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The White House
For Immediate Release

Remarks by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes on Burma Policy at the Center for New American Security


Ben Rhodes

Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor

“Remarks on Burma Policy”

As Prepared for Delivery

Center for New American Security

May 17, 2016


Let me begin by making clear that we wouldn’t be where we are today without the leadership, vision, and tenacity of Kurt Campbell.  Together with Derek Mitchell, Jake Sullivan, and – of course – Hillary Clinton – we would not be standing here discussing America’s policy of engagement with Myanmar.


But first, a brief story about Kurt.  In November of 2012, President Obama became the first U.S. President to visit Burma.  Kurt was on Air Force One.  But unlike many guests – who sit quietly in the back, sliding M&Ms away in his carry on, he was front and center when we briefed the President, exited the plane, and got into the presidential limo.


I’ll never forget that ride in from the airport.  It began with hundreds of school children dressed in uniforms waving flags and welcoming the motorcade.  Charming, yes, but a little scripted.  This gave way, however, to many more tens of thousands of people who lined the rest of the route into Yangon.  In a country where gatherings of people had recently been illegal, they had come out to wave, cheer, or just watch this long line of cars cutting through Yangon.  No one knew how, exactly.  But it seemed like something was changing, and wouldn’t be the same.


What I didn’t know is that Kurt was also re-litigating an argument he’d lost in the run-up to the trip.  Our Secret Service and Advance teams had vetoed a visit to Shwedagon, the majestic pagoda that is the spiritual and cultural center of the country.  The President was persuaded by Kurt – rightly – that it made no sense to come to Yangon without visiting this landmark.  So instead of soaking in the first bilat between an American and Burmese President in so many years, I spent that meeting on my blackberry arranging for an audible called by Kurt.  As on may other things, Kurt got his way, we headed back to Shwedagon, and we were all treated to the site of the President of the United States, the Secretary of State, the whole White House press corps all making their way up the stairs, shoeless, in stifling hot weather.


That was the first of four visits to Burma for me.  And it was the symbolic opening of what had been a steady change in our policy – from isolation to engagement.


For years, the objective of our policy was to support democracy and human rights by isolating the Burmese.  This has been a shared goal of every U.S. administration and Congress since at least the crackdown by the Burmese military in 1988 and the subsequent refusal to allow Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy to take power following their overwhelming electoral victory in 1990.  Over the years, the U.S. Congress and four American Presidents developed robust sanctions and restrictions on individuals and entities in Burma to try to force a change in the thinking of the military junta.  For many years, the military resisted. 


When we came into office, we did a review of our policy, to see if there was an opportunity to change course.  Around the same time, the military took some incremental but important steps to loosen things up – steps that we welcomed as “flickers of progress”: allowing Aung San Suu Kyi out of house arrest, releasing other political prisoners, initiating a transition from military civilian rule; allowing for some provisional parliamentary elections.


In response – under a policy known as action for action – we took some reciprocal steps. Loosening some sanctions; appointing an Ambassador; opening a USAID mission; most noticeable upping our engagement, with visits from Secretaries of State and, twice, the President.


On my second trip to Burma – this time without President Obama, in 2013 – I noticed something striking.  The need for U.S. engagement was everywhere.  Ministries lacked capacity.  At a time when our democracy programs were being closed around the world, parliamentarians were coming to NDI’s resource center.  Civil society wanted us in the mix – as a partner to them and occasional critic of the government.  Our American center was packed with people learning English.  Farmers wanted more support from USAID.  The plea from Rohingya was not for the U.S. to withdraw from Myanmar, but to do more.  The demands on our extraordinary Ambassador, Derek Mitchell, were to be everywhere – doing everything.  Preservationists were even seeking out his support for how to protect downtown Yangon, a true jewel of Southeast Asia – not to mention a tourism resource that could bring enormous dividends.


I’m not saying that everyone’s motives were pure or reactions positive.  Indeed, on that trip I got an earful from Aung San Suu Kyi about how much farther the reform government had to go.  But on that trip it was clear to me that what was needed was not simply action for action – it was action, period.  There were voids of capacity and will.  And U.S. engagement was imperative.


This is not to suggest that progress has been – or will be – a straight line.  Just think about what we’ve witnessed over the last several years.

  • More and more political speech, rallies, and discussion is taking place.  But imprisonment of student activists, and laws that threaten to undermine independent media – and parliament is, indeed, now revisiting more restrictive laws on media and assemble.
  • Political prisoners have been released.  And yet I’ve had dinner with a woman whose husband had just been arrested the day before for a Facebook post criticizing the Commander in Chief – though her husband, too, is now free.
  • More foreign investment, tourism, and entrepreneurship.  But there are structural impediments to economic growth – from our own sanctions, to an outdated banking system, investment laws, and land policies.
  • A successful effort to host the ASEAN and East Asia Summit, and steps away from Burma’s traditional relationship with North Korea.  But a general reluctance to speak out on regional issues of concern.
  • A concerted, admirable effort at reaching a nationwide cease-fire with eight armed ethnic groups – an effort that reached a partial success last year.  But continued fighting and displacement of civilians in parts of the country.
  • Even as there is an unprecedented effort to bring to an end decades of fighting, suffering, and civil war, we see continued repression in Rakhine state, as Rohingya are denied access to their villages and, in some cases, basic humanitarian needs.
  • The NLD won a landslide election, but their leader – Aung San Suu Kyi – was not allowed to take office as President.


So Myanmar continues to be a country filled with contradictions.  So much hope for the future.  So many things going for it.  A diverse population of over 50 million with enormous potential, and bountiful natural resources.  A tradition of institutions and intellectualism.  An extraordinary geographic position.  Of course, even this cuts both ways – being nestled between China and India has its benefits and its drawbacks.


So we can find much to argue about with respect to our policy in Burma.  And we do.  It is unusual – but admirable – that this country a world away, geographically and culturally, invites so much intense attention here in the United States.  But consider if I told you, in 2009, that we’d be standing here today with this reality:

  • The President of the United States has visited Burma twice.
  • A relatively free election was held across the country in November 2015, with robust participation from international monitors.
  • The NLD won an overwhelming victory in that election, under the leadership of Aung Sang Suu Kyi.
  • U Htin Kyaw became the first elected civilian President in more than 50 years.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi is now State Councilor and Foreign Minister.
  • The new Union Parliament has over 110 former political prisoners as parliamentarians. And the new government already has demonstrated its commitment to human rights by releasing 63 political prisoners and dropping charges against almost 200 individuals facing trial on political grounds.


It is important to note that the military – and former President Thein Sein – played a remarkable role.  They supported elections, and a relatively smooth electoral process.  They accepted defeat, and have generally supported the political transition.  This work is incomplete, and the military’s role in politics continues to go beyond what would constitute a full transition to democracy.  But I have to say, I visited Myanmar shortly before the election, and every commitment that was made was kept.  Indeed, it was striking that just weeks before the election they opened up their process for discussion with me, a foreigner.  About providing access to international monitors. About publicizing vote totals.  And above all about respecting the results of the elections. 


Now, the question for the United States, is what we can do to accomplish several objectives:

  • helping the NLD-led government succeed in consolidating democratic gains, and showing that democracy delivers for people, even in difficult economic circumstances;
  • supporting an ongoing transition from a military dominated government to a civilian government;
  • and helping Myanmar address its many challenges, from national reconciliation to the humanitarian situation in Rakhine state.


Based on the hard-fought progress over the past five years, and consultation with Congress, the U.S. government has reviewed and updated our policy tools to make sure they support economic and democratic reforms.  Today, I’d like to discuss what we’re doing in several different areas to adjust to this new reality, while advancing the goal that has been shared across Administrations, and between Congress and the executive branch.


First, we are making important changes to our sanctions policy to promote progress.


We’re not doing away with all of our sanctions.  The remaining targeted sanctions and our diplomatic efforts more broadly are designed to support Burma’s efforts to continue democratic reforms while supporting inclusive economic growth.


To that end, today we are announcing steps to support Burma’s government through changes to our sanctions regime.  This morning, the President signed the annual renewal for the underlying legal authority for our sanctions, to ensure that the Department of the Treasury maintains the flexibility necessary to recalibrate our sanctions program in the future to respond to the changing environment. 


With today’s actions, we are emphasizing that constructive economic engagement with Burma is not just allowed, it is encouraged.  I heard from government officials, entrepreneurs and activists in Burma that our sanctions were too often an obstacle.  The very people we wanted to help, in some cases, were being hurt – denied access to capital and opportunity.  We listened.  And we are taking key steps to make it easier for U.S. and international businesses, non-profit organizations, and educational institutions to be fully engaged in supporting Burma’s democratic transition.


No modern economy can function when isolated from the international financial system, and the United States fully supports Burma’s efforts to modernize its laws and regulations so that the people of the country can seek economic prosperity.  With the actions announced this morning, we intend to make it easier for Americans to go to Burma to work, study, or invest.  We have made it clear that working with the civilian-led government, including civilian-run state-owned enterprises and banks, is encouraged.  We are making clear that U.S. individuals and companies will not be prevented by sanctions from finding banking partners.  We have authorized the use of key transportation and trade-related infrastructure, to counter unintended consequences of our sanctions that might negatively impact both U.S. businesses engaged in the Burmese market, and farmers, new entrepreneurs, and other business owners seeking to export goods out of Myanmar.


So the United States is amending sanctions regulations to permit most transactions with the Burmese financial institutions.  We are extending indefinitely a general license that authorizes most transactions that are ordinarily incidental to exports to or from Burma.  We are clarifying our regulations to highlight to U.S. individuals and organizations that transactions that are involved in residing – whether living or travelling – in Burma are explicitly authorized.  And we have reduced the requirements, costs, and risks to U.S. businesses seeking to invest in Burma. That includes noting our intent to raise the aggregate threshold for the Responsible Investment Reporting Requirement from 500,000 dollars to 5 million. 


We have updated the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, including the removal of seven state-owned enterprises and three state-owned banks. We have also identified six companies and added them to the SDN List that were already blocked by operation of law due to being 50 percent or more owned by a notorious SDN.  The update serves as a clarification, not a new constraint, and is not directed at the people or Government of Burma.  And it demonstrates that these lists are not written and stone – they can, and will, be amended based on circumstances.


Finally, we are reviewing the possibility of extending our Generalized System of Preferences – or GSP – for Burma.  That review is ongoing.  But we welcome, for instance, the commitments that the new government has made to build on the previous government’s work on labor rights – including steps to recognize and support worker rights, and combat child labor; and to allow labor unions and fair pay.


We want to make clear through today’s announcements that we strongly support the increased, responsible involvement of responsible U.S. business in Burma, which will bring international best practices, high standards, and new technologies to the Burmese economy.


U.S.-Burma bilateral economic ties have grown significantly since 2012.  The American Chamber of Commerce Myanmar Chapter, established last October, now has over 80 members. U.S. exports to Burma grew 121 percent in 2013, to $146 million.  Following the easing of our import ban, Burmese exports to the United States jumped from zero to $30 million in 2013.  In addition to the presence of EXIM and OPIC, the formal opening of a U.S. Commercial Service presence in Burma will facilitate even greater U.S. investment into – and exports to – Burma.


To offer just a few examples, Coca-Cola’s $200 million investment is creating more than 22,000 jobs by 2018.  GE’s energy portfolio of innovative distributed power solutions gives businesses and communities in Burma the ability to generate reliable and efficient power using a variety of sources, including clean energy on or off the grid.  Apollo Towers has completed its first order of 1,000 cell phone towers, and will continue to build and operate telecom towers throughout the country, bringing telecommunications to millions of people.  This engagement is good for America, and for the people of Myanmar.


Second, we’ve expanded our assistance, with a particular focus on what USAID does better than anyone: building capacity.  Our USAID Administrator, Gayle Smith, was just in Burma to learn more about how we can continue to support the democratic transition.  We’ve provided assistance to strengthen the institutions of democracy and support civil society.  We’ve supported the development of political parties and the media, and last year’s successful election. 


Following the elections, U.S. assistance continues to promote a stable democratic transition, promote Burma’s peace process, mitigate intercommunal conflict, strengthen economic development, and foster healthy and resilient communities.  We have provided humanitarian assistance for vulnerable Burmese in the region and within Burma, including in Rakhine state.  We have also provided assistance to vulnerable populations throughout Burma.


On the economic growth front, we have programs targeted at reforming the economy from one that served just a select and privileged few, to one that fosters inclusive economic growth and activity.  For instance – drawing on our expertise on food security – USAID has ongoing support to farmers, fisheries, and to entrepreneurs who can bring new ideas and energy.  We are also providing support for legislative and regulatory reforms that can establish the framework for a fair economy, one where the rules are clear to everyone, and where no one is above the law.


Third, we are carefully exploring – in close consultation with Congress – what can be done to use calibrated military-to-military engagement to support a transition to civilian rule.


Some problems remain inherent in Burma’s constitution, which continues to provide the military with disproportionate influence over the legislative process as well as control over key ministries and parts of the economy.  The new government will need to address these issues to continue its democratic transition.  The people of Burma should be able to decide whether and when to amend their country’s constitution. 


Ensuring the military’s support for the civilian government is critical to its success, which is why we continue to convey to the military the importance of civilian control and oversight.  We have focused our tentative engagement on exchanges, outreach, professionalization, and supporting Burma’s participation as an observer in efforts where we work closely with Southeast Asian militaries – for instance, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.


This engagement has included visits by senior officials, workshops that focus on international human rights, the law of armed conflict, and rules of engagement.  We have also facilitated the participation by Burmese military and civilian officials in some DoD hosted multilateral conferences, as well as observing our annual COBRA GOLD exercise.


At the same time – and consistent with congressional restrictions – we have limited our engagements in other areas, even as the Burmese military has expressed interest in expanding contacts.  Ultimately, these engagements could prove important to supporting the implementation of any nationwide cease-fire, which would benefit the people of Myanmar.  And we will continue to coordinate, and calibrate, our engagement with the military with the President and Aung San Suu Kyi, so that we are supporting the ultimate goal of promoting civilian control of the military, and the development of a professional, capable military that serves the needs of the people. 


Fourth, we’re promoting national reconciliation.  Burma has made tremendous progress, but of course still faces significant long-term problems.  These challenges will not be solved overnight.


As remarkable as the announcement of a nation-wide ceasefire and elections were, there are many problems.  Where cease-fires have been reached, implementation must ensure that life can return to the peaceful promotion of dignity and prosperity.  And where there is continued ethnic armed conflict in places like Kachin and Shan States, efforts to promote peace must be sustained, and supported by all of Myanmar’s friends and neighbors – including China.


In Rakhine, state, the international community will have to continue to speak up – and take actions – to address the status of the Rohingya.  There must be humanitarian access to people in need.  The some 100,000 displaced Rohingya who remain in camps should be allowed to return to their villages.  Camps are not a solution or substitute for progress.  Dialogue must be promoted among and between different communities, and our Embassy helps to advance that process.  Development assistance can provide incentives for all of the inhabitants of Rakhine state – Royingya and ethnic Rakhine – to pursue a future of peace and reconciliation, recognizing that it can lead to greater prosperity.  And ultimately, there is no way to resolve the situation over the long-term that doesn’t provide citizenship to those who have lived in Myanmar, in some cases, for generations.


It will be a difficult path.  But I am absolutely convinced that engagement is our most effective means of achieving progress.  For if we disengage, we abandon these issues, and the very people who need our help.


Finally, something close to my heart, we are expanding our people to people ties – the real foundation for the future relationship between our countries.


President Obama’s Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative (YSEALI) is investing in Burmese youth and connecting them with youth throughout ASEAN and the United States; there are over 4,800 YSEALI members in Burma, and we have provided 90 fellowship opportunities for YSEALI members to study in the United States.


In November 2014, President Obama announced that the Government of Myanmar and the Peace Corps jointly agreed to open a program further strengthening our two countries people-to-people ties.  The Peace Corps volunteers will teach side by side Myanmar English teachers in secondary schools, will partner with communities to strengthen local capacity, will facilitate cultural exchanges at the grassroots level, and build friendships that will last a lifetime.


The American Center in Rangoon is one of the busiest American Spaces in the world, continues to serve as an incubator for innovative ideas and an important educational force in Burma’s reform process.  In February 2015, we broke ground on a new $25 million American Center that will open in 2017.  The Jefferson Center in Mandalay, housed on our former consulate grounds, acts as the focal point for our outreach and engagement in Upper Burma.


We’re also using new technologies to enhance our engagement.  In early 2016 we held a TechCamp on using technology for social advocacy and civic engagement skills in the post-election period.  This interactive, capacity-building event helped over 30 Burmese civil society organizations strengthen digital skills and broaden citizen engagement.


So we have a lot going on. And the point of our focus today is that this is a critical moment.  The story doesn’t end after the election, after the ballots are counted, and after a new NLD government is sworn-in.  The story is still very much playing out inside of Myanmar, and this is when we need to be engaged the most.  That’s why we are focused across all of the different areas I mentioned – political, economic, people-to-people, and security.


Let me conclude by saying two things.  First, this country matters to us.  It matters a lot.  I know it doesn’t always make headlines here.  I know it can seem distant.  The President has made Asia central to his foreign policy – and Southeast Asia central to his Asia rebalance.  And the future of Burma is central to both of those objectives.  Burma is a potential market for our goods; a potential partner on critical issues; and a potential example for how a country can transition from dictatorship to democracy, while pursuing effective development.  We have to demonstrate that there is a dividend for countries that go down this road.  It is not easy for people to relinquish power that they have held tightly for decades.  It is not easy for people who have been in prison for decades to govern a country.  And if we’re not there for those people when they make the right choices, it won’t just be a problem inside of Myanmar.  It sets an example to the rest of the world.  We have a real stake in making sure this succeeds.


The last thing I will say is that I am hopeful for the future of Burma. Think of how far it has come.  Many of the members of the new government have spent years of their lives imprisoned for their beliefs and their support for democracy.  Now, many of them have taken their seats in government.


No transition to democracy takes place overnight. Progress will be measured not just in months and years – but in decades – as neighbors like Indonesia demonstrate. But I am hopeful about the future of Burma because I have come to know, respect, and admire the people of this great country. We’re betting on them.