NPR Station WRVO Radio Interview with Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Syracuse, NY, January 27, 2011
mp3 Audio of WRVO Interview: Grant Reeher speaks with Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs (26 mnts) ~ QUESTION: You just mentioned this and I wanted to follow up on it. There’s a recent piece in the New Yorker, I’m sure you’ve read it, about the conflict by John Lee Anderson.
Excerpts of the Interview relating to Sri Lanka:
QUESTION: In case you’ve just joined us, you’re listening to the Campbell Conversations, and my guest today is Bob Blake, Assistant Secretary of State.
I’ve got to ask you a couple of questions about your previous experience in Sri Lanka. Before you took on your current position at the State Department you were Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. While you were in that position the country was going through a civil war that had some really gruesome levels of violence and cruelty.
The first question, just a base one, what was that experience like for you in that time period?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It was a very searing time for the country and I think a searing time for me personally, because the government of Sri Lanka went from being involved in a peace process with the LTTE which is the terrorist organization at that time, to making a decision after suffering many attacks from the LTTE that they were going to try to defeat them militarily. Most of us believed it couldn’t be done, but they disproved a lot of the skeptics. But they did so at a very high cost. Many many civilians were killed during that and particularly at the end of that conflict. It points now to the need for very serious reconciliation and accountability efforts to take place so that the country can be unified and it can again I think realize the promise that Sri Lanka has always had.
QUESTION: You just mentioned this and I wanted to follow up on it. There’s a recent piece in the New Yorker, I’m sure you’ve read it, about the conflict by John Lee Anderson. In that piece he writes about exactly what you just mentioned, the fact that despite, one of the points I wanted to ask you about here, despite the brutality with which the Tamil insurgency was extinguished, the government’s response is held up by some strategists as a model for effectively putting down a terrorist insurgency. And the model, to quote Anderson, is “deny access to the media, the United Nations, and human rights groups; isolate your opponents and kill them as quickly as possible; and segregate and terrify the survivors, or ideally, leave no witnesses at all.” Do you think that accurately captures what was done?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’m not sure I’d call that a model for how I’d want to see --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: But I think it’s important to be balanced in this. The first thing to recognize is the LTTE bore a large part of the responsibility for this. If you read the public statements that I and the EU and the Norwegians put out during the course of this conflict, we were always careful to urge both sides to protect civilians. The LTTE --
QUESTION: Just to clarify, that’s the Tamil group, Tamil Tigers.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The LTTE, the so-called Tamil Tigers, have been on our terrorist list since 1997. One of the most brutal, lethal terrorist organizations in the world.
As the Sri Lankan army was pushing north into the Tamil areas, the predominantly Tamil areas that were controlled by the LTTE for more than two decades, they displaced, the Sri Lankan army displaced a large number of Tamil civilians and they all began to move northwards. The LTTE systematically refused international efforts to allow those internally displaced persons to move south. To move away from the conflict areas where they could have been given food and shelter and so forth. So they systematically basically refused all efforts and in fact violated international law by not allowing freedom of movement to those civilians. So had the LTTE actually allowed people to move south, none of this would have happened in the first place, so it’s important to make that point. I think that often gets lost in the debate on this.
Secondly, the LTTE often deliberately put its heavy artillery in the midst of civilian encampments, precisely to draw fire so that people would get killed in the hopes that there would then be international outrage and there would be essentially demands on the Sri Lankan government to stop the fighting and [agree to] some sort of negotiated settlement.
The Sri Lankans, not without reason, argued that the LTTE was really never interested in peace and that they had always used ceasefires as a way to regroup and rearm themselves, so they essentially refused any efforts to resume the peace process.
So we faced this very very difficult situation. On the one hand we wanted to see the defeat of a terrible terrorist organization that had been responsible for hundreds if not thousands of civilian casualties. On the other hand we wanted to ensure that there were not going to be civilian casualties as a result of this. I have to say, both sides were guilty of massive human rights violations that caused the deaths of many many civilians. I think, just to say what I said earlier, which is for this country now to recover from this experience I think there needs to be a reconciliation process, there needs to be new elections that are held in the north so that a new indigenous leadership can emerge, and I think there also needs to be some sort of accountability mechanism so that the Sri Lankan nation can put this episode behind them and that they can be confident that those who were responsible for the deaths that took place will be held accountable. ~ Text courtesy of: US State Dept. ~