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U.S. Relations With Sri Lanka: "We See Friends"

Richard A. Boucher
Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs
Colombo, Sri Lanka
August 3, 2008

Richard A. Boucher: U.S.-Sri Lanka Relations (Q&A At SAARC summit)

Assistant Secretary Boucher: First, I want to say that it is always a pleasure to be here in Sri Lanka and especially to be able to convey my congratulations on the sixtieth anniversary of independence here. This is a memorable occasion as we talk about Sri Lanka and its democracy, and how to go forward.

We are here to attend the SAARC summit. The United States is very happy to be part of SAARC as an observer. I was able to go last year to the meeting in Delhi and it has been a pleasure to be here in Sri Lanka, to see all my colleagues and friends in SAARC and people from the SAARC countries who come together and try to work together. I think this is a good chance for us to catch up with people from all around the region, but also a chance to look together at where the region is going. I have to say, I think I really do see a more practical and productive atmosphere, certainly a strong condemnation of terrorism, which afflicts many people in many countries around this region. There is an emphasis on food security, energy -- real problems that people face in this region. I think, increasingly, from SAARC there is an attitude of not just political dialogue, but what can we do about these problems, a pragmatic attitude.

We had a discussion this morning with the Foreign Minister, the observers and Foreign Ministers from various SAARC countries about how we can really increase the chances of cooperation, increase the coordination between what some of the observer countries do in the region in promoting efforts against terrorism, efforts in agriculture, efforts in energy and the way that SAARC is trying to coordinate, as well. I think we have a real opportunity here to work with SAARC in the years ahead and I'm looking forward to doing that on behalf of the United States.

We offer our congratulations to the government of Sri Lanka for the way they have hosted the meeting. Everything has gone smoothly so far. I cannot give a final analysis until after the final wrap-up this afternoon, but I am sure the conclusion will be the same. There has been very close attention to the impeccable arrangements and the warmth and hospitality of the people of Sri Lanka is coming through in all these arrangements and activities.

We look at Sri Lanka and we see friends. We see ourselves as the friends of Sri Lanka and friends of the people of Sri Lanka. We try to make sure that we make a positive contribution here. We stand with the people of Sri Lanka as they try to fight terrorism. We understand that people need to be able to go about their lives safely, free from fear of bombings on busses or [in] shopping malls or attacks in the streets. We have tried to help the people in the government of Sri Lanka to interdict supplies that might be coming illegally into the terrorist groups, with the radar systems we are working on or the efforts that we have made in the United States with the arrests and prosecutions against the illegal supply of weapons to the Tamil Tigers, with the designation of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization as a conduit for terrorist supplies. There are actions that we have taken overseas, actions that we have taken to help the government fight terrorism and we will continue those.

We also look to where we can support the people of Sri Lanka. We had a major program of tsunami relief of almost $135 million. That program is really successful. The assistance has been delivered and it is mostly complete now. You saw recently the opening of the Arugam Bay bridge, a major project. You also saw the rehabilitation of fishing harbors in the south. We are still working on nine vocational schools in the south and the east. These tsunami relief projects were very important to us and I am glad to say that aid has been successfully delivered and we've done what we promised to do.

We have also worked with humanitarian assistance, for people who have been displaced in the fighting, about $50 million worth of assistance in 2007 and we have new programs developing as the situation evolves. We are working now in the east on some of the short-term needs of the people in areas that recently were opened up. We are also working to promote agriculture and investment in the workforce in the parts of the east that have had elections and that are moving forward, to try to help people there stabilize themselves, not only politically, but really get going economically and develop those areas. The United States is very heavily involved with the people and with economics and development for the people of Sri Lanka.

At the same time, I think we have strong political interests in the political evolution of the situation here in Sri Lanka. Basically we want to see the benefits of democracy extended to all the people on the island. That is the right thing to do for the people of Sri Lanka, the people of all the communities here. But it must be done thoroughly. We expect a lot of a democratic government and we express that a lot. Sometimes it seems like criticism and pressure, but we do expect a democratic government to live up to the ideals that we are all, in our own way, trying to live up to in our own democracies.

That really brings the focus on some of the continuing problems here: the need to show real respect for human rights and to do it thoroughly, to demobilize the paramilitaries. Where you have the extension of government you also need to make sure that paramilitaries are demobilized, especially when it comes to child soldiers. There should not be any child soldiers, anywhere. We are engaged with UNICEF and the government to try to end the use of child soldiers by the paramilitaries. The paramilitaries need to be demobilized. The police need to be capable of providing safety and security to ordinary citizens.

We also need to see an end to some of the abuses that continue to occur -- disappearances, abductions, illegal detentions, various situations that you are all quite familiar with on this island, where the government again needs to be able to provide the best ideals of democracy and respect for human rights to all its citizens.

I think that is part of charting the path ahead for Sri Lanka. Whatever space can be opened up militarily, there also needs to be space opened up politically for a political solution. You need to get something out that tells people on the island what kind of future they can live in, what kind of path there is ahead -- the power sharing path that can address the aspirations of all communities. I know the government has talked a lot about devolution and the effort being made in the east with the new government and that is very welcome. It needs to be done thoroughly but also there needs to be a path beyond that charted out so that people can look forward to a kind of future that all the communities on the island can have.

As we discuss these issues with the government we do reaffirm our support for a political solution. We believe that Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils all need to have a future of hope and a future of respect for their dignity and their rights on the island. People need to see and understand the future prospects for autonomy within a united Sri Lanka.

The time to promote reconciliation and trust, the time to promote hope is now. It is not something that needs to wait or should wait. That is our simplest message. The key to that is to promote the human rights situation on the island.

We will continue to talk to the government, to [the] military, civil society, the media, to discuss these issues, to promote human rights, to promote these ideas. I think we do find a certain resonance when we talk about them because people are committed to democracy and want to develop democracy. But, in the end, it is not just the discussions that matter, it is what is happening in the streets and what is happening in the towns and the villages that matters. We will continue to work on those things, whether it is visits like mine or the day-to-day work that our embassy and that our exemplary Ambassador does in that regard. I think that is where the United States stands here. We stand with the people. We stand for development. But we also stand for human rights and for opening up a political future for everyone on the island.

And with that, I would be glad to take questions.

Question: Could you elaborate on your discussions about terrorism with the ministers and any of the heads of government here? Specifically, India, Afghanistan -- and if media reports are to be believed, the U.S. has now accused elements of the Pakistani ISI of being behind the July 7th Kabul bombing. We have heard that Mr. Gillani has personally pledged to investigate that. Has he told you this and what other information can you share with us about other alleged ISI involvement in that bombing?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: That is about five questions. I think I will pick any two of them to give you an answer on.

(Laughter)

Let me try to give you a general answer to all those things. Obviously as it is a concern to countries in the region as well as a concern to us, we have had a very active discussion and indeed cooperation with countries of the region against terrorism. Whether it is some of the things I cited in terms of preventing supplies to terrorists in Sri Lanka or working with the government of Bangladesh to end the terrorist threat there, or working very actively in Afghanistan and cooperating with Pakistan, and working with India against terrorism, we understand the concerns of people. We share these concerns.

Terrorism is a threat to the people of the region, to the people of nations like Pakistan, but also a threat to the wider world. We are concerned very much about the situation in Pakistan right now. We had a chance with the visit of Prime Minister Gillani in Washington this week to go through the issues with him. I think we heard very strong determination on his part, for the sake of Pakistan, to conquer the problem of terrorism, to conquer the problem of extremism which afflicts so many of their citizens there, which really is a problem which people in Pakistan are justifiably worried about for themselves. I think we welcome the statement that he made about looking into the causes and sources of the Kabul bombing. We all need to understand that situation. We all need to do all that we can to correct whoever was involved in that bombing. But the only way we are ever going to get a hold of this problem is through cooperation of the nations of the region and through cooperation with the nations of the region.

The United States is pledged very firmly to working with the countries in this region to fight the scourge of terrorism, to build up their capabilities to maintain security throughout their territory, to help them with their goal of extending good governance throughout the country. Whether we look at the work we are doing with Afghanistan to help the Afghan government extend itself and provide the benefits of good government to its citizens around all parts of its country, or the work that we are doing with Pakistan to help them extend the writ of government into the Tribal Areas, in the end, that is the best solution to the problem of terrorism. So, we have to work with each of the countries involved.

Question: In relation to Sri Lanka, you report the need of democracy extended to all the citizens and also to the need of respect for human rights. What is your assessment, do you see any lack of democracy or violation of human rights here? What is your assessment of the situation here?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: I think we have made it very clear in reports and statements that we are concerned about the human rights situation here. We have been concerned about some of the reports of abuses of the past that have not been fully investigated or have not had legal action taken at this point - such as the killings of aid workers. We have been concerned about the continuing reports of abductions, disappearances, some of the detentions of individuals, reports of intimidation against the media. All of these things need to be stopped. The government needs to take action to stop the perpetrators, and investigate and prosecute where necessary the people who have done these things. I think we will continue to focus attention on those problems and we will continue to call on the government, but also work with the government, to try to help a democratic government achieve the highest standards of democracy, because that is what the citizens expect of their government.

Question: There is a feeling in India that since the installation of a duly-elected government in Pakistan, there has been a perceptible increase in the incidents of terrorist violence and one gets a feeling that this government is in a lesser position to control these elements than the control one saw during Musharraf's time. What is the perception of the United States and do you think that in the long run that this government will be able to control the situation and keep it from spiraling out of control, because in India there cannot be a peace process pursued by any government without popular support and if there are more incidents of terrorist violence in India, perhaps even the government in Delhi may be a little helpless in pursuing the peace dialogue?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: I think, first and foremost, the violence affects Pakistan. And, first and foremost, the Pakistani government wants to address the violence for their own reasons, because it affects their own citizens and their own governance. That is the message we have heard again and again from the new government, from the elected government. We have believed and continue to believe that a democratic base is the best base on which to fight terrorism. That the citizens of Pakistan, in their election, voted essentially for a moderate, democratic government and voted for, you might say, modernizing Pakistan in all its aspects -- modernizing the education system, modernizing the democratic institutions, modernizing the military capabilities -- that is something we will very much help Pakistan with. And we are committed across the board, in a very broad-based way. Whether it is the food assistance we just announced in Washington, [$115.5] million dollars worth, or the ongoing work on helping them build police and military capabilities, we are very committed to that.

We do believe democratic government is the best base on which to fight terrorism. I do remember that it is a new government; they were formed at the end of March. We are a couple of months down the road and they have enormous problems to deal with. I do not envy the people who have to come into government and have to face these overwhelming problems of extremism, of food prices, energy prices, government budgets and many other things that they have to deal with right away. There are enormous challenges there and we need to help them in every way possible. They also need to be able to work through some of these questions and achieve action. I think if you look at my last visit to Pakistan in early July, I felt there was a need to focus more intensely on some of these problems -- perhaps too much politicking going on and not enough work, getting down to business on terrorism, on food, on energy.

Certainly what we heard from the government in the visit to Washington, and what we have heard in their public statements since then, has shown more intense focus on really dealing with the problems, taking action on the problems. So that is what we look to them to do now and I think action on these problems, particularly on the problem of terrorism, will benefit people throughout the region, because it is a problem that afflicts people throughout the region and it will benefit their relations, especially their relations with Afghanistan and with India. Even if they do it for Pakistan's sake, which is what they say and what they should do, it will actually prove of benefit to the whole region and to their relations with the whole region.

Question: The continuing political instability in Pakistan and the inability of the three principal characters in that country is likely to make things worse as far as India and Afghanistan are concerned because ISI is apparently becoming really aggressive. There have been more incidents of violence and there is speculation that Musharraf might sack this government any moment, or that Gillani might take over. What is your take on this?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: Is that a question or a theory? Honestly, my answer to that is my answer to the last question. The only real base for fighting terrorism is going to be the democratic base, but we do look to the democratic parties to get focus and to move swiftly to take real action on some of these problems. And we certainly will be there to support them and help them, and we frankly hope everyone in the region will be there to support them and help them as they take action.

Question: When do you think the Indo-American nuclear deal will reach Congress and which countries do you think will object to the deal?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: Well, by the time we get to the Nuclear Suppliers Group final meeting we hope to no countries will object. There is going to be a process between now and then of working with countries who have questions and making sure that their questions get answered. We can do a lot of that because we have worked with the nuclear suppliers and we know that whole angle on it. India is going to have to do some of that and answer a lot of questions about its nuclear programs and safeguards and the separation plan.

I think we are very much partners with India in going forward, as we were partners in getting this started. We are moving on an expeditious timetable. We understand democracy; we have a great patience for democracy, and now that the Indian government has worked its way through its political issues they are in a position to go forward and we are going to go forward full speed with them. We are coordinating very closely; we have worked this now through the International Atomic Energy Agency Board in Vienna. We are very pleased to see that consensus was reached there on approving the safeguards agreement. That is a major step.

The next step is to go forward to the Nuclear Suppliers Group and to talk to all the countries in that group. If we can do that expeditiously we would hope to be able to deliver the package to our Congress in September. We need a lot of pieces to fall into place. There are various aspects of the joint statements from the visits -- from the President's visit and from the Prime Minister's visit -- things that need to be done to fulfill those pledges. Then we need to take that whole package and present it to our Congress in September. And then we will talk to Congress about how they can handle it and their procedures. There is a lot to do in the short term, a very intense effort going on together with India and certainly a great hope that we can bring this to fruition. But whatever happens we are going to take it as far as we can and we are going to pledge our full and complete effort to get it as far as we can along that path.

Question: You are talking about democracy and you are supporting a government in Bangladesh of a non-democratic nature, a two-year non-party caretaker government, and the country is going ahead with elections, scheduled to be held in December 2008. There is a strong debate going on in the country whether elections should be under emergency rules or not. Political parties are demanding relief as some fundamental rights are suspended under emergency rules. The government has still not decided whether they will lift the emergency. What do you think about that?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: I do not know the precise legal definitions one way or the other, but I think there is a certain sense of logic and common sense that has to apply. We all want to see the elections. We all know the only way forward for Bangladesh is to have this election -- a good election -- on time. Whatever efforts have been made by the caretaker government to clean up politics, to pursue anti-corruption efforts, to build and strengthen the political institutions, like the election commission and the corruption commission- - these are valuable efforts. But their only lasting result will be if they are translated into a good election and a better future of clean politics and stable politics for Bangladesh.

We think that election is necessary. We very much support it and make it clear that we do not think that there is any other way forward. Any election has to take place in an atmosphere where people can discuss, can debate, where the media can report, where people can meet with their supporters. People need to be able to have active politics and a fair election, and those circumstances are dictated by logic as much as anything else. That is what we have talked about, that is what we have supported in our discussions with people in Bangladesh, and that is what I have talked about with the people I have met from Bangladesh.

Question: While appreciating the fact that you are talking about the democratization, disarming the paramilitary groups and about human rights, there may be a question raised to the western countries, in particular the U.S., as to why sometimes the west is not concerned about human rights violations done due to terrorist activities, especially in this part of the world, with relation to Sri Lanka and especially to India and Pakistan. May I ask you why the west is not talking about the human rights violations done by the terrorists, particularly in Sri Lanka? There are so many, irrespective of race, religion or culture, that the terrorist bombings have hurt in this entire country for the last twenty years.

Assistant Secretary Boucher: I just do not accept the premise. I talked today about the terrorist bombings. I do not think anyone has ever made any excuses for the Tamil Tigers. We have listed them as a terrorist organization. We make clear that blowing up busses full of people is one of the most horrible things you can do and in no way are we going to countenance those acts. Child soldiers recruited by the terrorist groups need to be demobilized. These kids need to be let out of bondage, and even when you have situations like some of the groups that are split off and come into the political system, they cannot maintain those child soldiers just because of their history. That needs to be ended, too, and so I do not think we in any way excuse the behavior of terrorist groups.

The violations of human rights, the horrible killings of the terrorist groups -- we absolutely condemn them and are very clear in our commentary, in our human rights reports, about that. But that does not mean that everyone is allowed to do it. It is very clear, especially for a government that is democratic, for a society that does have a strong democratic tradition, that we all need to live up to our highest ideals, we all need to live up to our founding principles. We never claim American democracy is perfect, we always say it is a work in progress. But whenever we see others who are not living up to their principles we also say that they need to make better efforts and that there are problems here, that the government can fix and could fix. Unfortunately, the problems of the Tamil Tigers are more difficult to fix right now. They do not seem to have any desire to correct their human rights abuses.

Question: People of this region talk about the third decade of SAARC and this forum is not coming up to solve the problems of this region, like poverty and other issues. What are your expectations as an observer and through your meetings with other people? Secondly, yesterday you had a meeting with Prime Minister Gillani. Did you talk about the recent blame game, about the Kabul bomb blast at the Indian Embassy, and did Gillani talk about any foreign involvement in the Tribal Areas and other areas of Pakistan, because in internal politics they do give these statements? Thank you.

Assistant Secretary Boucher: First of all, I do think SAARC is trying to address the problems of the people of the region, trying to deal with issues of poverty, issues of food security, issues of terrorism, issues of energy supply and a great many other things that afflict the people of the region. I do not think any single organization or any single meeting is going to solve all these problems, but I think that every organization and every meeting should try to make a direct contribution. And that is what the SAARC leaders have pledged themselves to do together. That is what we, as observers, are trying to work with them to do, so they make sure that every forum, every opportunity, is used to try to help the people of the region with these very serious problems that they are facing right now.

We do a lot of that individually with governments of the region, with particular programs like the food program and agriculture programs that we have with Pakistan, that we just announced. A lot of other things were just announced in Washington where we are working with the government on education, the economy and poverty alleviation, as well as modernizing the nation. SAARC is one of many contributions to dealing with poverty and development problems.

As far as meeting directly with Prime Minister Gillani yesterday, it was a great pleasure to see him again, even though we just saw each other three days ago in Washington at Andrews Air Force Base. I think we all felt that the visit of the Prime Minister to Washington was very successful. It put us on a solid footing of commitment and a basis for action against terrorism, in particular, and also a basis for a very fundamental and long-term relationship between Pakistan and the United States that deals with all the different problems that the people of Pakistan face.

In many ways my meeting with him here was to follow up on that and to talk about continuation of the way forward, as well as to talk about the opportunities here at SAARC and what we were doing here, as he has taken a great interest in the activities of SAARC. I think we had a good discussion, but I would see it in the context of following up to the discussions in Washington and as he prepares to head home now and deal with some of these very serious issues.

Question: [In Bangladesh] you always speak of three things - democracy, development and denial of space for terrorism. Democracy you put first. You know that the election in Bangladesh is going to be held tomorrow and this is the first step forward to democracy by the present undemocratic government. What do you think -- is this an easy step for the present government?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: I think, as you said, it is the first step towards the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh. It is a step that needs to be followed by other steps. We want to get there by the end of the year. By the end of the year we want to see an election that is on a solid, fair, transparent, peaceful basis, that gives the people of Bangladesh the chance to decide what the government is going to be next year. That is what we have stood for, that is what we have worked for and that is what the caretaker has been working towards, and we want to see them accomplish that goal. This is one of the steps along the way.

Question: We are going to have our first multi-party elections and we have heard the U.S. reaction before, but some time ago we did not know the date that the constitution was going to be ratified. Now President Gayoom has announced he will be ratifying it on August 7th. I would like a brief assessment, if any, from the U.S., Mr. Boucher.

Assistant Secretary Boucher: Yes, I listened very closely to President Gayoom's speech at SAARC yesterday and I think he said two things. He said, one, he would ratify the constitution within a few days and I am glad to hear that he set the precise day for that. That is a welcome development. Second of all, he said that the elections for presidency would be held within two months. That is welcome, as well. We have tried to work with Maldives and support the path that they have chosen, and support the constitutional changes, support this more open electoral system, and we are glad to see it reaching fruition. We are glad to see the participation of all the parties.

I will actually be going down there from here and discussing these issues. If you compare it to the last time I went to the Maldives and we were talking about the potential and the prospects and how to go about it and what needed to be done, I think that there is a lot of welcome progress. As with any progress it does not really matter until it culminates in the real multi-party election that is being forecast now. These are good announcements and we look forward to seeing the completion of this whole process.

Question: Both India and Afghanistan have great problems with ISI. Yesterday only, President Karzai talked about institutional support that terrorists are getting from Pakistan. What is the United States' take on ISI?

Assistant Secretary Boucher: No society is going to be able to fight terrorism successfully if it is divided. Terrorism is a very complex problem. You need to address it with military means, with intelligence means, with law enforcement, with a judicial process, with development, with vocational training, with education, with political context, with administrative activity. You need all those elements to be able to give the people of this region safety and security and opportunity so that they will reject the terrorists and live in peace.

I think it is important for Pakistan to get all the elements of the government lined up and working in the same direction. It is, as we talked [about] before, a new political leadership in Pakistan that has come out of this election. They have a lot of very big challenges, but one of the things is working with the other institutions including the army and the intelligence service. They need to get everybody lined up in the same direction if they are really going to tackle the terrorist problem. Our view is that it is important to have a good intelligence service in Pakistan, but it is also important for that intelligence service to work single-mindedly and in very close step with all the other institutions to really tackle this problem that afflicts so many people in Pakistan and in the broader world.

Thank you very much.

ENDS

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