, it is because a lot of our assistance, particularly our military assistance, was cut off because of human rights violations in particular. And now, I think with the end of the war, we have seen an improvement in the human rights situation. Levels of killings, abductions, and disappearances have come down. And that is certainly welcome. But, certainly there is more to be done, particularly on the press freedom front. There are still a lot of concerns about the press freedom in this country and the threats and intimidation that various journalists face. But, again I think we need to see more progress in the area of political reconciliation to really unify the country and bring the country together. And also more progress in the area of accountability. So, those are all things that we discussed with our friends inside the government. Again, let me thank you all very much for coming. You will see me fairly regularly here in Sri Lanka, so we will have plenty of opportunity to talk.
Thank you again.