Ambassador Derek Mitchell. Source: Ann Corcoran / Refugee Resettlement Watch (Nov. 18, 2013)

Interview with Derek Mitchell, former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar

Catherine Hwang

Ambassador Mitchell recently served nearly four years as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Burma), the first such appointment in 22 years from 2012–2016. Previously, he served as the U.S. Department of State’s first Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma, with the rank of ambassador, and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Asian and Pacific Security Affairs (APSA), in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2009–2011.

CH: My name is Catherine Hwang and I’m here with Ambassador Derek Mitchell, the former U.S. ambassador to Burma, otherwise known as Myanmar. Thank you so much for coming, it’s really a pleasure to have you here.

DM: Sure, thank you.

CH: To start off, you’ve had a very extensive and impressive career in international relations, specifically in relation to Asia. What drew you to studying Asia in particular and working in that region at the time?

DM: Well, you’re talking about 25–30 years ago, when I started. As an undergraduate, I had to declare a major and I was interested in foreign affairs, so I took it as my major. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but you had to have a concentration so my concentration was Soviet studies — because everyone in the eighties did Soviet studies, when there was a Soviet Union. When I got out I realized that everyone did Soviet studies. You couldn’t do really pioneering work and I wanted to do something different, something a bit more unique. So I worked in Washington for a few years for a Senator and then decided I wanted to go overseas and Taiwan was a place I heard you could at the time sort of land, learn Chinese, and teach English or something.

That was the craziest thing I had ever done in my life [laughter], to go to the other side of the world after having grown up never going overseas. So I went, lived in Taiwan for six months as editor for an English-language newspaper, and found myself in China at the time of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in May ’89. Then I went to graduate school and decided to study Asia. So it wasn’t something that I was driven to do from something deep within me from a young age. I just thought that that was an area people weren’t focusing on as much and it was an interesting area. At the time, my dad said to look at Japan, since Japan was on the rise in those days, but I focused more on China and that seemed to work out pretty well over time [laughter]. And it extended from there.

CH: And how did you get involved with Burma specifically?

DM: It’s a long story, so I won’t get into the details — the short version is: in 1995, when I was working for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, which works on democracy development assistance overseas and was affiliated with the Democratic party, we had heard that Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest. The president of NDI said, “Let’s go and see if we can go see her, see if there are ways we can go assist the efforts for democracy”.

I was on the Asia team, so I and the president and a senator from Chile went to Burma in ’95 and met her, and spent time meeting political leaders in the country. And to meet her [Aung San Suu Kyi] is just to be completely taken with her [laughter] and taken with the cause. She has a remarkably charming way of connecting. You know, it’s like you’re having tea with a British noblewoman, but you realize that this person is holding the country together and is a remarkable individual — so I came away with a sort of commitment: what can I do for this place? I used to say for fifteen, twenty years after that — when I worked in the Pentagon, on U.S. security and foreign policy — that my head is with Asia, but my heart is with Burma. So that was the origin of it, in the mid-90s.

CH: You mentioned Suu Kyi — why do you think she’s such a compelling character, so to speak? Do you think it’s just her innate personality, or what she represents?

DM: Both. She is a very strong and compelling person. You realize this meeting with her: she’s charming, she’s educated, and at the same time she’s the one hope for all these people in this country. And you come away wanting to assist, because you see how much of a burden it is on her in that sense. She’s also written and said some remarkable things about democracy and human rights, so she became a kind of icon of both. She has said she doesn’t want to be an icon, she says instead she’s always been a politician, but her image [on democracy and human rights] has been cultivated in her time through her writings and speeches.

The fact that she was under house arrest, which has added a sense of mystery about her; the fact that she is sort of holding this place together in a corner of the world few pay attention to otherwise; and the fact of her personality itself — in all it means she is a remarkable individual.

CH: And there have also been a lot of really exciting development in Burma in the last five years. For example, the military stepped down, I think in 2011?

DM: Well, yes, they turned [power] over to the former military [laughter]. So we called it a “quasi” military government. The previous prime minister became the president. He took off his uniform, he put on civilian clothes; a former navy man was one of his most important advisors, and so on. So it wasn’t really civilian. Though they had retired, they were former military. It was quasi-military, until the 2015 elections when people really had the opportunity to choose their leadership.

CH: What do think pushed that changed? The open elections, that allowed the NDP and Suu Kyi to come in and gain some power?

DM: Well, that’s the question we get asked all the time: why would the military, when they had all that power and all that money, voluntarily give this up? And what they [the military] will say is: we had always planned this. They did have a seven-step program, you know, of democracy. And they followed it. So you can actually say, from 2002 or 2003, when they developed this, that they actually did follow a path. Now, that’s not to say they expected to lose the 2015 elections or turn over power to Aung San Suu Kyi. I don’t think they had in their heads a perfect idea of how this was going to develop. They just said, we’re going to have a constitution, a constitutional referendum, elections, and it’ll turn into a civilian government — and then, we’ll see from there. In the constitution they had preserved a lot of their prerogatives. They still control the Interior Ministry, Defense Ministry, Border Ministry. So the security apparatus is still military. The administrative apparatus under the Interior Ministry, runs down to the local levels, so they essentially control those people too.

They gave up some authority, but not all the power and not all the responsibility.

And I think also the military may have been tired of having to run the country. They looked around the region and realized they were falling far behind their neighbors in many ways. They needed to have more options for partners than simply China or Russia. They wanted the help of the West and others, too, to help with their development. They’re very proud and I think they wanted to get out of the situation they were in.

But at this point, it’s all theory as to why it happened, how it happened. I don’t think it was pre-determined; I don’t think they made a decision to turn over power. There were individuals, advisers and the president himself, who I think made decisions that allowed things to move quicker than they otherwise would have. I like to think that US engagement also helped that process. So we are where we are, probably surprising folks that it all went so far so fast, but that’ll be for historians to decide how and why it happened this particular way.

CH: Do some people think of it as only a surface-level change at the moment?

DM: There was a great quote I heard from a woman in Mandalay at some point in 2012 or 2013. She said: “Nothing has changed, but we don’t want to go back to the way it used to be.” I think it’s a great one-line representation of the fact that yes, a lot has changed. It’s a different environment: people can speak freely in general, although some important areas of continued self-censorship and limitation remain. But it’s a very different country in 2016 than you would have seen in 2010.

And yet it is true that structurally the constitution hasn’t changed, the military’s role in society is still in question, there are still a lot of things the civilian government does not have direct responsibility for. There is no peace, there are still political prisoners. All of that means that structurally things are the same but it’s — it’s moving forward. I mean, there’s a different feel in the place, new opportunities, new possibilities, but it’s a work in progress: nothing has been completed, the challenges remain immense, no “mission accomplished” to this at all.

CH: If these changes continue to push forward, what does that mean right now and in the future for the Rohingya people?

DM: Aung San Suu Kyi as the embodiment of democracy and human rights used to be the defining issue of the country for the international community. Now it’s the Rohingya: everyone knows about the Rohingya, and for good reason. They are uniquely disadvantaged, oppressed people with no citizenship. Nobody protects them: they’re sitting in pens, not getting adequate health or education — though many around them aren’t either, as it’s an underdeveloped country — but their access to livelihood is blocked, which is horrible. So something needs to change in that. The problem is that, unlike the human rights questions in the past in Burma/Myanmar, we have to reckon with the fact that a majority of people in the country believe these people don’t deserve to be citizens or have rights, that they’re illegal immigrants or that they’re somehow part of a leading edge of Muslim infiltration, something that doesn’t assimilate well with Buddhism and is essentially an existential threat. So it’s this very deeply ingrained negative attitude towards Muslims in general but specifically these people, the Rohingya, which they call the Bengali, that makes this issue such a unique challenge for the international community to help solve.

CH: And it’s not just Burma, but the entire surrounding region?

DM: There are different types of intolerance around the region. You have a Muslim majority in Indonesia that is intolerant towards Christians, and you have issues in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand. But the Rohingya are also a regional problem, as they’re creating a refugee/migration problem, human rights travesties in places like Thailand that also offend the conscience of all of us.

And it’s the one issue, I have to say, as Ambassador, that was a black spot of my time there: we couldn’t get them their rights, we couldn’t really make their lives any better. Maybe we prevented the worst from happening, but we weren’t really able to advance things for them. And there are so many levels of complexity in the country: the democracy issue, the human rights issue, the peace process issue, ethnic rights issue, and then the subset of that which is the Rohingya, which aren’t even viewed as an ethnicity, not even part of the country. All we can do is try to raise awareness about it.

But I think another thing that is critical for us to do is to understand the full context of the issue. It’s a very complicated context the extends decades if not centuries. There are people around them [the Rakhine] who also feel victimized, by the central government, the military, the Bamar ethnic majority, by the international community. They are not well exposed to international society or norms and feel neglected and fearful themselves. That is not to defend their oppression of the Rohingya at all, but without understanding the full context of the problem, we will not take a “smart” or effective approach to solving it. What I used to tell my Embassy was: facts without context is not truth. The facts may be correct, but if you’re not seeing it all in context, you’re not seeing the full truth of the matter. And that’s my concern with how the international community sees the issue. They see it simply as a Rohingya issue. And that’s certainly true and essential, their human rights and humanitarian situation must be a priority as the situation is awful. But if you don’t understand the context, you won’t be able to take an approach that will actually help them.

CH: Do you think the United States has a kind of moral obligation to specifically tackle this issue of the Rohingya?

DM: I think we do — I mean there are lots of moral issues around the world, lots of people we should be speaking up for and that we do. I think [the Rohingya], in some ways, are unique because no one protects them as they are citizens of no one. So when the Rakhine ask: “Why do you care so much, why do you give them so much attention?” It’s because nobody else extends protection to them, so the international community must do what it can. The question is how far, and what do we do to demonstrate support?

When I was there [in Myanmar], I spent a lot of time on this issue. I went to Rakhine state eight or nine times, to try to understand all sides, try to nudge all sides, and try to make the case of why not moving things forward would make the state less secure. For the Rakhine people in particular, they had to see that this was not helping but instead undermining their efforts for development and peace.

CH: Then, moving the focus away from just the Rohingya: what would you say is the value of the US-Burmese relationship?

DM: Traditionally, this policy was owned by human rights folks. Others struggled to come up with “Why should America care otherwise” I think we should care for a number of reasons: foremost, human rights and democracy promotion indeed is important as consistent with our values, and the notion that people are struggling to achieve these things appeals to and is important to the American character, I think. And particularly with such an iconic figure like Suu Kyi, I think it becomes a very special issue [laughter]. You know, you want to help when people are struggling with values that we hold dear in order to create stability. And stability also matters to us. Real political stability not the false type imposed by force.

Asia is where they say the history of the 21st century will be written. Our interests, development, and security are more and more intertwined with Asia. We look at China and North Korea, economics, trade issues — this is the most dynamic area of the world. And Burma is a missing piece of this. Burma can connect the dynamism of East Asia with a dynamic South Asia. [Burma] also has health security issues, as the epicenter of drug-resistant malaria, TB, HIV/AIDs — these are things that can cross borders, create havoc in the international system. We have a great deal at stake that Burma be stable, that it be able to take care of its own affairs for our own development and our own security. Also, ASEAN — the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — matters. We couldn’t have a normal relationship with ASEAN without a more normal relationship with Burma. So for a host of reasons, this place matters even if it exists in some “corner” that some people have an “exotic” view of, and I think many people, certainly folks in Washington, are waking up to its importance.

CH: Definitely. I heard that China is putting a lot of investments into Burma.

DM: Yes. Japan is; China has been for a while. China has used it as a source of resources — it’s a very rich country in the sense of resources. The Chinese have a term, that they call it [Burma], the beggar with a golden bowl. So they’re rich in certain ways — in resources, arable land, water, oil, gas, minerals — and yet they are very poor. And that’s where politics comes in. There was a systematic degradation of every institution by the military in fifty years. So it’s all this potential that China has invested in, seeing it sort of as its west coast, their access to the Indian Ocean, their source of resources, and their place to sell things. But now more countries are going in to explore opportunities.

CH: And looking forward, what could one hope to see and what are some obstacles now?

DM: Well, the obstacles are the fact that there’s the degradation of every institution, and that their capacity is very limited, at both a governmental and personal level. It’s as if they’ve sort of dug a ditch and cut themselves off at the knees and said: now we want to run forward. It’s going to take time to build up the capacity and allow them to crawl and walk and then run. The obstacles are huge.

The defining challenge of the country in fact is peace: the longest-running civil war in the world resides effectively in Burma. They’ve been fighting themselves basically since independence in 1948. Without peace, you’re not going to get development. You’re not going to have stability, development.

Land rights are also essential, for both industry and agriculture. About 70% of the people live on the land, but land rights are unclear. Without that, how do you develop a society?

Governance, legacy laws — there are so many other challenges.

As I mentioned yesterday in my lecture, it was one of the easiest countries in the past to understand — Aung San Suu Kyi versus the military, good and evil, as it was viewed — and now it’s more complicated as the country looks to move forward to address longstanding problems within. That’s a much more difficult, long-term challenge of capacity-building, institution-building, mind-set changing, and trust-building. But I think the Burmese people, including the military, have seen the alternative over the past decades and what that’s done to the country, and my hope is that they’ll try something different: talking to each other, showing more respect for each other, protecting human rights and democracy.

CH: Then, since we’re running out of time: taking a step back from Burma — your career has been in a sense quite fluid. Is there something you’d say as advice to students who are interested in foreign affairs but aren’t quite sure exactly what direction to go in?

DM: Like I was? [laughter] Like I said, I never had a safety net, like joining the military, or going to a law firm, or been on a path to go back to when I leave government. I just sort of took it as it came, which can be risky. I’ve sometimes fallen off that tightrope.

I think one important thing is to get experience. NGOs are a wonderful way to get to know countries. Go out and get a smell and taste of a place. I have a sense that this generation does that anyway: you have a lot more opportunities in some ways than I did thirty years ago. I learned more from my six months in China in 1988–89 than two, four years of sitting in a classroom. So get out there. I think anything you decide to do with your life nowadays you must understand the world because we’re so interconnected.

The other thing is that there aren’t a lot of jobs in international affairs work so be patient. As I say, you can look at my bio or resume, and it looks like a nice smooth path but — it was not smooth. There was no certainty that I was going to be Ambassador to Burma [laughter]. I mean, it was never in the cards that I would be an ambassador, but I worked very, very hard. I got experience, especially in Washington. And I had a good deal of luck; I called for the position of Envoy to be created in a Foreign Affairs piece in ’07, so I sort of made my own luck in that way. But persist with some patience, hard work, networking, and by getting that experience out in the field, and recognize that it’s not going to be easy you’ll have the best chance of making a career of this.

Photo: Ambassador Derek J. Mitchell. Source: Ann Corcoran / Refugee Resettlement Watch (Nov. 18, 2013):