Sri Lanka: Development and Domestic ProsperitySteven Mann, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs
Colombo, Sri Lanka
March 9, 2007
AMBASSADOR MANN: Thanks very much. It is always a great pleasure for me to come back to Sri Lanka, a country of which I have the warmest memories from my time here, and from the years spent in diplomatic practice with Sri Lanka. And I am here in these days at the kind invitation of Ambassador Blake for two purposes.
First, to attend a conference that the Department of State has held in Colombo for our entry-level personnel. This is an important thing for us. We have brought together roughly fifty of our most junior personnel, our beginning diplomatic professionals from the entire South and Central Asia Bureau from as far away as Kazakhstan. So they have come from all our posts in Central and South Asia for two days of professional development, and we have been very pleased to bring them to Sri Lanka, and we are very thankful for the hospitality and support that the Government of Sri Lanka has given us.
And my second purpose in coming here, of course, is to meet with the President and other leaders to discuss the important issues that we have on our agenda. And we believe that we have in these months an important opportunity that stands before Sri Lanka. And it is the hope of the United States that the leaders of Sri Lanka will seize the chance to reach a consensus agreement on power-sharing that meets the legitimate aspirations of all the country's people. As long as there still is no such agreement, we see that it is too easy for those who would continue armed conflict to rally others to their cause. And it would also help greatly reduce the human rights violations and the humanitarian challenges that Sri Lanka faces.
I have taken a look at the data, and international financial institutions estimate that the conflict has held back GDP growth by two-to-three percent per year. And over more than two decades this constant loss of economic opportunity has resulted in an enormous forgone opportunity for prosperity that should have benefited all Sri Lankans. And a key to achieving this prosperity we believe also will be civil society, and one thing I want to do is reaffirm how valuable the United States knows civil society can be in development and in domestic prosperity. A resolution of the conflict would unlock even greater potential growth in the North and the East, and this would contribute to addressing the economic aspirations of all communities island-wide. Peace, of course, would make Sri Lanka an even more attractive destination for trade and investment, including investment in infrastructure, which I understand is one of the Government's top priorities.
So, finally, and let me emphasize this again: the United States is proud to stand with Sri Lanka; not only in fighting terrorism, but in seeking a peaceful end to a quarter-century of violent conflict. These are well known positions, positions that represent a consistency and rationality to our foreign policy.
Let me just stop there and move to any questions.
QUESTION: Ambassador, I am Muralidharan Reddy from the Hindu newspaper. When you talk of Sri Lankan leaders seizing the opportunity for building a consensus, are you referring to the collapse of a memorandum of understanding between SLFP and UNP, and did this issue figure in your talks with the President?
AMBASSADOR MANN: Well, I had very detailed, very open talks with the President. The President was very kind and courteous to give me a good amount of his time today, and it was I think clearly a useful and very positive meeting with the President. But what I am referring to is the place that the parties, that Sri Lanka is now in terms of the APRC process. And what I expressed to the President, and I will shortly be meeting with the Leader of the Opposition, is that we think that this is perhaps a unique moment in terms of - well, I shouldn't say a unique moment, because it hasn't been a short time. But these months represent a unique opportunity to develop a proposal that is credible and can command broad popular support, and it is our understanding that as this APRC process progresses, this is the opportunity for the parties to put forward these proposals that, we hope, will come out in a fashion like that, that will represent something of great scope, of great breadth, and will lead to a very powerful set of proposals that can be put forward more broadly. That is what I am referring to in that instance.
QUESTION: Sunesh from Channel One MTV: Recently the UN issued the country report on human rights (sic), and it states that credible sources have revealed that there have been some unlawful killings by government agents as well, people connected to government agents as well. Would you like to elaborate on this? And the UN Country Report (sic) had also spoken about a lot of human rights violations in the country. Would you like to elaborate on it?
AMBASSADOR MANN: You mean the U.S. Country Report?
QUESTION: U.S. Country Report, yeah.
AMBASSADOR MANN: Yes, every year as mandated by Congress, we come out with a set of human rights reports worldwide. These reports really are the product of the most rigorous analysis by our embassies and by our experts in Washington . I don't want to go into the details of individual cases in the 50-page Sri Lanka Human Rights Report, only to say that this does, we believe, give a very accurate and comprehensive picture of the situation. And as a country, we do care greatly about human rights. Human rights matters greatly to the United States. And also in the practical circumstances of Sri Lanka it is indelibly clear to us that strong, consistent respect for human rights must be an element of any successful peaceful resolution to the conflict.
QUESTION: Shehan Baranage from Derana TV in Sri Lanka : We're talking about combating terrorism. Now, in which way that United States would help Sri Lanka in combating terrorism? Supposing if the Sri Lankan Government needs an urgent requirement of military assistance, will U.S. provide that?
AMBASSADOR MANN: First of all, just as a matter of practice, I don't like to jump for the hypothetical question. But secondly, the United States has been very clear on this, in terms of our approach to terrorism. The LTTE has been on the U.S. terrorism list since 1997. We have been very clear about where we stand, and our actions have matched our words. That said, our efforts in this direction of looking at the entire LTTE issue rest on pressing towards a peaceful political solution. We have no brief for terrorism. We have been very clear in terms of putting the LTTE on the terrorist list in working in, I think to… When the LTTE or LTTE affiliates have violated U.S. laws, we have acted. I think, clearly, for many years we have said our focus must be on supporting a political solution to the conflict.
QUESTION: Ambassador Mann, I am Wijaya Dissanayake from the national television, Rupavahini. According the UNICEF, this year alone the LTTE has recruited more than 6000 children for war. What is your message to the LTTE?
AMBASSADOR MANN: It's a universal message that the United States gives, which is respect for rule of law, respect for human rights, no recruitment of children for military purposes on any side, any faction involved in the fighting. So, I think we are very clear on that in all the ways that we address the issue.
QUESTION: I am Stanley Samarasinghe of Maubima. What's your comment on press freedom in Sri Lanka ? What's your opinion about it?
AMBASSADOR MANN: Well, in sum: I am for it. It's interesting. I have just come here from Turkmenistan . I have flown from Ashkhabat. And Turkmenistan is a country which we hope and trust is on the verge of serious changes from the un-free situation in which it has found itself for many years. And at the heart of democratic development and economic prosperity is a free press. And for the United States we cannot over emphasize the importance of press freedom to the development of a society.
And I'm very heartened today: we've got a lively press corps before us. We believe that events such as this, such as the dissemination of clear facts of differing messages across all political views, is an inescapable element of prosperity worldwide, and of Sri Lanka's further development. So, of course, whenever I am asked this question region-wide, I will give the same very positive answer in favor media freedom.
QUESTION: OK, Ambassador talking about the human rights violations and about abductions, disappearances and arbitrary arrest and all this stuff. In the recent past, we have several reports against government - you know there are several reports against government? - even - it's not put forward by local organizations - even from the international organizations, such as Human Rights Watch. So, what it your concern about this? Because until today it's happening. It's not stopped. So what (does) the U.S. think? Apart from the pressures through the reports, any active measures or any active pressure to the government to stop all this stuff?
AMBASSADOR MANN: No, we are concerned about the reports that we have received. And the issue of human rights was an important part of my dialogue with the President. As diplomats do, I will say that I don't want to breach the confidentiality of our diplomatic dialogue, but certainly for me, certainly for Ambassador Blake, the human rights situation and the need for strong human rights performance on the part of the government and all of its agencies and branches is a very strong theme for the United States . And we take these issues and we take these reports very seriously.
QUESTION: Sir, I am asking what is your action would be to protect the minority groups? For example, if you see there are so many Tamil businessmen they have kidnapped and got ransom after the release and of some even their families don't know where they are. So, I'm asking you if are there any talks about this? Have you spoke with this President about this to protect the minorities?
AMBASSADOR MANN: Well let me say this: it was a very wide ranging discussion with the President. And the President is the type of person with whom you can speak candidly. We spoke in detail—again I don't want to get into the details of our discussion. But I want you to rest assured that the United States takes these issues very, very seriously. And this is always really one of the highest issues— the few highest issues-on our agenda with the President, and I'll be meeting also with the Foreign Minister. I have met with the Defense Secretary today. I'll be meeting with the Chief of the Armed Forces, Chief of Army Staff. So in every one of these meetings human rights, of course, will be a strong theme of mine.
QUESTION: Depal Jayasekera from the World Socialist website: My question is you say United States is supporting Sri Lankan government's war on terrorism, and also at the same time you advocate a peaceful solution to the conflict. Isn't that contradictory?
AMBASSADOR MANN: Well, I think not, because if you look in terms of a stable solution - and I've been working on conflicts worldwide - but when you look in terms of those solutions that will be stable and lasting, it has to rest on political understandings. Otherwise, conflicts will resurge all over again. Now, unquestionably - let me make two points - unquestionably, there is military element to this; there is a fundamental military element to the issue. And unquestionably, you have to have all sides participating fully in the talks. So when I call for peaceful political settlement, this is a powerful message to the Tigers, as well as government, to engage seriously in this type of peace negotiation. So I understand that. But it has long been the position of the United States that if you want that stable and lasting solution, there has to be an important political element to it. So that is why we - and Ambassador Blake here especially - are focusing on the proposals that are going to move forward to the APRC, because in their own way they are irreplaceable elements in bringing about an end to the war.
QUESTION: Manjula Fernando from the Daily News: What is your overall assessment in the ground situation? And will we see an additional role U.S. playing in the Sri Lankan peace process in future?
AMBASSADOR MANN: In the ground situation: looking back over the past year, we see that the Sri Lankan forces have made some major advances. I believe that the task that stands before the Sri Lankan forces and the Government now is to bring stable development and effective governance to those regions. That is a critical task. The lines of battle have changed. But it will be extremely important to develop effective peaceful governance in those regions now under the control of the security forces.
And… I'm sorry, the second part of your question?
QUESTION: Will there be an additional role played by U.S. ?
AMBASSADOR MANN: The role of United States ? We will support in every effective way that we can. We have been working so hard as one of the Co- Chairs in the peace process. We have been working for many years. We will continue our strong support for the Co- Chairs and for that process. And if there is a way that we can be helpful, we will. At the moment, the spotlight is shifting. And the real… I think there is less direct role for the United States now than there is for the political parties and the leaders in Sri Lanka . That is where the spotlight is now: to come up with proposals that are at least equal in breadth and scope to the proposals of 2000. But overall, absolutely, we want to be supportive.
QUESTION: Wickremesinghe from the World Socialist website: I have two questions regarding the recently-signed Cross-Services and Acquisition Agreement between the governments. Number one: does this agreement limit all the military and other relationships that the U.S. proposes to have with the government of Sri Lanka ? That's one question. I mean, it says that it prohibits military supplies to the government of Sri Lanka . But outside of the (pressings?) of this agreement, still is there room for supplies of a military type to the Sri Lankan Government? Number two is, it says logistic supplies and other mutual support to each other would be especially on peace-keeping missions and under that kind of activity. Now, would the USA define its intervention in Iraq a peace keeping activity in terms of this?
AMBASSADOR MANN: Well let me turn to this ACSA, let me focus on the ACSA agreement. The ACSA agreement is a very routine agreement that we have with 89 countries. So I'd like to stress that and get this across. We have signed an agreement like this with 89 countries in the world. And what it is, is a barter arrangement for goods and services in the defense area. So it is a fairly modest agreement, and I think just to keep it in that very modest, as you say, logistic context, that's all this is. And it is nothing more, it has no wider application than that, and does not extend to any wider sales of military equipment, that kind of thing.
QUESTION: crosstalk (unclear)
AMBASSADOR MANN: We are proud of what we achieved in Iraq . Is it a peace keeping operation? I won't play with labels. But I will just say that anytime the United States can bring to end a dictatorial regime like Saddam Hussein, I'm proud that we have done it.
QUESTION: Easwaren Rutnam from the Daily Mirror: On the issue of human rights: Human Rights Watch and indeed several other agencies have been pushing for the formation of international monitoring mission in Sri Lanka . How does the U.S. see this proposal? Do you all back something like that?
AMBASSADOR MANN: Well, we have already… We have the military monitors who have been operating here, the Monitoring Mission for some time, and now we have the International Group of Eminent Persons. So I'm not fully… Perhaps I'm not fully understanding what they are proposing. But I think there is this practice that we have had. And now with the eminent persons' group moving forward, I think this is an additional level of cooperation and scrutiny that the Government has welcomed.
QUESTION: Suranga Gamage from the Island: What you have said so far, what I can gather is that there are two challenges that lie ahead of Sri Lanka . One is to come up with effective power-sharing mechanism; another one is to fight terrorism. So how do you see these two aspects go hand in hand?
AMBASSADOR MANN: Well I think this is a great last question, because it gets to the heart of conflict. And so much of what one encounters in fighting an insurgency is a "hearts and minds" issue. There is, of course, a powerful military element to fighting the war on this island. Yet, the conflict cannot be solved without an effective political answer. So the task for the government is a difficult one. We appreciate this from Washington; it is a difficult task. There is a military challenge to which the government must react soberly and in a way it addresses the protection of human rights. Yet at the same time, there is that great political element out there. And we think that this moment now when you have the parties attempting to work in tandem, the parties looking at serious proposals for a devolution structure, that right now, to me, that is the important focus; (that) is what emerges from this process politically. So, it is difficult. I want to stress again we understand the difficulty of the task that President Rajapaksa, that Mr. Wickremasinghe, that all of the parties are engaged in in trying to bring about an end to the conflict, and that it has these major aspects to it. But from the view of the United States, we want strongly to encourage taking advantage of this political moment. And, as always, if there is any way we can be helpful to the process, we will be.
So, thank you very much.