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Former U.S. envoy Blake clarifies stance on Tamil Tigers, beach rescue plan

596527825bd50.imageU.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asia, Robert Blake addresses reporters in Colombo on December 9, 2009. Blake, a former ambassador to Sri Lanka, urged the country to improve on its human rights record and political reconciliation as the island recovers from 37-years of ethnic conflict with Tamil Tiger rebels. (Getty Images)

Former U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Robert Blake has said it is a myth that he orchestrated a rescue of tens of thousands of Tamil refugees from a northern Sri Lanka beach to help Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Sri Lankan separatist Tamil Tigers (LTTE), escape the Sri Lankan armed forces who ultimately killed him in 2009.

Blake, who also served as assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia during first term of the Obama administration, said it was also fiction that the U.S. helped sink LTTE boats but acknowledged that U.S. intelligence did provide information to the Sri Lankan navy about the boats’ location.

Blake’s remarks came last month during a talk to the Serendipity Group, a nonpolitical group of Washington-based friends of Sri Lanka, which comprises several former U.S. ambassadors and other diplomats who served in Sri Lanka. Blake said even eight years after Prabhakaran was declared dead, myths continued to circulate and his role in the more than 20-year ethnic conflict, in which more than 70,000 Sri Lankans were killed, continues to be questioned.

He told the group he wanted “to clear up some misinformation that continues to circulate about some of the things we worked on when I was ambassador from 2006 to 2009.” Blake said the biggest myth was centered on the beach rescue. He said, to this day, a story circulates about “an effort I organized to try to rescue tens of thousands of IDPs [internally displaced persons, who were mostly Tamils] from the beach at PTK (Puthukkudiyiruppu, a small town in the Mullaitivu District in Northeast Sri Lanka, that was controlled by the LTTE before they were overrun by the Sri Lankan armed forces] was an effort to evacuate Prabakharan.”

He said there was never an intent to help the LTTE. “To the contrary, the plan was to rescue as many IDPs whom the LTTE had refused to allow to move south through the lines of fighting and were in effect human shields,” he said. “Every person would have been transferred by U.S. Navy boat to Sri Lankan custody,” he said. “There was a detailed plan coordinated with the government of Sri Lanka and the Indian government. Unfortunately, the government of Sri Lanka killed the idea for fear that [Norwegian peace broker] Eric Solheim and I would be taken hostage by the LTTE,” something, he said “we did not believe would happen.”

He also denied involvement in sinking LTTE ships. He said the U.S. did help the Sri Lankan navy locate the boats, which were carrying arms for the LTTE. But, Blake added, “the SL navy actually sank the boats.”

He said the U.S decision to support a 2012 UN Human Rights Council resolution has also been a source of continued criticism. He said he initially had argue in favor of letting the Sri Lankan government work on reconciliation and accountability so they could craft their own solution internally. “Domestic ownership is always preferable,” he said. “Indeed the Sri Lankan government came up with the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, which had many positive aspects.” But, he said, it failed to address serious allegations of violations of international law, particularly at the end of the war.

“So we decided to support a landmark resolution that welcomed the LLRC report; called for its implementation; called on the [government of Sri Lanka] to take credible actions to ensure justice and accountability for all Sri Lankans,” he said. The resolution also asked the Sri Lankan government to draft an action plan and asked the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for a progress report at the next session.

Blake praised the country’s January 2015 presidential elections which he called a “sea-change in Sri Lankan politics.” Maithripala Sirisena, now the president of Sri Lanka, defected to lead an opposition coalition that defeated then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had been seeking a third term.

“Suddenly we had a government in power that promised many of the political, economic and social reforms that Sri Lankan civil society and the international community had been seeking and chose a lot of reformers as ministers to carry out those reforms,” he said.

But while saying several of these reforms had been implemented, Blake bemoaned lack of progress in other areas, such as the Office of Missing Persons, which he said has yet to be set up despite its approval in August 2016. “This is really important on many levels due to the large number of ‘enforced disappearances,’ white van abductions and many people who went missing after the war.”

Blake also said there have been repeated delays in the establishment of a reparations office, a truth commission and a transitional justice mechanism. “Progress on a new constitution to strengthen devolution also is slow,” he said. “Much ink has been spilled on the divisions in the unity government that often lead to focus more on political maneuvering than forging coalitions on specific issues to get things done. And indeed, the president and prime minister [Ranil Wickremasinghe] have an uneasy coexistence. Old familiar divisions remain: the SLFP [Sri Lanka Freedom Party] tends to be more nationalistic, populist and less business oriented, UNP [United National Party] more internationalist, and supportive of free trade.”

He said, however, he was optimistic that the government has reaffirmed its ambitious plans in the most recent UNHRC resolution in March. And he had praise for the work of U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Atul Keshap, an Indian-American career diplomat.

However, Blake said Rajapaksa continues to be a spoiler, opposing “efforts on reconciliation and transitional justice, casting them as capitulation to western interests. But from what I can tell, President Sirisena and Prime Minister [Ranil] Wickremesinghe still have the will to move forward.”

He said continued friendship with Sri Lanka brings many advantages, among them its “strategic location astride the main Indo-Pacific sea lanes through which pass two-thirds of global oil supplies and half of the world’s container cargo,” with the port of Colombo being South Asia’s busiest trans-shipment port.

“Free trade agreements already exist with India and Pakistan, while work is underway for agreements with China and Singapore,” he said. “Politically, of course civil society and many others always want to see faster progress but let’s not forget, democracy matters. Of course, public policy is always more complicated, but democracy opens avenues for constructive dissent, good ideas.”

By Aziz Haniffa

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