Mitchell Confirmed as Ambassador to Burma

By Lalit K Jha 2 July 2012

WASHINGTON—The United States Senate on Friday confirmed the nomination of Derek Mitchell as the first US Ambassador to Burma in two decades. He is soon expected to travel to the country to head the mission in the country.

Mitchell, currently the special US representative and policy coordinator for Burma, has been a key player in implementing the Burma policy of the Obama administration. “I congratulate Derek Mitchell on his confirmation as our ambassador to Burma,” said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

“He has done an excellent job in his current role as Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma. His experience will serve us well in the region as he builds on the strong foundation established by Michael Thurston and our embassy team in Rangoon,” McConnell said.

Meanwhile, in her remarks to the World Affairs Council, US Assistant Secretary of State for Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration Anne Richard said the US is deeply concerned about ethnic and sectarian violence in Burma that has led Burmese to flee to neighboring countries to seek refuge.

“Enthusiasm about recent democratic changes in Burma are tempered by our very real concerns about violence against the Rohingya people of Burma’s Rakhine state,” she said. “We continue to press for a halt to hostilities, for sustained and unfettered access to Burma’s conflict zones, and for genuine political dialogue toward national reconciliation and lasting peace.”

Earlier this week, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell told a Washington think-tank that the US will spell out its pathway to ease sanctions on Burma over next few weeks. “One of the things that we will be seeking to do over the course of the next several weeks is to be quite clear about the path that we will take in terms of the easing of our sanctions. We want to create a capacity for substantial American investment and involvement in the country,” he said.

“We want to put our lot squarely behind the reform effort and make very clear, as Secretary [of State] Clinton has said, that Burma for American businesses will be open for business. And we will do it in a responsible way. And the Secretary will be rolling out some specific initiatives when she visits Southeast Asia in the next few weeks,” Campbell said.

Now that he has been confirmed, Mitchell, as he told a Senate Committee during his confirmation hearing, looks forward to many more opportunities for discussions with Aung San Su Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League of Democracy, about her country and about how the US can assist its progress going forward.

“Perhaps the most important development of the past year, again as you suggested Mr. Chairman, in fact has been the partnership between Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein,” he told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing last week this week.

“President Thein Sein has proved to be a remarkable figure. We should never forget to recognize his extraordinary vision and leadership and the many reformist steps he and his partners in government have taken over the past year. Steps that have clearly reflected the aspirations, indeed sacrifices of millions of brave Burmese over many years,” Mitchell said, noting that at the same time the US has no illusions about the challenges that lie ahead.

Reforms, Mitchell said, are not irreversible and continued democratic change is not inevitable. We remain deeply concerned about the continued detention of hundreds of political prisoners and conditions placed on those previously released, lack of rule of law, and the constitutional role of the military in the nation’s affairs. Human rights abuses including military impunity continue, particularly in ethnic minority areas, he said.

“Recent sectarian violence in Rakhine State demonstrate the divisiveness in Burma, cultivated over many decades, if not centuries, that will need to be overcome to realize lasting peace and national reconciliation in the country,” Mitchell said.

The US diplomat said that the Obama administration has been quite consistent and direct in public and in private about its continuing concerns about the lack of transparency in Burma’s military relationship with North Korea.

“And specifically that the [Burmese] government must adhere to its obligations under relevant UN Security Council resolutions and its other international nonproliferation obligations,” Mitchell said. “If confirmed as ambassador, I will continue to make this issue of highest priority in my conversations with the government and be clear that our bilateral relationship can never be fully normalized until we are fully satisfied that any illicit ties to North Korea have ended once and for all,” he said.

Reiterating that the US has an “action-for-action” approach, Mitchell said, “Each action we have taken in recent months has had as its purpose, to benefit the Burmese people and strengthen reform and reformers within the system. This engagement should continue and expand. If confirmed, I will do my part in the field to support a principled approach that effectively marries our values with our broader national interests.”

Recently, Clinton announced a broad easing of restrictions, and a new investment in the exportation of US financial services to Burma. “As she stated in May, we look forward to working with the business sector as a new partner in our principled engagement approach. If confirmed, I will promote US business interests in Burma, which ensuring companies understand the complex environment in which they will be engaging and the important role they can play in promoting American values and interests in the country,” Mitchell told lawmakers.