A statement posted on the Sri Lanka President’s Secretariat quoted Robert Blake as telling a gathering at Menik Farm relief centre, in Vavuniya district that he was pleased with the new freedom of movement

The visiting Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia and Central Asia and former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Robert Blake on Tuesday expressed `satisfaction’ with Colombo’s programme for re-settlement of nearly 2.9 lakh Tamil civilians displaced in the war against the security forces and the LTTE.

A statement posted on the Sri Lanka President’s Secretariat quoted Mr. Blake as telling a gathering at Menik Farm relief centre, in Vavuniya district that he was pleased with the new freedom of movement allowed to those who still remain in the government run relief camps and the mine risk education being given to students.

The visit of Mr. Blake is being watch with interest as the Barack Obama Administration is shortly expected to announce a more friendly policy towards Sri Lanka on the basis of a new report by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations chaired by John F. Kerry. Relations between Colombo and Washington got shrill days after the demise of LTTE chief Velupillai Prabakaran in the Eelam War IV which ended in the fourth week of May.

A key recommendation of the comprehensive bi-partisan report is, “The Obama administration should take a broader and more robust approach to Sri Lanka that appreciates new political and economic realities in Sri Lanka and U.S. geostrategic interests. Such an approach should be multidimensional so that U.S. policy is not driven solely by short-term humanitarian concerns but rather an integrated strategy that leverages political, economic, and security tools for more effective long-term reforms”.

Like the rest of the world, the US was critical of the decision of the Government to confine the war displaced behind heavily guarded barbed wired camps and deny them freedom of movement. A decision of the Sri Lanka Government on November 21 to wind up the camps by January 31 and allow freedom to travel to those remaining in the camps has to a large extent helped in calming the world opinion.

The Government also made it known that as of Tuesday the total number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Menik Farm has come down to 94,000.

Presidential Secretariat said that Mr. Blake in the course of his visit to the relief camps met the IDPs and questioned them about conditions at welfare centres and the IDPs told him that they were satisfied.

“The IDPs expressed satisfaction with the meals, medical services and sanitation in the centres as well as the freedom of movement now possible”, it said.

The John Kerry headed report on Sri Lanka not only throws light on the inner thinking of the Obama Administration about this part of the world but also raises questions on a number of subjects ranging from the total number of persons who could have died on account of the conflict and who could be responsible for bringing the US-Lanka relations under a cloud.

70,000 deaths

The report mentions 70,000 deaths due to the ethnic conflicts and thus puts a question mark on the 20,000 deaths figure bandied about in the last phases of the war between the Tigers and the military (March to May 19, 2009).

While asserting that the whole Rajapaksa Government strategy in the post-Prabakaran Sri Lanka seems to be still driven by security concerns, the report acknowledges that the Government faces many challenges in transitioning to peace, and the international community can help.

“The political environment in Sri Lanka is not as black and white as many outside observers believe. Despite ongoing allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses, the Rajapaksa Government has taken some positive steps to ease the humanitarian crisis in the North, develop the East, and reduce the number of child soldiers.

“Serious questions remain about the Sri Lankan Goverment’s ability to address pressing reconstruction and development needs for Tamils and Muslims. The Government’s prolonged application of emergency laws, lack of transparency in developing a strategy for reconstruction and resettlement, questionable conduct during the war, and clampdown on press freedom have undermined trust and the prospects for greater partnership with international donors.

“Though the war is over, a culture of fear and paranoia permeates society, especially for journalists, which further erodes Sri Lanka’s standing in the international community and hampers its prospects for genuine peace”, it notes.

It focuses attention on the more than one lakh Muslims forgotten by most, housed in IDP camps in the Northwest, forcibly evicted from the north by the LTTE in and says that many now want to return home.

Can’t afford ‘loose’ Sri Lanka

Emphasising that US can’t afford to ‘loose’ Sri Lanka, the report dwells at length on the `geo-strategic interests’ of Washington and says they could be further jeopardised if the current state of strained relations were to continue.

“Sri Lanka is strategically located at the nexus of maritime trading routes connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia. It is directly in the middle of the ‘‘Old World,’ where an estimated half of the world’s container ships transit the Indian Ocean.

“American interests in the region include securing energy resources from the Persian Gulf and maintaining the free flow of trade in the Indian Ocean. These interests are also important to one of America’s strategic partners, Japan, who is almost totally dependent on energy supplies transiting the Indian Ocean. The three major threats in the Indian Ocean come from terrorism, interstate conflict, and piracy. There have been some reports of pirate activity in the atoll islands near Sri Lanka.

“Sri Lanka’s geopolitical position has changed in recent years. The United States has developed closer ties with India while Sri Lanka moved towards China. India has been very concerned with instability in Sri Lanka and has worked quietly behind the scenes to push for faster resettlement for Tamils”, it notes.

Presidential contest

On the January 26 Presidential contest between President Rajapaksa and the former Army Chief and consensus candidate of most of the opposition, General (retd) Sarath Fonseka the report says though Mr. Rajapaksa enjoyed immense popularity among the Sinhalese electorate at the end of the war, entry of the General leaves more uncertainty about the outcome and prospects for political reconciliation.

Two significant events marked 2009 in the US vis-à-vis Sri Lanka. On October 21, the State Department gave the Congressional Appropriations Committee a document titled ‘Report to Congress on Incidents During the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka’.

The 68-page State Department report lists 170 alleged incidents and acknowledges that it does not provide, nor is it intended to be, a comprehensive portrayal of the conflict. It further concedes that the report does not reach legal conclusions as to whether the incidents described actually constitute violations of international humanitarian law, crimes against humanity or other violations of international law and whether the alleged incidents actually occurred.

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