'Clinton, Jayalalithaa WILL discuss Sri Lanka'
Senior Indian officials have claimed that United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first ever trip to Chennai will be a strictly non-governmental visit with no discussion on Sri Lanka.
But a senior official in the Barack Obama administration, who will accompany Clinton, has said that Sri Lanka would definitely figure in the discussions between the secretary of state and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa when they meet for the first time.
In an exclusive interview with rediff.com, the Obama administration's point man for South Asia Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, an erstwhile US Ambassador to Sri Lanka from 2006 to 2009, said, "Obviously, the 60 million people who live in Tamil Nadu have a lot of concerns about the situation in Sri Lanka," and that he was sure that this will "be a section of the discussion when the secretary meets the chief minister".
Earlier, senior Indian embassy officials, while briefing journalists in Washington on the upcoming US-India Strategic Dialogue and Clinton's maiden visit to Chennai, said, she would not discuss any foreign policy issues, specifically Sri Lanka, during her visit to Chennai.
Sri Lanka is under tremendous US pressure to allow for an investigation led by the United States in alleged war crimes during the final months of the conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Reportage: Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
Image: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Obama administration has slammed the Lankan government
"All of the discussions in foreign policy will be in Delhi where we will discuss the neighbourhood as a whole when the Foreign Minister (S M Krishna) meets with her," the officials had noted.
These officials also dismissed any suggestion that the influential pro-Tamil lobby or the pro-Eelam lobby in the United States may have convinced Clinton to visit Chennai and bring up the Sri Lanka issue.
In recent weeks, the Obama administration has minced no words in slamming the Sri Lankan government for not moving ahead with its commitment to investigate the alleged war crimes.
Image: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa
US mounts pressure on Sri Lanka
The State Department noted that Washington continues "to urge the government of Sri Lanka to quickly demonstrate that it is able and willing to meet these obligations as it seeks reconciliation."
"We hope the Sri Lankans will themselves do this, but if they do not, there will be growing pressure from the international community to examine other options," it warned.
The senior diplomatic officials, while conceding that there have been regular discussion of the Sri Lanka situation between Delhi and Washington, reiterated that this issue would not figure in the discussion Clinton has while in Chennai.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland had said that "During her trip to India, Clinton will also visit Chennai, marking the first visit by a serving US secretary of state to the city, which has emerged as a hub for the trade, investment, and people-to-people engagement that is driving the US-India relationship."
Image: A man celebrates the end of LTTE on the streets of Colombo
'This would be a really terrific opportunity'
In the interview with redif.com, Blake said that both Washington and New Delhi "are very much on the same page," vis-a-vis Sri Lanka, including "accountability issues."
Why is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visiting Chennai? Will the Sri Lanka issue come up during her visit there?
We wanted to have her visit another part of India, just again, to underline that it's very important for us and for our business people and for everyone else to understand that just as Washington is not the centre of the American universe, nor is Delhi. And, that it is very important to go out to the states to see a lot of the important progress that is being made there.
So, we've never had a visit to the south and we thought that this would be a really terrific opportunity to go to Chennai. There is a new dynamic chief minister -- a woman chief minister who's been elected there as you know -- and we have a lot of American businesses down there and a lot of other kinds of engagements. So, we thought this is a terrific opportunity. The secretary's very much looking forward to going down there to Chennai, and again, this will help to underline a lot of the people to people ties that we have between our two countries.
Image: Supporters of LTTE chief Prabhakaran participate in a rally
'Sri Lanka issue will come up'
I am sure it will come up. Obviously the 60 million people who live in Tamil Nadu have a lot of concerns about the situation inside Sri Lanka. So, I'm sure that this will be a section of discussion when the Secretary meets the chief minister.
And, is the US and India on the same page on Sri Lanka? You guys have not minced any words recently about Sri Lanka not investigating the alleged war crimes as laid down by the UN. And you have also told me that India and the US have been on the same page in terms of repatriation of refugees and that you work closely with India in terms of Sri Lanka. Are you guys on the same page on this issue where you'll have minced no words?
We are very much on the same page. We both feel that more needs to be done to encourage reconciliation and more needs to be done on things like devolution of power, the election of a new provincial council in the North and some of these important accountability issues. So, yes, we are on the same page. We talk about these things frequently, and I don't see any significant daylight between the United States and India on this.
Image: Lankan troops inside the war zone near the town of Mullaittivu