U.S. Policy Toward Burma

Special Briefing
Kurt M. Campbell
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Washington, DC
September 28, 2009

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t see any UNGA survivors here yet. They’re still up there. Good afternoon, and welcome to the Department of State. To kick us off this afternoon, we’ve invited down the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Pacific region Kurt Campbell, who is going to kind of follow up on some comments that the Secretary made last night – or last week, I’m sorry – regarding Burma, but will obviously entertain broader questions on the region.

Kurt, you can just kick us off.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: Thank you, P.J., and it’s great to see so many friends here. This is my first time in front of the podium, so I’m going to take a variety of questions, if that’s possible.

Let me first underscore that last week was a big week for us in the Asia Pacific region. I think all of you know the President and the Secretary had a series of meetings with our friends and allies in the Asia Pacific region. President Obama met both in Pittsburgh and in New York with President Hu, had a broad range of discussions on North Korea, on Iran, on climate change, on a variety of economic and trade-related issues. The President also met with new Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama to discuss our vital, important partnership and the direction ahead. We also had strong meetings between the President – between the Secretary and her counterparts in several key countries in Asia.

The Secretary also, on Wednesday, had a meeting of the Friends of Burma, and at that meeting she rolled out some of our initial views concerning the Burma review, which is going to be fully discussed this week on Capitol Hill and also with other key players. There will be testimony before the Senate subcommittee on Wednesday; I will appear before that, before Senator Webb and the committee.

I’d like now, if possible, to read a relatively long statement. I apologize for the detail, but it will give you some context in terms of our overall review and what we’ve concluded over the course of these last seven months.

In terms of the background, the Administration launched a review of Burma policy seven months ago, recognizing that the conditions in Burma were deplorable and that neither isolation nor engagement, when implemented alone, had succeeded in improving those conditions. Throughout this review, the Administration consulted closely with Congress, the international community, and a wide range of stakeholders inside Burma, including the National League of Democracy.

For the first time in memory, the Burmese leadership has shown an interest in engaging with the United States, and we intend to explore that interest. In addition, concerns have emerged in recent days about Burma and North Korea’s relationship that require greater focus and dialogue.

What are the strategic goals and interests of this approach? We have reaffirmed our fundamental goals in Burma. We support a unified, peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Burma that respects the human rights of its citizens. To that end, we will continue to push for the immediate and unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners, an end to conflicts with ethnic minorities and gross human rights violations, and initiation of a credible internal political dialogue with the democratic opposition and ethnic minority leaders on elements of reconciliation and reform.

We will also press Burma to comply with its international obligations, including on nonproliferation, ending any prohibited military or proliferation-related cooperation with North Korea, and full compliance with United Nations 1874 and 1718.

If Burma makes meaningful progress towards these goals, it will be possible to improve the relationship with the United States in a step-by-step process. We recognize that this will likely be a long and difficult process, and we are prepared to sustain our efforts on this front.

Burma’s continued estrangement from the international community harms the country and has direct negative consequences beyond Burma’s borders. Burma’s engagement with the outside world has the potential to encourage new thinking, reform, and participation in the work of the international community.

In terms of engagement, we intend to begin a direct dialogue with Burmese authorities to lay out a path towards better relations. The dialogue will include specific discussion of democracy and human rights inside Burma, cooperation on international security issues such as nonproliferation and compliance with 1874 and 1718, and areas that could be of mutual benefit such as counternarcotics and recovery of World War II era remains.

In terms of sanctions, we will maintain existing sanctions until we see concrete progress towards reform. Lifting sanctions now would send the wrong signal. We will tell the Burmese that we will discuss easing sanctions only if they take actions on our core concerns. We will reserve the option to apply additional targeted sanctions, if warranted, by events inside Burma.

In terms of humanitarian assistance, we will continue our commitment to the Burmese people by expanding humanitarian assistance to the extent we are confident the assistance is reaching the people in need. Our experience in providing close to $75 million to Cyclone Nargis relief efforts has proven that we can effectively provide assistance directly to the Burmese people.

In terms of the approach to the upcoming 2010 elections in Burma, we will take a measured approach to the 2010 elections until we can assess the electoral conditions and know whether opposition and ethnic groups will be able to participate. We are skeptical that the elections will be either free or fair, but we will stress to the Burmese the conditions that we consider necessary for a credible electoral process.

In terms of cooperation with others in the international community, we understand that we cannot meet all of these goals alone. We will increase efforts to engage our partners in intergovernmental forum and the region to promote change inside Burma. We value very much the strong relationships we have had with the EU, with Australia, Canada, Japan, and the UN and others in working towards the common goal of a democratic transition in Burma. We seek to continue these partnerships and relationships, and indeed have consulted very closely with all of these countries and groups over the course of the last several months.

We will also intensify our engagement with ASEAN, China, and India to press the Burmese leadership to reform and to participate responsibly in the international community.

In terms of long-term efforts, we will initiate these efforts immediately, but we will also be realistic. We know the process may be long and difficult. We should be prepared to sustain our efforts beyond the planned 2010 elections. We will be working with our partners to encourage Burma to be more open and to promote new thinking and new ideas. It is important that the Burmese people gain greater exposure to broader ideas. It’s also important that Burmese leaders, including Burma’s next generation of leaders, realize that there is a more positive way ahead. These efforts may take time, but the United States is ready to commit to that long-term effort.

With that sort of broad overview, I’d be happy to take any specific questions. Thank you.

Yes. And if you wouldn’t mind, identify yourself just so I know.

QUESTION: Kim Ghattas from the BBC.


QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for this. I have two questions. One, you said that for the first time in history, the Burmese regime has shown interest in engaging the U.S. I was wondering why you thought that was. Why are they interested at this point in engaging with the U.S.?

And the second question is – it’s still a little bit unclear to me what has changed in the policy beyond the fact that you will engage in direct dialogue with them. And so therefore, what is the interest of the Burmese authorities of responding to your requests for improved human rights, et cetera, if the only thing they’re getting out of it is a direct dialogue with you?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: Well, let me first say that one of our first questions to our Burmese interlocutors is why indeed have you sought a dialogue with the United States at this time? I think as you know over the course of the last several years, there have occasionally been episodic contacts between the United States and Burmese authorities. And I think what we would like to do is start a process, a sustained process of interaction, where hopefully we can answer some of these questions going forward.

Ultimately, as we conducted this review, we recognized that ultimately, we need to change our methods but not our goals. And I think at this early stage, we think it’s important to suggest that we are prepared to sit down, but also recognize that nothing has changed yet on the ground or in
terms of some of the activities that Burma has been involved with. And so I think this initial step is the right approach, and greater clarity can be gained, hopefully, through a process of dialogue over the course of the coming weeks.


QUESTION: How do you – Jill Dougherty from CNN.


QUESTION: How do you square this apparent approach that they have with the alleged cooperation with North Korea?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: Well, first of all, I think that Burma has done a variety of things. We think they did play a positive role behind the scenes recently in terms of some steps associated with the implementation of 1874, UN Resolution 1874, and we have noted that in public. And so that willingness to play a more responsible role in the realm of international sanctions support vis-à-vis North Korea has been factored into our overall approach. The truth is that we’ve had so little dialogue with Burma over the course of the last several years that we’re still looking for a clear indication of the direction of its leadership in terms of what it seeks in terms of international engagement.

We’ve seen much more engagement of Burma, particularly at the level of economic engagement and other kind of interactions, both with China, with India, and other countries in Southeast Asia. It’s possible that they seek to diversify those contacts to include the United States, and we intend to explore that over the course of the next several weeks again.


QUESTION: Andy Quinn from Reuters.


QUESTION: It’s sort of a follow-up question. You talked about asking the Burmese to stop whatever prohibited contacts they may have had with the North Koreans. Are you willing to let us know what your assessment is of the current state of their contacts, where they’re making deals and what these sorts of deals might be?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: I don’t think I can go very much beyond what Secretary Clinton said at the ASEAN Regional Forum a few months ago in July, late July. She underscored at that time that there clearly were some areas of interaction on the military side, and perhaps even beyond that, between North Korea and Burma that raised concerns not just for the United States, but also for countries in the immediate region. And one of our goals over the course of this period of strategic review have been discussions with Thailand, with Indonesia, with the Philippines, with China. And I think there is a greater desire on the part of these regional partners for the United States to have a direct dialogue with Burma about aspects of their relationship with North Korea that we’re seeking to gain greater clarity into.

Yes. Hi.

QUESTION: A question on China.


QUESTION: What is your assessment of China’s willingness to go along with tougher sanctions against Iran on the nuclear question?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: It’s a good question. I think there was an important process last week. At the same time that the G-20 was meeting at the finance minister level, there was also some very important discussion taking place behind the scenes between U.S. and Chinese representatives. For the first time really, the Chinese supported elements of our tough approach on the P-5+1. I think they are asking the United States for deeper engagement on these issues, discussions around Iran. We’ve provided background and details. I think the Secretary said that we’ll take this after the first meeting on Thursday.

All I can say is that we view China’s engagement in the diplomacy surrounding Iran as increasingly central to a positive resolution.

QUESTION: When you say that they’re interested in deeper engagement, do you mean with the U.S. about what the U.S. wants, or with the Iranians?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: Deeper engagement with the U.S., both on what we think we understand in terms of some of Iranian behaviors, also in terms of what American and other P-5+1 expectations are, and what positive role China can play in the peaceful resolution of this problem.


QUESTION: Ai Awaji from JiJi Press, Japan.


QUESTION: I have a question about North Korea.


QUESTION: After the consultations in New York, it seems that you have a strong support from your partners in the Six-Party Talks about having direct talks with North Koreans. So are you ready to go ahead with the plan and send Ambassador Bosworth to Pyongyang? Could you tell us about the next step you’re taking?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: Not yet. I think one of the lessons that the United States has learned in this process is a certain degree of patience pays off. We have had, I think as you underscore, very strong support from our partners in the Six-Party framework. China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia have all very clearly and strongly underscored the American approach as the right approach. And that is that we expect North Korea to abide by its commitments made as part of the Six-Party framework in both 2005 and 2007, and that if there were to be any bilateral interactions between the United States and North Korea, that they be designed towards moving back rapidly and very clearly to a Six-Party framework for formal interactions with our North Korean interlocutors.

And I think we’re in the process now of planning our next steps in terms of diplomacy in Northeast Asia. Deputy Secretary Steinberg is in Asia currently for further discussions with both China, South Korea, and Japan. And I think it’s also the case that some very senior Chinese interlocutors will be visiting North Korea in the coming days.

Our goal is to remain lockstep with our partners to ensure that we are working together so that there can be no picking off of one or other members of the Six-Party framework or that there will be any tension among us as we engage together with Pyongyang.

Yes. Others?

QUESTION: Just one more?


QUESTION: So are you waiting for specific actions or statement from North Koreans?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: Not at this juncture. We are involved – there are several elements of diplomacy. Only some of it involve the United States. As I indicated, both Chinese interlocutors, South Korean interlocutors have been engaging North Korea, making very clear what our expectations are in terms of next steps.

Yes, in the back.

QUESTION: Gail from Singapore Straits Times.


QUESTION: Very well, thank you. Do you expect – President Obama happened to announce that he is interested in holding a U.S.-ASEAN summit in Singapore, and Singapore confirmed overnight that it might be held on November 15th. I’d like to know what was the state of the mind in, you know, proposing the summit? What caused – has there been a rethinking on the issue? And finally, if Myanmar is expected to participate in the summit?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: Yeah. Look, let me just say that, first of all, I can’t say anything further beyond what you’ve already indicated. But I will say that we have heard, over the course of the last several months, that it was a shame that the U.S.-ASEAN summit had to be cancelled in 2008.

And it was important to many of our ASEAN friends and leaders that that be rescheduled as a symbolic summit to signify the importance of the progress that ASEAN has made over the last several years, and also of the relationship with the United States. And we’ve tried to listen to those concerns carefully, and I think I’ll just – I’ll leave it at that. And in terms of Burma’s participation in those meetings, I think we’ll have more to say about that subsequently. Thanks.

QUESTION: Rob Reynolds from Al Jazeera English.


QUESTION: Given China’s expanding economic ties with Iran, isn’t it considered quite unlikely that China would go along with the kind of stringent sanctions that the U.S. might want to impose if the talks are not successful?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: First of all, China has broad and diverse interests, like any great power. And it faces now a situation in which it has several powers on its border that face the potential of specific challenges – North Korea obviously, Pakistan, and now a series of challenges near its territory from Iran.

It’s very important for China that this issue be resolved peacefully, but also that it be resolved. I think Chinese leaders and interlocutors at the foreign ministry have been very clear that it is the strong view of China that Iran not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons capability. And so obviously, they’ll have to face some difficult choices going forward, but in terms of their basic policy approach, I think we’re very comfortable with it.


QUESTION: Oh, yes. My name is (inaudible) Shimbun.


QUESTION: My question is about direct talk with Myanmar. So could you give us a bit more detail about how do you proceed direct talks with Myanmar? So last week, briefers mentioned that Myanmar side will appoint interlocutor and the U.S. Government may appoint a counterpart. And could you give us your image about how do you proceed direct talks?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: I can give you some general background.

QUESTION: Where and when?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: Yes, some general background. We are now working on the details of our first substantive interaction with Burmese authorities, and we expect that to take place around the edges of the UN General Assembly. I will be involved in those discussions. In addition, the legislation requires – and the Administration intends to abide by that, obviously – the appointment of a Burma coordinator. And we are in the process of working with the White House, both identifying the appropriate person and consultations with Congress about this important assignment.

QUESTION: I – so sorry, Kurt – Indira.


QUESTION: Hi. So – sorry – if you would be the person, that means within the context of UNGA this week in New York? Is that going to be – I mean, Wednesday, we know you’re going to be testifying here on the Hill. So which day would that be?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: Well, let me just say we’re working on the details of this. Obviously, we’re – it is the case that we’ve had so little of discussion – so little dialogue with Burma in the past that, actually, the process of actually setting up a meeting like this has – poses its own logistics challenges. And I think it would be fair to say that your parameters are roughly right – over the course of the next week.


QUESTION: Paul Richard with OHI.


QUESTION: Can you tell anything more about how this outreach from the Burmese came? And does the timing suggest that they may have been reacting in part to the enforcement of 1874? I mean, did that process make them a little nervous? Is that possibly a factor into this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: I think it is often the case that in important decisions, that more than one factor comes to play. And I think there are probably a number of factors that are based on global dynamics, some regional dynamics, and probably some internal issues as well. And we, during the process of our consultations in the region, asked some of our interlocutors to have dialogue with senior leaders in Burma, and we received a very clear message, both indirectly and then subsequently directly, that there was a desire for a dialogue at this time.

I think it’s also the case that – let’s be clear that the President’s very clear statement about approaching countries with an open hand and beginning a dialogue with them, it’s a powerful tool in – at least in the initial phase of opening up contacts. What happens subsequently will be based on concrete steps that the Government of Burma is prepared to take.

Overall, we are as interested as you are in terms of what Burma expects and what their plans are in terms of domestic steps and regional behavior. So we’re keenly interested, we’re – we have an open door, and we’re prepared to sit down and have a responsible dialogue about the way forward.

QUESTION: Well, it sounds like the U.S., though, took – it was the U.S. that initially took the initiative here, talking to our interlocutors, who contacted them?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: Actually, not. The first real step came from Burmese interlocutors, but there is often in Southeast Asia, because of the lack of our dialogue, a noise-to-signal problem, trying to figure out are these authoritative voices, are they really speaking for the central elements of the government. And through a process – a very rigorous process of trying to determine exactly who this message was coming from, and sort of numerous messages, I think we arrived at a conclusion that – very clearly that they were prepared to sit down with the United States. And now we subsequently believe that’s very much to be the case.

But I must underscore we’re at the earliest possible stages here, and we’ve stated very clearly through the process of this review that there are certain elements, foundations for our approach, that we think still apply given the conditions on the ground inside Burma.

MR. CROWLEY: Last question.


QUESTION: Thanks, Kurt. Other than the discussions that happened at UNGA and G-20 that we’re aware of on the economic front, in particular with China, can you tell us – and P-5+1 – can you tell us what else came out of the very high-level – you know, the leaders contact between Obama and Hu, specific things that came up?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CAMPBELL: Yeah, thank you. First of all, the team that the president brought from China was one of the highest-level teams I’ve ever seen assembled. Key players from all the major ministries, the key players on climate change, on the economy, on various aspects of regional diplomacy.

We talked in great detail about the way ahead on North Korea. China underscored its commitment to the Six-Party framework and its very strong insistence that North Korea abide by its statements on denuclearization. We spoke extensively about climate change and the process leading to Copenhagen. I think there was a pretty frank back-and-forth exchange between the two sides. I think the President – our President, President Obama – asked for a little bit of greater clarity to some of the positions that the Chinese interlocutors had put forward at the UN last week.

As indicated earlier, I think the President made very clear to our Chinese friends of our desire for greater assistance when it came – when it comes to Iran and our concerns about some of the steps that we’ve seen in recent weeks, and I think overall a discussion about ensuring that U.S.-China relations remain on a very stable footing. Chinese friends were very much looking forward to the visit of President Obama early next month; we talked about some of the details associated with that.

It – what in my view was impressive, it was a warm meeting, but it was very workmanlike in the sense that we went through a range of issues in great detail. And, Indira, I think what’s interesting – it’s not just the meeting itself, but the amount of preparation that went into this was as deep and intense as any international meeting that I’ve been involved with, and I think it reflects the importance of Sino-American relations in the current period.

Thank you all very much, look forward to doing this again soon.

# # #

PRN: 2009/970