Background Briefing on Secretary Clinton's Travel to Burma

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
En Route Busan, South Korea
November 29, 2011

MODERATOR: Okay, we are on our way to Busan, Korea. And from there we head to Burma. So we'd like to background you this evening on the Burma portion of the trip. This backgrounder will be embargoed until we touch down in Nay Pyi Taw . Everybody get that? Embargoed until we touch down in Nay Pyi Taw .

We have with us this evening [Senior State Department Official], hereafter known as State Department Senior Official. Take it away.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, [Official]. Let me just provide a little bit of background on the trip, and then a little bit on the schedule. Then I'd be happy to take any questions I can to give you as much background.

I would say we've been discussing various aspects of this trip and elements of the reform process underway in Burma for about the last five months. And over the course of the last three months in particular, we laid out a series of steps that would be necessary for the United States to step up our engagement to a higher level. And what we have seen are a number of things, including very substantial dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi. I think you will have seen that she and her party have committed to running in the next election. So I think you will be hearing in the next day or so about her own potential role in these (inaudible) elections.

We have also seen a number of legislative reforms associated with civil society election issues, labor reform, all of which are a good first step in a land that has known, really, just an enormous amount of tragedy over the course of the last 50 years or so.

The Secretary comes with a series of very specific steps that we would like to see in terms of the next phase of the process that is underway inside the country. And we are looking for a very broad-based set of discussions, not only with the leaders in Nay Pyi Taw , but a variety of individuals and groups in Rangoon.

So just -- let me just take you through what the schedule generally is and what we are seeking to accomplish in each.

We arrive at around 3:30 in Nay Pyi Taw tomorrow. Nay Pyi Taw is --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Pardon me? Yes, sorry, when we land -- sorry, we haven't crossed the dateline yet, thank you -- Wednesday. Nay Pyi Taw -- I mean to give you a sense of what some of the challenges are of a trip like this, Nay Pyi Taw is not a night landing airstrip, so we have to land during the day. There is not enough security there, so our plane has to depart and rejoin us the following day. It has to overnight in Thailand. We will be -- the Secretary will have a series of private meetings with her team in preparation for the following day. We will be meeting with senior officials, just to go over the schedule and what our expectations are.

The following day she will have her first formal meeting with her counterpart, the foreign minister. And at that session, we will go over a series of our domestic concerns. We will primarily focus on the relationship between North Korea and Burma. We have been very clear what our expectations are. And the Burmese have talked to us seriously about potential steps associated with the IAEA and other actions they are contemplating with respect to North Korea.

After that, we will go and do a long meeting, probably up to a few hours, with President Thein Sein, and he will be joined by seven or eight of his ministers in that session. And we expect this to be a very thorough review of not only the steps that they have taken, what we expect to see in the future, but the things that the United States is prepared to do in response not only to these preliminary steps, but what might be possible if the process of reform and openness continues.

After that, we will have two sessions in parliament, one with the upper house, one with the lower house. This is a mixed group, some of whom are quite supportive of the engagement with the outside, with the United States, some of whom have been reported and also have been quite clear in some of their public pronouncements to be skeptical about certain aspects of the reform effort that the president has undertaken.

After that, she will go back to the hotel and she will have a backgrounder, make a presentation about the day's events. And then we will be wheels up at around 3:30 Thursday afternoon on the way to Rangoon.

We will be landing at a few minutes before dusk. We will go directly to Shwedagon, the magnificent temple of Burma. Any of you who've seen it, it is just a miraculous thing, hundreds of tons of gold in one of the most poorest countries in the world, priceless diamonds and rubies, all basically unguarded. It's quite magnificent. The Secretary will make an offering there.

After that, she will go to the hotel. That evening, she will have a private dinner with Aung San Suu Kyi. This will be their first meeting. They have spoken once on the phone before. And I think she is just very much looking forward to sitting down and having an opportunity to listen and talk about developments that are underway. I think, as you know, President Obama spoke to Aung San Suu Kyi about two weeks ago on his flight from Australia to Bali. She was very encouraging of his trip, very supportive of efforts the United States has taken, thought that we had handled things exactly right, and has made some suggestions of some steps that she believes that we should take in order to support the reform effort, but also has suggested certain things that she thinks are still premature, which we agree with.

The following day, we will go to -- for a formal meeting, and she will be shown around her home, which I know you know for many years was her prison and now is an area where she works. We will have a chance for a bilateral meeting with the members of her party, the National League of Democracy, the NLD. She will also do a few minutes of press with you all at that time.

After that we will go to a session at a museum -- excuse me, an art gallery. It's kind of an art gallery/museum that has dedicated its work to artistic creations from ethnic areas from around the country. At that session she will be meeting with a number of representatives from ethnic groups, all the major ethnic groups, and she will underscore our commitment not only to working closely with the government, with Aung San Suu Kyi, but a desire to have a dialogue with the ethnic minorities, with a deep recognition that it's those issues that are at the core, at the very heart of the difficulties that Burma/Myanmar has faced for over 50 years.

After that, she will go to a session with a collection of civil society organizations. Those have been involved in every manner of public support for decades, in education, in support after Hurricane Nargis, HIV/AIDS work, issues associated with rape and women and violence, and problems in ethnic areas. So a very substantial opportunity to hear directly from a number of key organization individuals that have played a role in the life of the country over the course of the last several years.

And then she will essentially conclude with a broad wrap-up at the Embassy with the press and with others, and give some specific interviews in terms of what our overall readout at the sessions have been.

I think it would be fair to say that the Secretary's overarching message will be twofold. One, that some initial steps have been taken; we welcome those steps. Frankly, we have been surprised by some of those steps, but that this is simply a first step and that several other things will need to take root and happen for the United States to be able to work closely to support this overall effort. She comes with some specific ideas and suggestions for how we can support the process. She will have specific ideas that she will roll out in each of her meetings, both with the government, with the parliamentarians, with Aung San Suu Kyi, also with the ethnic groups, and also with civil society.

So, our -- I think our overall desire is to be in listening mode, to do a fact-finding, as President Obama has indicated, and also to test the seriousness, particularly of the government, in terms of what it wants to accomplish in the period ahead.

I think everyone is fairly excited. It is a culmination of a lot of hard work over several months. I would like to underscore that we are actually deeply realistic for what can be expected. There have been a number of failed attempts at reform over decades. When we started this process in 2009, our initial efforts, most of which I led, were abysmal failures. And we recognize the challenge of this early phase, and so we are mindful of the risks and we will be very careful as we go forward.

I think I will stop there.

QUESTION: Can you go a bit more into depth on North Korea? Now, I know they were apparently getting some materials from North Korea for some type of a nuclear program. Can you give us as much as you know, and what do you want them to do at this point?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would say that the areas that we are primarily concerned with in terms of the relationship between North Korea and Burma are in the realm of missiles and other military equipment that are prohibited by UN Security Council Resolutions 1874 and others. We understand that there are perhaps other activities, nascent activities, but we are primarily focused on the former issues that I laid out. And our discussions will be around seeking much stronger assurances and international codified assurances of a determination on the part of the government to discontinue activities that we believe are antithetical to the maintenance of peace and stability.

QUESTION: When you talk about nascent activity, that's the nuclear program that the Secretary talked about two years ago when she was in Southeast Asia?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would say that we have looked at this very, very closely. Obviously, it's an issue of concern. To date, our primary area of focus, again, is the missiles. I think we have looked at this fairly carefully, and we do not see signs of a substantial effort at this time.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Nuclear effort. They are -- pardon me?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)


QUESTION: You mentioned the IAEA --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, we would like them to sign the Additional Protocol, IAEA Additional Protocol, which is something that we've worked on with other countries in Southeast Asia. That would be our hope.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the IAEA. When you mentioned IAEA and that they'd be willing to take some steps, you were talking about this Additional Protocol?


QUESTION: Has Senator Lugar oversold this idea of nuclear contact between --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, I think he has made very clear that this is a very serious issue to be focused on. We have been very clear what our expectations are to the governments.

I think that, as I said, we believe that there have been surreptitious contacts, military missile-related, perhaps in other areas, in the past. We have made clear that a continuation of these kinds of efforts will make it very difficult for the United States to take the steps to improve the relationship that Nay Pyi Taw seeks.

QUESTION: Why do you think Burma is moving (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It's a very good question and it's a hard question. I think there are a lot of explanations. I think probably the most powerful ones have to do with the recognition on the part of the leadership that East Asia, the most dynamic place in the world, countries that 25 years ago were sort of on an equal par with Burma, with Myanmar, have raced ahead. It is now -- Burma was the bread basket of Asia, one of the most impressive universities and a highly educated population. Almost all the metrics have declined substantially. I think their leadership, who traveled widely, recognized that they are falling farther and farther behind.

I think it's not unlikely that they want to diversify their international interactions. I think they are tired of being treated like an outcast in international interactions. I also think that they want a different kind of relationship with the United States. They have seen over the course of the last few years U.S. relations improving with India, with Indonesia, with other countries in Southeast Asia. They have seen our efforts to step up our game there, and I think they'd like very much to improve their relationship with us. And then --

QUESTION: If you look at how the military has been able to hold on to power and most of the commercial interests, they still have a pretty sweet deal. Why would they want to give that up?


QUESTION: Why would the guys who control the money and the parliament want to give that up?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: When you say, the guys that control --

QUESTION: If they’ve got most of the parliament, they still control most of the commercial interests (inaudible) by China, why would they want to give that up?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean when you say "they," I mean, this is not --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, look, it's not a completely homogeneous society, as you will see when you go there. Like all complex governments, there are elements that are more interested in certain aspects of reform, others that are considered to be corrupt or have ties to other countries that cause some concern.

In many respects, it's difficult to know how decision-making works in a country like Burma. I would say -- I've said it in the past -- we know -- probably the two countries in Asia that we know the least about in terms of how they make decisions, sort of the machinations that take place behind the scenes, would be probably North Korea and Burma.

I believe, however, that for the first time -- again, when we first started these discussions about two years ago, it would be not uncommon to -- we would go in, we would discuss issues from our perspective, and then they would read a script to us for an hour or 90 minutes, beginning in 1947, taking us through, painstakingly, the history of the civil wars, the problems of imperial aggression, and the like. That has completely changed in the last several months. We are having very detailed discussions about a whole range of issues.

And what we are finding is that even though the election itself, we felt, was deeply and fundamentally flawed, that we have seen at least the beginning of debate and divisions much more openly expressed among key players around a whole host of issues, whether it be education or economic reform or matters associated with the role of Aung San Suu Kyi, or the kind of relationship they want with China, India, and the United States.

And so there is the beginning of that nascent sort of -- I hate to use the term "pluralism," but a substantial discussion around the direction ahead for the future of the country.

MODERATOR: We are going to take two more.

QUESTION: What do you think changed between the time that you started those efforts in 2009 and failed, and now?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think it's possible that we started the reform effort right in the middle of the process that – of these sort of highly -- sort of almost artificial elections that they had orchestrated, right? And I think that was their primary focus, and they did not have very much bandwidth at the time. I think it is also likely the case that the previous leadership, the people at the top, were not as interested or engaged with the outside world.

One of the interesting things about the current president, Thein Sein, is that he, in the previous government, served as number five. He was the prime minister. So in that role, he was primarily the public face of the government for a decade. So he spent an enormous amount of time traveling outside the country in meetings, interacting with others. And so it's entirely possible that he had a chance to get a much better sense of what was going on in Southeast Asia, how far behind his country was falling, and what was necessary to take steps to at least address some of the challenges that they were facing going forward.

But I have to be quite honest and say that much of this is speculative, right? I mean, we can only imagine what lies behind, at a fundamental level, this effort. And I think that also is one of the reasons why we're cautious and careful, and that we want to take this in an incremental way, test it, reinforce it where we can, but also be prepared at any time for reversals or backtracking.

QUESTION: You mentioned that she would have some ideas (inaudible) there were certain things that they agreed they wouldn’t do yet. Can you talk about both of those?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I won’t now. I won’t now, but I will say that Aung San Suu Kyi has been extremely constructive in the process, very helpful. She believes that there is a genuine effort underway. She believes that this may be an historic opportunity. She wants the United States to try to reinforce this effort, as well as other countries in the international system. And I think one of the things that the Secretary is looking forward to in her private conversation is to test this, to ask her what more – I think it would be fair to say a few years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi was the most careful, probably the most skeptical of efforts, and very clear about what would not be in the best interests of her country. In the last few months, after a series of very substantial interactions between her and the president and other leaders inside the country, she does sincerely believe that there is a process underway that is in the best interests of the international community to support.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)


QUESTION: (Inaudible.)


QUESTION: Steps they agreed to be premature now (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’ll probably talk about that more a little bit later.

MODERATOR: Last one, and then we’re going to cut it.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you got everything you wanted in the Secretary’s schedule in Burma. For instance, you see there isn’t a town hall meeting (inaudible) features on these trips. Did you ask for one? Did the Burmese turn it down?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, we did not ask for one. In fact, I will tell you that a trip like this for them is really almost unprecedented, and they have worked very hard to try to accommodate us in all aspects, whether it be – they never do visas like they’re doing now. They’re generally uncomfortable with Secret Service, with guns. They’ve been very accommodating in a variety of the areas that we’re seeking, what we would call hospitality. That’s important to us, but what’s really important to us is what are the steps that they’re going to take to continue the process that they’ve begun with. And so --

MODERATOR: You’ve been very generous here with your time.

QUESTION: One clarification on the missile – is that missile technology or is that missile missiles?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Missile technology, primarily.

PRN: 2011/T56-04