Background Briefing on Secretary Clinton's Meeting With Aung San Suu Kyi

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Rangoon, Burma
December 1, 2011

MODERATOR: Okay. We have arrived in Rangoon. The Secretary is at her private dinner with Aung San Suu Kyi. We have with us [Senior State Department Official Number One] and [Senior State Department Official Number Two], hereafter known as Senior State Department Official Number One and Senior State Department Official Number Two, to give you a little bit more on the day that we – the end of the day in Nay Pyi Taw, and also to give you some atmospherics from the meeting between the Secretary and Aung San Suu Kyi before they went into dinner.

Take it away, senior officials.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Great. Thank you, guys, and I’ll try to be brief, and then if you all have questions, we have the answer.

It was the – the Secretary had spoken once before with Aung San Suu Kyi, so this is their first meeting. As you know, our Chief of Mission has a lovely place out on the lake from the turn of the century. We set up a private dinner for them this evening. The Secretary was there when Daw Suu arrived. They took a few photos. I think fairly clear excitement of the people around to see the two of them meet. They fell immediately into conversation, very natural, sat down.

She, Daw Suu, asked immediately about what the meetings were like in Nay Pyi Taw. She had already heard a lot of reports from friends and colleagues. The Secretary told her about the two and a half hour meeting with Thein Sein and some of the issues that we were discussing, and they talked a little bit about Daw Suu’s experience growing up on this lake. Her family has held a piece of property, which we’ll see tomorrow, that’s been in their family for generations. And she talked about swimming and being by this house when she was a little girl. And it was if they had known each other a long time – very natural, very comfortable.

She, Daw Suu, talked about having read carefully the books that both the First Lady with – Secretary Clinton wrote and also President Clinton. They talked a little bit about those books. She reflected that one of the few things that she missed about being under house arrest was that she had a lot more time to read, and that she didn’t read as much as she used to in the past. She indicated that she’s spending a lot more time now, however, when she does read, reading about military personalities – not just Americans, but many others. She thinks it’s very important to understand what she called the – sort of the military mentality. And she was particularly interested in historical military figures that have then subsequently gone into politics – people like Eisenhower, Bismarck, and the like. And so it was a sort of interesting discussion.

At that time, Special Representative Mitchell and myself left, and they are in the midst of a private dinner. And they were – you could tell they were looking forward to the Chief of Mission and his wife and Derekand I to leave so that they could have a private session out on the veranda looking out over the lake. And it was a pretty magnificent setting, and you could tell that they were both looking forward to it. The Secretary was saying that it was, in many respects, just both an exciting and overwhelming day – first all the meetings in Nay Pyi Taw, trying to get a clear sense of the intentions and the directions of the government, and then the incredible tour around Shwedegon, which she said was just overwhelming. She should love to be able to come back there at some point when she was not surrounded by this force of people.

QUESTION: Good luck. That’s not going to happen.


QUESTION: Real quick, just on the menu, what did you say it was? Morning shows…

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. They had a selection of Burmese delicacies – some curried dishes and a number of Burmese fish and chicken delicacies that are common here. And they have a chef that’s been there for many, many years, and he was busy all afternoon preparing both the favorite dishes of sort of most of the people, but also of Daw Suu in particular.

QUESTION: In terms of the talks with Suu Kyi, what is the Secretary going to be looking for beyond the obvious general things? I mean, one issue, of course, as the Secretary has pointed out, is there not being any end to sanctions right now but the U.S. is looking for progress --


QUESTION: End to sanctions that the U.S. is looking for. Does it mean that with Suu Kyi, you might be looking at what would be the conditions which would be right to ease the sanctions?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I think that there are a number of things that we’re going to want to explore with her, and I think that began tonight. I think the Secretary asked her about her intentions for running for election. I think you’ll hear in the next couple of days, but she’s been fairly clear about it in her public statements. I think she’s very clearly leaning towards running. I think she was asking the Secretary for pointers about what it’s like entering the public fray.

I think the Secretary’s very interested to hear from Daw Suu about the kinds of discussions that she’s had with the government about steps ahead. I think we’ve been able to go through – and we could do it again –but it’s very clear, over the course of the last three months, they’ve taken a number of steps in terms of some new legislation, dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, allowing the NLD to participate, a variety of things. But clearly, what’s important to the Secretary and to Daw Suu is the plan ahead.

What we heard from each of our interlocutors today were specifics about a very comprehensive set of initiatives that the government intends to put in place, ranging from further prisoner releases, very clear commitments on ending military ties with North Korea, issues associated with what they believe is a new approach to ending ethnic violence and beginning a process of national reconciliation, and general steps designed to just improve the quality of civic life.

And what was fascinating is not only were those underscored both in public and private sessions by President Thein Sein, but also in the sessions with both the upper and lower houses today. I think, as you heard from the Secretary – and she listened very carefully – I think her view is let’s see what transpires on the ground. But she’s going to be very interested to hear from Daw Suu about what her particular perspectives are. You may have seen that she appeared at a Council on Foreign Relations session yesterday in which she out quite directly and said, “Look, I trust Thein Sein, and I think he’s working for the best interests of his country and the people.”

So I think the Secretary is going to be interested – obviously, Daw Suu spent a lot more time with – and then the Secretary has – about what her assessments are. And I think she’s going to ask directly what can the United States do to be of assistance, what’s appropriate. I’ll be very clear. We told the government this as well. We talked directly in advance over the course of the last few months about the specifics of the steps that we were prepared to take with Daw Suu and many of her counterparts and others in civil society to make sure that we had calibrated correctly. And she was supportive of all the things that we had laid out. In fact, I think, as I said in one of our sessions, she was even encouraging of us doing further things that we thought at this time probably made sense for us to wait and see how things develop.

QUESTION: Like what? Keep going.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think Daw Suu mentioned yesterday in the session with the Council on Foreign Relations that she would be supportive of restoration, at this juncture, of full diplomatic relations and exchange of ambassadors. And I think the Secretary indicated quite clearly in her interactions with both the president and senior legislative and other officials that further steps should be taken before we were able to take that (inaudible).

QUESTION: Could you comment a little bit about the current (inaudible)? Because she says she trusts him, but not necessarily everyone else. And then a couple weeks ago he said there are no prisoners in communes in Myanmar. But apparently today he used the phrase political prisoners as though –


QUESTION: -- he was accepting reality. I mean, do you come away with a greater sense that this guy is sincere about what he’s doing, or are you still very much going to wait and see –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. See, well, first, I’m not going to characterize judgments – it’s very hard in a meeting to make a judgment about something like that. I think our key here is to look at what’s happening on the ground. I will also say that one of the things that Daw Suu said – and she’s mentioned on a couple of occasions that people around the president know that he misspoke in Bali, and that she indicated that one of the challenges for this government will be they have remarkably little experience in front of the kind of press that you all represent. And they are simultaneously somewhat inexperienced in these ways and quite proud.

And so I think it is clear in the sessions today that the Secretary simultaneously used prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, and with [Senior State Department Official Two]’s strong support and engagement, we mentioned specific names of those that had been, in our view, falsely imprisoned – accused and imprisoned. And we discussed those in some length in meetings, and in those sessions they used similar terminology back with us.

QUESTION: How many names?

QUESTION: Can you say any (inaudible) you brought up, specifically?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’ll let [Senior State Department Official Two] answer that question.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I don’t think at this stage we have anything to say. Several cases.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And we’re going to continue on that, by the way. And you’ve heard what the Secretary said about what our expectations are, very serious and substantial.

QUESTION: But would you keep going on the trust question? Are we at the trust point?

MODERATOR: I think he’s answered that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. And I’m just – if I can say on that, I don’t really want to be rude here, but we’re just not going to – I’m just not going to characterize in that way. What we’re really about – we’ve laid out very clearly what our expectations are. So if you looked at our --

QUESTION: I really don’t mean to belabor it but --


QUESTION: -- (inaudible) day where you guys spent a lot of time, and for the first time you spent it with them and her. So I guess I’m probing to see if after all of that there is – there might be a greater sense of sincerity or a perception of that. That’s what I’m --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And if I can just come back, it’s not the first time. I’ve spent a lot of time with these people --


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: -- and I’ve worked with them. The key here is developments and following through on commitments. And as the Secretary said in her statement today, really this is really not about rhetoric and it’s not about positions or policies; it’s actually about implementing change on the ground that affects people. And I think that’s where we are, and I think our assessment is careful and realistic.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: If I can just jump in here, I think what was useful today was a frank, constructive discussion of a common agenda of issues, issues relating to opening the political process, issues relating to ethnic conflict, issues relating to prisoners, issues relating to legal reform and implementation, issues relating to nuclear nonproliferation and Korea – a common set of agenda and an open conversation. And as [Senior State Department Official One] said, the issue now is we’ve had a discussion about some of our concerns and some of the things we would like to see, and we will await action on the ground.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: If I can – I just want to – just to – I think one of the things that we look for in dialogues in Asia, just to be-- is a degree of openness and a desire to have a full discussion, as opposed to a situation where issues are off the table. And that’s not uncommon in many of these countries. All I can tell you in our sessions today – very open, no issues off the table. And the Secretary had no problem interacting on any of the issues that we brought up. And they were studious in responding to each and every issue, whether it was North Korea, issues associated with brutal ethnic violence that was being perpetuated in the northern territories.

And I’ll just tell you, one of the most interesting things was at the very beginning of the session, President Thein Sein started by saying how important Burma’s relationship was with China, and he went into some detail about how that was still going to be a critical relationship for them. And the Secretary came right back and said we welcome that. She stated a series of principles at the outset that we support the territorial integrity of the country, we support national reconciliation, we want neighborly – good neighborly relations between your country and others, and we are prepared to support your reform efforts if they maintain momentum.

And over lunch, it was interesting to hear the president talk a little bit about the relationship between Burma and India and China. And he said look, we sit astride an enormously important strategic crossroads of the 21st century between the two great powers that are emerging in India and China, and it’s very important for us to have good relations with both and to maintain close coordination and contacts with both.

QUESTION: I’m sorry if --


QUESTION: -- this came up before I got here, but looking ahead at next steps that you all might take, can you game out what is perhaps the most likely? Is it kind of the – kind of depending – obviously depending on whether the Burmese follow through, would it be the upgrade? Would it be something else? Obviously, it’s not going to be any kind of lifting of sanctions. I think she made that clear today. I mean, what is the next easiest step after the small ones, the modest ones that were announced today, that could be done that the Burmese could expect if they follow through?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think one of the things that the government has already agreed to is to establish a series of dialogues on issues of mutual concern. So they’ve accepted a dialogue with Assistant Secretary Posner and Special Representative Mitchell on human rights issues. That’s important from our perspective. It’s something that we’ve sought. They’ve welcomed that. Mike will be coming back to continue that.

We’ve agreed to hold a dialogue on developments in the Asia Pacific region. I think we’ve gone for many, many years without a discussion about how we see the surrounding region and what our roles, respective roles, are.

The Secretary began her president – her presentation to the president with an overview of how the United States is approaching and conceptualizing our role in the Asia Pacific region. And that was as interested as they were on anything. They were fascinating to hear about the pivots, how the United States wants to continue to play a critical role in the Asian Pacific region.

And also, we’ve invited the foreign minister to come to the United States for consultations as well, and he has accepted.

I think we talked already a little bit about what would be necessary in terms of diplomatic relations, and I think we will explore some specific steps associated with assessment teams from international financial institutions and multilateral development banks. There are prohibitions that are still on the books for specific loans, but assessment teams are important, and clearly there’s an enormous amount of work to be done.

The Secretary articulated an idea for the president and also this evening with Daw Suu, which is that if the government is sincere about its intentions and determined to pursue national reconciliation – and again, if I could just underscore for all of you, at the heart of the problems of this country are national reconciliation, civil wars that have raged for – ever since independence in 1947, some continuing with a greater intensity even at that early stage – well-armed, fueled by drugs, violence, enormous distrust.

But if the government is sincere and takes necessary steps and comes up with a framework that would deal with some of the concerns, including a desire for a degree of autonomy, then the Secretary made very clear that one of the roles that the United States has played in other such circumstances would be to convene, for instance, kind of a donors meeting or an outside contact group of key states who could bring substantial support to bear to help facilitate greater regional integration, support for poverty reduction, issues associated with gender and equality.

And this is a sensitive issue for the country, but there was, first of all, great interest by Daw Suu but also questions that were asked today about it by our interlocutors. That’s a little bit down the road, but that’s something that would be a critical role for the United States, and our desire would be to bring in the key players from around the region and to see if we can make common cause.

We also talked about a number of other things. I think as you know, we talked today about the remains that are, frankly, not just up on the border but not far from the city associated with the Second World War, both airmen and soldiers on the ground involved in the efforts often referred to as the Burma Road. I think they are prepared to have those recovery operations begin again. Even the families – even though it’s been 60 years, we hear regularly from descendents of the family members wanting closure on these issues, so it’s --

QUESTION: When did they stop?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We’ve had – we’ve only had them intermittently for the last 20 years, and they’ve never really gotten off the ground. The last time they were suspended was in 2004 and 2005, and they were suspended by their government. But we’ll see if that’s possible going forward.

QUESTION: Do you know about how many (inaudible)?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: About 600. And maybe a little bit more; but frankly, the numbers are not exact, but the number we use is about 600. In fact, it’s a substantial unresolved number of cases and it’s comparable to some of the things that we’ve done in other parts of Asia, in North Korea, obviously our enduring efforts in Vietnam and what we still do in Laos and Cambodia.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MODERATOR: Let’s finish this one and then do two more.

QUESTION: They did begin at a certain point and then the government suspended it in 2004.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t think we ever – and, Steve, I’ll get back to you on this. I don’t think we ever – you all – I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of these projects, but they are enormous. They involve a massive amount of earth which is excavated and then gone through a very complex sifting process. And usually very small pieces of bone and other DNA are recovered very carefully, often sometimes pieces either of an aircraft or of military equipment, and then from that they try to identify. Some of that work takes months, sometimes even years. I don’t believe we ever got to that stage. I think most of the work we did was what we call survey sites, which look to try to site areas where we think that it’s most likely that we would be able to find remains.

But to do this involves putting service people on the ground, technical people with enormous expertise, and it’s a substantial effort. And I don’t think we’ve ever gotten to that phase, and so our hope, after many stops and starts, would be to finally get to that stage.

MODERATOR: Okay. Let’s just take two more, because he’s really exhausted and he needs to rest.

QUESTION: I just want to make – I just need to make sure I understood his answer (inaudible), which is – and tell me if this is accurate or not: In the short term, should the Burmese do what you – follow through and do what you want them to do, you’re looking at the – well, you’ve already agreed to have this human rights dialogue on – (inaudible) specific –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Sorry. I mean, just opening it up to make sure I’m not (inaudible). Yeah.

QUESTION: -- inviting people to come, you’re looking at removing – in addition to easing the IMF, not blocking them at the World Bank, whatever, you’re looking at the easing of U.S. opposition to certain international loans and things like that, and you’re talking about –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No. And let me – if you don’t mind, let me try to be very specific. I may have said something – I hope I didn’t say this incorrectly. But let me go through, so you know exactly the things that we have provided to date. And then maybe we can talk a little bit about some things that we would think about in the future.

So what we have agreed to, to date – today, and what we will also discuss with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi tomorrow – we have indicated that we would be prepared to support an expansion of the UNDP’s country program inside Burma. This is something that both Daw Suu and the government has supported and wants. We are prepared to support an increase in assistance directly for microcredit and health inside the country. Again, this is something in particular that Daw Suu is interested in.

There is a substantial problem in this country, in terms of opium and opiate productions, and also methamphetamines. We are going to renew our cooperation in counter-narcotics. We believe that this is something that is in both of our best interests. I pointed out the other day, in our discussions, I think, as we were flying in, ironically, much of that product does not end up in the United States or Western Europe. Most of it ends up in China and other parts of Asia, and so this is clearly a problem that has regional consequences.

We are moving ahead with a plan, which we hope will be approved, to resume the recovery of World War II remains. We have extended a formal invitation to the government to participate in what is called the Lower Mekong Initiative. Mekong Initiative is a group that we have put together. Mekong is the great river of Asia. It is suffering from huge problems of damming, of climate change, problems associated with drainage, and the like. All the other countries that share a border with the Mekong have been involved, except for Burma – Myanmar – and we have formally asked them to join, and they have accepted that.

At the East Asia Summit, the United States announced the inauguration of a new program that is supported and helped and funded by the government of Brunei, $25 million towards the teaching of English in several ASEAN countries, and that will be extended to Burma as well. I know that may not seem like a big deal, but if you talk to most of the ASEAN leaders, their number one desire is to increase English capacity among the young people, and there was substantial enthusiasm here in the country as well. And ultimately, when this program comes to fruition, it will mean many hundreds of Americans teaching in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma.

We are also setting up a specific initiative to assist landmine victims. I think, as you know, there are substantial problems, particularly in the Kachin and the northern areas that border both Thailand and Cambodia – excuse me, Thailand and China. This program will both support work on health, but also on landmine prevention training, particularly for children and the like.

So those are all the things that we have discussed, and we’ve agreed upon. We’ve also talked, and you have already heard a little bit about the dialogues that we would like to initiate. We would consider these beginning steps, comparable to what the government has done, and appropriate in the current context. Other things will await changes that can be verified and seen clearly on the ground here, inside the country.

QUESTION: Can I ask you about – did the president talk at all about any kind of the pressures he may be facing in pursuing these reforms? Or did you get a sense of any of those pressures he may be facing? And then, building on that, also, just in spending such an extensive time with him, did you get a better sense of who he is and how he operates that you can relay to us?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: On the first question, I think what’s interesting about this set of interactions, if you compare it to my earlier experience, you got absolutely no sense of what was transpiring behind the curtain just a year ago. In almost all of our conversations, privately, there is an acknowledgement of recognition that there are currently inside the country three groups. There is a group that is supportive of reform and they appear determined and committed. There is a group that is opposed to reform and they – some of those individuals are – hold key positions inside the government. And there is a substantial group of what we might describe as fence-sitters. When this was discussed, even in larger meetings – and it was today – there was a lot of nodding. So there’s not – this is not something that’s hidden. I think there’s a recognition that that is the case. And it is also the case that if you ask people about this, they would be able to identify quite clearly who is residing in which camp.

So I think there’s an understanding that that is in play. And one of the things that Daw Suu mentioned this evening was that she wants the United States to take steps to do two things, in particular. One is to reinforce the hand of reformers, and two, to help switch the fence-sitters more towards the camp of reformers going forward.

MODERATOR: Okay, maybe one last one? And that’s it.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) said that the president (inaudible) lay out any expectations for the U.S. if they take these steps. Did he mention any specific demands, or did he ask for any assistance?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. I thought what was interesting about the interaction was, frankly, it was a reflection, as the Secretary indicated, of a lot of diplomacy over the course of the last several months. So they were gauged fairly accurately, in terms of what we were prepared to do at this juncture. I think they understood very clearly that, unless they’re prepared to take substantial steps, then the kinds of things that they ultimately would like to see are just not in the offering in the current environment.

But after, the president laid out a clear, comprehensive plan for what he wants to accomplish inside his country. And he did acknowledge, I will say, quite clearly – that he said, “One of our challenges is that we do not have very much experience of democracy.” But once he did that, then he did lay out clearly what he believes the needs of his country are – substantial investments, increase in assistance, help on all manner of interaction, training for young people. He asked specifically for help in terms of how legislators and executive officials operate and interact with one another. And he talked, ultimately, about his hope that sanctions would be removed.

I think what was impressive, from my perspective, on the part of Secretary Clinton is she was just very clear with him what’s going to be necessary in order to proceed along that path. And so that’s what I think we’re trying to say that there was a lot of realism and recognition that we were at the very early stages of a journey. I think you heard the Secretary use the terminology that the President used about flickers, and underscored that it can be fanned, but it also can be stamped out. And I think what you will see from us going forward is a continued, determined effort to pursue and support these reforms.

MODERATOR: Okay, guys. Thank you very much.



QUESTION: Do we know a date for the by-elections?

MODERATOR: Nope. They haven’t been set yet.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We don’t. They haven’t been set.

Thank you all very much. Hope you have a good evening. We’ll see you tomorrow. Big day tomorrow.

PRN: 2011/2042