Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Travel to Burma

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior State Department Official
Washington, DC
May 18, 2016

MODERATOR: For your information, we have [Senior State Department Official]. Moving forward, he’ll be known as a senior State Department official. This briefing’s on background. Sir, I turn it over to you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you very much, [Moderator]. Secretary of State Kerry will be traveling to Burma this Sunday, May 24th, to meet with key leaders and underscore our continued support for Burma’s democratically elected civilian-led government. We really want to demonstrate that democracy delivers. There’s been a very long, multi-decade struggle in Burma, and the struggle has dividends with the success that’s been achieved. It’ll be a short visit, but very symbolic.

The Secretary will be meeting with the new foreign minister – also has the title of State Counsellor; that’s Aung San Suu Kyi – and a separate meeting with the commander in chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing. This is a great opportunity for the Secretary to discuss the new Burmese Government’s priorities and how we can help further democratic reforms, advance national reconciliation, promote human rights, and encourage inclusive economic growth.

The Secretary’s been to Burma previously. He went in August 2014 as Secretary to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit ministerial meetings. And of course, in previous capacity, before he became Secretary of State, he’s made a visit to Burma. But this is a new period, a new chapter in the country’s history, and a much different time. Lots has happened since those previous visits – very historic elections, peaceful transfer of power to the first democratically elected government in over 50 years, including the first elected civilian president in that amount of time. And we’re looking for new ways to support this new government.

The Secretary will be very cognizant of the challenges that remain in Burma. Happy to talk about that with you, but primarily this is an opportunity to express a posture of being helpful to Burma and help it succeed and meet those challenges.

Yesterday, some of you might be aware that U.S. Government entities here in Washington made a variety of announcements, noting that while we are continuing authorities for sanctions, we are loosening our restrictions considerably to help the new government continue with democratic reforms and promote broad-based, inclusive economic growth. So those steps are about supporting trade, facilitating movement of goods within Burma, allowing certain incidental transactions related to U.S. persons there, and allowing most transactions involving designated financial institutions. So we will be maintaining pressure on spoilers, encouraging the military to continue a role of consolidating democracy designed to help additional democratic reforms.

That’s the context for the visit and the basic components of the visit. I’d be happy to answer any questions.

MODERATOR: That’s great. Thank you, senior State Department official. Do we have questions?

QUESTION: I will go. It’s Lesley Wroughton from Reuters. Why did – what kinds of steps would you like to see the government, or would you like to see Myanmar undertake before you actually move to fully lift those sanctions or to go further?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think we all can envision the day where all sanctions are lifted and go away and we completely normalize the relationship. The reality is now we have taken measures to facilitate more investment and trade and be as helpful as we can to encouraging economic engagement and prosperity, improving the livelihoods so that the new government can deliver to the people of Burma, of Myanmar, demonstrating that, as I said earlier, democracy can deliver.

I think for the time being, however, we have to accept the fact that there are some individuals and entities in the country that are not fully supportive of this transition to democracy and prefer the days of old. And we also want to encourage the military in Burma to continue steps to consolidate democracy. Right now the constitution affords the military very extensive governing authorities. And in a true democracy, those authorities would be entirely diminished, leaving a full governing role for the civilian-led government. And the new government would like to pursue those constitutional reforms that include a quota of seats in parliament for the military, control over three important ministries and one of the vice presidency slots. Those kind of things really do need to go away so that Burma can truly identify as a full-blown democracy.

And for the time being, we’ve assessed that some of our authorities need to remain in place so we can target would-be spoilers who benefited under military rule and to encourage the military to continue and be helpful in consolidating democracy.

MODERATOR: That’s great, thank you.

QUESTION: What does the Secretary plan to say to Aung San Suu Kyi about the Rohingya? And are you troubled by her remarks?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the situation that you refer to in Rakhine State is a very challenging one. There has been conflict there, and as a result there are still over 100,000 displaced persons. We’ve tried to be as helpful as we can providing humanitarian assistance and encouraging a process of dialogue going forward. We believe that people as a – again, around the world, have the right to self-identify. So for the United States there really is not a name issue. President Obama and other officials have long recognized inside Burma the right of all the peoples there to self-identify, including the Rohingya. That said, it’s a sensitive issue. And the conflict in the state represents more broadly across Burma ongoing conflicts, the elusive pursuit thus far of national unity and reconciliation. Conflict started in Burma immediately upon independence in the 1940s and the military government chose different tactics to address this, and in some regards perpetuated those conflicts.

So now, the elected government has an opportunity and we want to be helpful. We have heard encouraging signs from the government that they planned a peace process that is more inclusive, that is designed to achieve sustainable results, and true national peace reconciliation and unity. And the Rakhine State example that you cite is one of several. And so we believe that it is important to address and we hear from the new government they agree it’s a priority, and we will be supportive as we can.

QUESTION: So will the Secretary be raising the issue with her and will he essentially be saying to her what you just told us?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I can’t preview exactly how the conversation will go for Secretary Kerry, but the intent is, and largely, to listen. This is the first cabinet-level visit since the election and the transfer of authorities to a National League for Democracy-led government. So Secretary Kerry’s in a very important position to congratulate the new government, the people of Burma, to offer our help, but also listen from his counterpart, the new foreign minister, what her priorities are, what the government hopes to achieve, and how we can be helpful.

And no doubt that conversation will include many of the challenges that the country is facing. I have addressed economic prosperity and the pursuit of a national peace process. And in the context of that, I think it’s safe to say a number of these specific ongoing conflicts and unresolved situations will be discussed.

MODERATOR: That sounds great. Thank you. Any other questions?

QUESTION: What are the specific issues, are you concerned – well, can I go ask you about this first: How intense or – how intense were your discussions? And did you obviously discuss with Aung San Suu Kyi the – before you actually made these changes to the sanctions, how intense were your discussions with her and with other people and entities?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think in traditional diplomatic processes, I won’t reveal specific conversation. We’ll leave it up to the new government to offer its views. But it’s safe to say and important to say that we consulted very broadly with many stakeholders inside Burma – stakeholders and engagers outside the country including, of course, here in Washington with our own U.S. Congress before making these adjustments.

We have heard very broadly from key stakeholders and citizens of Burma/Myanmar that they’re very keen to get outside help in achieving economic prosperity. This is a country that has enormous potential, great resources, but its peoples have been denied opportunities for half a century to pursue improved livelihoods. Many of the ingredients are in place now for that to happen. Our moves this week are to ensure that we don’t have any inadvertent obstacles to good business, to clean investment, because we have heard from the stakeholders inside the country that they want that. They would like our help in facilitating closer trade and commerce and investment, increased investment.

This doesn’t overlook the fact that inside the country is a very difficult investment environment. There’s weak infrastructure, there needs to be improvements and changes with rule of law and the entire banking system. I have already mentioned some of the entities and individuals that we continue to target because they are not being helpful for this process, and so there need to be efforts inside the country to bring everyone on board with the transition to democracy and increased transparency when it comes to investment.

So I think in answer to your question, I offer assurances on our part that we consulted with broad – a broad range of stakeholders in making our adjustments.

MODERATOR: That’s great. Any final questions? (No response.)

Okay. So thank you to our senior State Department official. Have a good day.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, safe travels to you all. Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you.