Sri Lanka's MomentumRichard A. Boucher, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs
Remarks at the Galle Face Hotel
Colombo, Sri Lanka
October 20, 2006
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Good evening, everybody. Thank you for waiting. We encountered some unusual traffic this evening and it created a delay in my arrival here. But Iím glad I made it here. Iím glad to be back in Sri Lanka. It is a wonderful place to visit. I am always impressed when I come here, about the great hospitality and the graciousness of the welcome that I receive from people from throughout society. I really appreciate that welcome. Iíve had a chance here to meet with a variety of people -- I met with the president [and] I had time with the foreign minister, both of whom we saw just recently in New York. I had a chance to meet the defense secretary, with political leaders from across the spectrum, with representatives from different communities here in Sri Lanka -- workers, humanitarian workers, NGO workers -- a variety of people from different walks of life in Sri Lanka.
In this regard, I point out that we worked among the Co-Chairs and also with the government on the appointment of an international human rights commission. We continue to work on that we hope there were some discussions today in Geneva about this. We hope those were successful because we think the international community can help contribute to the better respect for human rights throughout the island.
Finally, let me mention the important work that is done by the non-governmental organizations on this island. Both sides need to help facilitate that work. Some of these humanitarian organizations have faced a variety of obstacles in trying to carry out that work. Weíve tried to address those to the extent that we can. I had chance to meet today with the Norwegian facilitator, Mr. Jon Hanssen-Bauer. We work very closely with him -- all the Co-Chairs have. We fully support the Norwegian efforts. We believe they have been playing an extraordinary role and we are doing everything we can as Co-Chairs to support the efforts of Norway. I think it is only through those efforts that we are going to see the kind of political progress and the kind of progress in peopleís lives that can really make a difference.
It is very clear, that whether you live here or visit here, that people here deserve to prosper; they deserve a chance to live peaceful and normal lives. We think now is the moment, with the events in the coming days, with the new round of negotiations, where we can make a start in the right direction. That is our hope and that is what we are trying to help achieve, but itís going to require determination, good will and an effort from people throughout this island.
With that Iíll be glad to take any questions you have.
QUESTION: Shimali Senanayake for the New York Times. Two questions for you, sir. You mentioned that we need to investigate human rights abuses. How does the U.S. feel about the UN involvement in a human rights monitoring mechanism? Secondly, as the key supporter of Sri Lankaís peace process, what kind of results do you expect from the Geneva talks on the 28th and 29th. What would be the international communityís benchmark for success of these talks? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Very New York Times sort of questions.
On the next round of discussions, what sort of benchmarks are we looking for? The basic benchmark is to make a new beginning. As I said, it is time to reverse the negative momentum. It is time to take a step in the right direction. It is time for the parties to come to the talks and make a new beginning, to really begin a series of talks and look to the future and start discussing all serious issues that do need to be discussed -- the grievances of the Tamil communities, the respects for the rights of Muslims on the island, the governing arrangements in the different areas. There are a lot of serious discussions that need to be held and they are not all going to be held at once. If this round makes a new beginning, I think we will all be pleased.
QUESTION: Ambassador, Murali Reddy from The Hindu newspaper. The U.S. has consistently taken the position that the LTTE should renounce violence. At the same time, it had also been pressuring Sri Lankan government to hold talks with the LTTE. Do you think itís going to serve any purpose when LTTE has not renounced violence? Second, there is a Supreme Court judgment which has come this week on de-merger; it has caused great deal of concern among various sections here. Did it figure in your talks?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: On the question of renouncing violence, certainly we are as insistent as anyone is that the terrorist attacks need to stop. We stand with the government and the people of Sri Lanka in resisting terrorism. We also believe that at this moment it is important for both sides to do what they can to lower the temperature, to cease hostilities that have occurred in recent weeks and months. In the end, people have to understand that the only real solution to their grievances is going to be a political one. Both sides, including the Tamil Tigers, need to commit seriously to political negotiations. They can only do that by meeting and having talks. Yes, I do think it is important to have the talks even though the level of violence has gone up in recent months.
On the Supreme Court decision on the de-merger, I have to say that the timing was rather unfortunate. It raised a lot of questions right before the next round and I think it is unfortunate in that regard. The merger has for many years now been one of the fundamental assumptions of the peace process. It is one of the fundamental assumptions of the whole negotiations and therefore, I agree it does raise some issues for all the parties, about how they are going to approach these both in terms of the court decision and in terms of negotiations. I donít have any formula for that, but it is a very fundamental issue. In my discussions with various people there is an understanding of how important it is to the negotiation process and it needs to be dealt with in that context.
QUESTION: Kamil Zaheer from Reuters. My question is: Given the ferocity of the fighting, what is your concern -- that if these talks do not succeed, what is the future for Sri Lanka, in terms of the level of the conflict? The second separate question is: local newspaper The Island reported, quoting International Institute for Strategic Studies, that there are emerging links between Al Qaeda and the LTTE. How seriously does the U.S. take such reports and how concerned would you be? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: On the second question, Iím afraid I donít have an answer for you. I havenít seen the report. I donít know how they drew the connections. So I canít comment on that.
As far as the ferocity of fighting and what happens if it fails. First, we are not planning on that. We are trying to plan for success. We donít spend a lot of time in fear of failure. I think it is important for everybody to commit to the talks, to commit to succeeding and to commit to starting a process that will lead somewhere. Thatís what we spend our time working on. Iíll give you the same answers as how the fighting relates to the talks. It is important to stop the fighting, but it is also to get started in a new direction with political discussions and negotiations on all the issues, because in the end the fighting is not getting anybody anywhere. The fighting is just pushing people in the wrong direction. The only way to go in the right direction is through the negotiations.
QUESTION: Jeremy Page from the London Times. I understand that youíve been to Trincomalee on this trip. First of all, I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about what you did there, who you met. Secondly since the regional media and defense analysts often suggest that the U.S. has some strategic interest in Trincomalee, I was wondering if you could clarify whether the U.S. does have any plans to have a naval base in Trincomalee or to use it for stopovers or any other purposes? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: No. There is nothing like that. I had no discussions of anything like that. I did spend most of my day in Trincomalee. I wanted to see the city. I wanted to visit with people there. I wanted to understand the situation, particularly in regard to this de-merger decision of the eastern part of the island. I think those of us who work on these issues need to understand them from the point of view of the people who live there. I had an opportunity to meet with the Commander of the Army, with the Government Agent in Trincomalee, with representatives of different communities, some of whom we work with on our assistance projects that we carry out in that area. Weíve done $4 million worth of assistance projects over the last few years. I had a chance to meet with international non-governmental organizations both the UN-affiliated ones, and the Red Cross representatives and some of the other individual organizations to understand how they saw the situation and what they were dealing with in terms of being able to deliver humanitarian assistance. It was really a chance for me to take a quick look, but still a personal look, at the situation out there and hear from a variety of people.
QUESTION: Jeffrey Evarts from ABC News. Recent reports in our newspapers spoke about the Marine expeditionary force from Okinawa coming for military exercises in the south. It has raised concern among certain of our left wing or shall we say more nationalistic groups. Is there any truth to this? Also what does the government say? You discussed this with the President. Tell us about it, please.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: We have a variety of cooperative military assistance programs with the Government of Sri Lanka. We think it is important that they be able to defend the island, the territory and the people of Sri Lanka, from all forms of attack. We have been talking about an exercise where we cooperate with them and exercise humanitarian capabilities above all else. That is one of the obligations that armies have as well. At the moment our plans have been deferred. Iím sure we will do such an exercise in the future. We are not going to do one right now for a variety of operational reasons. We were considering one, but it has been deferred for the moment. Iím sure we will do it in the future. We have a very positive relationship with the Sri Lankan government and the Sri Lankan military and we expect to continue that relationship.
QUESTION: Iím Prasad from the Rupavahini. The recent arrest in United States shows that the LTTE goes for more sophisticated weapons. Would you believe that there should be much more international action to curb their interest for terror and more threat to the world security as they acquire more sophisticated weapons like SAM missiles?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Yes. It is not just a question of what kind of missiles they were trying to buy. It is a question of acquiring arms by terrorist groups, for terrorist activities. Our view has been that terrorism is a danger to all of us, in all its forms. We need to stop it, in all its forms. Whenever we see such activities, whatever the group, whatever the country, whatever the kind of purchase they are trying to make, we will take the appropriate action through our law enforcement and other agencies. If you look around the world, you have seen other countries do this as well. I donít think there is any question that we are not going to allow that sort of thing to happen. If we can find it weíll stop it. Iím convinced that many others in the world will do that as well.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: Iíll do one more. Back in the corner, that lady, because sheís been so patient and so neglected.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BOUCHER: I think other governments are following suit, I mean...not following suit. All the governments are doing the same thing, because it is the right thing to do. You canít allow terrorist groups to raise money overseas. I think you all are familiar with the Human Rights Watch report that was done earlier this year about some of the methods used in our countries by the LTTE to raise money. We cannot allow that to happen in our country. We need to stop the finance. We need to stop the supply of arms. That is what we are going to continue to do through all the appropriate means that we have as a government and as a law abiding society. I think there is more than that, though, that should lead the LTTE to negotiations. The fact is that they have aspirations -- they have aspirations to satisfy some of the legitimate grievances of the Tamil community. They have aspirations to see the Tamil community respected and able to control its own affairs within a unified island. The only way they are going to achieve those aspirations is through negotiations. There is not just the negative pressure to push them to talks, but if they want to achieve anything there should be a positive reason for them to come to talks and negotiate seriously.