A New Desire to Engage
covering burma and southeast asia
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A New Desire to Engage

By THE NATION Thursday, October 20, 2011


During his recent visit to Thailand, US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell spoke to the editor-in-chief of The Nation, Suthichai Yoon. They discussed a wide range of issues including US policy in Asia and reform in Burma, a country that Campbell has a special interest in.

The following is an excerpt from an interview that originally appeared on the website of The Nation.

US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell gives a lecture at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, on Oct. 10, 2011. (PHOTO: AP)
Question: There is some positive news from your envoy on Burma. Perhaps you can confirm rumors and speculation. Why aren't you in Burma on this visit?

Answer: Well, Burma was looking for consultation with its Chinese friends in Beijing [on October 11]. We had a very good meeting with Burma's foreign minister in New York and subsequently in Washington.

Q: Was that the first time for the Burmese foreign minister to be in the State Department building? What was significant?

A: We've indicated that there is clearly a change of effort inside the country. We've been pleased by the outreach from the new president to Aung San Suu Kyi. She herself has expressed satisfaction with the dialogue she's had. We see some steps—the decision on the [Myitsone] dam, some diplomacies domestically, some assurances on how they propose to interact with North Korea. These are important steps.

What we are looking for are irreversible signs that they are heading constructively in the right direction. I think we are encouraged in the initial phase but it's still too early to make fundamental judgments, and we are looking for them to do more, particularly when it comes to the release of political prisoners. But it is undeniable that there are changes happening inside the country. It is incumbent on us to explore and to be very clear that we will match their changes, if they can be sustained, with legitimate steps of our own.

Q: The Burmese foreign minister might have told you what conditions they need before they can release political prisoners. You must know the timeframe and the conditions they think they need before they can do that. Are you ready to meet their requirement?

A: I don't want to portray the nature of diplomacy of this kind, but we had a different kind of discussion. We laid out clearly our hopes and expectations, and I think those were heard clearly and constructively, and we talked about the prospects for going forward. I think there is clear understanding in Naypyidaw of what is necessary.

There may be disagreements about those who are classified as political prisoners. We welcome a comprehensive conversation with them about how people are categorised, who we think are political prisoners.

But the dialogue I've had with them [government officials] over the course of the last couple of months has no resemblance to the dialogue we had two years ago when we first started. It's fundamentally different. I would say it is the outset of what we try to institutionalise—a different approach to diplomacy, which is among the most difficult I've ever engaged in. I've had dialogue with the North Koreans. I've had difficult discussions with various militaries around Asia, but nothing as difficult and unproductive as some of the discussions with Naypyidaw.

But that has changed fundamentally. There is a new desire to engage. I hope very much that they are sincere and they are able to take our relationship to a new stage, but I have to underscore that we have seen steps like these in the past only to be disappointed by dramatic reversal.

Q: What would come first, the release of political prisoners or the lifting of sanctions?

A: I would suggest there isn't that sort of linkage. Any process of easing of our sanctions will take a substantial period of time. This involves not just the executive branch, but a substantial effort by the legislative branch of the US. It takes substantial consultation and very clear signs of progress. We do not know the process yet.

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