Kurt Campbell: 'No change in Burma'

US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell, has spearheaded the US government’s shift towards engagement with the Burmese regime, and is one of only a handful of foreign diplomats to have met with Aung San Suu Kyi since 2003.

He talks to DVB about Washington’s dissatisfaction with the lack of progress made by the Burmese junta since the policy shift was announced, but  says that Suu Kyi’s “enormous poise, confidence and commitment” is one of a number of signs of hope in the country.

Since your last visit to Burma in November 2009, have there been any developments regarding engagement with the junta?

We had an exploratory visit in November and had the opportunity, as you suggest, to meet with a broad group of political, military, and civil society players inside the country.  We presented some ideas directly to the junta; we discussed these with a variety of players. We have spent the last couple of months talking to some of the key players in the region – China and India, for example, and we are in the process of looking at our immediate next steps. We wanted to give the government a chance to reflect on some of the ideas and suggestions that we put forward and we are attempting to demonstrate patience but at the same time I think we all recognise that it is going to be important for the government in Naypyitaw to give an indication of their direction moving forward.

Since November have you had any response or any positive sign that it is changing in the direction that you wanted.

I would have to say no, not at this juncture.  In fact if anything we have seen some signs that concern us.  We’ve seen some actions along the border areas against some of the ethnic groups that I think raise some concerns.  There have been some arrests and there have been some actions that we think are antithetical to trying to create an internal dialogue about the way forward and the upcoming election.  So if I had to characterise this I think there are a few areas [in which] we have seen some very modest steps forward, a few releases of some senior players, but at the same time there have also been some steps that cause us very real concern.

Before you started this engagement you said it was going to be a long, painful, step-by-step process.  Do you feel it is going to be longer than you had thought?

No, this is about what I had anticipated. I think the key for the United States is we have got to be committed: committed to our principles, committed to our values, to our friends, and we have to be consistent and we do have to demonstrate some patience in the process.  This is not a set of circumstances that are going to change overnight. And it will have to be through a strategic and cunning approach on the part of Western friends and others to see a more positive way forward.  So I stand by my early statement: painful, difficult and challenging, and it will take longer than people had hoped or anticipated.

How long do you think you will wait till you see positive changes in the country?

I can’t answer that question; I don’t know. I think one of the advantages of certain kinds of engagement is that you get more feedback and a greater sense of what your interlocutor is thinking. We have had such limited contact with the government for such a long period of time that it’s difficult to get a sense for what they anticipate in terms of next steps. We have been able to pass I think rather consequential messages on some proliferation concerns: for instance, about their relationship with North Korea. We have been able to lay out what we would think to be a reasonable way forward in terms of an internal dialogue, designed to bring parties to the table to discuss the road ahead inside the country and we think we have also been able to lay out what are some of the advantages that potentially could be in store should the government take up this opportunity to interact with the United States more positively. But we are going to need some signals and indication of the way forward.

You’ve said that the way forward will be closely tied to the actions of the government this year. Can you elaborate on this?

I don’t want to get into great details but I would say that we have some obvious expectations about creating an atmosphere for more domestic dialogue among the players. Clearly some of the actions that are taking place along the border areas raise concerns for us. We believe that in this new environment ethnic groups and their representatives have to play a more significant role in the overall political dialogue inside the country and there are a host of other issues that need to be addressed from economic issues to questions associated with political prisoners but the truth is, this extraordinarily long journey has to begin with some very basic steps and we are hoping that, in a consistent manner bringing together a group of other nations, we will be able to make a very clear pitch about why this is the right way forward.

US plans for engagement with the junta have caused some worry among Burmese opposition groups. What would you tell them?

First of all what’s been very important is that we have not in any way adjusted our sanctions policy and our principles stand on a variety of issues at the United Nations and elsewhere, so we’ve been very consistent and we have raised these issues at the highest levels in all of our meetings with the representatives of the government. Number two, I must say that in our discussions with Aung San Suu Kyi she welcomed this initiative and thought it was the right approach and was realistic about its prospects, but thought that at this juncture it was the right thing to do and so we felt heartened by that vote of confidence and some of the other players that we met, either from third way groups or ethnic groups or even the National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD did raise, occasionally some concerns about this or that but the truth is that ultimately we need to consult, we need to listen carefully, but we need to make our own judgements about the way forward and we think given previous experience that this is the right time to try this approach.

What is the US position on the election?

We have been very clear on that in the current environment without further steps you know we have very real doubts whether this election can in any way at this juncture play a productive role inside the country. Clearly the government is not going to start from scratch and a lot of people say the referendum and the whole enterprise is illegitimate. We understand those concerns but at the same time we think that at the very least we need to see a form of internal dialogue that brings the key parties together and we think that is in the best interest of all concerned and that the government should have the confidence to be able to embark on such a path moving forward.

You met Aung San Suu Kyi for two hours when you were in Rangoon. What did you discuss with her?

I don’t think it would be appropriate to go into great detail, but I will say that she is one of the most impressive people I have interacted with in some time. She has enormous poise and confidence and commitment. She is very inspirational in that regard, but what I was struck by more than anything else was not just her knowledge of Burma, which is encyclopaedic, nor her awareness of the global environment, which is incredible given her isolation, but her deep sense of empathy and understanding for her captors. She really did have a sense of humanity for the men, the generals, who had put her away – it reminded me in many respects of the kind of grace that Nelson Mandela displayed for his captors on Robben Island and the apartheid government. And so in her very unique way she demonstrated both the strength of her character but also her vulnerability. The combination together was both inspirational and quite appealing.

Are you looking forward to working with her one day?

Oh yes, but I must also say there is a recognition that the road ahead is going to be complicated and challenging, and I must also say that I look forward to working with her and her colleagues but I will also be prepared to work with others inside the government as well.

What kind of information do you have about the relationship between Burma and North Korea?

Some of it is sensitive so really can’t be discussed in great detail but I will say we have seen enough to cause us some anxiety about certain kinds of military and other kinds of relationships between North Korea and Burma. We have been very clear with the authorities about what our red lines are and anxieties are.

Do you worry about nuclear proliferation?

We always worry about nuclear proliferation and there some signs that there have been some flirtation around these matters and perhaps even more and we will be highly attentive to this moving forward.

What kind of relationship do you have with China and India when it comes to Burma?

I would say there are several key countries that are associated with Burma and we seek to have deep dialogue and discussion with all of them. China, Thailand, Singapore and India I think are the key players when it comes to direct involvement inside the country, but most specifically it’s China and India. We have had dialogues and discussions with both countries at a high level. Our Chinese friends have actually been very encouraging of this dialogue. I don’t think they want to see instability on their own borders and I think they’d like to see a peaceful process of reform moving forward inside the country.

What kind of demands do you have for US citizen Nyi Nyi Aung who has been tortured and imprisoned in Burma?

Firstly I have met with his fiancé [Wa Wa Kyaw] and with his lawyer, and we’ve had very substantial discussions about this case. She has authored an Op-Ed about it and has spoken out about this. I have no problem with someone who says, ‘Look, I think your approach on this is wrong and I think you know that seeking to try this strategy is a better way’. But the truth is that this has been an issue that has received an enormous amount of attention inside the US government, and the allegation that we have not been involved directly, when I myself have met with her and others, I take issue with. We are committed to seeking his release; we may have a slightly different strategy about how to go forward with that but we are not going to rest until he is released. We take the conditions of his plight, his arrest his imprisonment, court case very seriously and I will be meeting with [Wa Wa Kyaw] tomorrow in Washington when she comes to my office.

Lastly, what is your message to the people of Burma?

Don’t lose hope. When I talked with [secretary of state Hillary] Clinton about this I was very inspired by her commitment to press ahead. And Aung San Suu Kyi’s discipline and commitment to her cause is profoundly inspirational. In a small way, in an inadequate way, I will try to do my best.