After two decades of downgraded diplomatic relations between Burma and the United States, the two countries are about to reestablish full diplomatic ties, whether either country is ready or not. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a confirmation hearing today for Derek Mitchell, President Obama’s nominee as the next Ambassador to Burma, a post that has been unoccupied since 1990.
The first question Mitchell was asked by the Chairman, Senator Webb, was about the reason America was able to lift sanctions on Burma as well as appoint an ambassador. Mitchell responded by talking about all of the progress Burma has made in the last year since he last addressed congress. He said that America helped this process with the right mix of pressure on the Burmese government, and now with the support we will give them. Mitchell said that by working together, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein have already established positive reforms, and will continue to do so.
“Positive conduct calls for reciprocal gestures,” said Mitchell.
However, while he did say that Burma is on the right path, he also spoke about how there is still much more that needs to be done. He said that there are, “no illusions about the challenges that lie ahead.” Mitchell agreed with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi when he said the progress that has been made is not irreversible, especially because the constitution allows the military to have so much power.
“As long as the [military] is imbedded into the constitution, there will continue to be problems,” said Mitchell.
He also said how there are still human rights abuses, conflicts in ethnic areas, and the lack of transparency of certain companies like the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). MOGE is the state enterprise controlled by the military whose profits and activities often go to increasing ethnic violence due to the military’s control over the company and prevalence of oil and gas resources located in ethnic minority areas.
However, while Mitchell spoke of the problems that still exist in Burma and the need for investors to look at each investment on a case by case basis, Senator Webb refused to support any type of restriction for American investments, including investing in extractive companies like MOGE, a militarily controlled company whose profits often go to increasing conflict in ethnic areas. What was more surprising though was that Webb spoke out against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the Burmese democracy movement. When talking about Daw Aung Suu Kyi’s plea for foreign companies to not invest in companies that do not conform to the IMF’s requirements of transparency, including MOGE, he said that he found it difficult to accept any foreign diplomats recommendations to not invest in something, as if he was insulted by anyone else intervening with America’s growth. Webb’s remarks are a direct rebuke to the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the United States and international communities’ longstanding support for democratic leaders and oppressed dissidents in promoting and supporting democracy around the world.
It was Senator Rubio who actually directed the conversation to focus back on the Burmese people, rather than the prospects for American profit. He asked Mitchell about the number of political prisoners still imprisoned, and about the rights they have. He addressed one of the most critical areas of concern, the lack of civilian control over the Burmese military, the biggest impediment to genuine democracy in Burma. He also asked about the problems of child soldiers and human trafficking, two more issues that make Burma a lot less ready for the release of sanctions than either Senator Webb or Inhofe would care to admit.
Mitchell will continue to privately field questions before the Senate votes on his confirmation, which Senator Webb hopes will be agreed upon by the end of this week.