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.

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Transcript:

VOA:

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.

 

DM:

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.

 

VOA:

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

 

DM:

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.

 

VOA:

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?

 

DM:

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.

 

VOA:

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?

 

DM:

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

 

VOA:

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…

 

DM:

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.

 

VOA:

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?

 

DM:

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.

 

VOA:

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?

DM:

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.

VOA:

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.

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March 12, 2012

VOA Burmese Interviews US Envoy to Burma, Derek Mitchell


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.)

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Derek Mitchell Interview:

 

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.


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