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‘It’s About Burma’

Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell, left, speaks to Aung Zaw, the
editor of The Irrawaddy. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

this month, America’s top diplomat in Burma, US Ambassador Derek
Mitchell, sat down with The Irrawaddy’s editor Aung Zaw to discuss
his country’s stance on the current situation in Burma. In the
interview, Mitchell touched on a range of issues, from US-Burma
militiary ties and the Kachin conflict to China’s role in the
region and Burma’s relations with North Korea. Below are some
highlights from their conversation.
Some critics say it’s premature to develop US-Burma military
relations. How would you respond?

Everyone knows the [Burmese] military is a critical component of the
future here. 

They’re important to the national security of the
country, they’re an important institution, but clearly some
engagement is required to help them think about what it means to be a
progressive professional force. So our military-to-military relations
are not about providing weapons or doing training on aggressive
activities. We’re going to move very gradually.

You held a human rights dialogue recently that included Burma’s
military. Can you tell us more about that?
We were very pleased with our first human rights dialogue with the
government here last October. The dialogue included members of the
government, military, parliament, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and
we had separate discussions with civil society.
part of this, we had a three-star [US] general come talk about the
values of a professional military, about what a modern professional
military embodies. With his own combat experience in Iraq and
Afghanistan, he talked about what he learned about becoming a truly
national military and the value of civilian control, about why
civilian control is important for national security and for the
stability of society.
what military-to-military engagement offered us. … There’s nobody
who can be as relevant in conveying these messages as someone else in
uniform, another military soldier, and that’s what we’re looking
to do: to bring them [Burma’s military] out of the shadows, to have
honest conversations with them about how we do things and why
professional militaries act the way they do, or why it’s in their
own interest to do so, and to show that there are other models for
them to consider.
When you meet with top-brass leaders in Naypyidaw, what do you talk
I address very frankly issues of concern, things like the continuing
violence in Kachin State, which obviously now has gotten even worse.
… We continue to talk to them about the [lack of] humanitarian
access to innocent civilians, citizens who the international
community can assist but are not able to. … We talk to them about
continuing concerns when it comes to non-transparency and the
country’s relationship with North Korea in the past and otherwise.
What do you foresee for the future state of military ties between
Burma and the United States?
I hope, over time, to reestablish the type of relationship that we
had back in the 80s, where they [Burmese military leaders] would come
to our military institutes or academies, and they could learn from
us, we can learn from them. But there’s a lot that needs to happen
between now and that point.
Like what?
I think we need to see a true commitment to civilian control, which
also means a smooth transition going into 2015 and the elections. And
obviously with the violence that we see in Kachin State … I think
both sides have to recognize that there is no military solution to
this question, and that an eye for an eye will leave everyone blind,
that a dialogue process needs to begin urgently. I think there also
needs to be some accountability by the military for abuses that have
occurred, whether it’s judicial accountability or simply bearing
witness and allowing a discussion of things that happened in the
past, because that is a step toward national reconciliation.
Is US engagement in Burma about China?
It’s about Burma. It’s always been about Burma. There’s a
misunderstanding in China, and even among some commentators, that
everything we do in Asia is about containing China or encircling
China, but that’s simply not the case. Our policy toward Burma has
been about Burma for 20 years, 25 years, before China was so-called
rising or reemerging. Our policy towards Burma is evolving because
Burma itself is evolving.
But isn’t a stable Burma in both superpowers’ interest?
It’s a common interest for the United States and China, as it is
for Thailand and the rest of the region, that this place [Burma] be
stable and open … It [Burma] has been an outlier—it’s been an
outlier in Asean [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], it has
affected our ability to work with Asean, it’s been a missing piece
in the connectivity of growing economies of South Asia and Southeast
Asia. There’s so much possibility here, and it means a tremendous
amount that Burma develops in the interests of global growth, in the
interests of global stability. …
I talk about Burma in the United States, China doesn’t come up.
It’s really about what’s happening [in Burma], and how do we
assist this society become everything it can be, to really be the
crown jewel of Southeast Asia instead of what it’s been, which has
been unfortunately more of an outlier.
When you were the US special representative to Burma, you tried to
convey a message to the Burmese and Chinese leadership that US
involvement here was not about China. Do you think they received your
message clearly?
They certainly heard me say this, and they hear what the US
government continues to say consistently on this point. So the
message has been sent clearly. But whether they believe it, I can’t
say. We certainly understand it is not in the interest of Burma that
Burma become a point of contention between the US and China. But I
have experience not just in Burma but the entire region, from my days
in the Pentagon, from my days as a scholar, and I’ve done a lot of
work on China. And I know that anything the United States does in
Asia, China sees itself as being involved. … They think things are
directed at them. We hope to find a way to mitigate this mistrust by
developing partnerships on issues of mutual interest. But as we say
in the West, it takes two to tango.
How does the United States view Burma’s relationship with North
Korea, and allegations that nuclear technology or missile technology
has been sent here?
It remains a critical issue, and it’s not simply a Burma issue;
this is a global issue. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
and their means of delivery is one of the most important national
security threats the United States and the world faces right now. …
So given North Korea’s continued violation of UN Security Council
resolutions related to nonproliferation, including the recent missile
test and past nuclear weapons tests, any question about North Korean
military engagement with other countries will get the highest level
of attention from my government, and from the international
community. … We are continuing to ask questions about the history
of this relationship and questions about the state of play in this
relationship, because it is essential to our national security
How would you describe the US-Burma relationship right now?
The bilateral relationship I think is very good. We are trying to
work with all parts of society all around the country.
Obama in his speech here, and Secretary Clinton before him, outlined
US policy, which is to support the desire of the Burmese people for a
more open, just, and democratic society, to be partners in reform
here, partners in development, so Burma can be more stable and
are encouraged by the generally peaceful, evolutionary approach we’ve
seen so far. But we are realistic about the challenges. We hope to
see more dialogues develop, and continue to oppose violence to settle
differences. In our view, how Burma settles its differences today
will have a lot to say about how Burma will look in years to come.
encouraged by the progress so far, but there’s a long way to go,
and we just hope we can continue to play a constructive role here as
Burma continues down its reform path.

Source Irrawddy