Robert Blake on “U.S. Perspectives on Sri Lanka,” at Chennai, 24 October 2008

Robert Blake: “U.S. Perspectives on Sri Lanka,”[1] 24 October 2008,

Blakeat ChennaiGood afternoon.  It is wonderful to be back in Chennai and have the opportunity to visit this prestigious University.  I visited Chennai several times while I was Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Delhi from 2003 to 2006 and developed a great fondness for your city and its people. Today I address you in a new hat as the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives.  I thought I would use the occasion to talk about the US perspective on Sri Lanka and then give you a chance to ask any questions you might have.

I will talk first about our support for a political solution, the situation in northern Sri Lanka, our policy on terrorism in Sri Lanka, and conclude with our assessment of Sri Lanka’s promise if fighting can be stopped.

Need for a Political Solution: America’s experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere has taught us that terrorism cannot be defeated by law enforcement and military measures alone.  That is why President Bush has made the promotion of democracy one of the centerpieces of American foreign policy.  And that is why the U.S. and other Co-Chair countries have urged the Government of Sri Lanka to adopt now a political solution to the conflict within the framework of a united Sri Lanka that meets the aspirations of all of Sri Lanka’s communities.  One way forward is for Sri Lanka to complete the work of the All Parties Representative Committee which has reached agreement on 90% of a blueprint for constitutional reform that most Sri Lankans believe offers great promise.  It remains for the country’s two main Sinhalese parties to agree on the document, which has proved a significant hurdle thus far.      

One reason for the lack of recent progress on a consensus APRC document, is that some in Sri Lanka believe that the Government should first defeat the LTTE and then proceed with a political solution.  The U.S. view is that the Government could further isolate and weaken the LTTE if it articulates now its vision for a political solution.  This would help reassure the more than 200,000 IDPs now in the Vanni that they can move south and aspire to a better future.  It would also disprove the LTTE’s claim that they are the sole representative of Sri Lanka’s Tamils and the only ones who care about Sri Lanka’s Tamils.  Finally it would help to persuade Tamils in Canada, the US and other parts of the diaspora to stop funding the LTTE which in turn would hasten an end to the conflict.  The U.S. also believes that an improvement in the human rights situation — that has disproportionately affected Tamils — would help to hasten reconciliation and give Tamils a greater sense that they will enjoy a future of hope and dignity within a united Sri Lanka.

US Assistance: To help lay the basis for peace, America has long been a partner in Sri Lanka’s development and its quest to realize its tremendous potential.  U.S. assistance has totaled more than $1.63 billion since Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948.  Through the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United States has contributed to Sri Lanka’s economic growth with projects designed to reduce unemployment, improve housing, develop the Colombo Stock Exchange, modernize the judicial system, and improve competitiveness.

US assistance now is focused on helping to stabilize and develop eastern Sri Lanka and on providing humanitarian assistance to those displaced in northern Sri Lanka by fighting.  Let me first discuss our efforts in the east.  Following the Government of Sri Lanka’s successful efforts to defeat and expel the LTTE from eastern Sri Lanka in 2007, the U.S. believes there is now an important opportunity to stabilize the east by encouraging democratic, multi-ethnic governance, and development and growth that will benefit equally the Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese communities.  We have emphasized the imperative of establishing security and demobilizing paramilitaries to help lay the basis for private sector-led investment and growth.  A successful and participatory stabilization and reconstruction effort in the east could serve as a powerful template and confidence builder for a future solution in the north.

To support development and growth, the US has initiated two programs.  First, our regional governance program aims to: 1) develop capacity for increased citizen participation and engagement in regional and local government,  2) strengthen inter-community reconciliation; and 3) support the development of civil society in East, including human rights organizations, independent media to improve reporting on regional news

Our economic growth program seeks to establish growth and livelihoods to reduce the chance of the East sliding back to terrorism and violence.  This program will support establishment of small businesses that can participate in value-chain development activities, thereby improving access to new markets.  It will strengthen local private sector organizations that can help establish and strengthen marketing and development links between the eastern and western province.  It will also facilitate access to finance, strengthen financial service providers, provide business and agricultural services, promote access to capital equipment and small infrastructure, and enhance utilization of information and communications technology.

Already we have made progress in spearheading important new private sector projects.  To promote the dairy industry, USAID partnered with the international NGO World Concern and Milco Private Ltd.  USAID constructed 40 cattle sheds, a milk chilling center, and five milk collection points, provided 300 milk cans and trained 160 farmers in feeding technologies, animal health and business planning. In all, nearly 2,000 households in the area have benefited.

To promote agricultural exports, we partnered with an indigenous Sri Lankan company, Hayley’s Sunfrost, on a pilot project with 170 farmers in eastern and Uva provinces to increase production of high value pineapple, jalapeno peppers and gherkins through training, agricultural inputs and buy-back agreements.  And we hope to do much more by establishing a private sector challenge fund to develop new public-private partnerships and private investment.

Humanitarian Assistance: The United States also is playing a leading role in providing food, and other humanitarian assistance to the more than 200,000 people displaced by fighting in northern Sri Lanka.  Already this year, the U.S. has contributed $21.7 million worth of food and other commodities through our Food for Peace program.  Another $11 million worth of commodities are on the seas bound for Sri Lanka to help these same needy people.

The U.S. shares the concern of India and other countries about the plight of civilians who are caught in the middle of hostilities in the Vanni.  We have urged both sides in the conflict to allow the UN and ICRC  continued access so they can continue to deliver the food, shelter and other supplies in a secure manner to those IDPs need, particularly now that the monsoon rains have started.  We have also urged both sides to exercise maximum restraint to ensure civilians are not injured in the fighting.  We have also urged the LTTE to allow freedom of movement so the IDPs can move away from the fighting, including into areas controlled by the Government should the IDPs wish to do so.  

The Fight against Terrorism: One of the great threats facing the world today is the threat of terrorism.  The United States is committed to helping Sri Lanka fight terrorism and we have demonstrated this in a number of ways.  We were among the first to declare the LTTE a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997.  Since then, it has been a felony under U.S. law to provide material support or resources to the LTTE.

In August 2006 and April 2007, the FBI arrested a total of 9 people who the U.S. Department of Justice subsequently charged with various crimes, including conspiracy to provide material support and resources to the LTTE. Those arrests also led to discovery of operational and financial links between the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization and the LTTE.  The TRO is a charitable organization with offices in Sri Lanka and in a number of countries abroad.

In November 2007, the U.S. Government concluded that, in the United States, the TRO had raised funds on behalf of the LTTE through a network of individual representatives.  The TRO also facilitated LTTE procurement operations in the United States.  Those operations included the purchase of munitions, equipment, communication devices, and other technology for the LTTE.

It was on the basis of these links that the U.S. Department of the Treasury in Washington DC last year designated the TRO under Executive Order 13224, thereby freezing the TRO’s assets in the US and prohibiting Americans from dealing with them. 

In addition to law enforcement measures, the US has taken several steps to help the Sri Lankan military defend itself against terrorism.  The most important was our decision to provide maritime radar system and 10 rigid hull inflatable boats to help the Sri Lankan navy detect and interdict LTTE vessels carrying arms and other illegal cargo for the LTTE.

Sri Lanka’s Promise: I’d like to conclude with some brief thoughts on Sri Lanka’s future.  The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said:  “Those who have knowledge, don’t predict.  Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.”  So I will not show my ignorance by attempting any predictions.

I do believe, however, that Sri Lanka’s is a country of great promise and opportunity if the fighting can stop and a political solution can be agreed on that satisfies Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim aspirations.  Sri Lanka is a country blessed with a well educated population; a diversified economy; plentiful water, and other resources; and good opportunities to expand food production and reduce dependence on foreign energy.  The country also has a President with many political gifts who enjoys the trust and support of the Sinhalese majority that he can use to gain their support for a political solution and national reconciliation.

An end to the fighting would bring a quick end to the humanitarian challenges the country now faces, and would significantly diminish human rights problems.  It would also allow the Government to reduce defense spending, bring down inflation, and raise spending for infrastructure, education and development.  Perhaps most important it would help reverse Sri Lanka’s brain drain.  The World Bank has estimated that more than one million Sri Lankan professionals live and work overseas.  Just as the return of Indian-Americans to India has had a major impact in India, the return of these Sri Lankan professionals would have an equally positive result.

Let me take this opportunity to thank the University of Madras for this opportunity to join you today. I would be pleased to take your questions.[2] 

***   ***

APPENDIX: Selections from the Blog Comments on this Item in Federal Idea

I have chosen one from a Tamil extremist, one from a Tamil moderate named ilaya seran senguttuvan (my assessment on the basis of my readings of his blog-comments in other sites and other occasions) and one from a blogger identified as “dias,”[3] These comments serve as reminders of the manner in which social media are a political force today. These particular examples of blogging intrusions are presented in order to draw attention to the currents of opinion among concerned Sri Lankans (including migrants) in the world circuit. As often as not, the commentary is marked by ethnic extremism – or what can term “chauvinism” or bigotry from both sides of the Sinhala-Tamil divide.. One has only to trawl through pertinent articles in Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph – and there is no better illustration that the response to several of my own essays – to witness this phenomenon. These tendencies provide confirmation of the argument spelt out by Sinnappah Arasaratnam way back in the third quarter of the 20th century when he laconically observed that Sinhalese and Tamil extremisms were feeding off each other …… and making the resolution of the ethnic tussle that much more difficult (Arasaratnam 1967 & 1979).

C1. Posted by: Canaga | October 25, 2008 03:53 AM:  “There are a number of aspects that the Ambassador attempts to ignore, though aware of it. Firstly, the Tamils have made all attempts for twenty years – from the early fifties to negotiate with the Sinhalese and reach agreements – very peacefully. Each time an agreement was reached the opposition party opposes and the treaty was torn apart – at least three times with both the main political parties.

Historically, it is because these failed that the LTTE was formed and started the fight.  Negotiations reached with the respective SL governments were not ratified – as again evidenced in the peace talks, though the blame was simply placed on the LTTE. Non-compliance of the 2002(?) agreement is a typical example.

What is terrorism – elected governments can simply bomb and kill thousands of civilians and destroy all their properties? However a single killing by the LTTE is called terrorism.

Can the poor civilians be evicted from their land and houses in thousands and asked to live in camps eternally – now more than thirty years? Is this not terrorism?

Look at the government terrorism on the poor Tamil civilians now living in Colombo – everyday a few are arrested or killed. Who helps to stop this? Any attempts by the international community – except to provide more arms and ammunition.

Why are the international community remaining quiet on these aspects.

C2. Posted by: dias | October 26, 2008 05:29 PM

In an attempt to derive maximum leverage to the nation he represents, the ambassador brags about US assistance provided to Sri Lanka, despite the fact that the real disbursements to the island has only been a drop in the bucket. For example, consider the aggregate $1.47 billion spent on Sri Lanka over 60 years to the $700 billion spent by the US on the Iraq war over mere six years! While the good ambassador talks about the various economic, humanitarian, defense and LTTE-containment efforts in the US, he remains silent about the superpower’s total impotency in promoting a political solution in the island – one he acknowledges as the most critical to solve the nagging conflict and get the nation moving. I respectfully ask you Mr. Ambassador, “what have you done to pressure the Rajapaksa administration to evolve a political solution? And how do you rate your own success in this endeavor?” The impotency of the international community is evident in the defiance of President Rajapaksa who in effect has pointed a rather erect middle finger at the mighty powers in his march towards Killinochchi. Though I do not agree with the president’s overall strategy, he is to be much admired for standing up to the mighty regional and international powers.

The focus here is not so much about what Sri Lanka should do, rather an assessment about the driving forces behind US foreign policy. Since her noble efforts in post-war reconstruction efforts in Europe and Japan, America’s foreign policy seems to have been based more on self interests than principles. Since then, America seems to have made a habit of consistently supporting the wrong side and later paying a dear price for their mis-judgments. Contrary to the flowery talk about “instilling democracy”, US foreign policy seems to be based on the exclusive notion: we will engage in the affairs of another nation with full commitment only when our strategic interests are at stake. In all other situations, absolutely yes, we will dish out the most convincing sales-pitch about democracy, human rights and whatever else that sounds good, but decidedly not put our monies where our mouths are, and we are even willing to look the other-way even in extreme cases of mass loss of life as we demonstrated in the case with Rwanda. Former ambassador to Sri Lanka, Jeffrey Lundstad in an article to Asia Foundation confirms similar assertion, since US strategic interests in Sri Lanka are marginal to non-existent, it is not incentivized to get involved in the messy ethnic conflict – it shows!

And it is this fundamental flaw in misplaced priorities that has caused the Americans and in particular the Bush Administration to be viewed as completely out-of-sync with the real global challenges to which the sole superpower is expected to provide leadership. She has either turned a blind eye, resorted to ineffective gibberish like Ambassador Blake’s statement, “… that is why the U.S. and other Co-Chair countries have urged the Government of Sri Lanka to adopt now a political solution…”, or passed the buck to someone else (such as a “regional power”) thereby conveniently evading her duty and responsibility. Is it a wonder that America has lost its leadership clout?

What is needed is fundamental change in America’s core foreign policy. Under principled leadership of a future President Barack Obama and veteran foreign policy expert Joe Biden as Vice President possibly complimented with another veteran, Republican Senator Richard Luger at the helm in the State Department, “change” indeed is coming and coming fast. When it does come, a new Obama administration will demand a sound political package from President Rajapaksa, and unlike the Bush administration will take a keen interest in the Sri Lanka matter ensuring final and fair resolution of this dragging conflict. It will be good for Sri Lanka, South Asia and the whole world. – Dias

C3. Posted by: ilaya seran senguttuvan | October 27, 2008 06:45 AM

Ambassador Blake is a good man with rational thinking behind him. When he rejected Rajapakse’s nonsense “we will settle the Tamil issue only after wiping out the LTTE” he was speaking sense – though almost everyone wants Prabakaran dead and the LTTE finished. Like his former neighbour the British HC the mistake he (Blake) made was giving too much of importance to that group of jerks called the JVP. Both made the mistake of going to the office of the JVP and bestowing unnecessary importance on this racist Party. These degrades sent out the message to their hordes both the British and American envoys came and genuflected before them. The Indian HC just laughed the suggestion away when these Johnny-come-lately’s invited him to Battaramulla. Now Blake has to suffer for his mistake. This bunch of jokers are now asking Blake to be thrown out of Sri Lanka for his Chennai address. Soon they will get the yellow robed Rasputins to join them and the wimpish Rajapakse will yield.
Blake may have to hightail it to the US and regret his error. Personally I will be sorry if he is forced to go. He sounded so sincere and wished all Lankans well when he came to address CIMOG at the OPA HQ.
If Sri Lanka is to get their peace together with the LTTE we must also get rid of the JVP (both wings) and the JHU.


Al-Jazeera 2008 “Sri Lankan Army closes in on Tamil Tigers,” 7 October 2008,

Arasaratnam, S. 1967 “Nationalism, Communalism and National Unity in Ceylon,” in Philip mason (ed.) India and Ceylon. Unity and Diversity, OUP, pp. 260-78.

Arasaratnam, S. 1974 History, Nationalism and Nation Building; The Asian Dilemma, Inaugural lecture at University of New England, Armidale.

Arasaratnam, S. 1979 “Nationalism in Sri Lanka and the Tamils,” in M. Roberts (ed). Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga, pp. 500-19.

Blake, Robert 2008 “U.S. Perspectives on Sri Lanka,” being his Remarks at an University of Madras event, 24(?) October 2008, …. as reported in The Hindu and the US embassy web site.

Boucher, Richard A. 2008 “U.S.-Sri Lanka Relations,” 3 August 2008, …. ALSO at


[1] Available both at and at

[2] I have not discovered a news report on the Q and A session.

[3] There were a total of eight comments. The absence of many comments by Sinhala chauvinists is happenchance: my conjecture is that the web-site “federal idea” was not visited often by Sinhalese readers.



Filed under accountability, american imperialism, Indian Ocean politics, LTTE, military strategy, politIcal discourse, power politics, propaganda, Rajapaksa regime, security, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, slanted reportage, terrorism, the imaginary and the real, war reportage, world events & processes

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