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Diplomacy in Action

Burma's Rohingya: Beyond the Communal Violence


Remarks
Anne C. Richard
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Open Society Foundation and Refugees International
Washington, DC
October 9, 2012

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I was invited by my good friend Michel Gabaudin of Refugees International, and just now introduced by my good friend Mort Halpern of Open Society, to speak about this issue. And I said, “We can do better than that. I’ll come but we should have Kelly Clements speak.” Because my Deputy Assistant Secretary Kelly Clements has just been out to the region on a very remarkable trip. In fact, the last two years have been quite remarkable. The trajectory of U.S.-Burma relations over the past two years, since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010, has been an amazing time. Back then, our relationship with Burma was difficult and had many challenges. And while there are still tensions, no one would have thought possible all of the many developments of the past two years.

Highlights include Secretary Clinton’s visit to Nay Pyi Taw and Rangoon in early December of last year. In April 2012, the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, won 43 of the 45 vacant seats in the lower house of Parliament, including a seat for The Lady, who now serves as Chair of the Rule of Law Committee. Ambassador Mitchell’s confirmation in June as our first Ambassador in two decades was another recent development, and most recently, Aung San Suu Kyi’s and President Thein Sein’s September visits to the United States. Perhaps the most important development has been indeed the partnership formed between the Burmese President and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Only a couple weeks ago, I was in a meeting at the State Department on the topic of rule of law with Aung San Suu Kyi. And the thought that she could come to the United States and discuss the situation in her country was unfathomable during her many years of imprisonment in her home.

The president and his partners in government have taken many reformist steps over the past year. However, mutual mistrust between the government and ethnic minority groups runs deep and a long road lies ahead. The June 2012 ethnic and sectarian violence in Rakhine State demonstrates the divisiveness in Burma cultivated over many decades, if not centuries. This will need to be overcome if the Burmese are to achieve lasting peace and genuine national reconciliation.

We, in the U.S. Government, are seeking an end to the violence and want the Burmese to establish a serious dialogue on fundamental political issues. Part of our role in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration is to provide aid to refugees and displaced people. And in fiscal year 2012, we provided almost $24 million to our international organization and non-governmental organization partners to support protection and humanitarian assistance programs for Burmese refugees and asylum seekers residing in neighboring countries and conflict-affected populations inside Burma. And we are looking at future opportunities to support humanitarian efforts inside.

My Bureau has also benefited from increased openness and unprecedented access, with our staff members being able to travel to places that previously had been off limits. I would specifically like to commend office director Dorothy Shea and program officer Hoa Tran for continuing to advance our engagement in Burma and the neighboring countries. In fact, they traveled to Rakhine state last May. And that trip was filled with great hope for progress, which subsequently was tempered by the June violence.

Most recently, as I said, Kelly Clements traveled to the region with three other senior officials; they were all Deputy Assistant Secretaries. So there was one from our Bureau, one from Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, one from the East Asia Pacific Bureau and one from the Bureau that covers Central Asia and South Asia. So it was called the 4 DAS’s trip, for ‘Deputy Assistant Secretary’. And they were joined in the respective countries by the U.S. Ambassador and the USAID Mission director. So this was really an unusual thing for the State Department to be so organized as to get these folks out there and traveling at the same time and talking to the host governments. Kelly is a PRM superstar. She’s super-smart, she’s super-active, whether she’s slicing and dicing refugee aid numbers or wrestling with foreign governments about flows of refugees. And so it was clearly the smart thing to do to get her to talk of her trip firsthand, things that she witnessed and saw, and so without further ado, let me introduce Kelly Clements.



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