One Championship

Exclusive interview: US ambassador discusses Suu Kyi victory, peace in the ethnic states, and North Korea


Photo: Hong Sar/Mizzima

In an exclusive interview with Mizzima before he finishes his post, US Ambassador Derek Mitchell talked with Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint about a range of issues, principally the victory of the National League for Democracy, the ongoing peace process, and concerns about Myanmar’s relationship with North Korea.

Mr Mitchell will shortly be leaving to return to the United States.

Mizzima: Let me start with the NLD’s victory in November. What do you think are the main challenges for the new government when it takes power?

Ambassador: Well, I think they have no end of challenges when they take power. The election just transferred responsibility to new people. But the challenges remain the same here. That means peace, that means development, means job creation, it means justice, it means bringing unity amidst the tremendous diversity of the country and building trust among people and building institutions to underwrite the country’s unity. They have no end of challenges and of course the main challenge of any opposition coming into government is to simply govern, to put together a government that can function effectively and smoothly when those government institutions are not very strong. So they have a lot of challenges and I think we all need to be patient and we all need to be thoughtful in how we can assist them to succeed. Everyone has a great interest in their success because their success will mean the country’s success.

Mizzima: It looks like there will be a lot of expectations within the country and also from outside the country. So what could be the expectations from the international community for the new government because that is democratic government that comes to Myanmar after years of struggle for democracy and human rights? So what could be the expectations from the international community and also from the United States?

Ambassador: I think it’s exactly that. It is that you have people in the government now who are now elected and they were elected based on a democratic platform and who had fought for democracy for years, so the hope, the expectation is that that democratic development, that reform effort, that political reform effort will get a boost and be accelerated going forward. So we hope to see an end to the notion of political prisoners, an end to jailing over things people write in the media or put on Facebook, or going out in the streets and expressing themselves.

I think we also hope to see a more open economy, so that economic development and investment can come and create jobs and raise the labour standards. So, there are a lot of things we have expectations on the whole litany of challenges to the country, but again we have to be patient. Peace is not going to happen overnight, trust is not going to be built overnight, jobs for the tens of millions of people will not happen overnight, but we like to see the progress and openness to reform accelerate.

Mizzima: So it looks like the international community will be patient and will continue to support Myanmar’s process of reforms.

Ambassador: Absolutely, absolutely.

Mizzima: Allow me go into a little bit wider subject. How does Myanmar fit into Washington’s tilt towards Asia?

Ambassador: Well Asia generally is so tremendously important to the United States and to the world. It’s the most dynamic region in the world. It has the leading political actors, the leading economic actors, economic development here is going faster than anywhere else. Our leading trade partners are largely in this region. We have more investment is this region than any other country does. So it’s trillions of dollars of trade that the United State has in Asia. So we have enormous interests in Asia and simply the tilt to Asia is a recognition of that. So it is the Obama administration recognising that in the 21st Century this is the continent, this is the area where much of the global growth will come from and much of the history of the 21st Century will be written.

So Myanmar is at the crossroads of Asia, the crossroad of the dynamism of South Asia, and the dynamism of Southeast and East Asia. So if this country can develop, this country can get on track for not just political but economic reform and development and peace and stability and security that creates a lot of benefits for neighbours, benefits for the stability of the region, the ability to go after issues of malaria and drug-resistant malaria and HIV, which is a rampant issue inside the country here and throughout the region. So simply getting Myanmar right, helping it reform and deal with its challenges internally will have enormous benefits externally including for U.S. interests.

Mizzima: How about China because how much of that is to counter Chinese influence because of Chinese influence. You are an expert on China. My understanding is when you were posted to Myanmar that was part of a policy on the China issue in the region. So, what about China?

Ambassador: My appointment to this position had nothing to do with China or my background on China. I also have a background on Japan and Korea and I led a Southeast Asia programme at my think-tank. I’ve been working and thinking about this country since 1995 when I first came here and before. I have a long standing affection for this country and my appointment was based the Obama administration assessment that I may be able to assist as an envoy and eventually an ambassador it had nothing to do with my background on China. In fact when I came here all that China work I just set to the side because it was frankly irrelevant to what I was doing here.

Our policy here is based on Myanmar, it’s based, it’s an extension of the policy we had previously which was for better or for worse and people can debate it was based on a desire for change through isolation through estrangement for the most part. A kind of a fist in some ways it had a hard edge to the policy. And the test was maybe we can through engagement, principled engagement, we can do more to bring change. So I think our policy evolved because Myanmar evolved and it had nothing to do with China and I think this country needs to have a good relationship with all its neighbours. And that includes China if it is going to be stable and secure it needs to have a good relationship.

China has a responsibility in that regard of course but we should not be, and we are not putting Myanmar in the position of saying well you have choose between us or our engagement with you is at the expense of any other country. Myanmar cannot afford that and it is not responsible for any country to say that to the government here. That their relationship with that country should come at the expense of any other. So all we’ve been interested in is the success of this country. Being a partner in reform helping this democratic transition and helping them develop, helping them reach their potential and that is what it’s going to be for the long term.

Mizzima: So you are saying you are not worried about Chinese influence in Myanmar.

Ambassador: No I’m only concerned, if Myanmar’s concerned about it. If there is some issue Myanmar people have with it. Then we would listen to their concerns but it’s not about the United States, it about the people of this country having a say in their own affairs. And they shouldn’t be listening to any third country about Myanmar’s relationships with another country. There is one exception to that which I’m going to get to which is North Korea but that’s a very separate issue.

North Korea is separate because North Korea has violated international U.N. Security Council resolutions, non-proliferation norms, it is the worst of rogue actors around the world. There is nothing good in a relationship with North Korea. They have no interest in the well-being of this country, they have no interest in the well-being of the region, no interest in the security of the region whatsoever and they have been sanctioned internationally and isolated internationally as a result of their actions. So they are an exception because of what they have done to earn that. And there have been basically sanctions placed on them by the U.N. Security Council, by basically the world. So this country needs to think hard about its relationship with North Korea as diplomatic relationship we still have some question about the military relationship.

Mizzima: What are your concerns about the Myanmar-North Korean relationship especially in the field of nuclear cooperation if there is any?

Ambassador: Well, I think we feel more encouraged the more we talk to the government here about what is and what is not happening. There is certainly a lot of progress with the engagement since I’ve arrived here and before I arrived here with that discussion. So there are lingering questions we might have. More transparency about the previous relationship and the state of the relationship diplomatic and otherwise today. But I think given the test, we think we are not sure it is a nuclear test (recent news of a nuclear test explosion in North Korea) as of our interview here, we judge it’s likely a nuclear test but the confirmation will come later. If indeed it was a nuclear test I think all countries need to assess what that means for their security, what it means for their responsible role in safeguarding international security and therefore how they deal with North Korea as a result and this country will have to one those countries to think about that.

Mizzima: So what would be your specific message to the NLD, the new government, when it comes to the North Korea-Myanmar relationship?

Ambassador: Well it’s the message I just gave essentially. Which is there is nothing good about any kind of relationship with North Korea they don’t bring any benefits they only cause problems, they have really single minded interests it is not the well-being of people here it is not even the well-being of their own people. It’s the security of that awful regime in Pyongyang that continues to violate international norms, international law, non-proliferation, international security so think twice when you think about having a relationship with them and what that means for this country and what it means for the region as well.

Mizzima: You were the first U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar after 1990 and you were also a special-coordinator on Myanmar. How do you look at that? Do you think you have achieved what you set out for and what were the main tasks that were set for you?

Ambassador: Well the task at the beginning was really to test whether principled engagement of the current government and the military and others at least balanced with remaining sanctions and such would enable us to advance the goals of reform that we’ve had for some time. Better than simple isolation and estrangement, that was the test. Could we by a very principled and calibrated approach get progress?

Mizzima: You had a policy document when you were in D.C. that the Obama administration wanted for Myanmar.

Ambassador: Yes, I had a play in that. I wrote a piece in Foreign Policy Journal about this that I think was picked up by the Obama administration and I was able to do things directly on this. So that was to test and try something new because simple sanctions and isolation may not have been enough, it may not be working for the benefit of reform and benefit of people here. So that was the test and step by step we saw some changes. It is not complete. The evolution continues. The election was a major marker but there are still a lot of challenges ahead so I’ll let others determine the success of our efforts but I personally am quite satisfied and it’s gone in some ways quicker than we would have expected when we first started this, but I’m never satisfied.  I don’t think anybody should ever be satisfied, never because, satisfaction brings complacency. I don’t think we should ever be complacent on anything but particularly in a country with so many challenges like this one and we have a long way to go in the U.S.-Myanmar relationship going forward.

Mizzima: What about the Myanmar military, when we talk about the reforms and changes in the country and military is there one issue to my understating is one of the issues in the U.S.-Myanmar relationship agenda is working with the military in Myanmar. How are your efforts going in working with the Myanmar military?

Ambassador: Well, starting very slowly, now we’ve had very limited contacts, engagement means just talking to each other. We’ve done programmes on military justice and workshops on civilian control of the military and that kind of thing. Just get know each other a little better and understand each other a little better and to determine how or what kind of space there is within the military here to professionalize.

We do have an interest in the overall approach to reform and the country and that the military be part of that reform. It’s an absolutely essential institution to accelerate the reform and to continue the momentum of reform, democratic reform, in the country. So it makes sense we would want to engage them as part of our overall strategy to promote reform. But we’re being very careful and very calibrated step-by-step on how we engage and on what context we want to engage with them. So going forward we will discuss this very much with the NLD government, with the new government coming in, they are the legitimately elected government, civilians, and we want to promote civilian control we will be discussing this very much with them, we will discuss with civil society, with ethnic groups, with abroad range of people.

Many of whom, by the way, do tell us quietly - please do engage with our military. They want it done the right way, they want to be careful about it, but they say please we would like the American military to bring its values, to bring its way of doing business, so that the military here does not take to others values or others ways. So we’re going to listen and think very carefully and be thoughtful about this. But no one is rushing forward without that due consideration. But we do hope to have more engagement with the military in the coming year and the coming years.

Mizzima: The question is, because the military has its role under the constitution. 25% of seats in parliament and also powers to appoint ministers to important ministries. So will the reforms allow the military to return to their barracks? How will it play out for the next five years under the NLD government?

Ambassador: Well it’s hard for us to predict how that is going to go for the next five years. We get encouraging words from the military that they intend to move towards reduction in the parliament, of their representation potentially even to zero at some point in the future. They did not say five years, but at some point. And gradual professionalization and moving out of its political role. That will be up to the people here, the government here to be working out. The NLD government will be having those conversations. And we will want to calibrate our engagement to that process. It is not a perfect science to know how what we do can assist but I think the lessons we have learned and the benefits of civilian control of the military of a professional military, of how militaries function in democracies, all these different components of what a truly professional and strong and respected military, not just internationally but domestically, we hope we can share those experiences and work with them as partners over time. But we don’t have a timeframe for how this will all go, something I would hope the military would listen to the people closely and follow the wishes of the people closely.

Mizzima: Let me talk of professionalization of the Myanmar military and one of the issues, training. So what is the United States going to do about their training and also the issue like Peace Corps I thinks they are a similar force to get the Myanmar military into the international peace corps. What are your thoughts on those issues?

Ambassador: Well let me clarify. You talk about the Peace Corps, I think, there is a misunderstanding about what the Peace Corps is, if you talking about the U.S. Peace Corps. The U.S. Peace Corps was established by President (John F.) Kennedy in the early 1960s. It has nothing to do with the military. It completely has to do with or is supposed to be a counter to the notion that you bring change to the military because it means volunteers. American civilian agriculture, English language training teacher, volunteers who come here, who come to countries all over the world, 140 of them to develop at the grassroots. Again agricultural reform, English language training teaching, that is the Peace Corps the United States is looking to bring here and that President Obama announced when he came here in 2014. It’s a wonderful programme and it has done great work and it creates a new cadre of strong ambassadors for the U.S.-Myanmar relationship. We have senators, we have congressmen, we have so many elite in the United States that were Peace Corps volunteers and that remember where they were placed in the Peace Corps. And they are deeply committed to that country where they were placed so the U.S. Peace Corps which is not here quite yet we want them to get here soon has nothing to do with the military. It’s purely civilian and purely a development arm at very local levels to build people to people contact.

You maybe referring to peace-keeping, peace-keeping forces I know the Myanmar military is thinking about that is they want to be trained and deployed overseas to maintain the peace in areas of instability. That would have to happen step by step through the United Nations and I think already that conversation has started with the U.N. but we don’t have a particular position on that right now and I think we would have to look at that going forward of the benefits of that.

Clearly what’s more of interest though is the internal development of the military, how it operates, how it is structured, how it’s organised. I mean you know, the mind-set of the military and its role in politics and society and that’s where we may be contribute some lessons of ours which they can take or leave. But that we think we can make the military stronger, make the security of the country stronger, and make it more respected both internally and outside the country.

Mizzima: On a more personal note, you are about to move on so what is your next posting?

Ambassador: I don’t have a next posting. I’m not a Foreign Service officer so I have never been part of the State Department. I was appointed by President Obama because I had a background as envoy first. So I am what they call a political appointee. So when I leave, I am unemployed. I left the job in the think-tank in 2009 to join the government. When I leave the government I need to look for work, so I don’t have a job when I leave in the coming months. So we’ll see what I do next.

Mizzima: You will be coming back to Myanmar often I hope.

Ambassador: We’ll see. I can’t leave my commitment to this country. It is very personal as well as professional to me. There’s no doubt about that. It’s been a very very special country for a long time to me and now to my wife and to many others in the United States and around the world. I could not feel more fortunate to be Ambassador now. I can’t even say it was a dream come true because I never dreamed it, it was never even a possibility. But I actually had left working on this in the 1990s to go work in the Pentagon in the (President Bill) Clinton administration and felt very guilty about it. And now as I leave this post I feel I will never leave it in that sense but I do need to be careful because I will have a successor and I don’t want to, you don’t want to be too weighty, when you have a successor you let that successor have his own profile, but I will help him any way I possibly can in the U.S.-Myanmar relationship and anyway I can help this country.

Mizzima: Are there any memorable events you will remember from Myanmar?

Ambassador: Oh so many, Election Day and afterwards with people showing their fingers all of them coming and doing this. Showing their mark and being proud that they voted. It didn’t matter who they voted for, just that they were empowered citizens in voting and they felt that they made a change.

Mizzima: Do you feel that the United States contributed to that change?

Ambassador: I like to think so. I’m not going to say the United States was a determining factor the people of this country were the determining factor. They had struggled courageously for many, many years for this moment. And suffered, many people suffered from all over to get to that moment and again it’s not the end of anything it’s really the beginning of things. I like to think that the U.S. in bringing international attention and assisting the UEC, I commend the UEC for their job, what they did. We hope we contributed to it. I feel satisfied we played a constructive role, but ultimately the pride that I have is not in ourselves, it’s in the people here.

Mizzima: I read your New Year wish on the Embassy Facebook. Why Putao? Why do you want to go to Putao.

Ambassador: Well I have been to a lot of places in the country, I’ve been to different corners. I just got back from travelling off the southeast coast of Kawthaung and the islands over New Year.

Mizzima: You travel quite a lot, extensively?

Ambassador: Well I want to see the country. I told the President Thein Sein during my first meeting with him after presenting my credentials that I wanted to get out and I wanted to talk to people around the country and see first-hand. Because you can’t sit in Yangon, you can’t certainly go to Nay Pyi Taw, or even go to Mandalay, which is also extremely important, sometimes overlooked as a second city. You can’t get a feel for the entire complexity of the country unless you go and talk to people everywhere. And it is the defining challenge of how to bring that unity that single identity to the country amidst the different identities that exist. Whether it’s in Kachin State or Shan State or Karen State or Rakhine State, so I want to hear that first-hand, I want to hear from them. And I have been to Kayah that corner to Loikaw, I have been up to Shan, I’ve been down to Kawthaung, I’ve been in Mawlmayine, Sittwe and up in northern Rakhine State, Kachin State. I’ve not get to go to Sagaing, northwest Sagaing. Putao is the north, the far north in Kachin State and I’ve heard about how beautiful it is, how special it is, where the Himalayas are. It’s just a spot I’ve always wanted to get to. It’s the one spot I haven’t made it to. So I would like to go and see before I depart.

Mizzima: One final question, a personal one: When was the last time you played piano?

Ambassador: Last time I played piano, it was two days ago. When I have a chance, when I have a little bit of time I play piano. I go in fits and starts. I’ll go months without playing and they I’ll play every day and I look forward to it. It is something I have done since I was five. And it’s a great thing to do to relax. I love music and when I play music there a certain, it’s like meditation, which I’ll do on occasion too, but it is way to relax and enjoy, so it’s a very important part of my life.

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