The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
Briefing on Burma by Senior Administration Officials
1:45 P.M. WITA
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just to give you a bit of background -- this comes after many months of engagement between the United States and Burma, which we can speak to.
The President, of course, had a policy of maintaining the very strong pressure that we apply on the Burmese government while also testing engagement. And we felt that this was an appropriate step given the movement by the Burmese government in a range of areas that we can discuss.
The only piece I'll just start with as relates to the President, he's been regularly briefed on this for some time now; he's discussed this with Secretary Clinton for some weeks now. The final piece as far as we were concerned that was very important to take place was for him to be able to call Aung San Suu Kyi last night to confirm that she was supportive of this engagement. He called her from Air Force One. He had a very substantive discussion with her where she was able to update him on her view of the political situation within Burma. And again, my colleagues can speak to that as well.
The President, I have to say, was very -- this was his first conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi. He was very struck by both her substantive observations and her warmth. As he said to us, he has great -- and as he said to her, he's long been a great admirer of hers for her struggle for democracy and human rights, and so it was a particularly meaningful conversation for the President -- but also a friendly one. She even asked the President how Bo, the dog, was doing. (Laughter.) So they were able to have a light series of moments as well.
But with that, I'll turn it over to my colleague to give you a little more background and then --
Q How long was the call?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it was about 20 minutes -- 20 minutes or so.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I can corroborate the reference to the dog. She asked after the family, asked after Bo, and said that she had a dog herself. But we'll have to wait until the next installment to find our more about her dog. (Laughter.)
The President began, as you just heard, by expressing his great personal admiration for her for her commitment to democracy, to political freedom and to human rights, and indicated that he wanted to consult with her on the significance of the developments over the past few months in Burma and solicit her ideas and thoughts about the best approach. He made very clear that our goal is to see a Burma that's responsive to the will of the people and needs of the people of Burma, and one that promotes the well-being of all of the diverse peoples in that country.
She talked with the President about the developments and emphasized the importance of a reconciliation process in Burma that is fully inclusive. She encouraged the President to make clear to Burma's leaders that the U.S. will be willing to work with them if they are, in fact, demonstrating that they are willing to work with the world and with her.
She advised the President that it is valuable and important for there to be direct lines of clear communication between the U.S. and the leadership in Burma. She strongly welcomed the prospect of a visit by Secretary Clinton for the purpose of increased dialogue and engagement both with her and her associates and with the government there.
And I think that they agreed that the timing and sequence of developments from this point forward is important. They discussed Aung San Suu Kyi's thinking about the importance, as I've said, of reconciliation and putting an end to violence in the ethnic areas. And I think they both expressed a hope someday to be able to meet in person.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They did, yes.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, and good to see you all this afternoon. Let me just give you a sense of how this has played out. As you know, in 2009, when the administration came into office, President Obama asked the Secretary of State to conduct a full review of our policy towards Burma. And after a period of close consultation -- we began a consequential with key stakeholders on Capitol Hill, in the region -- Southeast Asia, with China, Northeast Asian friends -- and all of our interlocutors in Europe. I think we came to the conclusion that the policy of sanctions only was not addressing our strategic interests and so we began a process of attempting, while keeping our sanctions in place, to promote a systematic dialogue with both elements of the regime and also Aung San Suu Kyi.
We've had a series of visits, then, in 2009 and 2010. We first started to see real progress, however, late this summer, after a period in which contested elections led to a new leadership in Nay Pyi Taw. Thein Sein is the current President of the country, formerly was the prime minister, and in a very substantial set of steps over the course of the last three months has taken a number of specific things that we had asked them to do over the course of the last several months. I'll just give you what some of those things were.
We asked that the government begin a systematic dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi. And in fact, what we have seen is a very deep set of consultations emerge between her and key members of the government, and particularly the President himself. And she has said on several occasions that she believes that he is a man of goodwill, has the best interests of his country at heart, and she thinks that she can do business with him.
So I think we've been pleased by that and, as you know, that the parliament and the government had taken steps to allow the reregistration of her party -- the NLD -- and they are contemplating how to participate in the political life of the country going forward. So, indeed, the amendment of the political party's registration law allows for much broader participation of various political groups inside the country going forward.
The country still has a very large number of political prisoners, and we have seen the release of some 200 political prisoners in the last couple of weeks. It’s not enough, but it clearly is a first step, and one that we welcome. But we need to see much further progress in this regard. And Aung San Suu Kyi and the President have underscored that to us in terms of our interactions directly.
There are a whole set of other laws that have been put in place, including new labor organization laws, that if effectively implemented would put Burma near the top of the list in terms of how labor issues are handled through Southeast Asia.
Media restrictions have been eased very substantially in the last several weeks. And in somewhat of a surprise move, the government suspended the building of a very large dam on the Irrawaddy, which is the legendary, almost mythic river of Burma.
The government also created a human rights commission and has begun very careful, but very responsible, constructive interactions with various international financial organizations, such as the IMF.
So what we’ve seen really across the board is a substantial set of steps that we thought indicated a seriousness of reform. And indeed, we think that the winds of change are blowing inside the country -- but it’s not far enough yet. And we believe that the best way to help entrench those changes and see them go further is by an active engagement. And that’s why the President decided to send Secretary Clinton to Burma.
We will be in Burma on December 1st and we will have consultations both in Nay Pyi Taw and in Rangoon. So we’re seeking a parallel engagement in which we work very closely with our interlocutors in the government, including the President, the foreign minister, members of the Parliament, but also, constructive dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi; critically, has been suggested, elements of what are called the ethnic minority groups that make up a large part of the country, and other discussions with civil organizations who have been involved in emergency response after Hurricane Nargis.
Q I’m sorry, December 1st is the Secretary’s trip, is that correct?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear.
So I’m going to stop here, and then if there are questions we can --
Q First of all, I want to ask, what does the United States think about ASEAN allowing Myanmar to chair ASEAN in two years -- three years, actually -- and also, do you think that this will feed some fears on China’s part of encirclement? How do you think China is going to react to this, and are you concerned about that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: To your first question, first of all, this is an ASEAN decision, this is an ASEAN organization, and we respect that decision -- the ability of that organization to make decisions. And we hope that by 2014, if this process inside the country continues, then they will be able to hold the summit and a meeting that will be broadly welcomed and supported by the international community. And I think that’s our position right now.
Let me just say, we’ve had very close consultations with China about a whole host of issues in Asia -- North Korea, developments throughout Southeast Asia, Iran, climate change, you name it. But in addition, we’ve had very substantive discussions about Burma -- what they call Myanmar. They have been supportive of our engagement and they have been encouraging of political reform inside the country.
I recognize that you're -- sort of the lens that is being used is seeing some of the developments in kind of this almost bipolar way. I would just simply say that the issue in which the United States confronts enormous historical, moral challenges inside the country really have very little to do with the kind of bilateral dynamics of Sino-U.S. relations.
Overall, they’ve been very supportive. Remember, they want stability on their borders. They want a country that is part of the international community. They have experienced problems with ethnic groups that have led to tens of thousands of refugees in the past pour into China. They have no interest in that. And so we fully expect that they will welcome these developments. And we intend to work closely with them and consult with them along the way.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’d just add one thing that -- on the ASEAN point, as my colleague pointed out, these are parallel issues and that ASEAN makes their decisions. This was very much something that we pursued -- the Secretary’s -- the announcement the President made today, the Secretary’s trip, in our own discussions with the Burmese government.
What I will say, though, is that there -- that this will also be further welcomed by I think the nations in this region. The U.S. engagement with Burma is something that I think will resonate broadly in Southeast Asia, and will be seen as an opportunity to build a relationship not just between the U.S. and Burma -- if they continue down this path -- but fostering greater regional cooperation. So in that respect, we see this as a positive signal.
And similarly, I think it speaks to what we’ve talked about throughout this trip, which is the U.S. deepening its engagement in Asia Pacific, and Southeast Asia specifically. As my colleague pointed out, the focus of our efforts here in Burma are really on the democracy and human rights issues that we care very strongly about that have very broad -- that engender very broad interest in the United States. At the same time, again, as this process moves forward, there is extraordinary potential for a positive set of developments in the region, where you have Burma moving in the direction of reform and potentially having a different relationship with the United States and a deeper integration with the region and the international community.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Could I add on the China question, first and foremost, this is a decision about Burma, of human rights, and it’s in response to measurable, concrete progress that the Burmese leaders are making. It’s, therefore, not -- it’s about Burma, not about China. Secondly, China itself benefits from a Burma that is stable, that is prosperous, and that is -- they’re integrated into the international community. And thirdly, engagement with Burmese leaders by the United States does not come at the expense of China or China’s relationship with Burma.
Q Just following up on that, taking it from a different tack, do you guys think that part of why Burma is doing what it’s doing is because they want to decrease their reliance on China and broaden themselves out to the rest of the world? Do you think that they’re playing a role from that point of view?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think, first of all, it would be fair to say that there are a number of countries in the world that are extraordinarily difficult to make authoritative conclusions about why they do things. North Korea is in that category. Until quite recently, so has Burma.
However, I think that, undeniably, one of the things that has led to this process is the leadership of the country is seeing as they travel around Southeast Asia and other parts of the world that Burma is falling farther and farther behind. This is a country -- and I'll just give you an example, if I could, just one -- so their senior team is here. They don’t carry BlackBerrys because there's almost -- or any kind of Internet device because there's very little service inside the country. They recognize that the cockpit of global prosperity is in the Asian Pacific region, and they’re not playing.
And so I think that, more than anything else. I will also say, having interacted with these guy a lot, they clearly did not enjoy the international isolation that we have subjected them to for decades and they want to rejoin, and they have, frankly, appreciated the respect and the engagement that they’re beginning to receive, and they want to build on that.
And so I think, like all decisions like that, there are a complex set of variables that come to play. But I also think that they are convinced of the seriousness of how the President has approached this, and the determination of the Secretary of State. And I’m confident that -- again, they’ve only taken a first step, but they recognize that we are prepared to meet them in that first step as well.
Q You’ve all said that they haven’t done enough and so forth. So do you have any specific benchmarks that you’ll be looking for them to accomplish, for example, all of the political prisoners that remain behind bars?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Look, our set of issues -- and these are, by the way, not simply issues that the United States seeks. They're broadly recognized among what was often referred to as the "Friends of Burma" -- people in Europe, much of Asia, those who follow the developments in this really mythical and tragic country in many respects.
We would like to see, very clearly, political prisoners released. We're working closely with authorities there and with various organizations, including the International Red Cross. Probably near the top of the list is a serious internal, domestic, diplomacy between the leadership and the various ethnic groups. Remember, the country is made up of a large number of largely different cultures, and some parts of the country have been at war -- civil war -- for decades, since the 1940s. So we need a really systemic level of interaction.
We're seeking further assurances from the government, with respect to its relationship with North Korea and previous interactions on banned articles that we think are antithetical to the maintenance of regional peace and stability.
So there are a whole host of things that we want to continue to work on. But we have to say that on the issues that we have laid out at the outset of these discussions -- remember, even a long journey begins with a couple of steps -- they have been clear, taking those steps, and have worked with us on identifying the path forward. And that's one of the reasons why Secretary Clinton is looking forward to going.
Q And do you have any concerns that the changes that they've made have been cosmetic, as some in the country seem to fear, and that once they get to a certain point of international recognition they'll turn back the clock or something?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Maybe my colleagues would want to say -- but I would just simply say I actually don't pick that up at all. I think most of the people that I interact with -- and I spend a lot of time talking with people inside the country -- principally Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues and others in civil society believe that the moment is now, that this is a sincere effort; the United States had to get off the sidelines.
And so I think the fear is not that these are simply symbolic or less-than-significant reforms. I think the concern is how they entrench them, how to continue this process, how to make sure that they are locked in going forward.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would just add to that that this is also part of the reason why the President felt it was very important to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi before we took this step, in part because he wanted to confirm her support for this engagement. And in fact she was quite supportive and enthusiastic about the need to try to reinforce the positive steps that have been taken, and to create momentum for reform.
But, again, I think it was very important to the President to have that conversation with her, in part to ensure that what we are doing is responsive to the dialogue we've had with the Burmese government, but it's also responsive to the views of democracy advocates, chief among them Aung San Suu Kyi.
The other thing I'd just point is that the issue -- my colleague mentioned it -- that really they did focus on, too, was this question of ethnic minorities, where there hasn’t been quite as much progress as there has been on other areas. So that's something that I think we'll continue to make sure we're raising in the context of these discussions.
But, look, we need to see -- as the President said today, there have been concrete actions taken. We wouldn't be taking this step if they had just made verbal pledges. This is in response to actual laws being passed through the Parliament, prisoners being released, changes being -- taking place within the country. But if those concrete actions don't continue, we won't be able to continue to build on a new relationship with the Burmese.
So we're taking a step forward here. It's a very significant step. It's a step that goes beyond U.S. government engagement for over 50 years. But at the same time, we're clear about the fact that they're going to have to continue to move down this track if we're going to fundamentally change our relationship.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And I would add, it's a step that helps ensure that they continue down that track by, as Aung San Suu Kyi called for, establishing very clear lines of communication, allowing us to speak directly and authoritatively to the leadership about our views about what the future steps ought to be.
The President consulted with Aung San Suu Kyi directly on the significance of the steps thus far, and she emphasized the importance she placed on the U.S. showing the Burmese leaders that their actions -- their positive, constructive actions -- will generate positive responses by the international community, and by the U.S. in particular.
Q When the President came into office, one of his signature foreign policy approaches was reaching out to adversaries, but it's clear that he pursued a cautious approach on Burma. And I'm wondering if you can maybe give a little context for why that is, and if you could tie that in to sort of the events, the timeline of -- that you explained of how this came about.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I'd just say one thing, and then these guys may want to say something. I mean, I think the approach the President made out is that we were always going to be open to engagement, but also we're going to be clear-eyed about how we approach engagement. The line from the inaugural was, if you unclench your fist, you'll find an extended hand. And I think what we see now is a gradual unclenching of the iron fist that has ruled Burma for so many years. And we are being responsive to that. Our engagement has helped encourage that by laying out these specific steps. And we're going to continue to use our engagement to reinforce that.
So I think we've maintained the pressures that we have in place. There are still robust sanctions on Burma. They still face a great deal of isolation. But at the same time, we've always been open to pursuing an engagement track as well, and now that that has begun to yield demonstrable progress, we are taking a step to be responsive to that.
Q Could you just talk a little bit about what exactly Secretary Clinton is going to do, where she's going to go, and just a little bit more about what that December 1st trip will look like? Is it a one-day trip, or is it --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It will be two days.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If you would allow, I think what we'd like to be able to do is sort of get the story out -- its reasons. We will, early next week, lay out a very clear schedule. I will just simply say that she's going to talk to the key stakeholders. She will be meeting with the President. She'll have a chance for extended sessions with Aung San Suu Kyi and elements of civil society.
So I think we've put together, working very closely with their government, the kind of trip that we think is necessary. They've been very supportive. We face no restrictions. And we are looking forward to that engagement.
Q And is this going to come up at the ASEAN meeting? You guys pointed out that --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q -- the leaders will both be there. Is this going to be talked about?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, yes.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We anticipate that the President will be able to address, again, the approach that he's taking here. Thein Sein will obviously be at the meeting, so he'll have an opportunity to reinforce exactly the messages we're talking about here.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And the irony is that this is their second meeting. He was prime minister in the previous government, and came to Singapore for the first U.S.-ASEAN meeting, and so they had a chance to meet at that time.
Q Met like in a bilateral meeting, or just on the side?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They met in a bilateral meeting, in which --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, a multilateral meeting.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Excuse me, a multilateral meeting. Sorry, I misspoke -- in a multilateral meeting as one of the 10 ASEAN members there.
I think what is different now is attributable to the steps that the Burmese government has taken. It is not that the President of the United States rolled out of bed and decided that it's time to tackle the Burma problem. It is that he is responding to measurable, concrete and significant steps that, in the view of Aung San Suu Kyi, warrant an engagement response and the kind of dialogue that Secretary Clinton will be able to engage in when she goes.
Q Just one more point on the benchmarks -- I mean, have you told them things like, you must do X by Y date? Is it that specific, or is it just that they know more generally what it is that you need to see?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we have been clear about what our benchmarks are for what we would like to see, and that's how the dialogue has proceeded.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And by the way, they have also told us some things that they'd like to see as well.
Q So the President will talk about this at ASEAN in -- not while we’re in there, but during the closed part, he'll mentioned it -- tell the group what he told us, that he's --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Cat is out of the bag.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, and I think our sense is that this is something that will be broadly welcomed by the ASEAN countries. This morning, the President was able to -- the subject of Burma came up in his bilateral meeting with the President of the Philippines, for instance, who noted the positive steps Burma has taken, as well as in the meeting with Prime Minister Singh, who similarly noted those steps.
So we believe, again, this will be seen as a very positive signal. It's a signal that also, frankly, connects to what we've been discussing throughout this trip, which is our commitment to deepening our engagement here, and that engagement is welcome.
Q Unrelatedly, is President Hu of China at the East Asia Summit here?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Premier Wen Jiabao is at the summit for China.
All right, sorry, we've got to run these guys off. But thanks, guys.
2:17 P.M. WITA