Press Conference in Rangoon, Burma

Derek Mitchell
Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma 
Rangoon, Burma
September 14, 2011

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: Mingalaba. Good Morning. Let me read a brief prepared statement. I have just completed my first visit to Burma as U.S. Special Representative and Policy Coordinator. I have spent the past five days in intensive consultations with a full spectrum of interlocutors in Nay Pyi Taw and in Rangoon to discuss the situation here and ways in which the United States can support and promote democracy, human rights, development and national reconciliation in the country in our common interests.

I want to acknowledge first the government’s excellent hospitality, Chargé d’Affaires Michael Thurston and his outstanding team at the U.S. Embassy for a quick turnaround in organizing a visit, and all my interlocutors for their time and candor during our meetings over the past several days.

Being my initial visit, my primary goal was to introduce myself, listen to local perspectives, and establish relationships that I will build on as I proceed to fulfill my mandate and responsibilities for managing U.S. Burma policy.

In Nay Pyi Taw, I met with Union Parliament Speaker Khin Aung Myint, People’s Parliament Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, Labor and Social Welfare Minister Aung Kyi, Border Affairs Minister Lieutenant General Thein Htay, Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, and USDP Secretary General Htay Oo. I also met with a cross section of opposition MPs, including representatives from ethnic minority regions.

I was encouraged by and pleased with the quality and openness of the exchanges, and the constructive and respectful tone of each interaction I had. During these meetings, my government interlocutors repeatedly stated that this country had opened a new chapter to a civilian-led democratic governing structure and expressed that they were sincerely committed to reform in the interest of human rights, democracy, development, and national reconciliation.

I responded that the United States recognized and welcomed recent gestures from Nay Pyi Taw, such as President Thein Sein’s meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission, public emphasis on dialogue with ethnic minority groups in the interest of national reconciliation, and moderate easing of media censorship. Among both the international community and the Burmese people, it is clear from my visit that there are heightened expectations and hopes that change, real change, may be on the horizon.

At the same time, I was frank about the many questions the United States – and others – continue to have about implementation and follow-through on these stated goals. I noted that many within the international community remain skeptical about the government’s commitment to genuine reform and reconciliation, and I urged authorities to prove the skeptics wrong.

To that end, I raised concerns regarding the detention of approximately 2,000 political prisoners, continued hostilities in ethnic minority areas accompanied by reports of serious human rights violations, including against women and children, and the lack of transparency in the government’s military relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

I offered respectfully that the government should take concrete actions in a timely fashion to demonstrate its sincerity and genuine commitment to reform and national reconciliation, including by releasing all political prisoners unconditionally, engaging in meaningful outreach to the political opposition, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and engaging in dialogue rather than armed conflict with ethnic minority groups. I affirmed the importance of establishing a legitimate and credible mechanism for investigating reported abuses in ethnic areas as a first step toward building trust and promoting national reconciliation through accountability. I also urged the government to adhere to all of its obligations under UN Security Council Resolutions related to proliferation.

I want to emphasize that our dialogue on these topics was respectful and open, which I greatly appreciated. I noted that progress on these issues will be essential to progress in the bilateral relationship, and that if the government takes genuine and concrete action, the United States will respond in kind.

Here in Rangoon, I continued the conversation on current conditions and trends in the country with a broad cross section of civil society. I consulted with the business and diplomatic communities, and local and international NGOs, including citizens doing heroic and courageous work providing free funeral services for the poor and treating those with HIV/AIDS.

And of course I met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of the National League for Democracy to discuss their perspectives on recent developments in the country, the future of their party, and U.S. policy approaches. I was reminded consistently during my visit that Daw Suu remains deeply important to the citizens of this country, Burman and ethnic minority alike, and that any credible reform effort must include her participation. It was also clear that she remains fully committed to the cause of peaceful change through dialogue.

Unfortunately, I was only here for a few days and thus was unable to explore the full breadth and diversity of this beautiful country. However, the courage and commitment of those with whom I met give me great hope for the country’s future should genuine reform and reconciliation proceed. I will be following developments closely from afar, and look forward to many return visits here to continue the United State’s principled engagement policy.

Again, I would like to thank the government for hosting me so warmly for my inaugural visit in my new post, and to all my interlocutors for sharing their valuable insights. I consider this a highly productive visit. I will now take a few questions before I have to catch a plane.

QUESTION: Did you get any assurance of the release of political prisoners from the government?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: As I suggested, we had a very candid dialogue on this subject. There were no absolute commitments on anything. But we had a very productive exchange on the subject, so nothing further I can say on that.

QUESTION: And my second question is would it be possible for your government to lift the sanctions if the political prisoners were not released?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: The issue of sanctions, again, that was not a primary point of discussion. There are a lot of issues that we need to deal with in terms of the relationship, and sanctions are one component, as I said. Most of this is about our engagement, our principled engagement, with the regime. I know yesterday there was a report that came out unfortunately, sad to say, that I think mischaracterized my position on this, referring to a roadmap to lift sanctions. I think it took my words out of context. It mischaracterized what I said in response to a question. I never presented, nor have I developed such a roadmap. The conversation flow and tone were as I just described earlier about the full range of issues being addressed concerning exchange of views, concerning what we would need to see in order to truly develop a productive relationship and to change the parameters of the bilateral relationship.

QUESTION: What is the most important criterion for assessing the situation in this country?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: There's no particular single issue, obviously. I listed the things we needed to see that we thought were elements of demonstrating credible and genuine commitment to reform. So there's no single answer to that, but if we see some of the things that I outlined, I think it would demonstrate the kind of genuine commitment that people are looking for, not just probably -- obviously from the outside, but people within the country. And the issue of skepticism and uncertainty about how far this is going and where it's leading, I think the government recognizes that the skepticism is out there and we'll just see how this proceeds. And as I say, if we see actions that are credible, the United States will respond.

QUESTION: I would like to ask if you've seen any change of attitude from the current government during your visit?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: Well this is my first visit, so I can't compare it to any previous visit to say whether they've changed or not. I can answer that question during my second visit, which I hope will be soon. I have to say though, that I know there were concerns about my position, coming in. My position was, as many of you know, was mandated by Congress under the JADE Act. In the United States, the JADE Act is the sanctions act. So there were concerns that I was purely a function of sanctions, that I was simply here to talk sanctions, and not to talk more broadly about the relationship and to get a feel for the place and what's happening here. So my sense was, again, I was very pleased with the reception I got, very pleased with the nature of the conversations, very pleased with how welcoming they were. And I detected no nervousness about me or my position. And I look forward to continuing those relationships in a very frank and candid manor that befits a healthy relationship.

QUESTION: Yesterday the State Department released an annual religious freedom report, and Burma being designated as one of the eight nations, countries of most particular concern. Did you have a chance to meet the various religious organizations? If so, what is their concern? Do they still have these concerns? How likely is Burma to be out of this list soon?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: I did not meet with representatives of those organizations. So I can't speak for them in terms of how they view the situation in the country. There's a separate section of the State Department that looks at these things independently and I can't comment any further on the context or substance

QUESTION: I need a little clarification. Does it mean that the U.S. will continue to employ the two-track policy, retaining the sanctions and engaging with the government at the same time? So in view of the current developments that you just mentioned, are you going to, is the U.S. going to establish Ambassadorial-level engagement soon? And another one is, does the government give any indication that they're initiating any tri-partite dialogue that involves ethnic minorities?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: On the latter, we didn't discuss that, so I don't know what their intentions are, or the prospects of that. I know there's been discussion of that here. Before I came I read there was some kind of discussion of a potential peace commission through the legislature, but that's in process. But I heard nothing specifically on this during my visit, on a tri-partite process.

Yes, our policy has not changed. My trip is consistent with the policy. That sanctions remain in place is a component of our policy. But really this trip was about going beyond that to engage in a principled fashion, to discuss a broad range of issues, but particularly to talk about the relationship and what would be required to change the parameters of the relationship to date. And to get a feel for what's happening here on the ground. You can't learn about a country from afar. You have to come. You have to talk to people directly. You have to get a lot of different perspectives. You have to listen. My point in coming here was to listen as well as provide very candidly the U.S. perspective so that people here were not misunderstanding our policy. I'm sure there's not a clear understanding of what does principled engagement mean, what are your intentions, how far can this go, and the same here. So again, I didn't see enough of the country in some fashion. I didn't see everybody that maybe I could see while here. Believe me, I worked very hard. I was having meetings from the first thing in the morning until late at night, trying to meet as many people as I possibly could to get as broad a perspective on what's happening here. And as I said, my sense is people are hopeful about change. People do have high expectations and are hopeful that something real may happen. The question is how far that will go and what the concrete steps will be going forward. So it's a long answer to the question; our policy has not changed.

QUESTION: (Inaudible – repeat of question about reestablishing Ambassador-level engagement from Rangoon.)

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: Oh, well the issue is… that's a hypothetical. We've made no decisions on that. Again, no changes to the way we've done things to date along those lines.

QUESTION: (Interpreted from Burmese). Yesterday you met with the Human Rights Commission here. If the commission is formed by former government officials, so do you think they will genuinely investigate the abuses here? What is your comment?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: It was a very good meeting. They gave us an overview of their plans, their thinking. But they're at the very, very early stages of thinking about it themselves. I have some sympathy for them. They're trying to get up and running quickly and think things through. I have no preconceptions about what they will or will not be able to do. I certainly have an open mind about that and they're struggling themselves, I think, about it. They said they will have to work with Nay Pyi Taw and send things, report up to Nay Pyi Taw. So I'm hopeful. I think it is a positive gesture. It's one of those things that I said to counterparts and put in my statement that is certainly a positive move to establish a human rights commission. But like everything else, the proof of its legitimacy will be how they proceed to implement that mandate after establishment. So I was grateful for the opportunity to have the conversation. We'll obviously be watching them.

The other thing is we offered that given there is not a lot of expertise in this, and there is some skepticism about whether it will be a real commission looking at abuses, reported abuses, alleged abuses here that it might be useful to have some partnership with international organizations, individuals with experience. And I said that also to the folks in Nay Pyi Taw that we remain open to assisting with helping them do a job like investigating or doing accountability in ethnic minority areas in the interests of national reconciliation. So again our minds are open but are arms are outstretched too to assist as we can in making them a fully credible and productive institution in the interests of national reconciliation, human rights and democracy.

QUESTION: When you go back to the States you'll be reporting to the Congress, right? So if somebody from the Congress asks you what is the most significant outcome of your trip, what would you answer?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: Significant outcome… I think it's the remarkable sense of hope that we see here among people. That they see something happening. There is, something is happening, something may be changing. It may be small gestures now. But again that sense of expectation is very, very important. And as I say, I really hope that I think everybody who follows this country knows that there have been stops and starts, that expectations have been dashed. That things only go so far, and then they stop or they reverse themselves. And I really urged the leadership to prove the skeptics wrong. But it was very encouraging to me that my reception was as warm and welcome as it was. And that the leadership in Nay Pyi Taw were open to having discussions, having exchanges. Again, no commitments made. No outcomes that are tangible. But we were open to have a dialogue with respect, and I was able to say that I and the international community need to see the concrete action and genuine action for us to feel that something is not only hope but real change here over time. So I'll have a very frank exchange with my friends in Congress and they I think, they're just like the rest. They want the best - everyone in America. I hope it's clear to folks that people in the United States wish this country no ill will at all. We want to do what's best to help this country develop itself. Those four goals that were outlined by the government – democracy, human rights, development, and national reconciliation – we share. If the government is serious and committed to those goals in a credible fashion they will have a partner in the United States and I think Congress and others will be watching very closely to see what this government decides to do in order to move credibly forward toward those goals.

One last question.

QUESTION: You said that this is your very first trip. So when will you be coming again? And also I would like to know your opinions on the rising China influence here.

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: It was not a topic of conversation, really, with the leadership. I do get a sense, talking to some citizens and others here that there is a palpable sense of Chinese influence, Chinese presence. But we really didn't have much of a discussion of that topic. The leadership here and the citizens here will have to decide how they deal with their neighbor. Obviously whenever you have neighbors, there are challenges, there are opportunities. But there's really nothing more I would say about Chinese influence in that regard.

Thank you all very much. I do have to catch the plane. I appreciate this and I will see you next time I'm sure.