Former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Robert O. Blake has said that it was a myth that he orchestrated a rescue of Tamil refugees from a northern beach to help LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran escape Sri Lankan armed forces, India Abroad news reported on Tuesday.
Blake said it was also fiction that the US helped sink LTTE boats but acknowledged that US intelligence did provide information to the Sri Lankan navy about the boats’ location.
Blake’s remarks came last month during a talk to the Serendipity Group, a nonpolitical group of Washington-based friends of Sri Lanka, which comprises several former US ambassadors and other diplomats who served in Sri Lanka.
Blake said even eight years after Prabhakaran was declared dead, myths continued to circulate and his role in the more than 20-year ethnic conflict, in which more than 70,000 Sri Lankans were killed, continues to be questioned.
He told the group he wanted “to clear up some misinformation that continues to circulate about some of the things we worked on when I was ambassador from 2006 to 2009.”
Blake said the biggest myth was centered on the beach rescue. “To this day, a story circulates about an effort I organized to try to rescue tens of thousands of IDPs from the beach at Puthukkudiyiruppu. The Story says it was an effort to evacuate Prabakharan.”
He said there was no intention to help the LTTE. “To the contrary, the plan was to rescue as many IDPs whom the LTTE had refused to allow to move south through the lines of fighting and were in effect human shields,” he said.
“Every person would have been transferred by US Navy boat to Sri Lankan custody. There was a detailed plan coordinated with the Sri Lankan and India governments. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan government killed the idea for fear that Norwegian peace broker Eric Solheim and I would be taken hostage by the LTTE,” he said adding it was something they did not believe would happen.
He also denied involvement in sinking LTTE ships. He said the US helped the Sri Lankan navy locate the boats, which were carrying arms for the LTTE. “SL navy actually sank the boats,” he said.
He said the US decision to support a 2012 UN Human Rights Council resolution has also been a source of continued criticism. He said he initially had argued in favor of letting the Sri Lankan government work on reconciliation and accountability so they could craft their own solution internally.
“Domestic ownership is always preferable. Indeed the Sri Lankan government came up with the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which had many positive aspects. But it failed to address serious allegations of violations of international law, particularly at the end of the war,” he said.
“So we decided to support a landmark resolution that welcomed the LLRC report; called for its implementation; called on the Sri Lankan government to take credible actions to ensure justice and accountability for all Sri Lankans,” he said.
Blake praised the country’s January 2015 presidential elections which he called a “sea-change in Sri Lankan politics.”
“Suddenly we had a government in power that promised many of the political, economic and social reforms that Sri Lankan civil society and the international community had been seeking and chose a lot of reformers as ministers to carry out those reforms,” he said.
But while saying several of these reforms had been implemented, Blake bemoaned lack of progress in other areas, such as the Office of Missing Persons, which he said has yet to be set up despite its approval in August 2016.
“This is really important on many levels due to the large number of ‘enforced disappearances,’ white van abductions and many people who went missing after the war. Progress on a new constitution to strengthen devolution also is slow,” he said.
He said much ink has been spilled on the divisions in the unity government that often lead to focus more on political maneuvering than forging coalitions on specific issues to get things done.
He said he was optimistic that the government has reaffirmed its ambitious plans in the most recent UNHRC resolution in March.
However, Blake said Rajapaksa continues to be a spoiler opposing “efforts on reconciliation and transitional justice, casting them as capitulation to western interests. But from what I can tell, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe still have the will to move forward,” he said.
He said continued friendship with Sri Lanka brings many advantages, among them its “strategic location astride the main Indo-Pacific sea lanes through which pass two-thirds of global oil supplies and half of the world’s container cargo,” with the port of Colombo being South Asia’s busiest trans-shipment port.