Derek Mitchell, the now-former US ambassador to Burma, has helped guide a remarkable transformation in bilateral relations between the two countries since he was installed in 2012 as Washington’s top envoy in the Southeast Asian nation. The Irrawaddy’s English edition editor Kyaw Zwa Moe sat down with Mitchell last month to discuss a range of issues including economic sanctions, national identity and Burma’s historic November general election. Mitchell’s last official day on the job was Monday.
You’ve witness a lot over the past few years in Burma. How do you feel now that you’re leaving?
I feel a mixture of emotions, for obvious reasons. There’s a great sadness that my wife and I feel to leave this country because we have loved it so much. I feel gratitude for what I’ve been able to witness, gratitude to be part of a historic time that continues to unfold. We don’t know how this is going to unfold, but we are in a very different place than we were years ago. We’ll have to figure out ways that we can continue to contribute without being ambassador and wife.
I think we have both witnessed a lot of change over the past five years. A few days ago, the current administration arrested Nilar Thein, a prominent, political activist. How do you feel leaving Burma with political prisoners still incarcerated and political activists facing arrest?
These are people I’ve gotten to know over the past several years who I admire tremendously for their courage and their commitment to their country. It is disappointing to be departing before their situations are cleared up. The issue of political prisoners is one of the priorities that I took up. These people are allies in democracy. They believe in free speech. They are patriots. It’s disappointing that this legacy of the past remains. But, I’m hopeful that a new government and maybe a new era are coming, that all people will be able to freely express themselves, and that the laws will be changed to embrace free speech instead of seeing it as a threat to stability.
That latest arrest indicated that the international community didn’t manage to convince Thein Sein’s administration to accept international and democratic norms. How difficult is it for you to convince Thein Sein’s administration to accept those norms?
What they’re saying is they have violated laws that are on the books as they’ve been passed by the Parliament. I wish they would be selective in their interpretation of the laws in order to allow for free speech and the right to demonstrate. It is the responsibility of the new government to put this era in the past, to pass laws that are clear, and to place people in the ministries that will interpret these laws in ways that affirm democratic practice. There are limitations on free speech and demonstrations, but they should be consistent with international standards.
Why do you think the administration, with only one month left to govern, keeps arresting or intimidating the people?
I think it is an old mindset of what constitutes stability and rule of law. They may believe there are laws on the books that you need to follow in order to have a demonstration, and if you don’t follow those laws you are held accountable. This is a sensitive moment and they want to ensure stability to get to April 1, just as they felt they had created a stability that allowed the elections to occur. That’s one mindset. And I think what you need is a new mindset and a new government so that belief is something of the past.
It won’t be easy for the president of the NLD to announce amnesty for the political prisoners. They need to collaborate with the minister of the Home Affairs Ministry, which will still be appointed by the military.
I think clearly Daw Suu [NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi] wants to form a partnership with the military and convince them that democratic stability is different than military stability. The stability imposed by force against people who are freely expressing themselves is harmful to the democratic system you want to create. It creates more tension in society rather than creating a stable environment where everybody feels they have a voice.
Many critics have said that the current administration might try to make a comeback in coming years. Do you share this concern?
I don’t think it’s going to happen. There is a history here of military domination of politics and there’s a lot of mistrust. That’s represented in that question. You have a history and you’ve had disappointments. People didn’t expect the elections to go well. The people of this country have earned that, but they should work for the best and build trust steadily. The only hope for the country is to work for the best rather than assume the worst.
As far as we know, the ongoing meetings between Suu Kyi and the senior general are going well. What is the best scenario that could come from these crucial meetings?
A partnership. If they can build trust and a common vision going forward, these two people can set a model of reconciliation for the entire country. The country can succeed if the NLD and the military can work something out.
What is the worst scenario?
I think we should stop focusing on bad scenarios. When people focus on bad outcomes, they may act in ways that create more tension and mistrust. I hope people on all sides in this country think about how to make things better instead of assuming that what happened in the past is inevitable going forward. The only way there’s a possibility of positive change is to hold out for the possibility of a positive future.
Without the military’s cooperation, the NLD government will face difficulties in many areas including the peace process, corruption and the economy. How should the new administration deal with the power of the military?
With great patience and great openness. The strength of the incoming NLD government is that they are clearly the will of the people. If the military wants to be on the side of the people they should be partnering with civilian leadership. The NLD recognizes the need for a strong, respected military. They’re not anti-military. If they can reach an understanding that both sides want the best for the country, then they can work on issues like military control of the economy, land confiscation, peace, drugs and accountability for military abuses. The NLD can reassure the military that they’re not looking to attack; they’re looking to build a partnership for the future.
The United States administration has been engaging with the military as well. Do you see that kind of willingness in the military to work with the NLD?
They’re certainly saying that. I do think that there is a genuine desire for peace. Militaries are the ones who get killed and wounded on the front lines. They are often the ones who want peace the most. But we’ll have to see what they’re willing to sacrifice or compromise in order to get the peace they say they want. Again, it comes down to mistrust. They have enormous mistrust in the ethnic armed groups and the NLD.
In Burma, the Constitution guarantees the military 25 percent of the seats in Parliament, three ministerial positions and the selection of a vice president. What if they want more from the political dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi?
It’s incumbent on the military to take the steps to ensure the country that things have changed, that they’re embracing the people’s wish for civilian leadership, and that they will conform to a new democratic moment. That includes issues of whether they need to control certain ministries or what their representation is in Parliament. If they can stand side by side with the opposition on April 1 and say, ‘We will work together for the betterment of this country,’ that will go a long way to build the trust that’s necessary for a true people’s military.
Many observers and critics say the US re-engagement policy in Burma was encouraged by the Chinese influence in the region. The Chinese government has been active in reaching out to the opposition parties over the past year, especially after the US government started re-engaging with Burma. How important is China as a factor for the United States in Burma?
It’s not a factor for us. It’s more a factor for the people of this country. China is recognizing it’s a new day in the country, that there are new voices they need to talk to. But that’s not about the United States, that’s about the success of your reform process. We’re only concerned if any country, not just China, involves itself in a way that is contrary to the interests of the people. Anything that gets in the way of this country’s success makes us concerned. The democratic success of this country is in our national interest because it can be another engine of growth, and a model of democratic success in Asia. That’s the only so-called China factor that we’re concerned about and that’s true of any country.
The Chinese government doesn’t seem to support the new US policies in Burma. Is a clash between the US and China likely as the US gets more engaged with Burma?
I hope not. I know there are suspicions that the United States is here because of China. China has expressed those concerns, both privately and publicly.
I have tried to keep a US-China dynamic out of this country. You have enough problems to worry about.
China may have concerns in terms of the instability along the border between China and Burma.
I can understand that. There’s a long border and they have security concerns. We have concerns along our border in the United States. China may question what the US is doing given the tension in their relationship and suspicions writ large throughout the region. But we are not here to counter China. This is not a strategy to use Burma as a tool to contain China. But we do care that this country maintains its sovereignty, maintains its ability to control its borders, and have a peace process that is not influenced negatively by outside powers. It’s not a China issue. But if China is engaged in the country, we hope they adhere to the values of transparency, democracy and human rights that the people want.
The Chinese leaders probably feel they are losing their neighbor, Burma, to the United States. I think that is a great concern for Chinese people.
That’s a zero-sum mentality. The Chinese like to say they don’t believe in a zero-sum mentality. If they believe that our improved relationship with Burma is coming at their expense, this counters their view of how things should operate in this region. It is incumbent on China to do what’s necessary to earn the trust and respect of people here, just like it’s incumbent on the US to do the same. You are a proud people with your history, you want your sovereignty, you have huge neighbors and you remember colonialism. You don’t want to be dominated by great powers so we each have to do our part to earn your trust. I don’t think any big country should demand it without earning it.
Over the past five years, since President Thein Sein’s government started opening the country, the US administration has eased sanctions. Will the US lift more sanctions?
We’ve gone a long way in terms of sanctions. There are no trade sanctions now, and we have eased on investment so that American companies can come in. There’s simply a blacklist, a selected list of people that we have restricted our businesses from working with. I’m proud of American businesses and what they have done here. But we recognize that there is not a level playing field, that the structure of the economic system is the same as it was before. There are people with money who are confiscating land and we feel that our businesses should not be working with them in the interest of real economic justice.
We consistently review our sanctions policy to determine what is getting in the way of our ability to promote reform here. Democracy must deliver for the people. Jobs must be created. People must feel there’s something different. That balance is something we have to think about and clearly we’re not doing this alone. We’re doing this in close consultation with the new government and we’ll do it in close consultation with ethnic communities who may feel that they’re not being listened to.
Recently President Thein Sein didn’t go to the summit in the US. What was the reason?
You’d have to ask them why he decided not to go. I think it was unfortunate since President Obama met with all the other leaders of the region. I heard Vice President Nyan Tun did an outstanding job, but it’s always good to have the president there to meet his counterparts. But he made his decision and I respect it. You’ll have to ask him the reason.
What kind of conflict do you see in the new administration?
I can’t predict. It’s a matter of personalities; it’s a matter of Daw Suu and the new president working with the military to build trust. Nothing is easy in this country. It has its own way of developing. It never takes the path you hope it’d take going forward. But that doesn’t mean it can’t work. It’ll just be more complicated and more unique in how the international community deals with it. It’ll be a strange governmental structure but it can still work and we will do our best to help it work, to enable it to succeed.
You’ve had the opportunity to meet with high-ranking people from both sides here? Will you write a book about Burma in the future?
I don’t think I’ll write a book anytime soon. I’ll let things settle and see how things come out. There’s still a lot to work on. When I go back, I want to give talks and explain what I’ve seen here to ensure people outside the country understand the context and complexity of what is happening.
In Burma, we have villains and heroes. How would you categorize those two groups in Burma’s political arena?
I think there are many heroes. And people here will decide on villains. There are people who did not allow things to move forward quickly because of old mindsets, but I hope people don’t think in those terms.
I wanted to do away with that. I didn’t deal with who was right or wrong; it was, ‘How can we both work together, everyone work for the best.’ That’s the mindset that’s critical for a country that’s been so divided. That mindset will continue to hold the country back. I hope people think in terms of what can we do to build a single, successful Burma and come to a real national identity. That’s a huge challenge. There’s never been a single national identity in this country.
How do you overcome the singular identities that people hold onto because they feel they’re under siege? There must be a respect for the past. Once people are reassured that their identity isn’t under threat, we can work to build a single national identity.
What is your most memorable achievement during your stay here?
Setting the foundation for a lasting US-Burma people-to-people relationship, reconnecting our societies, and rediscovering the history that we’ve had. I want to maintain that momentum. I’m proud of laying that foundation. That’s the most important legacy I can have because the rest of it can come and go.
What is your farewell message to the Burmese people?
Think about the positive. Take account of the past. Build communities of cooperation. Division has held the country back. Now, you’re starting a peace process where divisions are hopefully being overcome. That’s the only way democracy can succeed.
And to the international community, don’t forget about this country. Be patient, but not too patient. Recognize that certain types of change will happen gradually but that other types should happen as soon as possible. The dignity of every human being in this country should be respected. The international community will not forget about issues of human dignity. It’s what we have fought for. We want you to succeed.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.