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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > International Frame of  Struggle for Tamil Eelam > United States & the Struggle for Tamil Eelam > US Under Secretary of State, Thomas R. Pickering, on-the-record Press Conference, 29 May 2000

United States & the struggle for Tamil Eelam

US Under Secretary of State, Thomas R. Pickering
on-the-record Press Conference

Colombo, Sri Lanka, 29 May 2000  

"The U.S. has long supported the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. As I have said in both India and Pakistan, the U.S. does not envision or support the establishment of another independent state on this island, nor do we believe other members of the international community would support it."

Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, U.S. Under Secretary of State:

I want to thank you all for coming here this evening. I am delighted to be in Sri Lanka and only regret that my visit isn't much longer. As I've told some of you, I'm in the region to follow up on President Clinton's successful visit to the subcontinent in March. This is the final stop in my three-country visit to South Asia.

In India, I talked with ministers and with senior officials in a structured dialogue between the two foreign ministries on bilateral matters and on Asian security. In New Delhi, in that dialogue, we discussed our bilateral relationship, including other ways we hope to build our relations for the future, as well as questions of security, including nonproliferation, Kashmir, and other regional questions, including our respective approaches -- that is, India's and the United States'-- to Sri Lanka.

In Pakistan, I had a thorough and comprehensive series of discussions with General Musharraf and other officials, both military and civilian, on a wide number of questions, again including nonproliferation, Afghanistan, Kashmir, our cooperation on counter-narcotics and on terrorism. We also discussed Pakistan's economic policies and recent developments in returning the country to democratic governance.Here, I had good discussions with President Kumaratunga, government officials including ministers, the leader of the opposition, and the Foreign Minister on a wide range of bilateral and regional topics. I am happy to report our bilateral relationship is positive. The U.S. urged the government and the opposition to continue their bipartisan efforts to find a political solution to the ethnic conflict.

In Washington, we are concerned about the stories we have heard about the fighting that is going on in Jaffna and its effect on civilians. We are concerned about the real potential for humanitarian crisis there. Obviously, we discussed the situation with the government and their plans for dealing with it.

The U.S. has long supported the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. As I have said in both India and Pakistan, the U.S. does not envision or support the establishment of another independent state on this island, nor do we believe other members of the international community would support it. We continue to urge all parties to the conflict to negotiate a peaceful resolution of this country's ethnic conflict.

To that end, we also support the recent efforts by the Norwegian government to facilitate negotiations between the government and the LTTE.

Even in this time of difficulty on the battlefield, we urged the government to remember that it is important in a democracy like Sri Lanka: bipartisan cooperation and creating an inclusive society through respect for human rights, free and fair elections, and a free press.

While recognizing the special military situation and also the strides Sri Lanka has made in protecting human rights in recent years, we emphasized the importance of avoiding restrictions on civil liberties that could undermine Sri Lanka's democratic institutions. Sri Lanka has a long and positive tradition of press freedom, and we hope that that particular institution's independence continues to be unfettered in accordance with that tradition.

Now, I welcome your questions.

Q: Mr. Gamini Weerakoon, Ed., Daily Island: -unintelligible- but what is there positive that you can do, because security demands an immediate support to Sri Lanka's military effort. What is - will you be able to do that?

US Under Secretary of State Pickering:

First and foremost, because the idea of dispelling a doubt in public about this particular issue -- and I did it two days ago or three days ago in New Delhi with the Indian Foreign Secretary, we did it side by side --is, I hope, a serious and clear message to the people who advocate splitting the island, creating another independent state on the island.

Secondly, we believe it is extremely important to do all that we can to support a negotiating process, one that doesn't exist now, to help to try to create it. In this particular instance, the Norwegian government has been working very quietly and diplomatically for a long period of time. And so my government, and I believe the Indian government as well, believes that it is important that we signal publicly our support for that process as a way of giving it backing.

Finally, I said tonight something I haven't said before but which I fully believe in: that I don't believe there is any international support that I can find for a new separate state of Eelam here in this island. So I think that while it is easy to dismiss diplomatic statements by governments as not having an effect, we are beginning to see, in fact, that it does have an effect.

One thing, you might remember that two years ago, as part of American national legislation which requires that we review foreign non-governmental organizations that have committed terrorist acts and, if a certain threshold of action has been met on the part of those organizations, that we make a public legal declaration of a finding of that particular organization as a foreign terrorist organization. The LTTE has been found to be such an organization. That means they are under restrictions in the United States, restrictions with respect to raising money, for example. So those actions have a role and a place.

The question, obviously, is primarily one for the government of Sri Lanka, and it is the government of Sri Lanka that has to deal with the military effects of the insurgency. And the government of Sri Lanka, I understand, has access to the world arms market, so it is in a position itself to acquire what it believes it needs in order to carry forward with its efforts to deal with the military part of the equation.

But we don't believe, and I have said this on a number of occasions, that there is a military solution on either side to the question. We frankly believe that the best thing that could happen would be to see this process ended through a process of direct negotiation between the parties concerned as rapidly as possible.

And while I have been here, I have had many discussions with many individuals about the need for the government to offer a broad opportunity for autonomy to the Tamils in the North and East of the island as a way to deal with what are clearly historic ethnic problems and differences and to recognize the root cause and the deep damage over the years that has been done to that segment of the population. But as well, to take into account that any solution to that problem, the interests, the problems, and indeed the aspirations of both sides have to be taken into account as much as possible.

Q: Mr. Dilip Ganguly, Associated Press Colombo Bureau Chief: In what way can the U.S. contribute in forcing both the parties, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government, to come to the table and talk? It's good to say that they should talk, everyone is saying they should talk, Sri Lanka says they're willing to talk. Which way are you going to contribute in making the LTTE come to talk?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: I have just run over a whole series of steps that we are able to take. Now you said, "to force the government and the LTTE to come to the table" or to force them to initiate negotiations. You have a government and an armed organization, one that we consider terrorist. Those particular organizations are not easily susceptible, if I could put it this way, to the use of force. My government doesn't invade countries to force people to go to conference tables.

Q: Mr. Dilip Ganguly, Associated Press Colombo Bureau Chief: - I will change the wording. I will say "initiate" the Government and the LTTE to talk.

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: No, but I mean -- one of the reasons I have taken advantage of a long-planned trip to come here is to take advantage of the opportunity both to talk to the government and to provide our assessments and analysis of the situation and to share theirs.

I have heard today on many occasions that the government wants to go to the table, is anxious to go to the table. It feels it's important to go to the table. So on the government side -- with whom we have relations, close and friendly relations -- I believe that that's an established fact.

The United States does not have relations with the LTTE. The United States, because of the actions it has taken, is obviously, I think, not in contact with the LTTE, but I can send messages to them through your good offices, in effect, by telling them exactly what we think: that they should enter into negotiations as rapidly as possible. So, that's the best sort of anatomy I can give you of the situation and what we think we can do as a government.

All efforts of diplomacy, persuasion plays an important and significant role, and sometimes we don't realize we can be persuasive until we have a longer term look at what the results might be.

Q: Ms. Suzy Price, BBC Correspondent: With the Tigers taking quite a large amount of land in Jaffna at the moment, what way could you persuade the Tigers it would be to their advantage to begin talks?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering:

I think that one way is to make it clear that we and others who assess the situation do not see a military resolution to this conflict. And I think that the long and sad and very difficult and very damaging history of this conflict should, in its own way, speak to them about the non-feasibility of a military solution. I think, secondly, letting them know that the international community in our judgment as a whole does not support another independent state is, I hope, at least a message that will have some effect. We believe that they should give up assassination and terror. We believe that they should be part of a negotiating process that the government has offered. And I believe the government is anxious to obviously resolve in its own mind what it is prepared to do in its negotiating efforts to achieve the result by trying to describe what an effective autonomy might be.

Q: Mr. Rahul Sharma, Reuters Colombo Bureau Chief: What were the key issues that you discussed with the President?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: I think probably we've discussed most of them here, right now. (Laughter.) The conflict was a key issue discussed with the President. But almost everything that I set out in my statement for you, came up.

Q: Mr. Sharma, Reuters: Did the President raise any specific concerns about what the situation is now?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: I think that it's best in a diplomatic conversation with the President to let her or her spokesman speak for their side of the issue, and I have taken even more liberties that I normally do in describing for you in my statement and other things, obviously a number of positions of my government, but you are safe to assume that those are positions that I had the opportunity to convey directly to the President.

Q: Ms. Charu Latha Joshi, Far Eastern Economic Review: Did the issue of military aid come up at all?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: No, it did not come up.

Q: Ms. Charu Latha Joshi, Far Eastern Economic Review: Not at all?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: Now, I want to be specific and clear. When you speak of military aid, that usually means gifts of military equipment. What did come up was the government's interest in military equipment purchases, which are normally done in the United States through manufacturing companies and a government licensing process. And that was discussed.

Q: Mr. Dilip Ganguly, AP Colombo Bureau Chief: Is it possible to elaborate a bit on this?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: No, I think that, since we were speaking confidentially, the government has a right to protect the confidentiality of its military purchases; they have operational significance for its military activities, and I think I would be in breach of diplomatic confidentiality, if I went into details. Again, you are free to consult your own sources.

Q: Ms. Vandana Chopra - VOA: What about humanitarian assistance? Was that on the table?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: It was also discussed and, obviously, all of us remain concerned, particularly in the conflict ongoing in the Jaffna peninsula, as to the fact that innocent civilians are caught between both sides, put in danger.

Tamil Child in the VanniMany estimates vary, but tens, maybe hundreds of thousands may or have already been displaced by the fighting and this is of serious concern.

Their nourishment, medical relief and so on -- and I had an opportunity just before I came here, to talk to a number of representatives of NGOs who are equally concerned and obviously we shared our concerns about those issues. There are different estimates -- both about the numbers of people affected and about the food and sustenance situation. Many tell me that many people that have been displaced have the opportunity to go and be with families and therefore are not in serious danger of not being fed for awhile. But if the military fighting goes on and the situation gets worse and, if the battle lines move back and forth, that will affect more people, and we share that concern and we will continue to be in touch with the government and watch it closely.

Q: Ms. Vandana Chopra, VOA: But if the need arises what sort of humanitarian assistance in the United States ready to offer?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: I think that we have a long tradition of providing humanitarian assistance and in the past that's consisted of food and other kinds of emergency assistance. We are contributors to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the United Nations Development Program. We contribute to the ICRC, and so one of our choices (to how to provide help), which is one that we usually follow, is established international or non-governmental organizations that are working on the scene can provide a conduit for those kinds of contributions. I don't know, Shaun, whether you have any figures on what sort of contributions we make to international agencies that have a presence here.

U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Shaun E. Donnelly: Sorry, I really don't, but we have been significant contributors certainly to the ICRC and UNHCR. We can try to get those figures for you.

Q: Ms. Minelle Fernandez, MTV News: You observed that it was important that the government should offer a broad form of autonomy to the Tamils in the North and East as a way of getting around the problem. Did this come under discussion with the government?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: Yes, briefly, and they talked to us about their efforts to try to bring together both the government parties and the parties in opposition around a major effort in this direction. We simply would encourage it, as I said in my statement today.

Q: Ms. Suzy Price, BBC Correspondent: The government has also talked about the possibility of a "joint effort" between the United States, Norway, and India. Do you see yourselves in a supporting role with Norway as the chief mediator or what?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: I think that's fair to say that, given Norway's background and experience in this, both we and India are prepared to defer to their leadership. Because in fact they seem to have done an effective job, and we have both offered our support and assistance in backing it. We are particularly conscious that India believes it has an important role to play in South Asia and wants to -- and obviously are prepared to defer, too, to that role. But at the same time, we are deeply concerned by the situation, so there may be ways from time to time in cooperation with others that we can contribute. Rather than a joint effort, I would say a cooperative effort would be a better description of diplomatically what's happened. And maybe others will join.

Q: Mr. Amal Jayasinghe, AFP Bureau Chief: Now, if you're trying to persuade the government and the Tigers to agree to talks, how much time do you think this process will take and ---

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: It's already taken much too long. I think it's a fair question. The real question is that we haven't been able to do it. The government with all of its efforts and we in all of our efforts haven't been able to do it, and I think that the military situation has a lot to say. I think someone implied as much in the questions that they gave me, and I think that has to be watched very carefully. Often, as military situations change, sometimes the opportunities for getting people to the table to talk change.

Q: Mr. Amal Jayasinghe, AFP Bureau Chief: But you're thinking in terms of months, years, before the two sides can get together?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: I think it's-- Since this has already gone on much too long, and it should have happened 8 years ago, I don't really think it is my job to be a prophet in such uncertain circumstances. I would like to see talks start right away. There is a difference, of course, between when talks start and when they will end. And others, who know more about the region and the situation than I do, predict that talks once started, if started, will take a long time. I have no way to give you a better opinion on that subject. I would just defer to people who are more expert on this than I am. But as I say, it's -- you know, it should start tomorrow. And we'd like to see it start tomorrow. We don't have an absolutely control -- nobody does -- of this situation, and therefore it's going to take some more time.

Q: Ms. Vandana Chopra, VOA: Does the United States want India to go in for military intervention?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: I think that's a situation in which India has already made clear its position -- that it doesn't intend to. And I think, as I said a moment ago, we defer to India as a country of regional consequence to make its own decisions on these issues.

Q: Mr. Dilip Ganguly, AP Colombo Bureau Chief: If it comes to evacuating the troops-- in the event it happens -- will the Indian assistance be forthcoming? Did you get that idea?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: I have the impression that the Indians are prepared to be helpful, provided that both parties are prepared to provide security assurances that the Indians will not become a party to fighting by doing so. And I can understand India's concern about not wanting to become a third party in the conflict, if I could put it that way.

Q: Mr. Gamini Weerakoon, Ed, Daily Island: You stand for, against a separate state created here. But, what happens if it is created? What happens? What would your reaction be?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: I think it is quite clear that it will receive no recognition from anyone. So, I mean, you could go home tonight and declare your house a separate state. The question of making it effective and functioning in dealing with the Sri Lankan authorities, should you intend to become a government beyond your house, would have its own problems. So, I would say, you know, people try this from time to time, but in effect, it is the international community that is the arbiter of who becomes states and who doesn't become states through a process of recognition and establishment of relations. At the moment, I see this as sort of becoming a dead planet, if that's what it wants to be.

Q: Ms. Suzy Price, BBC Correspondent: How damaging do you think the censorship has been for Sri Lanka's image abroad?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: I don't think it's been good, and I certainly left that impression here. I got the impression people were interested in changing.

Q: Rahul Sharma, Reuters: People were interested in changing?

Q: Vandana Chopra, VOA: You mean, in your talks with the government?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: In talks with government and people outside the government.

Q: Vandana Chopra, VOA: No, but the government is the deciding culprit here, so do you think the clampdown is going to be less or there's...."

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: I think you have to watch and wait and see what happens.

Q: Mr. Keith Noyhar, Deputy Editor, Daily Mirror: To pick up on Ganguly's question, shouldn't there be, you know, the LTTE having waited so far, like, is it possible for them to give up their armed struggle? And don't you think a certain amount of arm-twisting or gunboat diplomacy has to be exercised on your part as a global superpower as far as the LTTE is concerned?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: If I could figure out how to make it happen, of course I would. But I think you know, short of armed U.S. military intervention, which is not on and everybody knows it's not on, I don't have an answer to your question, other than we will keep trying. And you're right, there is a certain amount of additional arm-twisting. The problem is we've got no arms to twist right now. (Laughter)

Q: Mr. Dilip Ganguly, AP Colombo Bureau Chief: The question being asked by the average Sri Lankan, is that the U.S. in the past history have "intervened," or have gone for help for reasons maybe not less serious as this one. But in this case, U.S. is keeping a diplomatic face without really crossing it, whereas in the past it has done such things. Is it that Sri Lanka doesn't have any interest for you? Maybe less interest?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: No, I think not. I think the last case in which we intervened was Kosovo. And there we had a series of increasing atrocities being committed and a million people displaced to other states. And we felt that had to stop and there was no way to convince the perpetrator that it was going to stop, so we did intervene. There are a lot of people who disagreed with that intervention. And in each case that there is the need for humanitarian intervention, we have to make a decision about under what circumstances and when and these are never easy. They are always very hard. They always bring about some opposition. And the United States, acting alone or in concert with others, is unfortunately not in a position to solve all conflicts in the world through intervention, nor do I think the world would be very comfortable with that idea.

Q: Mr. Dilip Ganguly, AP Colombo Bureau Chief: No one expects the U.S. to come and intervene militarily. Sri Lankans are very well-educated people. They don't expect that. But they think that since the U.S. is the police guard of the world, that is a given, why can't you come and do something?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: Not with military, but with police. No, I think there are practical limitations on what any country can do, whether they are considered a super power or not. And I think that in this particular set of issues, we believe that we can be most effective and most useful by helping diplomatically as we are, a process that at least has begun working with Norway, with India, and others. We will do all that we can to try to help that process.

Q: Mr. Roy Dinesh, Defense columnist, Sunday Leader, India Today: Could you tell us about these reports about naval ships moving toward Sri Lanka?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: I don't know of any such activities, and I think I would be aware. I don't think our Ambassador knows. U.S. naval ships. I think it's entirely a false report. We have naval ships that move all the time, but I know that none of them are moving to Sri Lanka.

Q: Mr. Dilip Ganguly, AP: Since the U.S. government is not doing any arm twisting, some Indian journalists in Delhi decided to do some arm-twisting in their own way. (Laughter)

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: Well, that's a contribution to Indian journalism, which India Today could report. But you have your answer from Mr. Ganguly. He says it's Indian journalists who are -- confecting -- these reports to influence the situation. You'd better ask him for -- (Laughter).

Q: Ms. Charu Latha Joshi, correspondent, Times of India; Far Eastern Economic Review: There is a stream of thought within Sri Lanka about UN intervention in particular and it's almost as if the Sri Lankan nation-state has stirred itself again. The Foreign Minister has made statement objecting and rejecting UN intervention, has also made strong statements about EU interference, what they perceive as EU interference. Did you get a sense of this during your talks? And what exactly did they --?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: No, I did not in the sense that, while the United States is a member of the United Nations and a permanent member of the Security Council, I did not hear that particular question. It was not raised with me, and I don't know the context of the statements, so I better be a little bit careful. But no, I felt warmly welcomed, and I felt a serious interest in what the United States could do to be helpful, and that was the subcenter and substance of the conversations.

Moderator: I'm told we have time for two more questions.

Q: Mr. Rahul Sharma, Reuters Colombo Bureau Chief: Up until now, Sri Lanka was maintaining that the ethnic problem, the war with the LTTE, is mainly internal. Did you get the feeling that it's the government, which feels that things have come to a head, and therefore it has to go out and externalize it and ask for help? Is it a government under siege?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: Well, I think you don't want to put words in my mouth....

Mr. Rahul Sharma: No, I wouldn't. (Laughter)

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: I'll take them out of yours if you want. And I wouldn't reach that conclusion, and I just felt that I was welcomed as a foreign guest, told the best assessments of all the people I saw, and I saw different people, government and non-government people, about the situation. I didn't see wide variations in those assessments. I saw some different variations in the remedies.

I saw a government that was interested in the attitude of my government, which usually isn't the case when people say "This is an internal problem, we don't want to talk to you about it."

We compared notes, and I told them of the stand of my government, all of which has been given to you in exquisite detail today. And I felt that that was welcomed, and that was basically it. So, I don't think that that adds up either to a state of siege or to a rejection of a foreign visitor who is interested in what's happening here and how this government can be helpful.

Moderator: Any last question?

Q: Ms. Suzy Price, BBC Correspondent: What do you, does the United States feel about the fighting in Jaffna -- if the Tigers took Jaffna, the idea of regional instability spreading through the provinces of South India, for example?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: I think that that's been raised. And I think it's something that can't be excluded, but I don't think that it is an immediate and I would call it galloping result of what's happening. But it could happen in any region where you have instability, where you have ethnic links of some kinds between states or between parts of states. As you know, it has already had an influence, and therefore it is not wise to sit up here and say nothing like that can ever happen. We all know it can. I think the critical question is the one I just tried to address, that I think it is not an issue that I see as immediate and emerging, but I think it is certainly one that has serious potential and should not be lost sight of.

Moderator: We have a plea for one more --

Q: Ms. Charu Latha Joshi, correspondent, Times of India; Far Eastern Economic Review: There's been an increasing sense, in the media at least, that the U.S. is unhappy with India dithering....

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: Over...?

Q: Ms. Charu Latha Joshi: India dithering in terms of...

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: Dithering...

Q: Ms. Charu Latha Joshi: Yes. So what do you have to say about that? Or is it just a media invention?

US Under Secretary of State, Pickering: I don't think there's any truth to that. And nothing I have said has done anything but try to dispel that. It's not up to the United States to tell India what to do in South Asia, but it is something we compared notes on. And the Indian Foreign Secretary and I appeared on the same platform and answered a whole series of questions on this particular issue, and I think we were seeing things in very parallel ways, and I think we had very common assessments of the situation.

Moderator: Thank you very much. And thank you all.


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