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'US working with India on Lankan issue'

August 21, 2009 03:48 IST

The United States has said it is working with India to find a political solution in Sri Lanka now that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam "is now flat on its back having lost most of its leaders," but has no intention of putting pressure on New Delhi to change its policy toward Sri Lanka, which has been perceived by some Tamils to be favoring the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse.

The administration's pointman for South Asia, Robert O Blake also warned that continued US aid to Sri Lanka would depend on how expeditiously the Rajapakse government alleviate the lot of the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Tamil refugees and "on the progress that is made towards political reconciliation and devolution power."

Meanwhile, the Center for Strategic and International Studies -- a leading Washington think tank -- in a paper titled Triumphalism and Uncertainty in post-Prabakaran Sri Lanka  said both India and the United States have vital stakes in Sri Lanka and need to reengage after being largely sidelined during the Rajapakse government's  massive military offensive against the LTTE and the humanitarian crisis that is spawned, where Colombo, flush with massive aid and support from China, Iran and Pakistan, largely ignored the entreaties of both New Delhi and Washington.

Blake, in an interview to BBC's World Service, when asked to respond to the contention that "India, as many Tamils say, seem to be supporting the Sri Lankan government at this point, and its not putting any pressure on the government to come out with a political solution or even for resettlement," and if Washington intends to "put pressure on India to change its current Sri Lankan policy," replied, "India is one of our closes 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," he said, and added, "the positions that the United States and India have with respect to the situation in Sri Lanka are very similar".

Blake, who is the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, reiterated that Washington and New Delhi "have, largely the same appraisal of the situation and also what needs to be done".

Pointing out that the US "has been one of the largest donors already in terms of humanitarian assistance," to Sri Lanka as well as the largest food donor, the senior US official however, said, "Going forward, we have said that our ability to provide money for reconstruction and for settlement 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 (internally displaced persons) as quickly as possible, and secondly, on the progress that is made towards political reconciliation and devolution of power."

Blake, also, as he had said in an interview with Rediff India Abroad earlier in August--which was his first interview with a South Asian publication since assuming his new position after his stint as US Ambassador to Sri Lanka -- acknowledged that the US was indeed disappointed over Rajapakse's recent comments that he would consider a political solution and a devolution of power in the majority Tamil provinces in Sri Lanka only after the presidential election, which would be only sometime next year.

"We were surprised," he said.

"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 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."

Blake warned that if the Sri Lanka government keeps on delaying announcing a political solution, "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 organise."

"Certainly, the LTTE is now flat on its back having lost most of its leaders," he said.

"But don't forget the Tamil diaspora is still very energized. We just had a meeting…I just hosted a meeting 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."

Thus, Blake asserted that it is imperative "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."

The CSIS, in its report co-authored by Teresita Schaffer, the director of the think tank's South Asia programme  -- and a longtime South Asia hand who was also a former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka -- and Elizabeth Laferriere, argued, "India had been largely sidelined from active involvement in Sri Lankan issues after the departure of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1990."

But it said, now with the demise of the LTTE, and its lack of involvement in Sri Lankan issues for nearly two decades, "India is ready to reengage, and it appears the Sri Lankan government agrees."

The report said "India's support for Sri Lanka at the UNHRC was welcomed, and Rajapakse reciprocated later when he said that "nothing is more important for me than what India thinks."

It acknowledged that "India's Congress Party government has no love for the LTTE, which assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and greeted their defeat with satisfaction."

"However, the 60 million Tamils in southern India will be very sensitive to the welfare of Sri Lanka's Tamils, and the more pro-LTTE of the two Indian Tamil parties is a member of the national government coalition," the report added.

With regard to the implications for the US, the CSIS said that Washington "is one of four major chairs of the Tokyo Donors—along with Norway, Japan and the European Union—which linked financial aid to progress in establishing peace."

It recalled how the Tokyo Donors "withheld aid in the late stages of the war to protest human rights abuses. The United States and Japan, who respectively missed and abstained from voting at the UNHRC, will likely find it easier than the more outspoken European countries, like Norway, to reengage with Sri Lanka."

The report said the US "has traditionally played a supporting role in Sri Lanka," and predicted that "as the emphasis shifts from war fighting to economic development, its profile will probably go up, but the United States is unlikely to seek or obtain a major role in whatever political negotiations that take place."

"The Obama Administration will support peace and encourage Sri Lanka's stability, along with generous outreach to the island's minority communities," it said.


Aziz Haniffa in Washington DC