An Interview with Derek Mitchell, U.S. Ambassador to Burma

Burma ambassadorAmbassador Derek Mitchell has worked in and around the U.S. government for the past twenty years. Mitchell has served as the Senior Program Officer for Asia and the Former Soviet Union at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs from 1993-1997, the senior fellow and director of the Asia Division of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) from 2001-2009, and Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma in 2011. In 2012, Mitchell was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to Burma — the first person in two decades to occupy this post. 

The Politic: Are you a member of the Foreign Service?

No, I’m not part of the Foreign Service. I am what I think George Shultz called a non-career professional, or a political appointee. I have a background in Asia and I have worked in the Clinton administration and now the Obama administration, but I am not a career diplomat.

The Politic: Where did your interest in East and Southeast Asia stem from?

I can tell you the life story; different people get into these things for different reasons. When I went to college, the Cold War was still around and I studied Soviet Affairs because that is what everyone did. But frankly, when I got out of college and went to Washington, I didn’t want to do what everyone else did. I asked myself what would be more pioneering work to do, and I thought Asia. I got involved with Asia originally because I thought it was a fascinating area — an area that was less traveled in the mid-to-late 1980s than Soviet studies was. Since I had time before graduate school, I decided to land in Taiwan, work at a newspaper there and study Chinese. This all occurred while the world was busy studying Japan.

You may be too young to remember, but in the late 1980s, everything was about Japan — they were buying up America — but I thought it would be interesting to study what was happening in China. So that is where it really started — it was a late Cold War interest in a new area that was getting less attention. What I had considered an undervalued asset. Although I restricted myself largely to China between the next decade, I still kept an interest in the region as a whole and pursued Asian affairs and various incarnations of that later on. I was in Taiwan as a journalist, as an NGO working on democracy promotion in the mid-1990s, as a political appointee in the Pentagon during the Clinton Administration, then at a think tank and then back in the Obama administration. So it developed over the past 20 to 25 years in that way.

The Politic: Why Burma in particular?

Well, I always say that my head is full of a lot of strategic and security components of Asia because I have worked in the field since 1997. I worked on Burma when I was at the National Democratic Institute in the mid-1990s. I worked at NDI from 1993 to 1997, but got to Burma for the first time in 1995 just when Aung San Suu Kyi was first released from house arrest. About a couple months later, I got to meet her and was touched by her mission and what was going on in this country. So my head has been in security but my heart has been in Burma for all these years. And I kept enough of an eye on it [Burma] when I worked for the Pentagon, even though it kind of drifted a little bit. The State Department began to focus on Burma around 2007, which led a friend of mine who was coming out of the Bush administration [Michael Green] and I to rethink the debate about Burma, which was largely focused on whether to continue with a policy of sanctioning the country or to engage it. I thought this thinking was unhelpful and not a very creative way at looking at policies.

Ambassador Mitchell with Aung San Suu Kyi
Ambassador Mitchell with Aung San Suu Kyi

So I co-wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs with Michael Green that got me back into Burma. In that piece, I had said that there should be someone tasked from the U.S. government to be focused 24/7 on Burma, an envoy of some kind. Congress picked up on that and required that the administration fill a political position of special envoy or special representative. To make a long story short, I was chosen to do it in late 2010 and began in 2011 just as things were starting to open up. So my interest in Burma extended from my days at the NGO in the mid-1990s and then lay dormant for a period of time; I fortunately fell back into Burma just as things were developing.

The Politic: As the U.S ambassador to Burma, what is your role in fostering relations between our two countries?

It is an extension of my time as envoy, where I was very close to policy makers and the policy discussion in Washington. It began with President Obama and Secretary Clinton, where as Secretary for Asia I was trying to see whether we could find a way forward in our relationship, and see if we could assist in the process of reform in a different way than continuing sanctions. That is what we focused on for the year I had that job, but when the administration decided to post an ambassador there, I took that job and brought all of that to Rangoon. A lot of the day-to-day activities are obviously done here where we continue to implement that vision of being partners in reform. [In order to accomplish this] My job is having regular conversations on a day-to-day basis — very frank conversations — that it is in fact in our national interest that this place succeeds in its mission to itself, and that we will do everything we can to support it. We also hope that other countries will help to support the process, to ensure that Burma becomes an open, democratic, prosperous and just society under rule of law. My job everyday is to see ways that I can promote the American relationship, and empower strategic policy with a very particular value-based interest that they succeed in becoming the democracy that they will choose to be.

The Politic: Given the historic reforms that Burma has recently undergone, culminating in the U.S. restoring diplomatic relations by sending an ambassador there, do you believe that these reforms are a real opportunity to engage Burma and create long-lasting ties, or simply ephemeral and expedient for the generals?

I think engaging with people, seeing what is being done day-to-day, taking peoples’ pulse, and dealing with them face-to-face will have an impact over time. People in [Burmese] society believe that there is something real and different happening now. But there are no guarantees that this thing will end up where we all hope it ends up, and there are no guarantees that the process won’t hit bumps or even stop due to instability. That said, I do think it is real. I think there are people in the government, at senior levels, who are truly committed to making this thing work. There are probably others in Burma who may be threatened or don’t want to see it go so far. These people will try to protect themselves and not put at risk the prerogatives, preferences, and advantages they have had in the past. Dealing with that tension is our job — finding ways to convince them that this is in fact more practical than before. It is a judgment call, and we will judge them by their actions — not by their words. I think that their actions to date have proven that they are seeking a different future than the authoritarian nature of their past.

The Politic: I know that Aung San Suu Kyi is a revolutionary figure in Burma and has had an impact on your life as well. Is there one person — it could be her or anyone else — or experience or event in Burma that has most influenced one or more of your policies?

I am influenced by an aggregation of things. Certainly, Aung San Suu Kyi has had an impact. People are interested in what she has to say not only because is she very, very smart and very, very committed to all the values that are developing in her country, but because she is by far the most popular person and therefore the most representative person of the Burmese people. There is no question that she represents something broader in society, and for that reason, she has a great deal of influence on the way people in the United States, Capitol Hill and the administration look at things. But there are many people and many events that could determine how we shape our policies. It’s difficult to say one event or one person — it is an aggregation of things that make us think that something different is going on here.

Burma Obama Suu KyiThus, we have been watching everything closely. Aung San Suu Kyi has been very helpful in talking us through and explaining issues, but we are also watching what the government does to guide our policies. In the reopening of the country, there is not just one person who is speaking anymore. There are many more voices in civil society, as there should be in a democracy. So we’re listening to a full spectrum of voices — in the ethnic nationality and minority communities as well as the government and parliament — and they’re all not saying the same thing necessarily. So relations with Burma has become more complicated.

The Politic: Amid all of these changes, human rights abuses continue to plague the ethnic minority regions of Burma, most notably the Kachin in the North, as well as religious strife occurring between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist populations in the West. Do you think the U.S. has a role to play in mitigating these crises? How does the U.S. reconcile its desire to reward progress, however slow and complicated, with Thein Sein’s government while holding the current regime accountable for these problems?

I think we do this well, but we must be very sensitive because these issues are delicate. They are also different issues. The Rohingya issue is different than the Kachin issue, and Kachin is different than Shan and Karen — though there are somewhat similar demands among the ethnic groups. The defining challenge of the country is how this place can be governed politically since it is a nation of very diverse peoples. But they all have to come together in a democracy, and that is really the challenge. So we tread somewhat lightly, although the U.S. is committed to human rights and justice everywhere in the world. That justice should not only be for the Burmese or Aung San Suu Kyi, but it should be for everybody in the country, which include the ethnic minorities. You can’t have development without peace and you can’t have true democracy without human rights for those people, so these issues have always been central for us.

We try not to be too public in condemnation, and there are ways now of doing it more privately, but they know how we feel. We can also play a role because these ethnic nationalities are quite insecure; they have a deep mistrust of the government and they’re looking for others to give them a sense of security. They want to know that there are people outside of their government — in the U.S., U.K., or the UN, for example — who are watching the situation, holding the Burmese government accountable, and making sure that they follow up on their commitments. We can also help informally by providing reassurance to both sides that we are honest brokers so that everyone feels more secure in trying to work these things out. Thus, I do think that we have a role to play and we are playing it as sensitively and as constructively as we can.

On the Rohingya note, that is a whole separate can of worms that clearly we are concerned about. The Rohingya have been particularly oppressed. They live in the Rakhine State, which is the second least developed state in [Burma]. We are careful, but definitely committed to ensuring that the Rohingya and everybody in the country who is not treated equitably in terms of human rights will be in the future. On the issue of whether or not we can hold the government accountable, I think we can. There are different ways of doing this, but we have been consistent with engaging the government as well as demonstrating our concern both publicly and privately about human rights abuses and other problems in the country.

The Politic: There has been a lot of talk about responsible investment in Burma, especially as it relates to ensuring that the flood of funds coming in from abroad do not exasperate current internal crises. Do you see this as a legitimate concern and if so, what actions can the U.S. embassy in Rangoon take to ensure that foreign investment, some of which is coming from American companies, will benefit rather than hurt Burma and America’s relationship with the country?

Easing and waving the investment sanctions is central to our policy. Today, there should be responsible investment, but we must also impose reporting requirements. If you invest, by U.S. law, you’re required to report what you are doing. The transparency and oversight is first of all modeled on the type of behavior we would like to see in the country; they should open their books and demonstrate that they’re doing things responsibly. We tell businesses that they could be partners with us in this — that in fact the country is looking differently to us — to make sure that we do things differently than others have done in the past with regards to extracting resources and ensuring that there is no environmental degradation left behind.

The American brand, you know, leads to the benefit of the people, to the benefit of the society. It is a win-win. So we are committed to ensuring that businesses are behaving the right way, and I think they are really seizing on that. Coca Cola just opened up a plant in Burma last week, and they are doing great work. GE is doing great work. Proctor and Gamble is doing great work. They’re all really taking to this idea of responsible investment and thinking about what kinds of jobs to create and what kinds of benefits will help the local communities. So if we can make this the global brand where everyone invests responsibly, that would be ideal.

The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.  Photo by Eli Rivkin.
The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Eli Rivkin.

The Politic: How do you feel America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?

I am not in the Foreign Service, but I am certainly someone who has worked around the Foreign Service for the past couple years. As I said, I was in the Pentagon, a part of think tanks, and have a lot of friends in the Foreign Service, and I think we are represented extremely well. I recognize the full extent of just how committed people are around the world to ensuring that we are well represented abroad, which is especially the case at my embassy. The tragedy in Benghazi really spotlighted the sacrifices that people make and the danger that people around the world are in who do their jobs.

My service has been a great experience. As for the question of what policies to change, I think that [American diplomats] have been doing everything we can, especially given the remarkably complex nature of international circumstances. Oftentimes, there are no good answers. We must instead choose between a bad answer and a worse answer, which is what the people working in Syria, Libya or North Korea must do. These are all very difficult conundrums, but we chip away them everyday. We do our best and hopefully we get to a point where we can make a real difference. That is the truly exciting part of being here. And if you are not excited about this, then you should probably seek a different line of work.


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