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Must give Sri Lanka another chance: US

By Aziz Haniffa
June 14, 2010 09:42 IST
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The US and India are in sync with their foreign policy toward Sri Lanka, particularly over the repatriation of the remaining 40,000 plus internally displaced persons after the government's victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the Tamil-populated northern province, said Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Robert O Blake.

In an interview with, Blake, the Obama administration's pointman for the subcontinent, said, "The US and India have a very similar view of the situation in Sri Lanka and the steps that need to be taken.

"We have worked very closely throughout the last several years on the situation in Sri Lanka, and again we have a real convergence of view on how that situation has evolved," he said.

Blake noted that the US "has been the largest bilateral donor of food aid to the IDPs and we are already looking at other programmes that we can do to help with livelihoods".

"For example, (programmes for) those who have been released from the camps and to encourage new business development in the north, because that will be critical to enabling stability in that area that has been undeveloped and suffered so much after the LTTE rule of 30 years," he said.

Blake said the US would coordinate closely with India to resettle the displaced Tamils, to ensure that the power is devolved to new democratic institutions in the north, and "greater respect for the rights of all Sri Lankans".

Blake was circumspect when asked about the recent threat by Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse -- the brother of President Mahinda Rajapakse -- to hang former General Sarath Fonseka, who is under house arrest.

But when pressed, Blake said, "We have expressed our interest in ensuring that General Fonseka is treated fairly and in accordance with Sri Lankan law."

"We were pleased to hear that whatever decisions are made by the military courts, which are now considering the two different charges against General Fonseka, will be reviewed by higher Sri Lankan civilian courts that that will be done in a public manner, so that there will be an assurance of due process," he said.

"So, now we'll have to just see. We have not had access to the charges against General Fonseka. So, we are really not in a position to comment on those," he added.

Blake said the recent meeting of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Gamini Laskhman Peiris with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington was "very successful".

He said US had welcomed the steps taken by the Sri Lankan government including the forming of a Reconciliation Commission, "now that its two elections (presidential and parliamentary) are behind it and now that the President has a two-thirds majority in parliament".

He said US has asked Sri Lanka also to work with the UN since the UN had a "great deal of experience in these matters".

"This Commission should now be given a chance to do its work and we have laid out a series of parameters that were described by Ambassador (Susan) Rice (US envoy to the UN) in a statement a few months ago about the experience that we and the UN and others have had with such commissions in the past."

Blake said the administration was pleased that Peiris had "said that the commission that Sri Lanka has established will meet the criteria that Ambassador Rice laid out".

When pointed out that critics have slammed the Reconciliation Commission as a sham, Blake acknowledged that "it's a government appointed commission but it does have independent experts on the commission -- not everybody on the Commission is a government employee".

"In fact, very few of them are."

"We always believe that it's best to have domestic answers to these very serious problems that exist because those in the long run -- if they are credible and independent and really get to the bottom of whatever the issue is -- will be much more acceptable domestically and that's particularly true in a country like Sri Lanka, where there is still some polarisation," he said.

However, Blake noted that groups like International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch and others have been skeptical because "Sri Lanka's record with such commissions in the past has been rather poor and nothing has really ever come of such commissions".

"So it's really incumbent upon the Sri Lankans to show that this is going to be different and Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Peiris went to great length to explain that this is going to be different and that this will produce concrete, serious results," he said.

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC