The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Ambassador Mitchell's Press Briefing
Friday, December 16, 2011

Recently, Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma Derek Mitchell visited China and its major allies in Asia—Japan and South Korea—to explain the US approach to Burma. In his briefing to the media about these visits, Mitchell said that the United States does not intend its relationship with Burma to have any negative impact on Sino-Burmese relations.

Below is the full text of briefing made at Press Roundtable, U.S. Embassy Beijing, China (Dec. 13, 2011).

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: Thank you all. This is the final meeting of sorts before I get on the plane and go home after being two and a half weeks on the road. The first stop, of course, being in Burma, in anticipation of and during the Secretary of State’s recent trip there, which we found a landmark visit and a highly successful visit. We’re very very positive about how that went. But another part of my job is to coordinate and go to other countries in the region to talk about U.S. policy, to clarify what the U.S. is doing, and also talk about other nations’ approach to Burma, and to coordinate our approaches, because we do see this as a positive development, the trends that are going on inside the country, inside Burma, the trend toward reform. I think it builds stability and progress for the entire region, something I think everyone welcomes. And it should be something that we all think about together and we coordinate so we can all promote the kinds of change that we’re looking for.

Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma Derek Mitchell
When I left Burma I went first to Tokyo, actually first to Seoul, where I had conversations with colleagues in Korea. Then on to Tokyo to talk with friends in Japan about the trip and about potential cooperation and exchanging perspectives. And of course here in Beijing which is a very important partner of Burma’s with a long history and long border with the country.

Obviously we’re trying to build cooperative relations in our bilateral relationship with China on a whole host of issues, regionally and globally. We view this as an opportunity, the changes, the trends that are going on inside Burma, for us to exchange perspectives and have maybe some new dialogues. I don’t think traditionally we have had many conversations about the country, and we should be thinking about the many common interests that we have, and in fact we have many as I’ve found over the past day, and came here understanding: stability, national unity, and national reconciliation inside Burma, development inside the country, as well as some questions about drug trafficking, human trafficking, health concerns, and the like.

There are a number of challenges inside and cross borders that I think we both have an interest, the U.S. and China have, in working together and of course in cooperation with the government in Naypyidaw and in society at large inside Burma.

So I wanted to lay down very frankly in my meetings here, including meeting with the Foreign Ministry and meetings with some of the think tanks and other observers here in town, lay out exactly what the U.S. has been doing in Burma, how the Secretary’s trip went, provide our perspective on the way forward, and to gain perspectives here about how China’s thinking about things and see if there might be opportunities to coordinate, cooperate and work together in the interest of regional stability as well as the interests of the Burmese people.

So I leave here encouraged by what’s happening inside that country and hopeful that we can find ways as a region to think about this as an opportunity for cooperation.

With that, I’ll open up to questions. I imagine there are a few.

QUESTION: I have two questions. First, could you talk about the timing of this visit to Asia and the three countries now? And did China show any willing[ness] to talk with the U.S. government or [does the] U.S feel it is necessary to talk with China government?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: The timing of my visit to Northeast Asia was essentially based on the fact that I’m in the region because of the Secretary’s visit. I try to make the most -- it’s a long way away, Burma, from the United States. So when I come to the region I want to engage with regional states about what’s happened and to coordinate our efforts.

On previous trips, incidentally, I’ve been to Bangkok and to Jakarta and I’ve done some other visits locally. I haven’t been able to get here. I wanted to get here in October, but other requirements kept me from that. So this is my first opportunity, really, to talk to Japan, Korea and China on this critical regional issue. Again, part of my job is to coordinate—to explain, coordinate our policy.

So China, again, I came here with that message. I think we’re at the early stages. It’s something very new in the bilateral relationship. I don’t think we’ve had a very in-depth conversation on what’s going on there. So we just exchanged perspectives with the Foreign Ministry yesterday and laid down some ideas, like I did just before, about the types of things we might want to cooperate on. We’ll see what Beijing’s response will be, what the government’s response will be, but we hope that over time we will be able to find those areas of cooperation that will be helpful to Burma’s continued reform and to regional stability.

QUESTION: My second question, as we know, after Secretary Clinton went to Burma there was belief that there is something changed in the relations between the U.S. and Burma. Could you talk about the change? And what kind of role will Burma play in the U.S. foreign policy? As we know, China and Burma have long-term cooperation in economics and other things. Will it bring some influences to the relations between China and Burma?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: If I answer those I’ll figure no one has any more questions. [Laughter]. That should cover it all.

The change in the relationship post- the Secretary’s visit. The relationship continues to evolve. I think certainly the Secretary’s visit has a positive impact on the bilateral relationship - the U.S. and Burma - there’s no question about it. I think it’s based on the changes going on inside Burma. As they continue to reform, then the United States will be responding in kind with increasing assistance, increasing partnership in the process.

I think the relationship has been warming up for some time. I just started my job in August. I’ve made four trips including the latest with the Secretary, so three on my own. I think each time we’ve been building trust, building contacts, building a relationship. I met the Foreign Minister maybe five times in the past three or four months, or more. And all of that I think does build momentum in the bilateral relationship. So yes, I think the relationship is better after the Secretary’s visit because it was a very productive visit.

The role of Burma in U.S. foreign policy. Burma is an essential component of ASEAN, it’s a member of ASEAN. ASEAN’s cohesion and viability is an important American interest. It’s an important interest to the region, regional stability. For too long Burma’s been an outlier because of its under-development and its policies. It’s been really inconsistent with the way the region has gone. We are very encouraged that it looks like the Burmese government and Burmese society are finding ways forward that are building a path towards reform, and hopefully a path towards democracy and openness and development for all its people, and national reconciliation. And if that happens, then the United States will continue to partner with them and it will be hopefully a stabilizing force in the region rather than what it has been, which is potentially a destabilizing force in the region.

So America’s interest in Asia is for stability. Peace and stability and development. And we’re seeing that now occur inside Burma step by step. Obviously there’s a long way to go. We have a lot of questions about the future, I should say. But we’re seeing at least trends in the right direction. So we want to encourage those trends and they’re consistent with the U.S. interest in Asia and interest in peace and stability, broadly and in the viability of ASEAN specifically.

The influence on China-Burma relations. There is no intent of the United States in its relationship with Burma to have any negative influence on China-Burma relations. It is not meant to come at the expense of any country. It is not in the interest of the United States that Burma have tense relationships with its neighbors, in fact the contrary, that it’s in the interest of regional peace and stability and development that Burma have good relationships with its neighbors, that there not be division within the region, that there be cooperation and coordination of approaches, and that we have a unified approach or at least we’re working in coordination together.

China and Burma have, as I said, a long history as well as a long border. They have as you say deep economic relations in the past, and that’s between those two nations to determine their future. There is not a role for the United States in telling either country what to do with sovereign decisions on foreign policy and international relations. We haven’t in the past and we won’t in the future.

QUESTION: I have two questions for you. Number one, talking about regional security, what is your biggest concern of Burma? Number two, talking about democracy development, what is the future of Burma’s democratic development? Can you give us some concrete --

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: Can I get a repeat of the first question?

QUESTION: The first question is talking about regional security, stability. So what is America’s biggest concern about the political situation of Burma?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: Biggest concern. The biggest concern I think is the defining challenge, in essence, of Burma post-independence which is its national unity and national reconciliation. The ability of the country to find a resolution to the division between the ethnic minorities, ethnic nationalities and the center, and the Burman majority. They’ve been basically at civil war, or at least had these constant internal conflicts I should say, since its inception as an independent nation. I think that remains the biggest concern that we all must have about the stability of the country, the sustainability, of the stability of the country.

You can have artificial stability through force of arms, but that’s not sustainable. The real sustainable stability inside the country comes from a political process of reconciliation: of dialogue, of trust, equality and goodwill on all sides. There’s a deep residue of mistrust, unfortunately, developed over years. This remains I think the biggest challenge, the biggest concern we all should have. I won’t speak for China, but I know there are cross-border impacts of all of this that affect you, affect Thailand, affect India, Bangladesh, and many of the neighbors. This is something we ought to think about and hopefully assist in the right way Burma’s development towards national reconciliation.

Democratic development is in the very, very nascent stage, very early stage. So we’re encouraged by some of the moves that have been made in terms of opening up the political process to allow Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to run in elections coming up. There is some more easing of restrictions on the media but only in certain arenas – sports, culture, that kind of thing. Not in the political realm. So they have a ways to go but their words are certainly encouraging. They talk about their commitment to democracy and their commitment to human rights. The parliament and the parliamentary speakers talk about building the parliament as an institution. They can perhaps do more debate, and initiation of policy, but it’s a very, very early stage of this new system that they have as well as of that commitment to development of democracy.

So if it is something that they’re committed to credibly then as we’ve stated, we will be interested to be a partner in that process and to help them develop the institutions and the mindset and kind of ways of thinking that undergird, and ways of acting that undergird a democracy. But I think it remains to be seen just how far they’re going to go and how much commitment they are going to have to democratic development over time.

QUESTION: [Inaudible] Which officials have you talked to during your trip in Beijing?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: The Director General of Asian Affairs, Luo Zhaohui.

QUESTION: And your topics?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: I talked about the Secretary’s trip, about our perspectives of my trips to Burma and what I’ve seen on the ground. We talked about some of the ways forward that we see potentially in policy and potential cooperation laying out, as I said, these areas of cooperation and common interest that I saw. I also tried to address some of the potential concerns that I’ve read about in the media about what we’re doing and clarify exactly what our intentions are and what the nature of our conversations are. And as I have here, where the issue of China has not been a factor in our conversations, it’s not been, but trying to preemptively clarify some of these issues.

Then tried to gain from him perspectives of China towards Burma policy and the way forward there. Very frankly discussing some of the dynamics inside the country as a first step to thinking, again, about a dialogue of cooperation.

QUESTION: My question is, what measures will the U.S. take to strengthen bilateral ties between Burma and the U.S. such as invite Burma’s leaders to visit U.S. Or the U.S. ask Burma to participate in a regional joint military drill?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: We have not asked the Burmese President to the United States. We have invited the Foreign Minister to come for dialogue on Asia, just to exchange perspectives on the region as we do with many countries. We’ve never had that kind of conversation with the Burmese government. We want to develop habits of dialogue and perspectives We really have a limited understanding and I suspect they don’t have a good understanding of where we’re coming from too.

But no, we haven’t invited the Burmese President to come to the United States. And on the regional joint military exercise there has been no movement on that as well. We have restrictions on military to military contact, so there is no movement on the second of your points.

QUESTION: [Inaudible]. What’s your next destination?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: Home. [Laughter]. After two and a half weeks. Then my intention is to, well, I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m looking to go to India, Bangladesh, and maybe back into Burma. But we’ll see. I have to travel a bit and we’ll see between now and then what my plans become.

QUESTION: So it’s possible to India.

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: Possibly India. Europe, I’ll need to get to. I need to get back into Southeast Asia. There are a lot of places interested in Burma. That’s what’s fascinating about this job. And to do the Burma issue, it really is a global issue. There’s a tremendous interest in what goes on there. So many folks want to hear what we’re thinking and doing and want to coordinate so I’m going to be on the road a lot.

QUESTION: We all know that Hillary Clinton has ended her visit with 1.2 million U.S. dollars in new aid, and she also said the U.S. will take some steps to demonstrate its commitment to this country. So is there any detailed plan of this demonstrating its commitment?

AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: Of demonstrating our commitment to their reform?


AMBASSADOR MITCHELL: Yes. In part, the trip itself was meant to be a demonstration. It’s fact-finding to some degree, but it was also meant to demonstrate our commitment and our encouragement of what we’ve seen, the trends that we see. It was, again, the first visit of a Secretary of State in 56 years, a long time. There’s a reason why it happened when it did, because of the progress that we’ve seen on the ground and the desire to learn more and to perhaps encourage more change.

There are a number of ways that we can show our commitment through exchanges, educational exchanges, through health assistance. Some of the things that we rolled out. Micro-finance aid for rural development, for poverty alleviation, for de-mining. We can do parliamentary exchanges. There are a number of things we can do that demonstrate that we are invested in this and we want to provide our best advice and experience. And not just the United States. Part of my job again is to go around and talk to others. They should also be engaged in this.

China will have things to offer, as will ASEAN states, as will Japan, Korea and Europe and Australia. So by our coordination of efforts and by our individual efforts in the United States we hope we will affirm some of the progress they want to make and to build their capacity. Their capacity to absorb, whether it’s money, aid, or even govern in a systematic way is very limited because of their recent history. So our ability to develop the capacity to do things and understand how to manage and organize. I think this also is an area that we can work with them and again show our commitment to their reform over time.

Thank you. 

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