The new US ambassador to Burma, Derek Mitchell, has praised the country’s leaders in his first in-depth interview, but he expressed concern about the fragility of the reform effort.
He said U.S. officials continue to receive credible reports of human-rights abuses in ethnic-minority areas, and Burmese officials haven't yet put to rest long-standing worries about possible ties between the Burmese military and North Korea.
“We still feel there is a working majority of people in the country and in the government who are committed to progress,” including more openness and wider civil liberties, he told The Wall Street Journal in an article published on Monday. “But I don't think anyone has any illusions that there are going to be lots of bumps, lots of setbacks, and not a clear path forward.”
High on his list of his concerns was the often-postponed, foreign investment law under consideration in Parliament now. Its passage has been delayed because of local business people’s concerns about being displaced by multinational companies, he said.
Recent media reports have indicated that the government is now considering restricting foreign involvement in some sectors, including agriculture, but recent drafts of the law haven't been available, he told the newspaper.
It would help, he said, if stakeholders—including foreign businesses—could offer advice. If that added more time to the process, he said, that's OK. “We want quality, not speed,” he said.
“Businesses can wait a little longer" if it means a more durable and predictable set of investment laws, he said.
Mitchell said there is no timetable for lifting the remaining US sanctions, and the US has “constant discussions” about what would be needed “to get to that stage.”
To get sanctions lifted, though, he said, Burma would have to begin releasing the “hundreds” of political prisoners still behind bars, confirm it has cut off weapons transfers with North Korea “once and for all,” and take more substantial steps to achieve peace in ethnic-controlled areas – a task he described as “the defining challenge of Myanmar.”
“The wild card in all of this is the military,” he said. If “at some point there is a sense of instability here and chaos in society, what will the military do?” It is also unclear how other groups would respond, he said.