Politics not my cup of tea - US Ambassador
The United States reiterated its willingness to support President
Mahinda Rajapaksa to achieve the desired task of the Commission of
Inquiry appointed by the President to probe into the killings of 17 aid
workers and other human rights violations.
In an interview with the Sunday Observer US Ambassador Robert Blake
said the US has no intention in interfering with the Commission and the
US strongly believed in the independence of the Commission.
Blake along with another diplomat was accused of holding a meeting
with the commissioners said that the agenda of the meeting was only to
discuss the ‘logistic matters’.
Q: Are you satisfied with the support that the US had offered so far
to Sri Lanka and what are the strategic areas where the US and Sri Lanka
should work closely?
A: Yes. The US and Sri Lanka are close friends for more than 50 years
now. The US is a strong supporter of Sri Lanka’s fight against
terrorism. We strongly believe that Sri Lanka like all other countries
has an obligation to defend its people against LTTE terrorism.
The US has provided military, law enforcement and other kinds of
support to help the government to defend itself while believing that a
purely a military solution would not be the correct solution for this
The US believes that the answer to the conflict lies with a power
sharing concept which can respond to the aspirations of Sinhalese,
Tamils and Muslims. We also believe that in this very important stage of
the conflict, it is very important for the government to address the
human rights issues as well.
The US also has concerns about Tamils who suffer disproportionately
due to human rights violations. It is important to give them a sense of
feeling that they could live with respect and dignity here. So improving
the human rights performances is also an important aspect of our
dialogue with the government.
Q: The US supports developing countries. Sri Lanka has been battered
and bruised by LTTE terrorism and how best the US could support in
A: I think I have just answered that question. The US is one of the
first countries to declare LTTE as a foreign terrorist organisation in
1997. We have also helped to investigate and prosecute people in the US,
who were trying to provide arms to the LTTE.
So, the FBI, for an example, has conducted distinct operations that
had resulted in the arrest of many people and those investigations are
on-going. We also have a central bank, which improves financial
investigations to track down the money flow into the LTTE and help to
stop those money from flowing in.
Then the most importantly we work with our friends in the military to
help them to stop import of arms into this country.
We gave them a maritime surveillance system last year - a radar
system - that will give the Sri Lanka Navy a much better picture of LTTE
naval activities in their waters and thereby give them the opportunity
to detect LTTE shipments of arms. I must say they have enjoyed
considerable success last year in sinking many of these ships.
The ban on LTTE is extremely effective in terms of implementing the
American law. People understand that we are very strict about forcing
our laws which will prosecute anyone who is believed to be illegally
assisting the LTTE.
Q: Criticism had mounted when the East was about to be liberated. Now
the Mahinda Rajapaksa government has created the right environment to
give more power to the people whereby they can look after their own
affairs. What is your comment on restoring democracy in the East?
A: I think President Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan Government made
very important progress over the past year. First they have expelled the
LTTE from the East. That is a positive development and secondly they
have restored government services.
In the East they have reopened schools, hospitals and government
institutions. Now there is a greater sense of normalcy in many towns in
the East. People are out late at nights, going for movies and for
shopping which is a big achievement after 20 years. There is stability
now, in that part of the country.
With regard to the election we always support the principle of free
elections. It is important to allow the local inhabitants to represent
their views. There have been some controversies which were highlighted
in the media.
The Opposition parties have alleged that there were many
irregularities. The US is not in a position to judge since we did not
have observers on the ground. But we think that it is important for the
government and the new Provincial Council to look into those charges
seriously and act on them.
In the long run it is really important to consider what the people of
the East believe. If they believe that it was largely a free and fair
election and they support the new council, then the international
community should also be prepared to accept their decision in toto.
In terms of what happens after, I think that the new Chief Minister
has an important challenge on his hand. First of all, he has to assure
security, because on one hand he is the chosen Chief Minister of the
Eastern Province and on the other hand he is the head of the TMVP which
still has armed cadres.
So, he is in a difficult position where he has to enforce state law
as the Chief Minister and on the other hand a fairly large number of
armed cadres. I think something must be done and they can not continue
to do illegal activities in the East.
Otherwise they would undermine the leadership of Pillaiyan and the
transition that the TMVP is trying to make while being a para-military
group and a political party. So, we support the idea of them of being a
political party. But that transition must be completed and certainly
they can not be in both.
Beyond the challenge of security, I think that the new Chief Minister
in order to secure the support of the people of the East, it is very
important to show that he has been given opportunities to serve all
other communities in the East and pursuing development in a neutral way.
And I think that way he can ensure that there is harmony among these
communities and also stability in the East, which will automatically
reach to a greater development and priority for the people of the East.
Q: Will the US continue with its support to develop the East?
A: Yes, we have quite a number of projects with the assistance of the
private sector, for example the vocational training. We have just
announced a major project in Batticaloa to develop dairy industry and
another to grow vegetables for exports.
We strongly believe that we need to help the people of the East and
give them economic opportunities. We believe that there is a big role
for the private sector to play. We have proposed to give more assistance
for the East and the US government is considering it now.
Q: You have always advocated a credible political package to meet the
aspirations of the Tamils. How do you see the APRC proposal to implement
the 13th Amendment?
A: The East is a fine laboratory to show that powers within the 13th
Amendment be devolved within the Eastern Provincial Council. But I think
the government needs to go beyond the 13th Amendment. Implementing the
13th amendment is itself will satisfy the aspirations of the Tamils.
The way they develop must be a significant power sharing proposals
through the APRC using some other mechanisms. But I do believe that the
APRC has made lots of progress.
According to Prof. Vitharana over 90 percent of their work has been
done and I think the APRC has been a useful mechanism to get the
Southern consensus to move forward. The most important thing is to come
up with an idea which is really welcomed by the Tamils.
I think that it is important for the government to consult a wide
range of Tamils. We are not calling for negotiations with the LTTE. That
is something that the government has to decide.
It is important to recognize more than half of the Tamils are living
outside the Wanni. I think their interests also should be respected as
well. So, people like Anandasngaree and other elected representatives in
the government controlled areas are needed to be brought into this
process and consulted.
Q: You mentioned the solution should be something beyond the 13th
Amendment. So what is your proposal to end the national issue?
A: I think we need to distinguish as these are two different things.
The President Rajapaksa’s proposal to implement the 13th Amendment is a
good idea. But I don’t really want to come up with a proposal because
whenever I try to say something I am later accused of trying to dictate
to the Sri Lankan people. The US does not have any intention of doing
that. It is up to the Sri Lankan people to decide what is best for them.
Q: What do you think that Sri Lanka is facing today - is it a war on
terror or an ethnic problem? What sort of a solution do you suggest to
end the conflict in the island?
A: I think all these are loaded terms. I am reluctant to say this is
an ethnic conflict but it is a civil conflict. I always remind people
who are visiting from USA that Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims lived
together and continue to live peacefully together. Tamils are living in
Colombo peacefully with their Sinhalese and Muslim friends. So there is
no ethnic conflict here. And certainly the government is defending
itself against terrorism.
Q: It is clearly proven that the LTTE is not the sole representative
of the Tamils. And also it has been proved the LTTE’s political agenda
is different from the Tamils. What do you have to say?
A: I do actually see there are important differences here. From my
discussions with Tamils I know that over 95 percent of them support a
solution within a framework of a united Sri Lanka.
They are not seeking an independent Tamil Eelam which Prabhakaran is
seeking. I think it would be very useful for Prabhakaran to give up this
idea of seeking an independent Tamil State and agreeing to negotiate
with a united Sri Lanka.
I think this would give him lots of credibility to respond to lots of
scepticism here in the South that the LTTE would never negotiate with
the government. The LTTE has a responsibility to show that they are
prepared to negotiate in a genuine way.
Q: What is your view about the on-going military operations to
liberate Wanni where people are living under severe hardship and the
young and the old were being conscripted by the LTTE?
A: With respect to the on-going military campaign, as I said earlier,
the US do not believe in purely a military solution is possible. The
25-years long experience of war here has shown that the LTTE is a rather
formidable organisation and it is very difficult to defeat them
So the best way to reach a solution is through a political solution
to address the aspirations of the Tamils and all the communities. And
again the Tamils in Wanni and rest of the country need sense of dignity
and conviction in future that they will be able to have an important say
over matters that concern them especially the areas where they are
They should be able to have a high degree of self governance within a
united Sri Lanka. I believe that is really a way forward to achieve a
peaceful settlement to this conflict.
Q: You have just mentioned that the military can not defeat LTTE and
this was the assumption before the East was liberated by the military.
So how can you say that the military cannot defeat the LTTE in North?
A: The East was a different situation and the LTTE was spread out.
But Wanni is more in the heartland of the LTTE. Here they have been
prepared for many years to face any kind of an attack.
Q: Do you still believe that Sri Lankan Security Forces cannot
A: I think you have to ask this question from the Forces. What I can
say is that the US does not have any love for Prabhakaran. But it is
going to be difficult for the government to get him.
Q: He is the ‘Most wanted man’ by the Indian government for the
killing of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In which way could the
US help the government to bring him to book?
A: I can not really say how, as we are not involved in any military
efforts to capture him. We believe that the best way would be, not with
the gun but through peaceful means.
Q: Do you think that both Al-Qaeda and the LTTE, are ruthless
terrorist organizations and how do you categorise the LTTE?
A: I would not say they are the same at all. I do not want to get
into the business of comparing terrorist organisations because every
terrorist organization is different. And it is also important to address
the LTTE in the Sri Lankan context.
Q: But some countries call the LTTE as freedom fighters?
A: I do not respect the freedom fighter argument. Certainly any group
which is working for freedom, they should do it in a peaceful manner.
They can not use violence and terror. That is same with the LTTE and we
have consistently said they must renounce terrorism and stop using
Q: The US and Sri Lanka are engaged in a common fight - combatting
terrorism. But some critics say that the US has double standards when
combatting terrorism against the US and dealing with the terrorism in
countries like Sri Lanka. What is your comment?
A: I really don’t agree with that. I think we have a very consistent
approach and even in places like Iraq where we are confronted with a
very serious terrorist problem and we are in favour of a political
solution there. The insurgency strategy of the US is based on using a
wide range of tools to combat terrorism and it is just not the military
In Iraq we are engaged in with certain strategies to bring down the
levels of killing and violence both against American forces and other
coalition forces. The ordinary iraqis have come way down over the last
years. Iraq is a major domestic issue an year ago in my country and now
people have confidence that Iraqis are in a better track and hopeful
about their future.
So the policies are the same that we are advocating here in Sri Lanka
and so I can say there would not be any double standards.
Q: In this situation what are the priorities of a country -
combatting terror to save lives or safeguarding human rights?
A: Well. I do not think there is contradiction between the two. I
think one has to devote. Clearly one has to defend one’s country against
terrorism. That is extremely important. For any government the most
important priority is to defend its citizens. It is true in the US and
it is true in Sri Lanka and every other country in the world. But we
also believe that it is possible to preserve human rights.
So, for example, one of the very difficult problems the government
faces is to identify suicide bombers. How they find these people before
they carry out their murderous acts. And I believe that the way to do
that is still to arrest, question in a humane way and if they are
suspected of the crime produce them in courts.
But do not use extra judicial killings and other kind of things. And
those acts will undermine the long term solutions. So, it is much better
to use rule of law to address terrorism. Accountability of rule of law
is extremely important.
Q: Do you think that Sri Lanka has violated UN Conventions when
strengthening bi-lateral relations with Iran?
A: I do not think so and not to my knowledge. But is up to the
government to be aware of those resolutions.
Q: Iran is in rivalry with the US with regard to nuclear issues.
Therefore how do you see the recent visit of the Iranian President to
A: Our concerns about Iran is well-known. President - Bush, Secretary
of State - Rice and many our leaders are concerned about their nuclear
capabilities. We acknowledge their right to develop civil nuclear energy
for energy purposes. But the US opposes nuclear weapons. Similarly we
have expressed our deep concern about the Iranian support for
international terrorism particulary in the Middle East, especially the
support for groups like Hisbulla.
We always want all our friends to make the same point for Iran. At
the same time we understand that Sri Lanka has to develop relationships
with Iran and we do not have objections if they donate funds education
projects in the South.
Q: We were made to understand that you had met the members of the
Commission of Inquiry which probes into 15 cases of killings of Aid
workers and other alleged HR cases? What was your area of interest while
meeting the commissioners?
A: Yes, we did have a short meeting with them, and the purpose of the
meeting as Justice Udalagama has explained was purely a technical
matter. The Commission did not get the support of the IIEGPS and the
Commission has the problem of how to continue the video conferencing to
record testimony of witnesses resident abroad. So the question arose as
to whether the international community could continue to fund the video
Since the US and the other partners in the IIEGP process happened to
fund the process all along, we discussed the matter whether to fund the
particular video conferencing. So that was real the purpose of the
The US do not have any intension of whatsoever in interfering anyway
with the Commission of Inquiry. We strongly believe in independence. I
really do not share the allegations that we are interfering with the
Commission and we simply looked into logistic matters.
We support the Commission appointed by the President. And he has
reiterated on many occasions that his commitment in seeing this
commission achieve its desired task. So we totally support the President
in this regard.
Who is Robert Orris Blake, Jr.
When little Kalina listened to fairy tales, he never did imagine that
he would have a ‘future’ as a story teller. He read out stories
everyday. Then again, he was ‘compelled to continue with the habit with
his second daughter Zara and now one and a half years old Alexi is there
and whenever dad appears at the doorstep, receiving him, with the
command “reeeeead” holding her favourite story book.
Ambassadors are said to be those lie abroad for the sake of their
countries and also rub shoulders with kings and queens and have little
time or no time for the masses but the US Ambassador Robert O. Blake is
a diplomat who is ready to devote his tight schedule for reading stories
The Harvard educated US Ambassador, who has a M. A. in International
Relations from the John Hopkins School of Advanced International
Studies, is a ‘Master’ story teller. “My three daughters aged six, five
and one and a half have inspired me and my wife Sofia to read stories.
We love reading stories for children”, Blake said.
Some of the book sellers at the ‘Book fair’, who were aware the
reading skills of the Ambassador couple invited them to read stories for
children at the fair. Responding to the invitation Ambassador Blake with
his two daughters enjoyed the session that day. “I agreed to read
stories which I do everyday. I strongly believe that encouraging
children to read and be excited about books is a very important aspect
of the educational process”, he said.
Despite his responsibilities as the Ambassador of the US, he is ready
to sit down with children at any given time to read out a story. “If any
thing is there to do with reading with children I will be there”, he
Being the 23rd US Ambassador of Sri Lanka, he was earlier the US
representative in Tunisia, Algeria, Nigeria and Egypt and was the Deputy
Chief of Mission in New Delhi, India before his posting to Sri Lanka.
“I’m having a very delightful time in Sri Lanka.
I have been impressed by the warmth and hospitality of Sri Lankans,
we have travelled widely around the country”, he added saying they were
very much impressed by the diversity, mountains, beaches and cultural
sites like Dambulla.
“It is a tremendous country with wonderful people”. That was the view
of the Ambassador Blake who said that he can spend weeks at a stretch in
Dambulla listening to the chirping of birds and then walking around
Dambulla being his favourite in Sri Lanka, the Dambulla cave Temple,
Sigiriya and Kandalama are the other places that he likes to be in.
Blake, Jr. is a typical family man but never boasts that he is a son
of a US career diplomat.
To this seasoned career diplomat, who said that politics was not his
cup of tea, said that the most challenging task in his job, being the
Ambassador of Sri Lanka, trying to encourage people to pursue a peaceful
solution to the national problem.
Blake, who received minor injuries from a mortar bomb blast while on
a helicopter visit to Batticaloa, to attend a development meeting along
with Italian Ambassador Pio Mariano and the German Ambassador in
February 2007, said that, “If Sri Lanka can progress in achieving peace
before I leave, I will be one of the happiest”.
* United States of America is a strong supporter of Sri Lanka’s fight
* A power sharing concept is the answer to the conflict.
* The ban on LTTE is extremely effective.
* Those who are assisting in providing arms and money from the US
were prosecuted and the FBI is conducting further investigations.
* The US will prosecute anyone who is believed to be illegally
assisting the LTTE in the US law.
* Liberating East is a major achievement after 20 years.
* If the people of the East believe that the elections were free and
fair the international community should be prepared to support the New
Eastern Provincial Council.
* The new Chief Minister has a challenge - maintaining the security
as the Chief Minister and also disarming the TMVP cadres as the head of
* The East is a fine laboratory to show the devolution of power under
the 13th Amendment.
* Over 95 percent of Tamils want a solution within a united country.
* The LTTE is not the sole representative of the Tamils nor their
* The US does not have double standards in dealing with terrorism on
its own soil and here in Sri Lanka.