Telephone Conference Call With Journalists in South Asia

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
December 15, 2010

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you very much, Brian. It’s a pleasure to be with all of you today.

I’d like to take this opportunity to provide you with a snapshot of our accomplishments over the last year in the South Asia region, and then to go over some of our priorities for the future, beginning with India.

In India, President Obama’s trip there in November will be remembered as a watershed when the United States and India embarked for the first time on concrete initiatives to develop our global strategic partnership in addition to the many significant bilateral accomplishments. The United States and India will now look on activities that move beyond our bilateral relations to have a far-reaching impact, both regionally and globally.

In the area of non-proliferation, for example, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding to develop best practices and curricula and outreach at India’s Global Center for Nuclear Energy Partnership which will enhance global nuclear security efforts.

We will also pursue joint activities in Afghanistan on women’s development, agriculture and capacity building to help further stabilization efforts in that country.

We also agreed to bring together our shared expertise on food security for the benefit of other countries, particularly for those in Africa.

Finally, as two large democracies we will explore how to apply our best practices to emerging democracies still learning the democratic habits.

I gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation last week that elaborates on many of these topics, so if there’s further interest I encourage you to take a look at that which is on the South and Central Asian Affairs website.

Turning to Bangladesh, I think it’s important to note that despite the global economic downturn, this moderate Muslim nation continued to post impressive economic growth rates in the last year.

In September I was at the UN General Assembly when Sheikh Hasina was presented an award by the United Nations for Bangladesh’s exceptional progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

The past year also heralded a new era of cooperation in Bangladesh’s relations with India and resulted in a number of bilateral agreements there that I think have the potential to benefit the citizens of both countries.

The United States and Bangladesh continue to partner together on a wide range of priorities including food security, climate change, global health, counterterrorism and democracy promotion.

Turning to Nepal, our focus there has centered on support for the peace process and constitution building. We continue to provide expert advice and technical assistance to constitution drafting committees, to facilitate dialogue among the political parties, and to strengthen civil society and the judiciary.

Looking forward, we will work to support a smooth transition of monitoring functions after the UN Mission in Nepal departs in January, and we will continue assisting the successful completion of the constitution before the May deadline. We also continue to combat trafficking in persons and help Nepal prepare for natural disasters with donors conferences to enhance Nepal’s earthquake readiness planned for early 2011.

In Sri Lanka the United States remains committed to supporting the Sri Lankan people through their post-conflict transition. The government has resettled nearly all of the 300,000 internally displaced persons. The United States looks forward to the results of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission and we hope that the government will act on its recommendations.

The United States will continue to encourage an effective reconciliation and accountability process through which all Sri Lankans can move past the years of conflict and the country can grow and prosper.

Those are my very brief introductory remarks, and I’d be glad to take your questions.

Question: [India]

Good morning, Mr. Blake. [Inaudible] Indo-U.S. relationship [inaudible]. [Inaudible] after the Mumbai attacks, they repeatedly said that Pakistan has not done enough and can you say [inaudible]. [Inaudible]?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I wouldn’t say that our pressure is relaxing. I think it remains a very high priority for us and for the Pakistani government to address the terrorism that exists inside Pakistan. As President Obama remarked during his visit to India, no country in the world has suffered more from terrorism than Pakistan itself. But he also remarked that Pakistan needs to do more. That there has been progress in places like Swat and South Waziristan, but that Pakistan needs to sustain those efforts now in order to work with the United States to help eliminate the terrorist networks that exist, particularly on the Afghanistan and Pakistan border.

The President I think also spoke about how it’s in India’s interests as well to work with the United States and other concerned nations to help stabilize Pakistan, because having a stable and prosperous Pakistan will be a great benefit to India as it becomes an increasingly influential player on the global stage.

Question: [Maldives].

Hello, Mr. Blake. As you know, there was a big achievement with the new constitution two years ago, but despite that many people here in Maldives still don’t feel like they’re gaining from the new democracy. The [ruling] party has had such contrasting interpretations of the same constitutional provisions. And politicians seem to be having difficulty concentrating on the real needs of the people with all the power struggles that are going on.

So my question is, looking back at the past two years, what’s your observation of the democratization process. Is Maldives still a model Islamic democracy as some say?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you very much for that important question. First of all let me say that the United States is very proud to support the democratic transition that did occur in 2008 when your country held its first truly free and fair democratic elections, and a new democracy emerged from that and President Gayoum stepped down peacefully and allowed President Nasheed to take office.

Since then, as you said, there have been a lot of problems experienced, and those are not unusual in any democracy, particularly a new democracy, where you have the ruling party that controls the presidency and the opposition that controls the parliament. And so it’s going to be very important now for I think all of the parties to work together to find common ground and to work to help the interests of the Maldivian people.

Again, these are not unusual challenges. In many ways my own country is experiencing this very thing right now where the Republicans have just taken control of the House of Representatives and so we ourselves will have to work more closely now and develop a more bipartisan approach which we are already doing.

So it’s important, again, I think for all the parties to work together. They did so very successfully in developing and drafting the Maldives new constitution, and they did so in helping to organize those elections that did take place. So I’m confident that they can do that again. But it’s important to set aside a lot of the rancor and again, focus on what is going to benefit the Maldivian people.

Question: [Nepal].

Secretary Blake, my question is how does the United States view the current political stalemate in Nepal, and how is Washington using its leverage with both the parties and more importantly with India [inaudible] in Nepal to push the peace process forward?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you very much for that question. I think the United States, like the majority of the Nepali people, has been disappointed with the continued political stalemate in Nepal and the failure to agree on a new government because I think that that failure has inhibited efforts to address some of the most important underlying questions that remain from 2006 when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was first agreed to. So I think now it’s very important that Nepal’s leaders reach agreement on a new government and that they then move forward very quickly to resolve the issues of integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants, power sharing, the drafting of a new constitution, and all the other priorities that now exist.

The UN Mission in Nepal will be pulling out January 15th and it will therefore be very very important that the Nepalese government and people be prepared to take on these very very important tasks, again, to be able to meet the May deadline that is fast approaching.

Question: [Sri Lanka].

My question is, does the U.S. government believe that the Sri Lankan Army committed war crimes during the final stages of the war? And is the U.S. government of the view that there should be an independent international probe into the country?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you. Secretary Clinton has expressed the support of the United States for the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission that is addressing the questions that you rightly put forward. The United States looks to this commission to apply international best practices, and that they undertake a serious investigation into these allegations of war crimes. I think it’s important to address those to ensure that there really will be both reconciliation and accountability for whatever crimes may have occurred.

So we support this commission. We know they have held extensive hearings already and I think heard from more than a thousand people so far, maybe more, and again, we hope that work will continue and that they will be able to hear from the widest range of Sri Lankans, and particularly Tamils and IDPs who were affected by the violence of the last three years, so that again, this chapter in Sri Lanka’s history can be put behind Sri Lanka and your country can move forward.

Question: [India].

Mr. Blake, [inaudible] priority that [inaudible] in the U.S. relationship, and which are [inaudible] areas right now with [inaudible]?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: That’s a big question. That may take longer than a minute or two. But again, I think our biggest priorities are to move forward in all of the areas that the President and the Prime Minister discussed during the President’s landmark visit there in November. We have important priorities in the economic sphere where we want to expand our trade and investment between our two countries. That’s already moving ahead very rapidly, but we think there’s much more that can be done in that area.

As I said earlier in my opening remarks, we want to expand our global partnership into new areas such as working together on trilateral cooperation in Afghanistan, in Africa, on nonproliferation, on climate change, and in the UN Security Council where India will pick up its two year rotation beginning January 1st of next year. We also are moving ahead on the civil nuclear side where we were very pleased with the outcome of the President’s visit and we completed the government to government parts of the civil nuclear agenda and now our companies have begun negotiations to help provide reactors that can meet India’s civil nuclear needs. And we’re working on a huge range of other areas. So I think the hallmark of this partnership of ours is not only the bilateral efforts that we have underway, but increasingly the very strong regional consultations that we have and again, this new era of global cooperation because we are two of the leading democracies in the world, we are two of the leading market economies in the world, and we are two countries that want to take responsibility for addressing the global priorities and challenges that exist, and we want to do so increasingly together. Thank you.

Question: Another question on civil nuclear cooperation?


Question: [Inaudible] American concerns [inaudible]. Have they been addressed?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think they have been. I think as you saw in the Joint Statement, India announced that it has signed the Convention on Supplementary Compensation and they indicated they intended to ratify the CSC within the coming year and to ensure a level playing field for U.S. companies. So this will continue to be a very high priority for the United States not only because this represents a huge commercial opportunity for our companies in India, but also because it will help our friends in India to meet their fast-growing energy needs and to diversify to new sources such as the civil nuclear, and increasingly also renewable energy where we’re also working together.

Question: [Maldives].

My second question is about the [inaudible] plan. Is the U.S. and Maldives still negotiating on this issue? If so, to what extent is there sensitivity of the issue being taken into consideration?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We’re always very conscious of the sensitivities of these matters, and we don’t want to talk too much about these things publicly for obvious reasons, but let me just say that we appreciate the willingness of President Nasheed and his team to consider this. This is yet another example of how your small island nation is playing a very important global role not just on something like this but on matters such as climate change where President Nasheed and your country have demonstrated great leadership on many UN matters such as Kosovo and many other areas. So we very much appreciate the partnership that we have with the Maldives and we look forward to trying to do what we can to expand that partnership in 2011.

Question: Are the two countries negotiating on this particular issue?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, we’re talking about it. I don’t want to get too much into the details of this at this point. Once we have something that we’re ready to announce, we’ll do so.

Question: [Sri Lanka].

Good morning, Mr. Blake. I would like to ask you regarding the [inaudible], the international communities especially the U.S. continue to increase [inaudible] process in this country, and how do you see the [inaudible] process right now? And what other actions need to be taken in order to address the concerns? If these concerns are not addressed, what other steps is the international community going to take? Because why I ask you this question, some section of the people repeatedly pointed out during the war and aftermath of the war that the international community only issued statements and made statements, limited their actions only to statements, not any concrete actions forthcoming. So could you answer these questions, please?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you very much for that important question.

The United States has been a long-time friend of Sri Lanka and we are very much hoping that this process of reconciliation can occur as soon as possible so that Sri Lanka can realize the very considerable promise that it has. But I think there are a number of important steps that need to take place.

I already talked about the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission and the steps that need to be taken in that regard. But I think there are a lot of other things.

Now that the majority of the IDPs have been resettled or at least been released from camps, it’s important to look at some of the other concerns of the IDPs. I would say that one of the top concerns is that the government should release a complete accounting of those IDPs that remain in custody, those that will be released, and those that will be charged so that all of the IDPs can know the status of their loved ones.

I think it’s important for the government to allow humanitarian organizations and other NGOs to operate in the north so they can help with economic and political development processes up in the north. I think it’s important for the government to continue to reduce the scope of the emergency regulations and to continue to reduce these high security zones that exist, particularly in the north. And then I think most importantly, it’s very important to organize a process whereby new elections can take place for a provincial council in the north, so that an indigenous political, freely elected leadership can emerge in the north for the very first time. And again, a new generation of leaders can emerge that represents the interests of all of the IDPs and all the others who live in the north and again, hasten the integration of the north into the rest of Sri Lanka.

The United States is playing a very important role in providing assistance to the people of Sri Lanka, and we will continue to do so because it’s very much in our interest again to assist that integration process. But there are a number of steps that the government must also take to do its part. Thank you.

Question: [Nepal].

Is there a possibility of the UN Mission extension that could come at Nepal’s request? And how assured are you, Mr. Blake, that the transition will take place smoothly if the UN Mission eventually pulls out?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t believe there is a possibility of extending UNMIN. I don’t think there is appetite on the UN Security Council to extend that yet again. I know that Ambassador Lynn Pascoe, the UN Under Secretary General, was recently in Nepal and I think he expressed a similar view.

So now it’s very important, as I said earlier, for the government of Nepal to prepare to take on these tasks. I know that the UN will continue to have a presence in Nepal and that they will continue to be able to assist as necessary in this important process, but again, it will be really up to the government and the people of Nepal now to lead this process.

So as I said earlier, I think it’s particularly important for the government to form a new government, first of all; and then to proceed very quickly with the important tasks that now exist in order to meet the May deadline.

Let me just say in conclusion, I want to thank all of you for joining this call. If there’s interest, I’d be glad to do more of these in 2011 with perhaps individual countries, and we can just have every quarter or every six months a little conversation like this. I’d be glad to do that.

Of course I intend to travel to each of your countries in the course of 2011, and we will continue our very strong engagement with each of your countries.

So again, a warm message of happy holidays to all of you, and again, a successful and prosperous new year in 2011. Thank you very much.

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