Derek Mitchell is the United States Ambassador to Burma. Prior to his appointment, Mitchell served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Asian and Pacific Security Affairs for the Office of the United States Secretary of Defense.
Why has the administration decided to restore the diplomatic relations with Burma?
The U.S. government has decided to evolve its policy, to change its policy towards Burma because Burma has changed and evolved itself over the past year/year and a half. The diplomatic relationship followed a year and a half of tangible evidence that Burma was turning a corner and going a more reformist, Democratic path – not completed, but we saw them make some fundamental decisions to open up to society, to open up to Democratic opposition, to open up its media, and generally decide to open up to the international community. And seek a more Democratic open future. So because of that, the U.S. decided to raise the level of its diplomatic representation to have a more normal relationship and serve its partners in the process.
How will the State Department handle the business coming in?
Well, it will be up to the business community itself to determine if the conditions are right inside the country for them to engage. But the message that we send to them is that, first of all, if you do engage, you have to understand the very complex dynamics of the country. It is a very complex, local environment, where not only are there multiple ethnic groups and multiple complex interactions among them, but there is no real rule of law and they’re in a transitional phase. Secondly, if they engage they ought to do it responsibly – they ought to do it in a way that promotes our values, promotes transparency, accountability – all the things we are seeking to do an official level at the public level to support reform we want to be partners with the private sector; with the business community, also to model that types of behavior, so that we are working hand in glove for the American interest.
With respect to the State Department, in terms of prioritizing, what are your top priorities [in Myanmar]?
There are a number of things we want to accomplish. First of all, is to continue this momentum we’ve seen. It’s a really remarkable story of Burma, the past year/year and a half — maybe the most positive development we’ve seen globally really. And it’s encouraging, and what we want to do is continue the partnership we’ve started to develop to upgrading diplomatic representation and engaging at all levels with them to assist them as partners in reform. We want to continue that path for the relationship and for their internal development. That’s number one. Number two, related to this, is we want to engage the private sector, the economics, the business, along with our values. We want to continue to promote American values of openness, transparency, democratic development; and do it in partnership with the private sector, so that it’s win-win for all of us. And third is, frankly, we need to understand each other better. We need to learn about each other. We’ve been alienated from each other for too long; we have, I think, fairly positive images of the other’s cultures, but I think there’s a lot of learning to do and I think that’s what I intend to do as ambassador is to
The U.S. has taken some restrictions off. What other sanctions, if any, remain still with the relationship?
Well, all the sanctions essentially remain in place. The authorities for the sanctions are there, and we’ve been waiving the investment ban and some other aspects – the import ban as well is a question mark we may decide in coming months on that question as we see reform continue. We also have restrictions on our engagement with the military. The military is major wildcard in all of this. It was a military-run government for fiftyyears, and the military has special position within the constitution in ways that are not democratic, that don’t allow for civilian control. So we have some restrictions on our interaction with the military. But all of this is in play in the sense that if we feel that any sanction, any restriction, in our ability to engage this government or in the aspects of this society that is getting in the way of reform, in the way of what we want to see Burma become; we are looking fresh now and looking to either waive, or lift, or end, those types of restrictions.
Opposition leaders – who are they? Does it matter to the U.S.?
I think everybody’s introduction to Burma is likely to be because of Aung San Suu Kyi – a remarkable, unique figure, an icon really globally for democracy – and of course, more than an icon inside her own country. But she’ll be the first to say that this is not just about her. It can’t be just about a single person, it has to be about society at large. And there have been hundreds, thousands, and you can even say millions of people, that are sacrificed, but there are core leadership of the various student movements over the years that remain critical components of the democratic movement and of the transition going on. There are people now, part of the eighty-eight generations students’ movement, so-called; they were in political prison for many years, in some cases twenty years, and immediately jumped back in, to contribute to their country. You see people within the ethnic minority communities that have suffered and struggled for their own ethnic rights. They continue to be a critical component of the future dynamic, the future fabric of the country. And then you see people in the government – former military people – that you never expected to necessarily be reformists, that have proven themselves to want a different future, to want to be proud of their country, and be a leader in terms of values and strength in the region. So the president is number one in that regard, president Thein Sein. So there are a number of people – this is not going to be about one. I am sure we don’t know all of them. Even today there are people that are quietly doing their work at local levels, or have ambitions to contribute to this reform, and reform is something that goes on for ten, fifteen, twenty years — more than a generation. So we’ll be following them, we will be looking for them, and we hope to support them over time as we discover them.
What are the issues that threaten to derail the recent gains that have taken place in the democratic movement? Spike in sectarian and ethnic violence? What do you see?
There are a number of things that could get in the way of this process of reform. This is not an inevitable process. This is something we want to encourage, and I’m sure they themselves are worried about how it’s going to be sustained. I think some of the challenges are, for instance, the ethnic question. This is the defining challenge of the country. This predates democracy. Burma had democracy in the 1950s, but its never had a sustainable and stable national unity ever since independence in the late 40s, after British colonialism. So finding a way that they can unify and have reconciliation among groups that are deeply divided and deeply mistrustful, and that have fought each other – literally fought in arms over many decades – this is going to be a fundamental challenge for the stability of the country, but also I’d say for the democratic future of the country. Also, the rising expectations inside the country because of this opening up of society in politics. Whether people will be patient enough when economic changes or social changes may lag a bit. If not at the center, but perhaps in the periphery and outside the major cities, are people going to want to speak their minds? Will they accept the kind of differences of development that is likely to occur? This also can lead towards resentments, it can lead towards people taking to streets or demonstrating. And then the big question, of course, is the military and whether they’re going to be patient in watching this develop. The military still has the right under the constitution, if they feel that the country is becoming destabilized at any point, they can say, “Enough. We take over. We need to maintain the stability of the country.” and that can derail. This is what happened, frankly, with democracy in the ‘50s. It got derailed by the military because of instability over the ethnic violence and because people said democracy wasn’t functioning well enough. Expectations were too high and instability followed. So this can happen again; this is a very, very fractious place, but I think there is a commitment today, where they don’t want the military taking over. The people have decided they want to own this reform, and I think our job on the outside – the U.S. and others in the region – is to be guarantors of this process, to help them along during this transition.
Has and will the U.S. work with China in bringing Burma into the international community?
Well, we’ve reached out to China, if you will, to talk about all kinds of issues around the world. We’re hopeful that we can work with China – along with other neighbors – on the future of the country. We have common interests, we have interests in making sure the place stays stable. China has a border with Burma and is right on the border with the Kachin state; which is a fractious, violent place now where refugees are flowing back and forth. We have common interest there. We have common interest in trafficking of persons or drug trafficking. And I think simply developing the country so it is not a potential fountain of instability in Asia. But frankly, we’ve had some difficulty in common cause with China, in working together. We have a lot of common interests, but we haven’t been able to find yet the opportunity to work together on these issues. But I’m hopeful; and as part of the overall bilateral relationship with China, we need to work steadily to build understanding of each other’s perspectives, and once the understanding and trust is built, we can start in cooperation.
As the U.S. and other western countries engage in both diplomatic and economic relations with Burma, and presumably Burma begins to lessen its independence of China, will China be threatened?
Well, all I can say is from the U.S. government standpoint, we don’t view Burma as a zero-sum strategic game – as if we have a better relationship with the country, and that comes at the expense of any other country, including China. We don’t view it in that way. I understand that China has a view about the U.S. and its own security. That it wants to have stability, but also some influence along its periphery that is not dominated by the U.S. There is a lot of mistrust there. And I think this is part and parcel, part of the broader challenge of U.S.-China relationship where we have to have that discussion that this is not a zero-sum competition, that there is certainly room for the U.S. and China everywhere, and that Burma should be a place where we find common interests. And what we’re doing is not coming at the expense of a Chinese interest that is frankly legitimate in terms of their security. So, if they have interest in working economically or with the government, we wouldn’t threaten that.
How is the U.S. working with the private sector to promote our agenda?
We see the private sector as a very important partner in the process of the reform for the U.S. government. Their engagement ca,n I think, affirm to the economic and business ties the kind of values – transparency, accountability – that we think are critical for the future of the country and the future of democracy. But we tell them that you have to be careful going on. One, you have to understand the context, the local context of where you’re operating. Burma is a highly complex place. It’s a very fractious, diverse place with ethnic minority areas as well as the heartland. They have to understand, intimately, the environment in which they are operating, so they don’t do anything that may hurt their interests and ours.
The private sector has an important role in the process of reform inside Burma. Just like the U.S. government, we can practice through activities, through our values, the types of things we want to see in the country in terms of values of transparency and accountability. And the private sector, we believe can be, very critical partners with the U.S. in that process. The way they engage is going to be very important as a way to send signals as to what America is all about. People will see companies as an extension of the U.S. So one thing they certainly need to be aware of is the complexity of the environment in which they will operate. It is a highly complex environment. It is not a simple place, it is transition. Its diversity requires a lot of understanding of conditions on the ground, so they don’t do things that will not only affect their interests, but ours.
Where does Burma fit in the region from the U.S. point of view?
Burma for so many years, unfortunately, has been the outlier in terms of the development of Asia, of Southeast Asia. And yet if you look at the map, it lies at the crossroads of South Asia and Southeast Asia – it lies behind China, India and Thailand, three very vibrant economies. If Burma can get its act together and truly reform and sustain this reform, it can be the last piece of a puzzle of an Asia that is the most dynamic region in the world. It can be the crossroads where roads and rail and such can connect South and Southeast Asia, and in that way I think it’s critical for us. Also, stability in the region – Southeast Asia is very important for us economically/business ties, and for the flow of our trade. If Burma could be stable, it could reunite with the rest of Southeast Asia, and therefore markedly affect U.S. interests for a stable, secure Asia.
Everybody is excited about the process of reform in the country. There’s tremendous optimism among many that there is a new beginning about possibility in Burma. Of course though we have things that we remain concerned about and people inside we remain concerned about. There are still hundreds of political prisoners that remain incarcerated, even though they’ve released the highest profile individuals – a remarkable release in January and over the past year a series of them. There are hundreds of people that are being held because of their political beliefs and views and that remains an issue of concern. We also are interested about the ethnic conflicts – there are ceasefires with most of these groups, but there have been ceasefires on and off for some time. Getting past ceasefire and getting to political dialogue, and getting to real resolution and national reconciliation and trust building, to create the stability and unity in the country that they have been fighting for, and over, for the last sixty years, that remains a real concern. And human rights abuses are still an endemic in these areas. Still, the touch of child soldiers and child labor and many human rights abuses that occur that remain, that hurt the conscience of the international community and certainly of the U.S., and will remain a constraint in our relationship.
We also want to see how they deal with Aung San Suu Kyi in parliament and with the opposition in parliament. The next major milestone is 2015 – that’s when they have their national election. That will be the real indicator to see if democracy has moved to the degree that they have an open, free, and fair election that will allow anybody in the country to lead Burma – instead of what was essentially a very controlled process in 2010, and a very limited process when Aung San Suu Kyi became a parliamentarian. And we have, as reported in the media, concerns about their military relationship with North Korea and the transparency of that relationship remains a concern to us. The issue of nonproliferation in North Korea is at the highest importance of the U.S. government and the security of the region. And so we are interested in learning more and getting them to be more transparent about what has occurred and what may remain in that relationship.