CAPITOL HILL - U.S. engagement with Burma has been fruitful and should continue, said Derek Mitchell, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the first U.S. ambassador to Burma since the early 1990s. Mitchell testified Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is considering his nomination. Speaking on Capitol Hill, Mitchell paid tribute to political and economic reforms in Burma long advocated by the United States.
“As the Burmese government has taken steps over the past year, so, too, has the United States, in an action-for-action approach," he said. "Each action we have taken in recent months has had as its purpose to benefit the Burmese people and strengthen reform and reformers within the system. This engagement should continue and expand.”
The United States has eased some sanctions against Burma after it embarked on a process of liberalization, highlighted by this year’s landmark parliamentary elections. Democratic Senator James Webb of Virginia marveled at how far Burma has come since he visited the country in 2009.
“The country was locked in isolation, keeping its government, military and people from exposure to the international community," Webb said. "Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest. Numerous other activists remained imprisoned. Conflicts with ethnic minority groups continued and challenged the unity of the country. The prospects for reform, opening up, and economic development looked bleak," he said. "Yet during that visit, one could clearly see the promise of a different future.”
Webb said that promise has become reality, describing recent events in Burma as an “historic turning point." The senator advocated a level-headed U.S. policy going forward.
“This is a country whose political system remains a challenge, but where positive conduct calls for reciprocal gestures," he said. "We should never take our concerns about political freedoms or individual rights off the table. We should make these concerns central to our engagement with all countries, including Burma. But we should also be promoting economic progress to sustain the political reforms that have taken place," he added.
Derek Mitchell said he and the State Department have “no illusions” about the challenges that lie ahead in Burma.
“As Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton has observed, reform is not irreversible," Mitchell warned. "And continued democratic change is not inevitable. We remain deeply concerned about the continued detention of hundreds of political prisoners and the conditions placed on those previously released, lack of the rule of law, and the constitutional role of the military in the nation’s affairs. Human-rights abuses, including military impunity, continue, particularly in ethnic minority areas,” he said.
Mitchell currently serves as the State Department’s special coordinator for Burma policy. He has also worked for the U.S. Defense Department. Should he be approved by the Foreign Relations Committee, Mitchell’s nomination would then be submitted for a vote by the full Senate.