Roundtable in Burma

Michael H. Posner
   Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Derek J. Mitchell
   Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma 
Rangoon, Burma
November 4, 2011

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: Mingalaba. Good afternoon. It's good to see you all. We've just completed a couple days here – I guess it was really two and a half days – in Nay Pyi Taw and Rangoon. It's been my third visit here and as usual a very productive time in country. I'll say a few more words about my observations and what I've done. But I did want to turn -- this is the first time that Assistant Secretary Posner has come here and I've joined him. He's been the lead on a lot of the meetings here to get a feel for what's happening on the ground. So I want to give him an opportunity to address you first with his observations. And then I'll make a few comments, and then we can open it up to questions.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thank you, Derek. Ambassador Mitchell and I are concluding a very productive and informative visit to Burma. In four days here we met with a range of senior government officials as well as members of civil society, opposition political leaders, and representatives of the international community.

As Derek said, this is my first visit to this country and I come away with a range of impressions. In the areas where I work – democracy, human rights, and labor – this country has been associated for decades with ongoing and serious human rights abuses leading to economic and political isolation.

In recent months the government, both the executive and the parliament, have taken a series of steps that reflect the beginning of a transformation, a transition. In our days here we met with members of parliament to discuss new laws – and proposed laws – that would open up the registration for political parties, a new labor law that holds the potential for independent unions to function, and a proposed law allowing freedom of assembly. We welcome these and other legislative initiatives.

In meetings with several government officials we discussed these changes and the ways the government will implement these provisions in practice.

At the same time, in our numerous discussions with those outside of government we heard about the continued detention of a large number of those whom we would consider to be political prisoners, including a number of long-term detainees. We welcome the release last month of more than 200 political prisoners, but continue to strongly urge that the remaining political prisoners be released immediately and unconditionally. We also heard about steps that the government still needs to make, including the final adoption, signing of the Political Parties Registration Law, to allow legitimate political actors, including the NLD, to participate fully in the political life of this country. And we heard about the continuing conflict in ethnic areas, a continuation of decades of conflict in which many thousands of non-combatants have been the victims, and where serious abuses, including against women and children, continue.

We continue to be greatly concerned about these issues and we have raised these concerns with the government officials with whom we met. I do not intend to go here into the details of those conversations, but relations between our two governments will be eased greatly if we see significant progress in each of these areas.

I want to make one final point: ultimately the transition to a strong, sustainable democracy in this country rests with the Burmese people. We and other outsiders can provide support. But more critical is that the people in this country have the freedom to meet freely, to form non-governmental organizations that operate freely, political parties, labor unions and other civil society organizations. It depends on broad freedom of the press and the blogosphere. It depends on transparency in government and respect for the rule of law. These things will not come overnight, but if a meaningful transition continues here, as we hope it will, we look forward to be able to play a more active and supportive role in the Burmese people’s aspirations for human rights and democracy.

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: Of course, I'd like to echo and reinforce Assistant Secretary Posner's comments and observations. I think they reflect mine and reflect the U.S. government's. I want to say a few words about the process that has been ongoing. I personally have been gratified by the continuing, candid, and constructive nature of the ongoing dialogue that I've been a part of. This is, as you know, and as I've just said before, my third visit. I've met with the Foreign Minister five times, both here and in New York and in Washington. I think we've established a very good relationship. I've met with other ministers a couple times in Nay Pyi Taw. This time I met with new people I hadn't seen before, and so a wide cross-section of the leadership has been my interlocutors. At each turn the dialogue has been fruitful, interesting, candid, and productive. And I want to extend my gratitude to the government here for operating and communicating in good faith and accepting the candid comments from our side in turn.

I think it's important to keep in regular touch. There's no substitute for face-to-face interaction on the issues we face. We have to ensure clear channels of communication. We need to build confidence and we need to avoid misunderstanding about the environment both in Nay Pyi Taw and in Washington. And that is what I've sought to do through my continuing engagement both here and back home.

In meeting with many of the representatives of civil society here in Rangoon, it is clear there is a range of perspectives about what's happening here. And we learn from each one because in a society that starts to open up and people are speaking more freely, there's going to be not a single perspective, but many different perspectives. And again that's very important for us in Washington to understand. And we leverage the Embassy here in Rangoon to also keep a feel for that. But it's something that is extremely important for us to keep tabs on. I think many do see clear progress here in the country. Though I think most remain to be convinced there is real and lasting change on the horizon, even if they do see change occurring at some levels.

So Assistant Secretary Posner is here this week on the issues of democracy, human rights and labor. Last week we had a senior representative from our Agency for International Development (USAID) to focus on the development aspect of things, which is also a critical component of our engagement and the well-being of citizens of this country. As part of that, one key element of this – and this is something we also have discussed in close consultation with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – is extending and redoubling our efforts on microfinance and on agricultural loans. We have had a program on microfinance through USAID, but we are looking to expand that into the ethnic areas and to other parts of this country in order to assist the development at local levels. And it is something that was a factor in our conversation with Daw Suu today and was I think last week with USAID. So we look forward to coordinating that effort with other countries. And so we can expand what we consider to be a very fruitful area of great opportunity in our development strategy here, which is important to us.

So I look forward to many returns – maybe not every single week (laughter) – but as necessary because it is my job to be here and to be engaged. So with that, let me open it up to questions.

QUESTION: Aye Aye Win, I'm with Associated Press. My question for Mr. Posner is since this is your first time here, what is your observation of what Myanmar's human rights and labor conditions are now compared to conditions before the election in 2010. And my question to Ambassador Mitchell is you've been here in September and at your press event before you left, you said if Myanmar is to take genuine democratic transition steps, the U.S. would respond in kind. Could you elaborate on how the U.S. would respond in kind? You mentioned about microloans and agriculture, and I want to know how you're going to implement those?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: As a first-time visitor, it's hard for me to reflect on what was going on here six months ago, or a year. What I said in the opening statement was this is the beginning of a transition. We had very constructive conversations with government. We talked about real issues. They were straight-forward conversations about concerns I've expressed about political prisoners and opening up the democratic space, issues concerning the ethnic communities. But there are these initial steps – the creation of the parliament, the early legislation – that reflect an opening. So, from my perspective, this was a visit that underscored to me the need for us to keep engaging, to keep raising our concerns, but be mindful and also recognize the progress that is occurring.

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: On the question of what would be on the table from the United States’ perspective, if we see concrete changes, it does depend on what is done here and how far they go on the issue of -- for instance, political prisoners, which is big, as I discussed in my statement at that time. This is an extremely important issue to send a signal of genuine commitment on the issue of human rights and democracy. We are, in the United States, in the process of, in some ways, changing the way we think about what's happening here and how we should be responding. There's a natural inclination in Washington towards pressure. We need to start thinking about how we respond to reform, as we see it happen. And we can support reform, get behind it, and encourage further reform. And we are seeing steps being taken, gestures made. Almost every week there seems to be something that occurs that is welcome. And in turn we have responded by, for instance, inviting the Foreign Minister to Washington to have a meeting in the State Department. We were able to have a genuine dialogue, a consultation. I can't remember the last time there was a Foreign Minister in Washington. And that establishes a process that I think we can build on. The AID mission last week was also a step that we want to look fresh at strategy for how we bring development, coordinating that development internationally because there is a new environment potentially in which to operate over time, and we want to take advantage of that in a way that does get the most benefit to the most people, and bring that to ethnic areas. So we are thinking very actively about how we can support reform by our actions as we see the government taking those active steps. So with the Party Registration Law, and bringing perhaps the NLD into the political system would also be a very important step, and we would look to respond in kind. And we are having those conversations internally, and also consulting very closely with the government here.

QUESTION: I know that both of you have met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in this visit. So I would like to know if you saw any possibility of NLD re-registration during your talks with the Lady?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: That will be up to them, to the NLD, as to what they do going forward. But amending the Party Registration Law is obviously a step, a gesture of reform. And it's not up to us to comment either way on whether the NLD will or will not register as a result. We'll have to wait and see.

QUESTION: Tin Aung Kyaw from the local Voice Weekly newspaper. One question to the Assistant Secretary and because this is your first time visit, and you met the government officials in Nay Pyi Taw, and after your meeting, do you actually believe our government is going to keep the political reform? And second question to Mr. Mitchell. So you met our Foreign Minister and met with government officials, and so at that time in two months, all in all, have you seen any signal for releasing political prisoners anytime soon?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: On the issue of my impressions of the government meetings, we met with I guess five or six of the ministers. And the discussions I would characterize as open and constructive. There was real engagement. We don't agree on everything. We were not shy about some of our concerns, which we'll continue to raise. But I was encouraged by the fact that there was as much genuine dialogue, both on where we agree and have the potential to work together, but also an honest discussion about our differences.

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: On the issue of political prisoners, there was no concrete sense of a release or release date of any sort in the conversation. There is clearly a discussion going on internally about it though. They did give a sense there was debate and discussion on what they would call "security detainees," I think. On the issue of the terms in which we're talking, the names and the numbers and such, Assistant Secretary Posner raised the issue and there was a good discussion on that issue. And there may not have been exactly the same perspective or view on numbers and such, but I think there is recognition that this is an important issue, not only for the international community, but for the people here in the country, and a discussion then of what the next step ought to be. And they gave us no indication of exactly how to proceed, but we read the media as you do and have seen some statements made in the recent weeks that give us some hope that there might be a release at some point in the near future. But it's really hard to say.

QUESTION: I'm Ahr Mahn from 7 Day News journal. I have three questions. First question is what will be the U.S. reaction if the NLD registers with the election commission and contests the election? Second question is what are your views on Myanmar taking the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014? Final question is what are the requirements for lifting U.S. sanctions against Myanmar?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think on the issue of the NLD registering, our overall desire here and everywhere is that there be an open, competitive, fair electoral process and that people in every country have the ability to express their political views and aspirations. That's our desire here as well, and those parties that want to participate ought to have the opportunity to register, to campaign openly and to contest elections. And so that's the message we deliver here, and it's the message I deliver in every country I go to.

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: ASEAN 2014… the simple answer is that it's really up to ASEAN to determine for itself on that issue. I know the Foreign Minister of Indonesia was here last week and he has spoken on that, and he will consult with his partners in ASEAN and come to a conclusion. On the lifting of sanctions, the best way I think to put this is not to focus on sanctions per se. As we have said in the statement that Assistant Secretary Posner made early on and what I've said publicly, if there is genuine reform, evidence of genuine reform, we will be partners in that effort. Sanctions are just a general term for one approach. But as we see reform occur, we will do what's necessary to support that reform effort. And so sanctions of some kind would be on the table if we see those reforms moving forward. And of course sanctions are American law. We would need to do this in consultation with Congress. They will have to see, not just I, but they will have to see that kind of genuine reform. And they will have to feel that we ought to be getting behind that. So we're watching very closely the actions of the government. And when the government acts in a way, and the people react as well – we'll be watching the people as well – we'll respond in kind. And so far we've seen some very positive steps, positive gestures and so we're starting to get ready and think about things. But we'll need to see some much more concrete steps in order to lift the real sanctions that you're referring to. But restrictions, I should say, are being loosened on some levels, for instance, with travel of officials and such. So we're working at all levels.

QUESTION: Do you think all inclusive dialogue is possible in the near future? What’s your point of view?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We are engaged in a dialogue which is a process and it is a process in which we have raised a number of our concerns which are also the concerns of the people who live in this country. We’re concerned about opening up the political process, which is an important step. We’re concerned about the release of political prisoners, many of whom have been held for many years and some have serious humanitarian concerns. And we’re concerned about reducing and ultimately ending the tensions, the conflicts, in the ethnic areas and beginning a process of negotiating a long term peace. Those are things that we will continue to raise and as a part of that discussion there are a range of ways in which as we see steps forward on that that our engagement will get stronger and stronger and hopefully we will be in a place in the future where we can work much more closely together as governments.

QUESTION: I understand that you also touched on promoting dialogue between the two armies, would you elaborate on that? This time you met the Commander in Chief.

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: Well I wouldn’t overstate the promotion of military-to-military ties. That will have to wait for much further down the line. There needs to be much more reform and we will need to see some changes in the situation in the ethnic areas and the operations of the military that we’re concerned about. I think that the dialogue that I had with the Commander in Chief was very fruitful. It was the first opportunity we had to engage with him and discuss some of the things that we have some concerns about, or questions about, and want to get his perspective on. The reports that come out about some of the abuses that occur in the ethnic areas -- the internally displaced person, the citizens, who are suffering, who are victims of the conflict, however they got to their situation. These are very important conversations to have and we want to have them frankly. Military-to-military, though, is something that is not on the horizon in the near term. I think we will have to wait again for a process much further down the line of democratic reform, greater transparency, military accounting for what’s goes on. We talked about discipline of forces if there are things that occur in these war fighting areas that there is some accountability for these actions. Without that it will be very hard for the United States to be engaged military-to-military in a very fundamental sense. Again, we’ll watch this very closely and if we see reform or commitment to reform, then we’ll get behind it and be partners in that reform. We’ll need to watch this very closely and continue the conversation.

QUESTION: What did you talk about with civil wars in ethnic areas?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: It was less about the wars themselves and more about the outgrowth of the war, and of the fighting. Again, access to citizens who have been displaced, and whether the international community can assist with that. We offered international assistance to help with that and many countries around the world do accept that and welcome that because there are innocents who get caught up in these conflicts. I talked a bit about good order and discipline of activities and making sure that if there are those that the military says are acting beyond their orders, and [if] there are reports of abuses that occur, then how are they responding to that, how are they dealing with that, how are they accounting for that. What kind of punishments are in place, and what other ways are they trying to prevent them from occurring because they don’t contribute to the ultimate goal which is national reconciliation. It means building up good faith and showing that the government has the interest of all its citizens at heart. Any reports of abuses or things that go beyond the good order and discipline of forces certainly works against the reconciliation process. So we want to have a discussion about how the military thinks about these things.

QUESTION: Were you worried about the growing Chinese influence in Myanmar? Or are you still worried about it?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: No. Our interest is in being involved here in a way that will promote a more open, democratic, human rights respecting society. Where people in this country live side by side and have a prosperous life. That’s our focus. That’s what we’ve been discussing with the government and with others here.

QUESTION: I would like to know if there is any possibility of a normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: That issue has been raised by some, and it's something we'll look at. Again, as we see reform progressing, that is something we certainly would consider.

QUESTION: How would you recommend to the World Bank and IMF concerning members granting loans to Myanmar?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: Well, to be honest, we have laws on the books that require us to vote against loans and financial and technical assistance from the International Financial Institutions. So again, by law, unless we see some progress in very specific areas on the human rights front, we are by law prevented from allowing that to go forward.

QUESTION: Don't you think there are enough prerequisites for lifting sanctions on lending from International Financial Institutions?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think what we've said in several ways here is that this is the beginning of a transition. There are some encouraging steps and signs. We need to go forward in a way that recognizes what's been done and what's being done that is positive, and build on that. We want to encourage the government to do that. We want to encourage the society to continue to take steps. Let's take it step by step.