VOA Burmese Blog

August 16, 2012

Derek Mitchell’s Interview with VOA Burmese Chief, Than Lwin Htun on Reforms in Burma and Rakhine State

Derek Mitchell, the first US Ambassador to Burma in more than 20 years says that reforms in Burma is an evolution. He says Burma’s process towards democracy is ” one of the great stories we’ve seen, not only in the region but around the world in terms of change and evolution”. However, he also says that the reform process may also be considered premature as there are many challenges to take into account, such as the sectarian violence in Rakhine state.





Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. I’d like to tell you that your appointment as ambassador to Burma over 20 years time is very significant- significant in the way that it’s a developing nature of US policy to Burma. At the same time, to your appointment, the administration announced the US’ easing sanctions on Burma – so how would you explain the general rule of the US on Burma? To the Burmese audience.



Well, it’s an evolution. We have said from the start that a year ago – you can even start in 2009- that we were going to respond action to action from the ground. We’re trying to keep up with that, and I think we have excellent momentum in the Burma – US relationship. My appointment- whether it’s me or anyone else- the fact that there is an ambassador in 22 years, speaks to the commitment of the administration, of the US, even our congress to take this relationship to another level- to normalize the diplomatic relationship- and pursue that to continue this momentum of reform and understand both sides.



So the US policy is tied with developments or status of reform process in Burma. Isn’t it?



Yes…it is… to a degree. We are responding to the reform process and in kind. It’s not as if we’re cutting off relations when something doesn’t happen that we anticipate. I think what we want to do is to have a better understanding of each other, but clearly we have an interest and continue the reforms that we’ve been seeing this past year.



I noticed that after your appointment, you made the very first conference with the local press. At the time, you explained about the executive power to ease sanctions and new measures to ease sanctions. Because a lot of people are wondering…. At the same time, the US congress is renewing sanctions for another year- 3 years. Is there a split between the administration and congress/ legislature? Could you elaborate more on this?



No…in fact it’s quite consistent… every time I’ve come back from a trip, and now I’ve come back as ambassador. I’ve gone on Capitol Hill and worked very closely with them on their policy. They can speak clearly for themselves, but it’s quite evident that we are working in lock step, and you’ll hear their words as they talk about it that they support the administration’s policy, that we are partners in this process- that in fact they are renewing the sanctions’ authorities as consistent as what we’ve said in the administration- of keeping the infrastructure of sanctions in place as an insurance policy for the future but using executive authority to use sanctions as we see fit and in consultation with our partners on the Hill so I do not see a split in fact. I see us working even “ hand in glove” as we say, and I think it’s a very important part of our policy, and I think it’s important for people in Burma to understand.



So talking about reform process in Burma, now we have President Thein Sein who promised accountability and transparency for reform. And we have now an active legislature- Burmese Hlutaw. Also, now the active party led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi- is now in the political process- they’re now in Hluttaw. People are saying that transition process or reform process in recent days, to compare with other countries- is most positive; but at the same time, others also say that Burma’s (reform) process is a bit premature when there are so many fighting, ongoing corruption of the government… in Kachin state, Rakhine state and so what is your opinion. How would you judge this?


DM: I think they’re both right….it’s one of the great stories we’ve seen, not only in the region but around the world in terms of change and evolution in the positive direction in political and economic aspects. But it is premature to say that all is well or this process is inevitably going to lead towards a stable solution. As you lay out, there are enormous challenges that lay ahead. No body has an illusion of the challenges that are to come or the challenges for keeping unity or democracy in line.The key is to move in the right direction, step by step, transparency, accountability, openness and having partners- not just inside but outside of the country to work together to get to the right place. As we say in English, “ the glass is either half empty or half full.” And I don’t choose to look either way. I tend to be an optimist. Certainly when you’re a diplomat, you want to focus on the positive and work towards the positive, but we certainly have no illusions of the challenges ahead.


VOA: What are the parameters or benchmarks to judge the growing nature of transition?



Well, Continued partnership …. Various political actors and greater openness of the system, including media openness as you talked about the local journalists that I had the privilege to talk to over lunch and also national reconciliation process is



You are now as ambassador- you’ll be in Burma more or less. What is the role of the US in national reconciliation process- esp. in ethnic tension in Arakan state and ongoing fighting in Kachin state…



Well there are various roles of that. The baseline is the humanitarian issue – innocent people who are suffering- caught in the crossfire of conflict whether in Kachin or Arakan state. That we feel in cooperation with other NGOs and the UN. We have to play a role because partly we have the ability to assist and we feel that these people need assistance. On the issue of real national reconciliation, we have to be modest about our contribution. We certainly want to facilitate/ assist if it’s welcome but it’s something that is fundamentally between the parties within the country.  But I think overtime there’s a time for the international community to play a role, and the United States wants to play a role as welcomed by the parties and citizens of the country.



We noticed that a part from the national reconciliations in Northern part of Burma. Especially with the Burmese military and ethnic groups, we also noticed that US stance for ethnic violence .. the US stance to recognize minority Rohingya group. But President Thein Sein has already made a stance- they don’t want to recognize Rohingyas as ethnic ( another beep) that they are illegally entering Burma …so what is the US stance/ argument? Is it a difficult issue for the US to answer?



It is extremely difficult and sensitive… it’s not the government that has views on this issue. There are also a variety of people in the country that look at this question in ways that there are some concerns that people have on this including the United States sometimes bordering on religious tolerance; and that certainly is something that the US denounces and deplores. Whether it’s in our country, we fight that ourselves. We feel that there may be a role for us to play in understanding the situation and understanding what the perspectives are, and facilitating ourselves there. But it’s extraordinarily sensitive, and on a fundamental level we have to look at the humanitarian needs of the people there and make sure that those are met. And then have a dialogue on how the situation can create instability in a way that can cross borders and create regional problems.



Yes, because of that problem- that problem became a regional problem right now because neighboring ASIAN countries like Indonesia and Malaysia are now making a loud noise for minority Muslims in Western Burma- as oppressed people.

So will there be a problem for US relations with ASEAN as a whole? Because the US has seen Burma as a kind of block for US relations with ASEAN  …but now the new problem is coming up. How do you see this?


I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be a problem for US and ASEAN, and the cohesion of ASEAN is important – we have a great interest in ASEAN- kind of integration and activity to build peace and stability in that region is important. We haven’t really seen the effect yet, but obviously there is a concern. If there is a religious intolerance, it won’t just affect west, but east- Bangladesh and South Asia. To that degree, we do have a concern, but I won’t say that we see that affect US and ASEAN relations or see ASEAN being affected itself; but it certainly is a danger.


I’d like to jump into another part of US Burma relationship. A few months ago, US Defense Minister announced that increasing relationship between US and Burma army- and we are now hearing that there is a cooperation between US and Burma to recover US soldier remains during WWII. How is that going? Another issue is the joint military exercise with US army and other regional armies- the Cobra Gold….


( More on Cobra Gold) ( skip to last question)


VOA: How do you feel personally to be the first US ambassador in more than 20 years. I know that you’ve been to Burma several times as US policy coordinator, but your last time, you went there as US Ambassador to Burma . How did you feel? What is your personal observation and your role?


DM: Well, there are several questions in there. I don’t think about that. I’m too focused on what I need to be doing as ambassador, and I’ve never been an Ambassador before so it’s a learning process – being a diplomat. My goals are just to extend the work that I’ve started and the work that people have started which is building understanding and learning more- more real detailed understanding of the complexity of the country. I want to get around the country and meet different people all around the country from every different section, and it’s very important to build that understanding because we have been separated for so long. And we want to continue that momentum of partnership. We had a good start of the US- Burma relationship and I want to be at the vanguard of that relationship in search of reform that I think is our common interest, and of course just getting our people in order with the international community so that we’re coordinated.I understand that the government and civil society – the capacity to absorb is limited. So we have to think on the outside  of how we can be effective in our help and assistance.


VOA: So you’ll be meeting with the press regularly?


DM: I’d like to when it’s appropriate. I don’t want to be over exposed. When I think it’s useful to add my voice to the process, I certainly would. And I want to encourage the development of an open free media inside the country, so that is why I would want to do on a continual basis media inside the country- to help budding journalists develop their craft.


Thank you. Thank you.


1 Comment »

  1. we oppose the recognition of Rohingya as Burmese ethnic group.We understand the human rights but the extremist muslim should respect other religion n human rights also

    Comment by Thein Win — August 16, 2012 @ 11:51 pm | Reply

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