Chairman Kerry On Burma Special Envoy

Press Contact : 

SFRC Press Office, 202-224-3468


Washington, DC – This morning, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) submitted a hearing statement on U.S. Burma policy at the nomination hearing for Derek Mitchell to be the Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma.  Chairman Kerry was an original co-sponsor of the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act of 2008 that created this special envoy position for Burma.  He and the then-Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Howard Berman (D-CA) wrote to Secretary Clinton on August 5, 2010 to inquire about the administration’s efforts to fill this position.

“If Burma’s leaders make the strategic decision to change, the appointment of a U.S. presidential envoy dedicated to Burma policy offers them an opportunity to redefine their relationship with the United States, pursue policies that can benefit their people, and begin the restoration of Burma’s damaged international reputation,” said Chairman Kerry.  “I and others will be watching to see whether Burma’s government is interested in a path towards peace and democracy or whether it remains anchored to the failed policies of the past.  A critical upcoming test will be Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability to speak freely and move about the country.  My experience working to improve relations with Vietnam taught me that clear-eyed diplomacy, combining elements of pressure and engagement, can encourage even an authoritarian regime to change course, particularly if Washington works in concert with like-minded members of the international community.  This holistic approach holds the best chance of achieving real results for Burma’s long-suffering people.”

The full text of Chairman Kerry’s hearing statement, as prepared, is below:

Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convenes to consider the nominations of Derek Mitchell to be Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma, with the rank of Ambassador, and Frankie Reed to be Ambassador to the Republic of the Fiji Islands, the Republic of Nauru, the Kingdom of Tongo, Tuvalu, and the Republic of Kiribati.

Both the nominees before the Committee today have distinguished records, and they are well-qualified to represent the United States overseas in these important posts.

Given the moral imperative of fashioning a wise policy that benefits Burma’s long-suffering people, I would like to take a moment to discuss the opportunities and challenges that await one of our nominees: Mr. Mitchell, our current Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, and the President’s deserving choice to be his special envoy for Burma.

If confirmed, I have every confidence that Mr. Mitchell will faithfully implement the Obama administration’s “dual-track” approach towards Burma.  After years of a one-sided, “sanctions only” policy that did not produce change, the Administration is seeking to combine pressure with principled engagement to encourage the Burmese government to embrace reforms and make a genuine transition to civilian, democratic rule.  Let me be clear: The special envoy position's mandate is to undertake a comprehensive international effort that includes both engagement with Burma’s leaders and working with Burma’s neighbors and international organizations to coordinate more effectively pressure for change. This holistic approach holds the best chance of achieving real results.

When he arrives in Naypyidaw for the first time early in his tenure, the President’s envoy will need to assess the implications of recent developments in Burma, including the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, the controversial 2010 elections, and the formation of a government led by a former top regime general and now President, Thein Sein. 

Many questions linger about Burma’s new parliament and its “civilian” government.  The elections that produced them reflected a deeply flawed process with highly restrictive rules that excluded the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).  All the while, the NLD’s longstanding leader Daw Suu remained sidelined under house arrest. Members affiliated with the old regime and military appointees occupy almost 90 percent of all positions in the legislatures. While many former military officers now wear civilian clothes, Senior General Than Shwe’s role in daily affairs is not readily apparent.  It is similarly unclear how much power various institutions such as the presidency, vice presidencies, the cabinet, the parliament, the United Solidarity and Development Party and the Tatmadaw (the military) will wield over time. 

If confirmed, I expect Mr. Mitchell will test and probe in principled ways to understand the new political dynamics inside Burma and see if there is a possibly changing environment that is more amenable to calls for reform.  This will require him to consult broadly with various stakeholders, including the government; Daw Suu and other current and future NLD leaders; other legitimate democratic groups; civil society; ethnic groups; and, of course, the international community.  While creatively exploring how best to encourage political change, our envoy will also need to search for ways to help Burma’s people today, including through more effective implementation of humanitarian programs that can empower them.

The Burmese government could take some tangible steps to show it is sincere about making real progress: Releasing political prisoners, easing media and speech restrictions, making good on President Thein Sein’s recent promises of economic reforms, devoting more resources to education and health, as well as allowing greater space for international and non-governmental organizations to help meet the critical needs of the Burmese people would be a good start.  Minimal concrete steps to date in these areas combined with deeply troubling reports of sensitive military technology transfers from North Korea and renewed violence in Kachin state and other ethnic regions make fair-minded observers wonder whether Burma is still conducting “business as usual.”

I believe the Administration is prepared to improve ties with Burma’s government if it breaks from the policies of the past.  For their part, Burmese diplomats have repeatedly expressed a desire for better relations.  In fact, they recently asked for a few modest U.S. measures to build confidence such as calling the country by its current name—Myanmar, and removing travel restrictions on visitors to its United Nations Mission in New York, who have to adhere to a 25-mile limitation.  Yet, there has been very little progress by Naypyidaw on either core human rights concerns or an inclusive dialogue that leads toward national reconciliation.

In the months ahead, both sides should explore taking carefully-calibrated measures independent of each other to begin a process that encourages constructive change inside Burma and could lead to serious talk on tough issues.  Burma could grant the ICRC access to prisoners, for example, while the United States could allow it observer status in a signature, new U.S. program focused on environmental, health, education, and infrastructure development in mainland Southeast Asia called the Lower Mekong Initiative.

Make no mistake, U.S. efforts to encourage democratic reform and progress on human rights will get more traction if our envoy is able to forge greater multilateral cooperation on all facets of U.S. Burma policy. Other Southeast Asian countries can send a message about their own expectations by linking Burma’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014 to tangible political progress. Burma’s giant neighbors, China and India, are also indispensable partners in this equation.

My experience working to improve relations with Vietnam taught me that clear-eyed diplomacy, combining elements of pressure and engagement, can encourage even an authoritarian regime to change course, particularly if Washington works in concert with like-minded members of the international community.

I and others will be watching closely to see whether Burma’s government is interested in a path towards peace and democracy or whether it remains anchored to the failed policies of the past. 

The appointment of a U.S. presidential envoy dedicated to Burma will afford its leaders an important, new opportunity to pursue policies that benefit their people, can improve relations with the United States, and begin to repair their international reputation.

###