Senior US Official Raises Arakan Concerns With Thein Sein

By Samantha Michaels 11 April 2014

RANGOON — The US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs has raised concerns about the humanitarian situation in Arakan State during meetings with Burma’s president and other high-level government officials in Naypyidaw.

Daniel Russel said he spoke “very candidly” during meetings on Wednesday and Thursday with President Thein Sein as well as Burma’s foreign minister, information minister and deputy minister for border affairs. The discussions focused on the government’s short- and long-term plans in restive Arakan State, as well as preparations for Burma’s Asean chairmanship and US concerns about press freedoms in the country.

Accompanied by US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell, Russel was briefed by Deputy Minister of Border Affairs Maung Maung Ohn about plans to restore humanitarian aid in Arakan State following attacks on the offices and residences of international NGOs and UN agencies in the state capital Sittwe last month. Maung Maung Ohn was the head of a commission established by the Burmese government to investigate the attacks in Sittwe, and earlier this week he criticized state authorities for their weak handling of the incident.

“I conveyed Washington’s concern about the humanitarian situation, as well as our strong hope and expectation that the government will provide the security and the access to international humanitarian agencies necessary to address the needs of the people in distress in Rakhine [Arakan] State,” Russel reporters during a media roundtable at the US Embassy in Rangoon on Thursday.

Russel told The Irrawaddy that he was encouraged by the government’s commitment to provide increased security for INGOs but added that he would need to see whether the plans translated to action on the ground.

“It’s still very early days, because it was only yesterday [Wednesday] when the government issued a statement describing their response plans,” he said, noting several positive signs, including indications that travel authorizations would be granted to NGOs. “We need to wait and see what those statements and commitments translate into in terms of practical steps that allow for early access by humanitarian agencies in a secure environment that allows them to restore the level of service that we previously have seen.”

He said that he and the ambassador raised concerns about the inability of specific INGOs to continue providing critical medical services in the state, including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), whose operations were suspended in Arakan State in late February.

“It is very clear to me that the government takes this problem seriously, and that from the top-down it is looking for ways to facilitate the early return of international aid agencies, and to do so in a way that contributes to the long-term solution to the situation,” he said.

Asked to comment on the Burmese government’s insistence that problems regarding the Rohingya in Arakan State are domestic issues only, Russel told reporters that the interruption of humanitarian services was also a concern for the international community.

“There are domestic issues involved. There are also universal principles involved. We don’t interfere in the domestic affairs of any country, but we certainly act in support of universal principles, including humanitarian principles,” he said.

Earlier this week, presidential spokesman Ye Htut reportedly accused Britain of interfering in Burma’s domestic affairs after the British foreign minister summoned the Burmese ambassador to discuss ongoing restrictions of aid organizations in Arakan State.

Press Freedoms, Asean Chairmanship

In meetings with Burma’s Minister for Information Aung Kyi, Russel said he emphasized the United States’ willingness to assist the Burmese government adjust to “the new era of media openness.”

“We very much welcome the end of censorship laws, we very much welcome the effort to create a legal framework that protects journalists,” he said. “I did share our concern about recent cases where journalists have been arrested and imprisoned under what strike us as arcane and obsolete laws.”

In the latest jailing of journalists in the country, a video reporter from the Democratic Voice of Burma was sentenced on Monday to one year in prison for trespassing after visiting a government education office during office hours and attempting to conduct an interview. Four journalists and the chief executive of Rangoon-based Unity journal are now on trial for allegedly violating the Official Secrets Act after reporting on an alleged chemical weapons factory in the country, while a reporter at Eleven Media Group was sentenced to three months in jail in December for defamation and trespass after writing a story about corruption in the judicial system.

Regarding discussions about Burma’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) this year, Russel said he expected US President Barack Obama to participate in the East Asia Summit to be chaired by Thein Sein in Burma in November.

“I made clear to the foreign minister that from the US perspective, Burma’s Asean year was off to a great start,” he added.

Russel traveled to Burma after a visit to Thailand, and he returns to Washington on Friday. In addition to Burmese government officials, he spoke with representatives of INGOs as well as representatives of diplomatic missions and civil society groups.

The assistant secretary of state has visited Burma twice in the past, including with Obama in 2012 and with former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011.