Press Availability in Rangoon, Burma

Press Availability
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Rangoon, Burma
December 2, 2011

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, let me begin by saying that as the first American Secretary of State to visit here in over 50 years, I am delighted to have a chance to reflect on my visit and what we would like to see going forward. Now, before I arrived, I was well aware that Americans have long known this country as a place of both beauty and tragedy. Our imaginations have been seized by golden pagodas, saffron-clad monks, but also by the very difficult lives and dignified struggles that the people have endured, which have tugged at our conscience. I came here because we believe that the new reforms raise prospects of change, and we wanted to test that for ourselves.

Yesterday in Nay Pyi Taw, I had the opportunity to meet with senior government officials, including the president, the foreign minister, other key ministers, and leading members of parliament. In our discussions, I encouraged them to continue moving along the path of reform, and that is a path that would require releasing all political prisoners; halting hostilities in ethnic areas and seeking a true political settlement; broadening the space for political and civic activity; fully implementing legislation protecting universal freedoms of assembly, speech, and association. And I carried those thoughts forward in my meetings here today.

I was very pleased that finally, last evening, I had the honor to meet Aung San Suu Kyi and to convey the well wishes and support of the American people who admire her deeply. We have been inspired by her fearlessness in the face of intimidation and her serenity through decades of isolation, but most of all, through her devotion to her country and to the freedom and dignity of all of her fellow citizens. This morning, she told me she is encouraged by the attitude of the new government, which has allowed the opportunity, finally, for the National League for Democracy, her party, to reregister and then participate in the political process. She is, as she has announced, determined to reenter the political arena. We share her eagerness to see all political parties allowed to open offices throughout the country, to enfranchise every citizen and to ensure that the upcoming elections are free, fair, and credible in the eyes of the people.

Now, I think it’s fair to say that although Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, more than her – more than 1,000 of her fellow citizens remain imprisoned because of their political beliefs and actions, and millions more continue to be denied their universal rights. We agreed that an important test of the government-stated commitment to reform and change will be the unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience.

We also discussed national reconciliation, which remains a defining challenge, as it has been since independence. There can be no true peace or justice until it is shared by everyone in every part of this beautiful, diverse country. And while there has been some progress in political and social matters, particularly here in Rangoon, terrible violence continues elsewhere, especially in some of the ethnic nationality areas, which, in addition to the continuing conflicts, suffer from unacceptably high rates of poverty, disease, and illiteracy, and from the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, which I raised directly with the government yesterday.

Now, when you look at the diversity of this country, it is a very great strength. The followers of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, other religions over a hundred different ethnic groups with their own distinct languages and cultures makes for a rich culture that really is in keeping with what we’re seeing in the 21st century. And therefore, we want to call again for everyone to be given the rights to which they are entitled. I also had the opportunity to meet with representatives of some of the ethnic nationalities as well as civil society. They spoke eloquently of the challenges they face, but also the opportunities that they see. They also very much welcomed American engagement and said that they hoped it could continue in some very specific ways.

This afternoon, I’m pleased to announce we will take a number of steps to demonstrate our commitment to the people. These are in addition to the more formal government-to-government actions that I announced yesterday in Nay Pyi Taw. First, we will increase assistance to civil society organizations that provide microcredit lending, healthcare, and other critical needs throughout the country, particularly in the ethnic nationality areas. Second, we will launch a people-to-people exchange program that will include a substantial English language teaching initiative in partnership with ASEAN and the East-West Center. Third, we will work with partners here on the ground to provide assistance to citizens who suffer from the worst consequences of internal conflict, especially land mine victims. Fourth, we will be supporting the work of American universities and foundations to increase academic exchanges and collaboration on health, governance, and other matters.

Now, as I said yesterday, and I will repeat today, we are prepared to go further if the reforms maintain momentum. But history teaches us to be cautious. We know that there have been serious setbacks and grave disappointments over the last decades. And we want to see a sustainable reform effort that produces real results on behalf of the democratization and the economic opening of Burma. So I will once again reiterate to the leaders that the United States is prepared to walk this path of reform with you if you choose to keep moving in that direction. Reformers both inside and outside of the government will have our support, and it will increase as we see actions taken that will further the hopes and aspirations of the people for a better future. So I am cautiously hopeful, and certainly, on behalf of the American people, very committed to helping this country, which deserves to play a very important role in the Asia Pacific, have a chance to do so.

So with that, I will take your questions.

MODERATOR: We have time for two today. First one is from AFP, Shaun Tandon.

QUESTION: Thank you, Madam Secretary. Just to follow up on a couple of points that you made in your remarks, you mentioned Aung San Suu Kyi entering the political process. You have, of course, been in the political arena yourself. What sort of insights have you given to her? And also, on the issue of national reconciliation, not so long ago, you said that there is a need for a UN-backed Commission of Inquiry to try to have accountability in Burma/Myanmar. With the changes that you’re seeing, is this effectively on the backburner, or does the United States still (inaudible)?

SECRETARY CLINTON: I don't know if you could hear Shaun’s question because about halfway through, his microphone cut out. But he asked me about Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to enter the political arena, or I should say reenter the political arena, and what I’m – my think about, and also whether the United States still supports a Commission of Inquiry.

Well, first, with respect to her decision, which is, of course, hers and hers alone, I think that she has been advocating for a political process that was open and inclusive, and believes that now that the opportunity presents itself, she needs to participate. I understand completely why she would decide to do so on behalf of herself, on behalf of her party, but most importantly on behalf of democracy throughout her country. We talked last night about the ups and downs and the slings and arrows of political participation anywhere in the world, and the challenges that a new democracy or a new democratic process particularly will face because the rules are being written as you engage. But I’m very supportive of the decision that she feels was right for her, right to pursue. I think she’d be an excellent member of the new parliament.

I was impressed, in meeting with members of both the upper and the lower house yesterday, how eager they are to have exchanges and understand their responsibilities as parliamentary members. And I know that Aung San Suu Kyi, who’s read deeply and fought long and hard about what it takes to really establish democracy in a sustainable way, would be an excellent addition to their deliberations.

With regard to the Commission of Inquiry, we always and consistently support accountability for human rights violations, and we are looking for ways to support the changes that are underway here because we hope that there will be an internal mechanism accountability. For example, the establishment of a human rights commission is an important first step, and the government has taken that first step. We encouraged the government to draw on international expertise to ensure the impartiality and the credibility of their own human rights commission.

But there are different decisions that we’ll confront, both the government and the opposition, because they can look to different forms of accountability in different places that have undergone transitions, some even from military government to an open democratic one. So we are going to support the principle of accountability, and the appropriate mechanism to ensure justice and accountability will considered – will be considered, but I think it’s important to try to give the new government and the opposition a chance to demonstrate they have their own approach toward achieving that.

MODERATOR: And last question from Than Zaw Tun from Eleven Media

QUESTION: Hello. Secretary Clinton, (inaudible) Myanmar. During your trip to Myanmar, you have met president of Burma and speaker of (inaudible) for Aung San Suu Kyi. After meeting with them, is there any chance to the (inaudible) of Myanmar in (inaudible)?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, thank you, and it’s wonderful to be asked a question by a member of the media from here.

What we have outlined for the government are a series of actions we would like to see taken, and what I have said in my private meetings and publicly is that we will match action for action. And if there is enough progress, obviously, we will be considering lifting sanctions. But as I said before, we’re still at the very early stages of this dialogue and engagement that I’ve worked hard to establish over the past two years, and it couldn’t have come to fruition if the government hadn’t begun to take the steps that it is taking.

So although we’ve seen encouraging signs of progress, we are, frankly, testing this commitment. We want to know that it’s real and sustainable, because it’s going to take more than a few leaders, even at the top levels of government. It’s going to take a real change in attitude and approach throughout the government and the bureaucracy. So we will continue to talk to senior government officials, to members of civil society, opposition leaders, as I’ve done over the last two years. And we’ll be constantly doing that to get a readout from them as to what they see happening.

But I was very clear with the government that if we see enough progress, we would be prepared to begin to lift sanctions. But right now, we’re not ready to discuss that because we obviously are only starting our engagement, and we want to see all political prisoners released, we want to see a serious effort at peace and reconciliation, we want to see dates set for the election, and then we will be very open to matching those actions with our own. And it was interesting, in our meetings with a lot of the people that I’ve talked with – and not just our meetings over the last two days but our meetings that many of our high officials have had over the last two years – there is a recognition that lifting sanctions would benefit the economy, but there needs to be some economic reforms along with the political reforms so that the benefits would actually flow to a broad-based group of people and not just to a very few.

So there’s work ahead. As some of you may have heard Aung San Suu Kyi say when we were together at her house, she supports the World Bank coming in and coming up with an assessment of what could be done to assist in the economic reform and development aid and so much else. So I’m very committed to do everything I can to support what is going on here, but we have to see the rhetoric translate into concrete steps.

Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much.

PRN: 2011/T56-07