U.S. official reports on his visit to Myanmar

11 May 2019
U.S. official reports on his visit to Myanmar
David Hale, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs of the Department of State. Photo: EPA

The U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, David Hale, visited Myanmar from May 1 to May 3 as part of his first trip to the Indo-Pacific region.  

He conducted a telephonic press briefing from Nay Pyi Taw on May 3rd to discuss his Asia trip, which also included visits to Indonesia, Thailand, and Japan.  His three-day visit to Myanmar was the longest time he spent in any of the Asian countries.

Here is an edited version of the call with the focus on comments and questions about Myanmar: 

Ambassador Hale:  I’d like to just make a few comments to frame the conversation.

This is my first trip to this region as Under Secretary.  I started in Jakarta where I visited the ASEAN Secretariat in recognition of ASEAN’s central role and in the U.S. vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific as well as in the region.  ASEAN is the number one destination for U.S. investment, over $900 billion in cumulative investments have been made from the United States — which is more than China, Japan, Korea and India combined.

We see ASEAN’s approach as one based on respect.  Respect for each other as sovereign independent states, respect for the supremacy of the rule of law, respect for equality.  These are principles that are not only shared in the region, but are the core of our own Indo-Pacific Strategy which does not seek to impose any singular model on any one country.  Economics is at the forefront of this approach of private sector led investment, which we believe is most sustainable and the best method to untap the economic potential of this region.

When I was in Jakarta, we were celebrating 70 years of our bilateral relationship and our strategic partnership, and it was also a chance for me to congratulate the government on its successful conduct of their first simultaneous presidential and legislative elections.

Then I moved on to Thailand, which is chairing ASEAN this year, and I met with the NSC and MFA officials there to coordinate how we’re going to engage ASEAN.  And I made clear that America and Thailand have been strong partners for over 200 years and we hope that the post-election process there will resolve concerns that exist in a fair and transparent manner that’s consistent with the will of the Thai people.

Today I’m calling you from, as was mentioned, from Naypyidaw.  I met this morning with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and talked about ongoing challenges in our relationship with Burma, challenges within Burma, and ways to move forward.  Over the last three days here I met with leading thinkers, activists, diplomats, and others in Yangon and I traveled to Rakhine State yesterday to meet with government and community leaders, including representatives of the Rohingya community and humanitarian partners.  Throughout, I emphasized that America is a strong supporter of Burma’s ongoing transition to civilian rule and the decades-long democratic aspirations of the Burmese people.  Our countries share an enduring connection and [inaudible] goodwill, and we want to continue to support peace and prosperity and national sovereignty here as Burma faces these significant challenges.

Chief among those, of course, is the situation in Rakhine, a problem with deep roots.  And I made clear to the State Counselor and other government officials that it’s the responsibility of their government to create the conditions that would enable the refugees, the Rohingya, to voluntarily return safely and with dignity and live with basic rights.  That is something that the government authorities have not yet done.

We seek credible, independent investigations and mechanisms to hold accountable those who are responsible, and we’re also deeply concerned about ongoing insecurity in Rakhine State which makes repatriations under these circumstances impossible, and it’s having continued negative effects on all civilians.

I urged the government to improve humanitarian access to displaced people in Rakhine as well as in other conflict zones in the country, Kachin and Shan States.  We call on all parties to seek peace through negotiation and to respect human rights.

At every stop, I also talked about China at some length, and I’d be happy, in the question and answer format, to discuss that in more detail.

I do want to make the point I make at every stop, which is in the context of America’s strong support for human rights and fundamental freedoms across the world, we also advocate for those who are facing government repression such as the Uighurs in Xianjing, China.  And throughout my visit I urged others in the region to join us in pressing China publicly and privately to end this campaign of repression that has included the detention of over a million members of Muslim minority groups there.

And with that, I would be happy to answer any questions you have.

Moderator:  Our first question will go to Josh Berlinger from CNN.

Question:  Under Secretary Hale, thanks for taking the time for this. I really appreciate it.

I wanted to ask a little bit about the synthetic drug trade in Northern Myanmar.  I know you spoke with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi about the other civil conflicts, but did the issue of synthetic drugs come up at all in your trip?  If not, why not?  And what else is the United States doing to either push or help Myanmar crack down on this billion dollar industry?

Ambassador Hale:  I’m still conducting my meetings, and rest assured that we are raising, myself and Ambassador Marciel, all of the issues that concern us, including the illicit narcotics production.  We talked about conflicts throughout the country including in those areas in which this is a particularly acute problem in terms of narcotics manufacture.  It’s a threat not just in Myanmar but throughout the region.

We are working with elements of the Myanmar authorities.  Our DEA in particular is engaged with their counterparts to work on drug interdiction training, and we’re also assisting law enforcement agencies here to disrupt the drug networks.  We also, through our USAID program, are extending support to prevent drug use and address addiction issues in those communities that are suffering from this problem.

I do want to step back from this and also note that, as you indeed touched on, there’s a need for strong support for peace processes that can help eliminate these lawless areas in which narcotics production is so prevalent, eliminate corruption, and also address the problem of transborder supplies of precursors.

Moderator:  Our next question will come from Jacob Goldberg from DPA based in Burma.

Question:  Thanks for the call, Ambassador.  I was wondering if you had a chance to gain any insights into State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s apparent opposition to give any ground on the detention of the reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.  And also into her, and her party’s, apparently growing intolerance of activism and political dissent.

Ambassador Hale:  I can tell you our position.  We continue to be deeply disappointed about the verdict of the two Reuters journalists that you mentioned.  We are advocating at every level for their immediate and unconditional release.  I think this position is well known, that we’re speaking out.  I’m raising this throughout my visit.  I think it would be wrong of me to characterize the Burmese position out of these diplomatic meetings that we’re having, but I agree that the verdict calls into question some basic press freedoms, the commitment here to press freedoms.  It raises questions about rule of law and judicial independence as well.  So it’s very troubling and very disappointing.  We’re hoping to see some progress, so we’ll be watching.

Moderator:  Next we have Feliz Solomon from Time.

Question:  Hi, thank you very much.  I would like to know as the biggest single country donor to the Rohingya refugee response, how long is the U.S. committed to keeping up its support in Bangladesh?  Are you committed to say as long as it takes?  And are you satisfied with the response at this time?

Ambassador Hale:  I think that the international donor community has been quite generous, as they should be, given this horrific situation and the United States, as you mentioned, has been the largest donor in terms of a single country, nearly $500 million.  I can’t make commitments.  That’s up to our Congress and the administration, but I certainly know that we intend to, our generosity is [inaudible] and the need will continue.

But the more important issue is really whether or not we see the synergy needed to create conditions here so this is not going to be an open-ended problem.  We want to see a return of the refugees.  I covered some of the ground in the opening statement about what that requires, and first and foremost, this is the responsibility of the authorities in Myanmar to create conditions there in which those who fled feel that they’re safe, and that they’re going to be treated with the same respect and rights that every citizen of Myanmar expects of their government.  Those are the two fundamental things.  There are others, too, I’m not excluding anything.  There are others, but those are the two fundamental things that we believe are necessary in order to bring this much closer to resolution.