Special Briefing on Burma
Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma
Without further ado, Derek Mitchell.
MR. MICHELL: Thank you. Well, thank you all. It’s a pleasure to finally see you. I took my first trip early September and I meant to come do a brief up here for some time, but it’s been rather busy of late and I’m moving around, so I’m glad I have the opportunity.
As suggested, I am the first in this position of special representative and policy coordinator for Burma. It’s a position that is mandated by Congress under the JADE Act. And I took over in mid August. My first trip was early September, and we’ve been very active in engagement every since.
It’s a position that essentially was intended to continue the policy that we have, that the Obama Administration has pursued, of a dual-track approach, which talks about both engagement and sanctions, pressure, on the regime, on the government in Burma. But it is meant also to provide a sort of senior-level face focusing on the issue 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, as I do. So it is, in that sense, a new beginning. And I was able, I think, in my trip to Burma back in September, able to establish a good baseline for the relationship. I had very, very productive and candid meetings, and we have proceeded to have a number of interactions since then that I think have been equally productive.
I was very, as I said, candid there. And if you all were able to see the press statement I put out leaving Rangoon at that time, I laid out, in essence, the gestures that we saw from the government that were welcome. And we’ve seen, I think since then, even more gestures and more moves by the government that seems to be a trend towards greater openness, as well as some of the views from ourselves and others of skepticism, of questioning about whether, in fact, we are seeing something fundamentally different in the country. Are we seeing a real path to reform as they laid out their goals of democracy, human rights, national reconciliation, and development, national development for the country?
Those who have followed Burma for many years, as I have, have seen stops and starts. I’m not sure we’ve seen anything necessarily exactly like we’ve seen over the past several months. And in talking to people inside the country, they themselves say that they are seeing something that is a bit different than they’ve seen before. But there are still questions about how far they’re going to go and where this is going to lead.
And we laid out – I laid out in my statement and in the dialogues that we have privately, that if, in fact, we do see change, reform along those lines of democracy, human rights, national reconciliation, and development, they will have a partner in the United States; that we will be with them as a partner in that reform effort because, in fact, that is what we have sought to pursue for many years now.
So we have seen encouraging signs over time, and – but of course, there are some things that haven’t changed, and we should be noting those. As much as we’ve seen some changing of dynamics in – between Naypyidaw and Rangoon with some of the democratic opposition, we, of course, have not seen similar progress in the relationship between the government and the ethnic minorities, the ethnic nationalities in the north and the east and elsewhere. Violence continues. Credible reports of human rights abuses, including against women and children, continue. And this remains an issue of great concern to the United States and to others in the region and around the world. And in fact, we made it very clear that we could not have a transformed relationship as long as these abuses and credible reports of abuses occur and as long as there is not dialogue with these groups and with the opposition. If violence remains, then that will be a constraint on the relationship.
We also talked a bit about accounting for past abuses that have occurred as a step towards reconciliation, that something that could be done to represent a credible commitment to national reconciliation to give voice to some of what’s occurred in the past. And we also talked a bit about – with them about transparency in their relationship with other nations. And particularly with North Korea, there have been reports that we’ve seen of concern about that relationship, and we continue to follow that very, very closely.
So even as we see some progress in some areas, there are other areas that we remain concerned about. And the dialogue continues, and I think we’ve set a very good – as I say, a good baseline for a very candid relationship between the two sides that we really haven’t seen, I would say, in many, many years.
So with that, maybe I’ll open it up for some questions, if people have particular issues.
QUESTION: Was the release of the political prisoners as part of the general amnesty last week of a sufficient magnitude to incline the Administration to take any kinds of reciprocal gestures toward Burma? I’m not talking about peeling off all the sanctions, but perhaps smaller steps, waivers, other kinds of gestures.
MR. MITCHELL: Well, first of all, we have taken steps and made gestures in return. We have lifted travel restrictions for those who have traveled to New York to UNGA to come to Washington. And at that time, we met with the foreign minister here in the State Department, the first time in some time. I couldn’t even tell you the last time there was a foreign minister meeting here. And that was a good opportunity to have the direct dialogue on the issues that I raised here, but also to build the relationship and build the trust and build the confidence between the two sides.
We’ve invited a Burmese delegation to be an observer at the Friends of the Lower Mekong Initiative. So we’re bringing them into some of the international dialogues that occur and looking at other gestures in turn. So it’s not as if we’re standing still and we’re not sending signals. Of course, rhetorically, we’re saying we welcome what’s going on. They really value that rhetorical appreciation of what we’ve seen to date. So we continue to do that. All these are steps.
But our position is pretty clear and it’s reflective of what we hear from inside the country as well, which is political prisoners – any political prisoners – there are too many political prisoners – and that what we’re looking for is a release of all political prisoners without condition to really send the signal of genuine commitment to democracy in the country.
The people that are of probably most concern to them, the people that have been in the streets and maybe led some of the movements and such, some of the names I think are known to folks here, Ko Ko Gyi, Min Ko Naing, Gambiri, and others. I said directly to the leadership that these are the people that if you’re serious about democratic reform you would see as allies, because they actually are seeking the same goals you are. They are seeking for a credible democratic Burma.
So we’ve heard reports, we’ve seen reports, suggesting that they say be patient with us, that more is to come. And we will watch for whether they, in fact, follow up with action on the release of political prisoners just in total.
QUESTION: Just to be clear, none of the steps that you mentioned as gestures took place post October the 12th, correct? I mean, the foreign minister was here well before that, the invitation to be an observer at the Lower Mekong Delta. So is it then fair for us to conclude, or will you say, that what they did in terms of a prisoner release last week is not, in and of itself, sufficient to yield any actions on the U.S. part?
MR. MITCHELL: Well, we’re constantly – we don’t – we’re thinking in terms of how do we develop the relationship and build the confidence between the two sides. It’s not linked to any specific action at any point like that. We obviously welcome the release of some political prisoners and of other prisoners as part of an amnesty. We certainly welcome that. But we’re thinking more broadly what other – what are the steps that we can take, whether they’re linked to a particular action or not, but that we see them take that suggests they’re on the path to reform.
And that means provide certain types of advice and assistance in that regard. And we continue the dialogue. So there are things that we discuss in private that also can be productive in terms of the relationship over time instead of simply the public gestures.
MS. FULTON: Okay, next question.
QUESTION: What’s your understanding of how many political prisoners were released during this previous amnesty? And also, what further sort of reciprocal steps could the U.S. take? What would you see as the other things that you could do looking forward that could sort of reward Myanmar, reward Burma for the steps it takes?
MR. MITCHELL: Well, on the second I don’t want to – I don’t think it’s appropriate here to start going through hypotheticals; if they do this, then do that. Suffice to say that if we see that kind of movement on the political prisoners released fully and unconditionally, among other things that have been discussed as well about potentially there’s now in parliament a discussion of amending the political party registration law that could open up the opposition, particularly the NLD, to take part in the political process. Those are obviously very, very important moves that would lead to American gestures, steps in return. But I’m not going to get into what for what.
In terms of the numbers, we’re not – we’re still working on that. It’s still being looked at. It’s – some are saying it’s in the low 200s or 220s, some are saying 250, in terms of political prisoners. But we’re still trying to figure out exact numbers, and I think inside they’re also trying to figure out exactly what the number is. But I can’t give you a perfect number today.
MS. FULTON: Next question, Goyal.
QUESTION: Sir, thank you. Three points. One, in the past, Burma’s military was being supported by the Chinese to keep in power. Second – I mean, what role China is playing now or will play?
And second, what role will be playing Aung San Suu Kyi, her Democratic Party which won elections 20 years ago and she’s still on and off under house arrest or in jail and all that?
And finally, do we see now real democracy in Burma?
MR. MITCHELL: I’ll make sure I get these all down so I don’t forget.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. MITCHELL: On the issue of China, Burma has an extensive border with China. I think they make it clear that they – that all those nations in Asia want to have a good relationship with China, and they should have a good relationship with – or a productive, constructive relationship with China. And that’s between the Burmese and the Chinese. That’s not an issue for the United States to be engaged in or to comment on. So that’s all I would say, I think, about that.
On the issue of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, they still are relevant. As I said when I was there, they are very relevant to the future of the country. They still represent a substantial segment of the Burmese population. She still is looked on as a unifying figure and as an important political figure. And they will decide themselves how they play within the new system – or that the system that is evolving. Whether I say it’s new, I would say it’s an evolving system there. And I would leave that to them to determine how best to engage in that regard. But they clearly see themselves having a future and an important part of the future in Burma.
Real democracy; I think it’s too soon to tell what we’re seeing. I think what we’re seeing are – is a positive trend line, encouraging signs. I think it’s raising expectations both inside and outside the country. And therefore, it’s incumbent on the government, therefore, to follow up and to meet those expectations. And if so, I think it’ll be a win-win. I think they will benefit from that, I think the region will benefit from that, I think the United States will benefit from that, and the people of Burma will benefit from that in terms of their overall development and their – come out of the shadows. I think as of, what – right now, I think there are a lot of restrictions that make them into a pariah state; and Burma is a proud country with a tremendous history, and they deserve to come out of the shadows and be – and take their prideful place in the region.
MS. FULTON: Okay. Next question, Lauren.
QUESTION: You said that you talked to them about how to be more transparent in their relations with other countries, including North Korea. Did they give any indication that they would be willing to do that, to do any information sharing? Or if they haven’t, do you think they will in the future?
MR. MITCHELL: It’s an ongoing dialogue. They are – they say that there is nothing untoward going on between them and North Korea. And we’ll continue to have the dialogue as we go. So I would say everything is on the table in terms of dialogue. I think that they’d be willing to engage. Whenever I raised anything when I was in Naypyidaw, they were willing to address that subject and talk about it. And hopefully, we can establish the kind of trust that will allow us to continue that dialogue in a productive fashion. So I’m very hopeful in that regard, and we’ll see simply as we go whether we can get the kinds of reactions and responses that we’re looking for.
MS. FULTON: I think we have time for just one more question. Bob.
QUESTION: Does the U.S. see signs that there is resistance to this liberalizing trend within the power structure of the country? Are there some hardliners who are pushing back?
MR. MITCHELL: It’s – I can’t say that we’re seeing them actively, but we hear about – I think it’s probably predictable that there are going to be those who think we are moving too quickly or maybe this is not the path to go. The dynamics right now are difficult to read entirely. We don’t have a perfect sense of how it’s working internally. There is a sense that probably some believe that at least it may be going too fast in some regard, but we don’t know.
What we’re going to follow though, what we’re going to respond to, are actions and what they do. And they will work out themselves what is the best for the future of their country. What we want to do is provide incentives and to give them a sense of what the possibilities are if they move in a positive direction. If they move in a reformist direction, it’s going to be good for the people of Burma, good for their country; and that to go in a different direction will not be good, will not be – it’ll mean some more of the same in terms of their position in the world and the region and in the relationship with the United States.
So I don’t think you can – I wouldn’t classify people as purely hardline, purely reformist. I think it’s probably more complex than that. But what we’re trying to do is understand better how things work and then encourage the reform as they move forward.
So, thank you very much. Appreciate the time.
QUESTION: Thank you.