The New Word from Washington
covering burma and southeast asia
Monday, October 15, 2018

The New Word from Washington

By Eric John, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Monday, May 1, 2006


As US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, Eric John is Washington’s point man on Southeast Asia, which includes Burma. On April 28, The Irrawaddy interviewed John at its office in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to catch up on the latest US policies on Burma, as the Burmese regime’s leading critic. The wide-ranging interview covered all aspects of these policies to bring about reform in Burma, US thoughts on Burma’s relations with its neighbors, and the situation regarding Burma and the UN Security Council.


Question: The US government has been very proactive on Burma this year. Has there been a change in policy in Washington?

Answer: I guess since the start of the second term of the administration of the president [George W Bush], and the secretary of state [Condoleezza Rice] the following month in her confirmation hearing stressing the need for pushing for freedom and democracy globally, and then of course the secretary specifically mentioning Burma as an outpost of tyranny…it wasn’t a new direction in policy. But I think it reinvigorated how we were going to approach Burma policy. And then I arrived in June of last year as the deputy assistant secretary of state, and relatively soon after that we just reviewed our tactics on how we were going to push for freedoms in Burma. It wasn’t a change of our approach or strategy but tactically, if you looked at what was happening over Burma over the last couple of years, nothing is getting better. It was really a review of what can we do to re-energize not just our policy—because we’re just one slice of what influences Burma, perhaps a small slice, it’s hard to say what size slice that is—but clearly China, India, Asean nations, Europe, Japan, Korea—all have major roles in Burma.

So, what we wanted to do was to move beyond just talking about Burma, and beyond just sanctions—although it is important to keep talking about it, and it’s important to keep sanctions—but also to work with other nations who engage Burma on what type of message we believe they should be taking to Burma. And, I think before that we were engaged—unintentionally, I think—in a public debate about engagement versus isolation, and I think because of that the leadership in Rangoon was able to divide the rest of the world and their approach on Burma. So we didn’t want to get caught up in this theological debate with people who should be allies and partners on this, but really discuss what each of us can bring to pressure Burma.

Q: There has been a lot of talk about how Asean has got tougher on Burma, but nothing concrete has happened. Is Washington satisfied with the way Asean is handling Burma?

A: I think it’s not our position to be satisfied or not satisfied with what Asean does. But I think if you look at what Asean has done on Burma in the last several months, it is unique in Asean history—Asean has a policy of non-interference in internal affairs of member nations. For the first time, they have started talking about what is happening in Burma. This almost is a de facto argument that what is happening, therefore, is not just the internal affairs of what’s going on in Burma, but it is beginning to affect other Asean nations. So that is a major step forward on dealing with the problem in Burma, and I would hate to diminish that by saying that the statements they have made are not quite perfect on what is going on with Burma, or that the visits they have made are less than perfect. The fact is that they have visited, [Malaysian] Foreign Minister [Syed] Hamid [Albar] visited Rangoon, [Indonesian] President [Susilo Bambang] Yudhoyono visited Rangoon to deliver a message, it wasn’t simply to bolster the leadership it was to deliver a message about reform.

I can’t attribute it to US diplomacy, but unfortunately what I attribute it to is the horrific descent of the situation in Burma—it gets worse and worse every day.

Q: Do you think that India and China—who are both doing business and selling arms to the regime—are honest about seeking change in Burma?

A: I don’t know what arms are being sold to Burma and by whom, obviously they buy arms from people—I don’t know to what degree they do. From my perspective, probably what is more serious is what enables you to have the wherewithal to buy arms, which is large-scale commercial engagement.

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