October 22, 2017
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Derek Mitchell: Burma policy point man

Derek Mitchell
Derek Mitchell, U.S. policy coordinator for Burma Photo: U.S. State Department
(Interview) – Derek Mitchell, the special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, talked with reporters at ...

(Interview) – Derek Mitchell, the special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, talked with reporters at the U.S. embassy in Beijing on Tuesday, at the end of his visit to brief Chinese officials on recent U.S. talks with Burmese officials. The interview includes the U.S. view of recent reforms by the new Burmese government, regional security, ethnic minorities and cooperation between the U.S. and China regarding reforms in Burma. The interview, provided by the U.S. State Department, has been edited for length.

QUESTION: After Secretary [Hillary] Clinton went to Burma there was a belief that there is something changed in the relations between the U.S. and Burma. What kind of role will Burma play in the U.S. foreign policy?

Answer: The relationship continues to evolve. As they continue to reform, then the United States will be responding in kind with increasing assistance, increasing partnership in the process.

I’ve made four trips including the latest with the secretary. 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. Burma is an essential component of Asean. For too long, Burma’s been an outlier because of its under-development and its policies.

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. 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: Talking about regional security, what is your biggest concern on Burma?

Answer:  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.

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.

QUESTION: 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 to the U.S. or the U.S. ask Burma to participate in a regional joint military drill?

Answer: We have not asked the Burmese president to the United States. We have invited the foreign minister to come for a 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.

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