VOA Burmese Service’s correspondent, U Kyaw Zan Tha sits down with US Envoy to Burma, Derek Mitchell at the US State department and discusses the up coming by elections in Burma as well as the future of democratic reforms in the country.
( All photos belong to AP images.)
VOA: Ambassador, first of all, I would like to ask you, “ What would your focus be for this trip to Burma?”
DM: Well, I’ve taken five trips now since I’ve gone to Burma. February was the first month I had not been to Burma since I’ve taken this job. Things move quickly there, and I think it’s important for me to be there and to see the developments on the ground and also to get outside of not just Rangoon and Naypyidaw, but to Mandalay and touch base with people. I’ll be spending two days in Naypyidaw. I’ll have a number of meetings there with senior officials, and as things progress, we have more and more to talk about the way forward- and how the United States can be partners in the reform process.
VOA: What are the particular issues that you are focusing on? Elections?
DM: The elections are obviously very important, given that these by-elections, although have a limited amount of seats, are a test to the sincerity and the commitment to the democratic process that I hear, every time I go back to Burma from the leadership. How they hold these elections if they are truly free and fair- there is a level playing field, if there is no intimidation and the counting and the rest go rather smoothly. That says a lot, and I think it sends a very important signal not just to the United States but to Europe and to the rest of the world, and most importantly to the Burmese people that there is something new and different going on in the country.
VOA: And what can we expect, if the elections goes free and fair and there is no intimidation as you said. What sort of rewards is the Burmese government (stops)?
DM: Well, as I say we are partners in the reform process if there is that kind of commitment shown in this election period to that reform in the democratic sense in the political environment. We certainly will be responding. I can’t tell you exactly what we will be doing, but it’s no secret that we have been thinking carefully of how we can contribute to the reform process. There are things that we’ve been doing that are getting in the way of reform- some restrictions we have in place. They are actually not helping the people of Burma to help take steps forward. I think that if we see the kinds of elections that are free and fair then we will be taking steps appropriate in that regard.
VOA: Yes, I want to emphasize that fact. How important is the elections in lifting sanctions?
DM: Well I wouldn’t put a percentage on it. We have seen a continuing momentum toward reform, but this is really a substantial moment. This is a defining moment for democratic development in the country. There are other issues of course that need to be addressed inside the country. In terms of democracy, this is a very important moment; and we will- I can’t say exactly what we will and what we will not do, but we will be responding as appropriate.
VOA: Some people are saying that it is very difficult to make this elections free and fair, because they ( the government) have already occupied the majority of the seats in parliament and 12 percent the military. ( 12 percent of seats in parliament have been given to the military.) People say that the government wants to make this (election) a showcase to the international community- (calling it a) free and fair elections. What is your comment on this?
DM: Well, from my observation, I’m not sure the USDP is taking this as simply as an election that is a foregone conclusion of any kind, or the NLD or any one else- the NDF – they are all being very serious. All the different parties that are engaged- this is an opportunity for them to organize themselves, to think harder about their platforms, to think about what they would do to represent the interest of the people. And I think free and fair elections can be demonstrated anyway. It strengthens the muscle for future elections. It sets a tone for the future – the way a society is going to organize itself. So I won’t dismiss this, and I think this is a very important signal to send, even though we will have certain questions going forward- about the process over time- leading to 2015 and etc. But “ NO”, I think if this is held in a free and fair manner, it will be a substantial statement.
VOA: And a part from these elections, what are you going to concentrate on this trip?
DM: Well, we always have our issues that we’re concerned about. We’re concerned about the process of the ethnic areas, the status of the various ceasefires, and political dialogue process that we’d like to see established that’d be useful for the national reconciliation of the country. We’re very concerned about humanitarian access- there are internally displaced peoples- innocent civilians that are left in the crossfires of conflict. The international community is ready and willing and able to help. And we want to see if we can get more access in the various areas of Burma. We are still concerned about the human rights abuses that go on in these areas- the issue of political prisoners- there are still some numbers imprisoned because of their beliefs -because of political activities. But it’s a good dialogue, and we want to also show our support. We want to tell the leadership and tell others that we’re interested in being partners- that we have done a lot- give them a sense of atmosphere in Washington. Give them a sense of the road map looking forward on what’s possible if we can continue to see progress.
VOA: So if they allow, would your government try to go to the humanitarian, native areas? Your government will go to that area, and help solve those problems, on this trip?
DM: Well, we’re hoping simply to have a discussion- to see if there’s a way if we can gain more access for the United Nations and for other organizations to provide aid for those who are in need. These are the government’s own people that are suffering. We’re not taking a position of right or wrong on this situation.
VOA: The United Nations is an international community- what is your government’s, the United States’ position?
DM: Yes, we are also looking for opportunities to provide more assistance- absolutely – in the ability to both provide it financially but also in human terms through NGOs or our personnel to assist those people in need. Again, I think this is an issue of great importance. I think the ICRC committee’s or the red cross’s access is also very important to the international community to enable people to get aid when they need it.
VOA: How about the diplomatic relations with Burma? Full fledged diplomatic relations with Burma? You have an extraordinary and plenipotentiary position, but when is a permanent ambassador going to be appointed in Burma? How soon will that happen?
DM: That’s in process. It takes some time in our system for things to work out, and that process is on going. We hope to have an announcement in the next several weeks. Months at most to send an ambassador. We have an embassy there, but we want to send an ambassador to raise a level of our diplomatic representation.
VOA: Have both sides agreed to that?
DM: Yes, we’ve agreed that. We announced that after the release of political prisoners in January, our President and Secretary of State stated that we will raise our senior level of diplomatic representation to ambassador so that is in process. I think on the Burmese side, they’re thinking of who they want to send here, and we haven’t gotten any word on that.
VOA: How about the Burmese government? Are they still using Burmese ( calling the country “ Burma”)? When are they going to change to “ Myanmar”?
DM: Yes, we’ll see when there is a discussion among the people of the country on what the right word and name of the country ought to be. We’ll take that step by step, but we know that the government is very sensitive at this point, and we try to be sensitive to them on this, but we have no change in policy at this moment.
VOA: And how strong do you feel about the hardliners in Naypyidaw? People are saying that there are hardliners and liberals ( in parliament).
DM: Well, I’ll tell you. We hear this. We see this from people that are observers. We hear consistently from the government that there are now hardliners and soft liners. Everyone’s on board. We have discussions. We have debates. We’re going to watch their actions. We’re not going to play factions. We’re not going to play individuals. We’ve been listening to what the President says, and he says encouraging things, and he’s taken some courageous actions. I truly believe he’s being courageous with his commitment. I believe the release of the prisoners in January, although we are concerned of the fact that they are not unconditionally released- that is important to us, the fact that many individuals who are leaders of this democratic movement are out and able to speak. We are watching that closely, and we are not going to pick sides who is with whom. We just hope the government continues its momentum of reforms, and if it does, it’s a win-win for everybody. The bottom line is this is one of the best stories we’ve seen in the world right now. The story of Burma is one of the best stories. It’s going, and we want to see that continue. I think it’s in the interest of the leadership as well as the people at large that the momentum continues and it broadens.
VOA: My last question is, if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is elected, what sort of scenarios should we expect to see in Burma?
DM: We don’t look at hypotheticals, and we don’t know. We think that if there are free and fair elections that are acceptable to the people of Burma, it’s a wonderful signal. If it continues to open up the society to reach out to the ethnic communities in good faith and both sides come to the table in good faith and deal with the very difficult deep divisions, and there is a political dialogue. If there is an access to humanitarian assistance to people in need, things like that, I think it’s good for Burma and good for the world to see. That is what we expect to see after the elections.
VOA: Thank you very much Ambassador Mitchell.