Interview

US ‘Exploring Ways to Ramp Up Support’ for Myanmar Opposition: State Dept. Official

By The Irrawaddy 24 September 2022

Earlier this week US State Department Counselor Derek Chollet met with representatives of Myanmar’s civilian parallel National Unity Government and some ethnic armed organizations. On Friday, he spoke with The Irrawaddy about those discussions, as well as the ongoing US and international responses to the crisis in Myanmar.

The Irrawaddy: US President Joe Biden mentioned Myanmar in his speech to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, indicating the regime’s human rights abuses near the end of his 29-minute speech, pointing out that pro-democracy activists and ethnic minorities are being horribly abused. So what is the next move for US policy towards Myanmar?

Chollet: Absolutely. At the same time that President Biden was giving his speech, I was meeting with representatives of the NUG [the shadow, civilian-led National Unity Government] as well as EAOs [ethnic armed organizations] in a meeting which we think is one of the first of its kind, certainly of a US official meeting with the NUG and EAOs combined. An NUG representative is here [in New York] in person, a delegation led by the [NUG] deputy foreign minister but also with the minister of human rights and others, as well as EAO representatives who were on screen from Myanmar.

We felt it was very important for us to convene in New York on the margins of the General Assembly meeting, both the pro-democracy movement as well as the international community to address the worsening crisis there. So in our conversation with the NUG and EAO leadership we talked about a number of avenues that we are exploring to ramp up support for the pro-democracy movement. It was very clearly stated to us by the representatives of the pro-democracy movement that the elections that the junta is saying they’re going to hold would be a sham and they want us in the United States and the international community to understand that, which we of course do, and we have been clear publicly from the United States’ perspective that we agree that these elections cannot be free and fair. But we also talked about the importance of not lending any support to these elections.

Just a few hours later we convened a meeting of a broad set of international partners to discuss the situation in Burma. I made very clear to that group of international partners, representatives of roughly a dozen countries, that the elections have no chance of being free or fair, and for reasons that are obvious, given that many of the opposition have been jailed, killed, forced to flee. And it’s indeed questionable whether the regime can even stage elections with conflict in much of the country, and where the regime controls only half of it. In that meeting with our international partners we also reiterated that we fully support ASEAN centrality and leadership in seeking ways to hold the regime accountable and to upholding the Five Point Consensus. We do believe that ASEAN has significant leverage to deny the regime the credibility it craves. Obviously we hope that ASEAN will use that to support the aspirations of the Burmese people to return to civilian government and peace. That said, we recognize that ASEAN can’t do that alone and we in the international community have to work together to coordinate to provide support and that’s why we wanted to convene this meeting of key players in the international community to discuss the way forward in Myanmar.

You were in Singapore in October last year. You met with the Monetary Authority of Singapore to discuss ways to limit the regime’s access to overseas finances. You said the meeting was productive. What progress has been made on limiting the regime’s access to overseas finances. Also, you haven’t yet sanctioned the MOGE [Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, a major source of revenue for the junta]. Why is that?

So we’ve been working quite closely with our partners in terms of enforcing the sanctions that have already been announced in terms of limiting resources to the regime and Singapore has been a key partner of ours in that effort and we’re very appreciative of their work and of course they’ve been a leading voice within ASEAN in maintaining a strong position to condemn the junta and hold the junta accountable for what they’re doing inside Myanmar. We in the US are continuing to look for ways to promote accountability—whether accountability for the coup itself or for the violence that has come since the coup—and this includes efforts to block revenue to the regime.

And as you know, since February 2021, over the last 20 months, the US has designated numerous leaders of the State Administration Council [the junta’s governing organ], adult family members, other regime individuals who have been responsible for the horrific violence, or those who have aided the suppression of the people’s will. That said we in the US believe the international community must do more to advance this goal and to prevent the recurrence of atrocities inside Myanmar and that includes the ending of arms sales and dual use technology to the military. We in the United States are continuing  to explore targeted sanctions against those who are responsible for the coup and all the violence associated with it.

A key consideration of ours throughout has been evaluating the potential effect on the people and the economy of Myanmar; we do not want to compound the misery of the people of Myanmar in anything that we do to pressure the regime. We don’t want to exacerbate the humanitarian situation. But I can say that we are very focused on further steps that we believe should be taken to hold the regime accountable and to limit the revenue and their ability to perpetrate their unrelenting campaign of violence against the people of Myanmar. So while I can’t here today preview any future sanctions I can tell you that this is something that we are thinking actively about right now, about ways to cut off revenue streams, while at the same time not doing any further harm to the people of Burma in the process. So this is something we spoke about at great length at our two meetings yesterday both with the NUG and the EAO reps as well as with our international partners.

What about Russia? This is a big question because lately Russia has become very prominent [in Myanmar affairs]. [Junta chief] Min Aung Hlaing has visited Russia several times since the coup. Myanmar is the only country in ASEAN to openly back the invasion of Ukraine. And Russia has also sponsored the regime with more arms, more military hardware, fighter jets, helicopters—which were recently used to kill schoolchildren in central Burma. The regime is getting very close to Putin, aside from China. At their recent meeting at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, he called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “leader of the world” and praised him for maintaining “stability in the world”. Russia has prominently entered the game. What is your reaction?

Unfortunately what we’re seeing in Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to Russia is just the latest step in the growing authoritarian partnership between Moscow and the junta. Myanmar has proven to be one of Russia’s most loyal friends. And it’s quite telling that in the same week that we are condemning the horrible campaign of violence against the people of Myanmar—most notably just this week as you said the bombing of a school that resulted in the deaths of children—Vladimir Putin was doubling down on his unlawful, misguided and unacceptable war against Ukraine by calling up reserves and threatening the use of nuclear weapons. MAH has visited Russia three times to ask for aid. [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov visited Myanmar just last month.

As I said we are deeply concerned and condemn the fact that Russia provides the Burmese military arms that are enabling it to perpetrate its violence and commit atrocities and human rights abuses. Unfortunately we are seeing Russia do all of those things today in Ukraine. And Russia’s support for the regime is also undermining stability in the region and that’s a message we’ve sent loud and clear to our partners in the region. Russia’s support for the junta is prolonging the crisis, it’s not doing anything to stop the crisis, and it threatens peace and prosperity not just in Myanmar but throughout the Indo-Pacific and that’s something that has consequences for all of us. We are continuing to explore ways to promote accountability for the coup and everyone who’s responsible for the violence there, including those who support and arm the military regime, and we’re going to continue to work with our international partners to cut off the transfer of weapons and any dual-use items to the Burmese military.

Can you talk about [detained State Counselor] Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention and her relocation to a prison [from house arrest]. She was a highly regarded politician in the US in the past. She was awarded a US Congressional Gold Medal [in 2012]. I’m not sure whether she’s still highly regarded there? She’s still highly regarded inside the country. Secondly, there is a fear in Myanmar of a balkanization of the country. Powerful ethnic armies are asking for autonomy or a confederation, setting up or expanding their own administrations and armies, buying more arms these days. Dry season offensives are coming, Russia is selling the junta more jet fighters—the Su-30—and more sophisticated weapons to attack the insurgent strongholds. There are more refugees and migrants. Political activists and a lot of other people are fleeing the country these days. So one can imagine Myanmar faces the danger of disintegration, and more poverty. The country is heading towards being a failed state. This is all alarming; people are preparing for a worst-case scenario, such as Thailand. How is the US going to work with a traditional ally like Thailand on this crisis?

We believe and we’ve been very clear since February 2021 that the actions taken against [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] beginning with the coup, the unjust conviction of her, the repression of other democratically elected officials, they are just further affronts to democracy and justice in Burma. We’ve been very clear and we repeated it this week with our partners that the regime needs to release Aung San Suu Kyi and all those unjustly detained. The use by the regime of a sham judicial process  to attack political opponents and the rule of law, the continuing use of violence, it just underscores the urgency of restoring the path of democracy. We in the US, and the UN Security Council, others, ASEAN, have repeated [calls to] the military to release Aung San Suu Kyi and her deposed president, Win Myint, and all others unjustly detained. I can say it’s been a consistent demand of various envoys, UN envoys, ASEAN envoys, others, to gain access to Aung San Suu Kyi, to be able to speak with her. The regime has denied that access and further isolated her, which is completely unacceptable.

As for the future of Myanmar, we talked at great length with the NUG and representatives of EAOs about their work towards transitional governance, and their efforts to work on a constitution that is inclusive that represents all the people of Myanmar. It is not for we in the US to decide on Myanmar’s behalf the structure of that governance and the degree of autonomy that might rest within regions. Of course, different states around the world including the US have different ways of organizing themselves. We did offer though and have offered our best expertise and counsel on the way that Myanmar may be governed in the future but ultimately we are supportive of an inclusive democratic process that represents all of the people of Myanmar.

What we want to avoid clearly is the path that Myanmar is on. Because of the junta’s brutalization of the people of Myanmar, and its unrelenting violent campaign, we fear that Myanmar may be on the path of being a failed state. And that’s not in the US interest, it’s not in anyone in Southeast Asia’s interest. And it’s certainly not in the interests of the people of Myanmar. That’s why we wanted to use the occasion of this year’s UN General Assembly to have some of these key meetings. It’s also a topic that came up in many of our bilateral discussions with key partners from the region and around the world. And so the reason I wanted to make sure we had a chance to talk today is to tell you that Myanmar remains foremost on our minds, even with all that’s going on the world. That’s why it was important for the president to raise the issue in his speech.

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