Earlier 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.
Question: Some critics say it’s premature to develop US-Burma military relations. How would you respond?
Answer: 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.
Q: You held a human rights dialogue recently that included Burma’s military. Can you tell us more about that?
A: 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.
As 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.
That’s 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.
Q: When you meet with top-brass leaders in Naypyidaw, what do you talk about?
A: 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.
Q: What do you foresee for the future state of military ties between Burma and the United States?
A: 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.
Q: Like what?
A: 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.
Q: Is US engagement in Burma about China?
A: 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.
Q: But isn’t a stable Burma in both superpowers’ interest?
A: 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. …
When 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: How does the United States view Burma’s relationship with North Korea, and allegations that nuclear technology or missile technology has been sent here?
A: 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 interests.
Q: How would you describe the US-Burma relationship right now?
A: The bilateral relationship I think is very good. We are trying to work with all parts of society all around the country.
President 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 secure.
We 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.
We’re 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.