The Washington Diplomat / March 2009
By Larry Luxner
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Two years ago, U.S. Ambassador Robert O. Blake was lightly injured by a mortar blast while stepping out of a helicopter at a Sri Lankan air base. Tamil Tiger rebels were believed responsible, but for Blake, the attack was no big deal. After all, in the early 1990s, he served two years in Algeria during a wave of Islamic fundamentalist violence against U.S. and other Western officials.
Here, at least, Americans aren’t being specifically targeted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But the U.S. Embassy fronting Colombo’s Galle Road isn’t taking any chances. Security has been beefed up as government forces battle LTTE rebels in northern Sri Lanka and people in the seaside capital nervously await news of the next suicide bombing.
“We have good, friendly relations with this country that go back 60 years,” Blake told The Washington Diplomat in a recent interview. “Sri Lanka has always been one of these multiethnic democracies that had a lot going for it, with one big caveat: this terrible civil conflict that has divided the country for the last 25 years.”
Like his counterpart in Washington, Sri Lankan Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya, Blake prefers not to use the terms “civil war” and “ethnic conflict” when it comes to Sri Lanka.
“I never call it an ethnic conflict because it’s not, and it’s not a civil war,” he said. “Colombo is more than half Tamil and Muslim. The Tamils and Sinhalese are intermarried with each other. And unlike the Middle East and some other places, a solution really is within reach. It’s just a question of political leaders summoning up the courage to come up with one.”
Blake took up his current post in Colombo in September 2006. Before that, he spent two years as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, and he also served at U.S. missions in Egypt, Tunisia and Nigeria.
Blake said he feels safe in Colombo, but that “we always face the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” In fact, our interview at the ambassador’s office took place only two weeks after LTTE militants attacked the Kelanitissa power station on Colombo’s outskirts, plunging the city into darkness.
“We do not believe there can be a purely military solution to the conflict,” Blake told The Diplomat.“It’s our view that Sri Lanka could really be one of the bright lights of South Asia. They have a well-educated population and very high social development indicators, and they’re blessed with abundant natural resources. GDP growth rates of 9 to 10 percent a year would certainly be within reach, if they could end the war and integrate the north and the east into the rest of the economy.”
Washington’s man in Colombo said the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan proves that terrorism cannot be defeated by military measures alone. That’s why he’s pushing the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to find a political solution that includes Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims in some sort of power-sharing arrangement.
Although Blake points out that “it was the LTTE which really started the latest round of fighting in the east,” he also casts blame on the Sri Lankan government.
“We have taken a pretty tough position on the conflict,” he said. “Back when the ceasefire took effect in 2002, Sri Lanka was deemed eligible for the Millennium Challenge Corporation. They were under consideration for several hundred million dollars in infrastructure programs. But in early 2006, the fighting started again and human rights problems escalated, and the decision was made in May 2007 to suspend Sri Lanka.”
More recently, the Pentagon cut off all military assistance for Sri Lanka. Blake said the main issues today are “extrajudicial killings, disappearances, abductions and the lack of media freedom.”
Blake, who has never been allowed into LTTE-controlled areas, said that despite suggestions the rebels have aligned themselves with al-Qaeda, the embassy “has never seen any credible evidence” of that.
“The LTTE gets most of their money from the Tamil Diaspora in Australia, Europe, the United States and Canada. That’s another reason we’ve called for a political solution,” he explained. “If the government were able to come up with something meaningful, it would drive a wedge between the people and the LTTE, which has been brutally efficient at assassinating all moderate Tamil leaders.”