Ambassador Robert Blake proposes three-steps for reconciliation

(July 08, Washington, Sri Lanka Guardian) Robert Blake, recently confirmed as the new assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs, told a gathering of a Sri Lankan group here that the country must quickly carry out a three-step plan for reconciling with its displaced Tamil population.

"Every American who has worked or served in Sri Lanka is touched by that country,” Blake told the Serendipity Group, a gathering of foreign services officers and others with an interest in Sri Lanka.

Blake served as U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives from 2006 until last month, when he was confirmed in his new post.
Expressing gratitude for the end of Sri Lanka’s conflict with the LTTE, Blake said that the immediate concern is carrying out de-mining activities in order to resettle the 280,000 displaced civilians now living in temporary government welfare centers.

Blake said that while there is still room for improvement, access to the centers for non-governmental aid organizations had improved significantly.

Blake noted that many displaced senior citizens had been put in elder hostels or re-united with relatives, and that other family reunions had been arranged. He praised Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s pledge to return most of the displaced to their homes in 180 days.

He said that he expected the displaced would leave the centers as soon as adequate de-mining activities are completed. The U.S. has pledged Sri Lanka $6 million in aid for its ambitious de-mining plans. India and Norway have also pledged assistance.

Blake said a second priority for Sri Lanka will be to engage the displaced civilians through elections and an expanded political process. The government has already announced Aug. 8 elections for the northern cities of Jaffna and Vavunia.

He noted President Rajapaksa’s call for the Tamil National Alliance to join the All Party Representative Committee to discuss reconciliation. Blake said that he hoped the TNA would join those discussions.

More local elections are expected as the rest of the Northern Province is resettled. Blake urged the government to give displaced civilians identification cards so that they can take part in elections; some may even run for elected office.

Blake also suggested that Sri Lanka move to re-establish northern residents’ livelihoods. He viewed the government’s recent decision to lift fishing restrictions in the North and East as an important step in that direction. (Restriction had been imposed to improve maritime security).

Agriculture also plays a major role in the north -- the Vanni region is considered to be the 'Rice Bowl' of the area. Restoring the farm economy will depend on how quickly the government can rebuild homes and de-mine villages and fields.

Jaliya Wickramasuriya, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the U.S., met with Blake at the U.S. State Department recently to congratulate Blake on his confirmation. The ambassador and Blake spoke about the resettlement of internally displaced people and plans for redevelopment and elections in the Northern Province.

“Ambassador Blake has seen the situation in Sri Lanka change dramatically during his service there,” Ambassador Wickramasuriya said. “He knows what Sri Lankan citizens have lived through, and the challenges that we face in the years to come.“
-Sri Lanka Guardian