Top US Envoy Pledges Deeper Myanmar Support

By The Irrawaddy 15 February 2023

Following the second anniversary of Myanmar’s coup and the juntas extension of emergency rule for six more months, The Irrawaddys editor-in-chief Aung Zaw talks to the US State Department Counsellor Derek Chollet about the extension, possible pressure to prevent the regime from using airstrikes against civilians and reasons for optimism. 

Q: How do you view the extension of emergency rule by the regime?

Chollet: I think that this extension of the emergency law by another six months is yet another transparent attempt by the SAC [State Administrative Council] to justify its unlawful rule. It is two years ago that the junta took action to undo the November 2020 election. And of course, it’s been trying ever since to find ways to legitimize itself and to find the way for it to justify its rule.

We are, of course, also ready and prepared for an announcement at some point about holding new elections, which we have been very clear about for the last better part of the last year so that any new elections would be illegitimate. They’d be sham elections.

You cannot hold free and fair elections when you are killing and locking up your political opposition, not allowing political parties to operate and you don’t control 50 percent of your territory.

So this is just the news today which is just another step by the junta that we reject.

Instead of finding ways to perpetuate its unjust rule, we call on the SAC to return Myanmar to the path of democracy and engage in meaningful discussions in which Myanmar can get back on that path.

Q: What pressure could prevent the junta from using airstrikes against civilians?

Chollet: Well, we have seen the horrors only multiply over the last two years in terms of what the junta is willing to do against its own people who, by the way, are firing back on the junta because it’s only hardening the resolve of the opposition.

We have taken steps along with our allies and partners over the last several years now to try to make it harder for the junta to generate revenues and also harder for the junta to acquire arms. Unfortunately, because of the views of some members of the UN Security Council, a ban on arms is not going to be achievable anytime soon, if ever.

Nevertheless, the United States feels the country should not be supplying the junta with military hardware. We have seen countries take a step back in their willingness to engage militarily with the junta. Unfortunately, other countries, like Russia, have only doubled down on their relationship with the junta. And the military relationship has only grown stronger between Myanmar and Russia over the last several years, particularly as the circle of friends that both have had gotten smaller because of what Russia has been doing in Ukraine and what Myanmar has been doing against its own people.

So we took some additional steps with the United States along with allies and partners [on January 31] to try to make it harder for the junta to acquire arms. And we’ll continue in the coming weeks and months to augment those steps, to make it harder for the junta to acquire the capabilities and the spare parts that it needs to prosecute this war.

Q: The Burmese people welcome these moves. The people are united against the junta and the support from Russia. How do you respond to the claims that the US is outsourcing responsibility to ASEAN?

Chollet: Our policy has been rooted in three lines of effort. First was to isolate and punish the junta and to make it harder for the junta to generate revenue and acquire resources and weapons. Second has been to help support the pro-democratic opposition within Myanmar.

That’s been principally through our work with the National Unity Government [NUG], but also beyond that, with the NUCC [National Unity Consultative Council], with the EAOs [ethnic armed organizations] with the PDF [People Defense Force]. We have been engaging with them.

I’ve personally been engaging with them over the last several years, either in person or virtually trying to figure out what they need, give them our best advice and also give them, as best we can, the support that they need.

And the United States is not alone in this effort. We’re working with others in the region and beyond in support of the NUG.

And then, third, to help continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar. The United States is the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar. We are constantly exploring ways to get that assistance into Myanmar more efficiently, more effectively, to the people that need it the most.

And we will redouble those efforts in the time to come.

What I can say is we have been working very hard, and really the foundation of our policy has been to work very hard with our ASEAN partners.

This is not a matter of outsourcing anything to anyone.

ASEAN, of course, has a vested interest in Myanmar’s future, in Myanmar’s stability and Myanmar being a democracy.

Whether you’re a country that borders Myanmar, whether you’re an ASEAN country that is a littoral state, you have an interest in Myanmar’s future, because Southeast Asia matters so much to the United States for our strategic interests. That’s why Myanmar matters to us. Myanmar matters to the stability of Southeast Asia and the ability of ASEAN countries to reach their full potential. And we very strongly value that partnership with ASEAN as you know.

We are very pleased with the strong steps that ASEAN has taken over the last year to try to make it harder for the regime to gain any sense of legitimacy or recognition by the international community.

When it comes to being able to participate at a political level at meetings such as the US-ASEAN Special Summit that we hosted in Washington back in May, all the way up until the high-level meetings at the end of last year and even the informal ASEAN foreign ministerial meeting that Indonesia is hosting now.

Myanmar will not be represented at the political level. We think that it’s important to maintain that isolation of the regime and the inability of the regime to get any legitimacy or recognition.

At the same time, as I said, we’re working closely with our allies and partners to try to give the opposition as much support as we can.

And just yesterday in Washington, Daniel Kritenbrink, who’s my colleague and our assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, visited the NUG office in Washington.

I will be visiting myself very soon and we’re going to continue that constant dialogue with the NUG and other pro-democracy opposition in Myanmar to figure out how best we can provide a way forward or help them find a way forward in this crisis. I should also note we’re working closely with other international organizations, principally the United Nations, and we’ve all been in close touch.

I’ve personally been in close touch with the UN special envoy for Myanmar, as well as the human rights rapporteur for Myanmar, who’s made some very strong statements, including an important report that was just released on the situation.

The UN Security Council, in a historic first, late last year, finally passed a resolution condemning what was going on inside Myanmar. There were very important steps for the Security Council to be heard on this issue formally through a resolution.

It had issued a statement and had briefings in the past. But I think that’s an indication of the seriousness with which the world is taking this crisis, the fact that the Security Council was finally able to overcome its differences and speak to this issue.

Q: Can the US do more to protect civilians?

Chollet: Well again, we will continue to provide that significant support for the people of Myanmar and the humanitarian assistance as well as support to the National Unity Government and other pro-democracy actors in Myanmar to enable them to gain more capability and prepare them for what we hope and believe will be one day a return to democracy inside Myanmar.

And the National Unity Government, as well as other pro-democracy leaders, has really done some very significant work to think about the future of Myanmar’s Constitution and governance to prepare for that day, which we hope will come soon when Myanmar will return to democracy.

And it’s important to note this will be a different country than it was on January 31, 2021. It will be a different democracy.

And I think the opposition and National Unity Government and their colleagues have learned a lot about some of the challenges that the previous democratic government in Myanmar had, as well as, of course, what’s been going on now, and taking that into account for the future democracy of Myanmar.

And we will continue to find ways to support that democratic opposition and the people of Myanmar. The Burma Act, which was passed by the US Congress late last year, was a bipartisan piece of legislation.

We, the Biden administration, worked very closely with our Republican and Democrat colleagues on Capitol Hill to help craft that legislation.

We are fully supportive of that act. And that gives us some important new tools that we plan to use to help the people of Myanmar realize their democratic destiny.

Q: What is the status of the NDAA Burma Act? Has implementation started?

Chollet: We have started to implement the various components of that act. Of course, some of those components are going to take a while to begin implementing.

But one of the things that we believe is so important about it is again, it registered and symbolized the bipartisan commitment in Washington to the support that we believe we need to give to the people of Myanmar, to the democratic opposition inside Myanmar.

And we are going to be working with our allies and partners in the region and beyond to coordinate our efforts because we believe that we are much stronger when we are working together on these issues.

And the people of Myanmar deserve our support, given the tremendous hardship they’ve been facing that you have done such a terrific job covering this crisis from the very beginning. We’re going to continue to do our part so that when we meet again a year from now, we’re talking about the democratic path that Myanmar is on, not the bloody hardships that the junta is perpetrating against its people.

Q: Why are you so optimistic in the face of this brutality?

Chollet: Well, again, part of the job is.

Q: Could Thailand do more?

Chollet: It’s important to be a successful diplomat, you have to have some degree of optimism. You have to be really realistic too. Even when you’re faced with a crisis like Myanmar, which there’s a lot to be pessimistic about, I have gained optimism.

During the [February 1] silent strike the scope is yet another symbol of the tremendous resilience, spirit and strength of Myanmar’s civil society, of its pro-democracy, not just leaders, but everyday citizens who want a better life for themselves and are willing to stand up and push back against this brutal junta.

The resilience and strength of Myanmar’s civil society have surprised the junta.

I don’t think they expected it was going to be this kind of fight when they took the steps they took two years ago. So that gives me hope and optimism.

And the work that the NUG and other pro-democracy groups have done over the last two years gives me hope for a more democratic future.

That said we have to be realistic. This is going to be tough. There are going to be many tough days ahead. Unfortunately, the continued airstrikes mean we have to realistically expect some of that to continue now.

But we need to continue to work hard to put that to an end, to find ways to cut off the regime’s ability to access resources and weapons and strengthen the opposition. That’s something we are committed to.

And the countries of the region are critical parts of that. Thailand is a critical ally of the United States. We’ve been treaty allies now for decades. Thailand has a very long border with Myanmar, and a lot of its core national security interests are at stake.

I can tell you we have a running dialogue with our partners in Thailand in person and over the phone about the way forward there. Thailand is a critical ally with a lot at stake and we are working closely with them.

And the other members of ASEAN, whether it was Cambodia last year as ASEAN chair, Brunei in 2021 or this year, of course, we’re looking forward to working closely, even more closely with our good friends in Jakarta as they are chairing ASEAN through this year.

It’s very important that we are working together, US, ASEAN, but also more broadly, the UK, Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea and other countries with interest and influence in the situation in Myanmar.

Q: Many powerful cronies close to the regime remain unpunished by sanctions.

Chollet: We recently announced a new set of sanctions against individuals and entities, including some of those individuals who are most closely associated with Myanmar’s ability to generate revenues from energy as well as the arms trade.

We will continue to be looking at any individual or entity who’s associated with those efforts, and they should know that more is coming, and they should stop these activities because if they don’t, they will be punished. And again, this is not just the United States doing this, its partners like the UK, Australia, Canada and others. The EU has imposed significant sanctions as well.

What we’re seeing is the world, not just Southeast Asia, but increasingly the balance of the rest of the world, come down against what the junta is doing and be willing to take significant steps to ensure the junta pays the price for what it’s doing.