- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2009

‘TWO SRI LANKAS’

The ambassador from Sri Lanka insists his government is working hard to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees from a 26-year war with ethnic Tamil rebels, while the United States demanded the South Asian nation address political grievances of the Tamil minority.

Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya told an American college audience this week that the government intends to begin resettling nearly 300,000 refugees as soon as the army clears land mines laid by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who were defeated last month. He also said the government is currently providing food, medical services and schooling to the refugees in what he called “welfare centers.”

“It would be criminal to send people back to villages and land riddled with mines,” he said at Georgia State University.

He added that eight Sri Lankan soldiers were killed “in recent days” trying to clear mines from a coastal area where the Tigers made their last stand.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s nominee to serve as U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka said the United States will press the government to guarantee minority rights and punish human rights abusers.

Patricia Butenis, a career Foreign Service officer, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that the Sri Lankan government has a “historic opportunity to bring lasting peace by addressing the legitimate grievances of the Tamil people.”

She also called on the government to prosecute anyone suspected of human rights abuses, political assassinations, kidnapping or attacks against the press.

In his speech in Georgia, Mr. Wickramasuriya said his government plans to build 80,000 homes and repair or construct roads, bridges and rail lines in the northern part of the island nation, which was held by the rebels until the army pushed them onto a narrow strip of beach and finally defeated them.

Mr. Wickramasuriya explained that the government has a track record for resettling refugees from the war. Two years ago, authorities relocated 180,000 refugees to the eastern region, after liberating the area from the rebels.

The ambassador, who just returned from Sri Lanka, complained that his nation too often is unfairly criticized by foreign activists. The government has often blamed Tamil expatriates for spreading propaganda.

“There are really two Sri Lankas,” he said. “One is the country you read or hear about in America, Europe and Canada. The other is the Sri Lanka I just visited, which is more dynamic.”

The Tamil rebels launched a war for a separate homeland in 1983, after complaining for years about discrimination from the Sinhalese majority. The Tamil rebels, whom the United States labeled terrorists, pioneered the tactic of suicide bombings, inducted children into their ranks and often intimidated expatriate Tamils into helping finance their revolution.

Mr. Wickramasuriya urged his audience to trust his government’s good intentions.

“Sri Lanka has no record of inflicting misery on fellow human beings for the purpose of empire building, commercial advantage or religious righteousness,” he insisted. “It simply has not been done. In fact, Sri Lanka has a strong democratic history.”

NO KING OF IRELAND

Before naming the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers as ambassador to Ireland, President Obama tried to give the coveted post to Rep. Peter T. King, but the New York Republican turned him down.

News reports in New York this week said Mr. King, an Irish-American who was involved in Irish peace efforts, rejected the offer because he opposed Mr. Obama’s foreign policy.

Mr. Obama then turned to Dan Rooney, a lifelong Republican who endorsed Mr. Obama in the presidential campaign.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison @washingtontimes.com.

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