Background Briefing on Burma
MODERATOR: Hi everyone. It’s [Moderator]. Thanks for joining us this afternoon. This afternoon’s call is on background. We have [Senior Administration Official One] as well as [Senior Administration Official Two] and from here on out they’ll be known as Senior Administration Official One and Two. So without further ado, I want to go ahead and turn it over to Senior Administration Official Number One. Go ahead, sir.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you very much, and we really appreciate you all joining us on such short notice today. And it’s a great to be on the call with my colleague and friend [Senior Administration Official Two]. What I’d like to do, since the Secretary has laid out some specific things today, is to provide you a little bit of context on each of them, and hopefully that will answer many of your questions. And then [Senior Administration Official Two] will jump in with a few other comments as well. And then if you have any particulars, we’ll be happy to follow up with you directly. So let me just go through.
The Secretary had some very strong words of support for the reform efforts, for the leadership that we’ve seen demonstrated by the government in Nay Pyi Taw. She singled out the president, I think, with some sincere comments of support for his courage and determination. She was also very congratulatory and thrilled to see Aung San Suu Kyi be elected with such a strong mandate into the parliament that will be seating – seated later this month.
In addition, she laid out some specific steps, and I’d to just kind of go through a few things about those steps if I can. And just the most important thing is what the Secretary has laid out. Really, they marked the beginning of a process. And every step along the way, both in the past, currently, and in the future, will involve very detailed consultations with Congress, friends and allies in Europe and Asia. As we speak now, Ambassador Mitchell is in Europe in consultations. And I’ve just come from backgrounding a variety of friends in Asia. And each of these steps that we’re taking are complex, they’re multifaceted, and they will take a period of time to implement. And we will be providing more details to you on several of them regarding timeframe and scope.
So let me just go through a few of the specifics if I can. We are very close to being able to name formally an ambassador. We are in the process now of what is called seeking agrement with the authorities in Nay Pyi Taw. That is the formal process whereby their government agrees to our nominee. We’ve been in close consultation with colleagues and friends on Capitol Hill about this, and we have high confidence that this will be announced formally in short order. To be perfectly honest, we haven’t done this in a long time, so we’ll – it’ll – I think it’ll move quickly, but we want to follow the appropriate procedures.
On the UN Development Program, just a few points of background: For the past decade, the United States has not permitted the UNDP to conduct what would be called a normal country program inside the country in Burma, and we have restricted UNDP activities to ensure that no funds benefit any level of the Burmese Government, including local officials. And as the Secretary indicated, we now believe that the conditions permit UNDP to pursue what we would call a normal country program. We think that such an effort will focus on pro-democracy and ethnic minority groups. Although they play a small role in parliament, we think supporting programs accordingly will be important.
We think that a number of the steps that the government has taken, most recently in terms of the currency and other steps, can be supported effectively by the UNDP. And so we will inform the United Nations and the UNDP specifically of our intention to support this, and we’ll emphasize the importance of ensuring that assistance is coordinated in an effective and transparent manner among key states and that we would very much like to see programs developed that are aimed at poverty alleviation, furthering the process of economic reform and the development of those most in need. And again, many of those are in ethnic minority areas.
In terms of USAID, at present USAID provides something over 35 million in annual assistance to the Burmese people. And our regional development mission in Bangkok is the hub responsible for managing this assistance. And we have a couple of USAID staff in country to monitor these programs. And so what we are proposing to do is to reestablish a formal USAID mission in Burma. This, I think, will help us in terms of making sure that we have full knowledge of how programs are being implemented, their successes, where there needs to be adjustments, and will give us the best opportunity to coordinate with other partner countries who are increasingly managing their operations from inside the country rather from surrounding states. So this is an appropriate step. It is in line with what Britain has done, what Australia is doing, and what other countries also involved are moving towards.
In terms of nonprofit activity that the Secretary described, there are sanctions that have impeded certain kinds of activities in the country. We have, in the past, supported certain humanitarian and religious activities, but other programs and projects have to go through a rather intense, and sometimes, laborious case-by-case basis. And we have made the determination to allow U.S. entities and individuals to pursue a much broader range of non-profit activities in Burma that promote democracy, public health, education, environmental conservation, and other non-commercial development related initiatives. And this, I think, is in line and supports the Secretary’s commitment during her visit to Burma in late 2011 to increase exchanges with people, civil society organizations, and the government.
We are working closely, as with everything that we’re doing inside the government, with the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, OFAC, to create what we would call an expanded general license that will authorize this wider spectrum of activities. On a daily basis, we are being approached by universities, non-profit groups, student initiatives, all desiring to lend their shoulder to efforts aimed at reform and development in Burma – in Myanmar, and we believe that these steps will help move positively in this direction.
Key points in terms of facilitating travel; this is a little bit more complicated. The United States does not have one travel ban. Through a variety of sanctions – and remember, Burma is a – has a number of interlocking and overlapping sanctions – but through a variety of sanctions, including an executive proclamation and what is called the 2008 JADE Act, we currently restrict the travel of certain Burmese persons to the United States, such as leaders of the military, those involved in repression of human rights, and cabinet ministers and vice ministers.
Now we are going to begin the process of using our travel sanctions to facilitate travel to the United States, specifically for select reform-minded authorities who are constructively engaging with the United States and other members of the international community. We think easing these restrictions in a targeted manner will promote much greater dialogue, more confidence, and hopefully will allow us to gain greater confidence on some of our core concerns.
This is an important step and, frankly, we’ve had very little travel of senior officials to the United States. And I think it’s time, as the reform effort takes hold, for us to be able to invite senior and key players to Washington. You will see some invitations in the coming days that we look forward to reciprocating some of the hospitality that we have received on our visits there.
I think it is also the case that, as the Secretary indicated, that we will begin also a process of easing financial services and the investment ban. We have committed to a targeted easing of our ban on the exportation of financial services to Burma and U.S. investment in the country. This is going to be a step-by-step process.
We will identify, first of all, the areas and the sectors that we think are most likely to make an immediate impact on the livelihood of the people in the country, and we also will highlight areas that we believe, frankly, are impeding the process of reform. Let me just give you an example. Burma is one of the few countries in the world where you cannot use a credit card, and it makes it extraordinarily difficult for some of the most basic kinds of economic exchanges. And we think some small steps will allow businesses to flourish, certain opportunities to take hold.
This will be a very intensive process. It will involve very strong consultations with friends and allies and with key stakeholders on Capitol Hill. [Senior Administration Official Two] and myself, many others are involved almost on an hourly basis in these discussions, and they will go forward. We have consulted closely, not only with people in Congress, but also non-profit organizations. We have had detailed private interactions and more formal ones with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and many other members of civil society and inside the country. And we believe that we are – that our steps are true to their goals and ambitions, and they are broadly supported.
I think I’ll end there and ask [Senior Administration Official Two] to jump in, if that’s okay.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Okay. Thank you, [Senior Administration Official One]. Just one point I’d add to that. And I think they’re the two principles that underline – or underlie what we announced today.
First is the measured incremental approach that we’re taking here. The purpose is to send a clear signal of support for the reform process and reformers. At the same time, we have no illusions about the difficult road ahead in Burma and that there remain severe challenges down the road. And I think the Secretary laid out a number of those challenges in her statement today. I don’t need to go through them again. I think you all know the things that had not happened in Burma, as much as what has happened to date in the reform process. So the measured incremental approach, I think, is the number one principle.
The second fundamental principle here is that we are taking the bluntness out of the sanctions and we are now focusing and targeting on those areas as a fundamental principle, as we look to do this down the road, target and focus our efforts on the regressive elements, the corrupt elements, the elements that are not looking forward and consistent with reform going forward.
So those two are very fundamental and important principles that we are looking at as we implement this and put the details and meat on the bones of what was announced today and what [Senior Administration Official Two] laid out. So that’s the only thing I think I would add.
MODERATOR: Operator, we’re ready to go ahead with questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1. You will be prompted to un-mute your phone and record your name. Once again, it is *1 to ask a question. And our first question comes from Shaun Tandon of AFP. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yeah. Hi, guys. Thanks for doing this call. Just to follow up a little bit on the investment part, Senior Official Number One, you were talking about the credit cards. Is that something concrete that you think will be one of the first areas? And just if you could be a bit more specific about how long does it take to ease the restrictions on investment. And while it’s obviously up to the private sector, what – if there’s any ballpark figure for what you expect U.S. investment in Burma to look like?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yes. Thank you, and I’ll have a – [Senior Administration Official Two] will also probably want to touch base on this. I can’t give you a specific timeframe because, frankly, some of these things – lifting sanctions is a challenging process. We have a strong determination to do it, but we want to work closely and carefully with our counterparts, our allies, and also with key players on Capitol Hill.
What you were referring to, Shaun, particularly on credit cards, really has to do with the financial sanctions as opposed to investment bans. And I think we will be taking some permanent – some steps on the financial side soon, and those will be to allow a certain kind of electronic commerce. We are looking carefully at sectors, and I think I’d like to ask [Senior Administration Official Two] to talk a little bit about how we’re thinking about this at this current time.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, let me just add a different point, aside from the sectoral side of things, which is we need to be careful, as we look at Burma, that even as we ease bans on investment or bans on financial services, businesses around the world have not had these restrictions on them. They have gone in and looked around and they’ve walked back with their tail between their legs. And what they say is, look, the business environment is not conducive for investment; it’s not appropriate for their activity. I don’t think there’s going to be a huge rush right now. There will be a rush, I think, in terms of looking fresh at Burma.
But what this does, in essence, if done carefully and right, it puts the ball in the Burmese court to create now the conditions. They can’t blame the international community or the West for the problems. They now have to create the right conditions for responsible investment and responsible engagement, and right now those conditions don’t exist. So in terms of timelines of when anything would be set up or how fast folks should move in or – that’s all going to be based on the conditions on the ground, which are not necessarily very good right now. And I think we can’t really predict how that will be going down the road, but that ball now is in the Burmese – will be in the Burmese court more and more going forward.
MODERATOR: Operator, we’re ready for the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Arshad Mohammed with Reuters. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Could Senior Administration Official Number Two follow up on what Official Number One had said in terms of giving us some sense of the kinds of sectors that you are looking at in terms of easing the – both the financial and the investment bans? Can you give us any greater clarity on what kinds of things U.S. companies might ultimately be able to do? What are the sectors? Is – on the investment side, is it all mineral resources and timber, things like that? And on the financial side, tangibly what kinds of exports – financial services exports are you willing to or are you looking at allowing?
And one question for Official Number One: I noticed you used the – you described the country in question as Myanmar at one point, although I think the government – U.S. Government policy has been to refer to it as Burma. Is there any change in that policy?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Let me answer the sectoral question first. Again, the principle I think we’re going to be using to underline anything we do in terms of easing is what has the most benefit has the most benefit for the average Burmese. And so what sectors can provide the greatest bang in terms of employment and development for those who have been hurt by the system for so long? And certain sectors I think jump out at you. I mean, agriculture is one. I think many have looked at tourism as another. Some have looked at potentially telecommunications as another.
I don’t want to go into every different sector, but there are certain sectors that seem to have greater benefit for the broader cross-section that don’t get to, as I said, regressive elements the Burmese economy and Burmese society. And as you get into things like the resource questions – timber, gems – I think you get into those more regressive sectors, those that are in the ethnic minority areas and therefore are done on the backs, oftentimes, of local populations and those that are most interested in a national reconciliation with the government in good faith. That’s – we have to be very careful in that regard. So I don’t want to – this is all sort of general thinking on this. There have been no decisions – final decisions on this type of thing. But just to give you a sense of the general thinking and the principles behind it, I think gives you some sense.
QUESTION: That was on the investment side, presumably – agricultural, tourism, telecommunications – as general possibilities. How about on financial services? Can you give us a general sense of what area? Are we talking about Citibank opening up branches?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah.
QUESTION: Are we talking about people – investment banks being able to help Burma –
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- issue bonds? I mean, what --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I think another sector could be in the banking sector as well, on that list for consideration, because that as well can help with the financial system some of the, again, regressive elements and that are still on our designated enemy list. And the one thing that’s not changing, as you know, are the specific targeted designated entities and individuals that we are sanctioning. Those remain in place, and some of those are banks within the system. So banks are a possibility here because they can help create a more open, transparent, principled system of economic activity.
So when you talk about financial services, I think it would parallel what I’m talking about in terms of investment. I think you would see them in tandem. So if you’re going to lift it on investment – or really the other way around – if you’re going to lift it on financial services, you’d want to lift it on investment as well to allow companies also to engage productively and responsibly.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: And then on the first question, thank you very much. The – I think as you know, there are only two countries really who use the term Burma officially in the current context. That is the United States and Great Britain. Many publications, most of our interlocutors in Southeast Asia and elsewhere – we in almost all circumstances use the term Burma in official settings. And occasionally in private meetings, we will refer to the country either by its capital name Nay Pyi Taw, Burma, or Myanmar.
It is the case that in certain meetings that government officials are – in the country are occasionally unhappy with the use of the term, because in their view, our concern has always been Aung San Suu Kyi’s concern, which is not the name itself as much as the process of how the decision was made to change the official name from Burma to Myanmar.
For some of the country, however, it is the concern about the name itself. Remember that Myanmar/Burma is a multiethnic country, and Burmans are a majority group but there are a number of others. The name Myanmar has been used historically, and in fact, Burma is the bastardization; it is what some of the British original settlers thought they heard when the people they interacted first used the term Myanmar. And even members of the NLD and others, when they write their country out in a letter, they use the word “Myanmar.” However, it is the case that we – official practice – and you will have seen it today when Secretary Clinton spoke – is to continue to use the term “Burma.”
QUESTION: Great. Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Could I just add one more thing on the first question, which is that the Burmese Government retains restrictions on international investment in the banking sector, so that still remains, I believe, a constraint on any international investment. So in the hypothetical that you raised – and I should probably not go into hypotheticals, just talking more in principle – but there are still restrictions I think the Burmese place on that kind of activity that would have to be lifted even if we wanted to lift restrictions on that sector.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Operator, next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Steve Myers with New York Times. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, gentlemen. Thanks so much. I wanted to follow up on the sanctions question, because as you mentioned, there’s this whole raft of sanctions covering all sorts of things, the JADE Act being just the latest one. It sounds like what you’re saying is you’re not looking to remove any of those sanctions from the books but simply look at ways that you can target some investment that would be waived or allowed through the presidential authority that you have already under those laws. Is that correct?
And then on the second thing, could you just spell out the travel ban a little bit more? Do you know how many officials now are on that list, even roughly, and then how many might be allowed – or taken off the list soon? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Let me take the second question and let [Senior Administration Official Two] take the first. There is no travel ban per se. There is no list. There is a travel ban, but there is no list. We have, as a general practice, prohibited and discouraged until very recently – I think as you know, [Senior Administration Official Two] hosted the foreign minister this fall when he came to Washington, and this is a part of a process where not only will we change that approach, we will encourage visitors, we will be inviting senior officials. The Secretary has invited the foreign minister to visit. We expect the minister of health to be visiting the Washington area in the near future.
Our intention here is to assertively engage and invite our key interlocutors, particularly those who have been supportive of reform, to the United States. So that’s really the direction that we’re seeking today.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: My apologies; if you can say the first question again.
QUESTION: I wanted to follow up specifically on the question of the sanctions, because there are many sanctions that are on the books now passed by Congress.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Oh, you mean legislative sanctions, is what you’re referring to?
QUESTION: Yeah, exactly. As well as executive sanctions as well, right? So the question – it sounds like – are you removing any of those, or are you simply looking for ways that you can make exceptions to them under the authorities that already exist, or are you going to go to Congress and say, “Let’s take this one off the books”?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: We haven’t come to a conclusion on what we’d go to Congress with. I think we’re still figuring out what we want to do, and then we’ll figure out a way to do it. And the sanctions are byzantine, to put it mildly, in terms of executive orders that overlap and legislation that overlaps with something else. So we’ll need to figure out how to navigate that, but we think we have the ability, always in consultation with Congress though. Clearly, we want to move in sync with Congress or at least get their understanding as we go. But there’s no plan at the current time to ask them to get rid of anything legislative. I think the current idea is to use waiver authorities and we can rescind executive orders to at least do much of what we’re looking to do.
QUESTION: Great. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Operator, next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from William Wan of Washington Post. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks, guys. Yeah, I feel like you guys covered the sanctions pretty well. There was one question I was wondering. In her speech, the Secretary kind of drew this long narrative arc stretching back to the beginning of the Administration, this policy of engagement, Obama’s speech of reaching out with an open hand, et cetera. It seemed to me like perhaps a first or the most kind of forceful kind of assertion of some small victory in this sector and that – I just was wondering, is this a sign that you guys see these reforms as being more permanent, or what caused that kind of tracing of the history of engagement that brought you here? I just wanted some kind of read on that, if you have any insight on that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I mean, I can start with that and then I’d love to hear [Senior Administration Official Two]’s perspective. I would say that it’s – for some people who are just tuning in now, right, it’s important to underscore just how far we’ve come in seven months, really since August. It’s just – it’s remarkable. And so it’s important to look at these elections, which are indeed historic and dramatic. But it’s also important to put this in the context of a number of substantial steps that the government has taken – the release of political prisoners, some elements in civil society, some new legal provisions – that all point in a positive direction.
But it was also important when you laid that out to do it in such a way so that you can also indicate that there are a number of areas where we are still looking for more progress: a final release of all political prisoners. It’s been very impressive, but there’s still more to be done. An unconditional release and a waiver of legal restrictions on those that have been freed from prison, steps relating to the military relationship with North Korea, these are areas that we’re looking for more progress. And in particular, what we hear again and again is that while there has been substantial progress in urban areas, many of the circumstances are unchanged – the brutality along the border in ethnic areas. And that’s the point that the Secretary wanted to make: Put the progress clearly out front but also indicate that this is – that we seek further steps in these other areas as well.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Let me just add I fully endorse what [Senior Administration Official One] said. I would add, of course, the ethnic minority situation is an absolute large concern of ours. We will not forget that there continue to be terrible abuses in Kachin State and in Shan State and in Chin and elsewhere that continue to offend the conscience of the international community and will prevent us from having a normal relationship as long as they go on. We need access to internally displaced persons who are in dire need. There’s still all the atrocities going on.
We do not want to give any sense that this is somehow a time where we are turning the page, we feel things are fine, and they’re on some irreversible track forward. And from the beginning, what we’ve tried to do is put wind in the sails of reform and give encouragement to reformers, empower the reformers, and to put our weight behind the progressive elements of the society that are doing, frankly, what’s good for the country and its long-term interests and is good for stability in the region and that conforms to our values.
And this is just another point in that process that we feel that we ought to get in and assist that in a tangible way, as a tangible moment that obviously was not a perfect process. There are a lot of concerns about the electoral process. They have a lot of work to do leading to 2015, which is the next point – one major point, not just the next one but a major milestone down the road. But we feel that we’ve seen enough movement, enough encouragement that there are people trying to do some serious things, and that we can play a constructive role in that, and we should get in and try and do that the best we can. And if we see it fail or reversed, then we will recalibrate our approach accordingly.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Can I also just – on that point, I really like what [Senior Administration Official Two] said. But I would just underscore that all of these things – first of all, they can be turned off or reversed quickly if there is backtracking. That’s number one. Number two, I think the Secretary determined in close consultation with the President that right now, given what has taken place, that the United States wanted to send a very strong signal that we support, we acknowledge, and we are grateful for the steps that have taken, and we want to be assisting in that process. And I think that’s the inspiration behind this, and again, the – [Senior Administration Two] has been a key architect in helping us think about how we go about this overall process.
QUESTION: Can I just ask – I forgot to ask about this. Is there a timeline for these sanctions, or where – can – is there even kind of a general, vague sketch of that? Like how – when you’re rolling these things out, what are you talking about? Weeks or months? And is there a point at which it’ll – you’ll start looking at, like a permanent lifting of sanctions and what that might take? And is that years? Or how far away is that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: If I could take that, it’s hard to assess. I mean, I think we’re talking – we’re in a continual process now, in a very intense process of considering how and what scope we want to make this lifting of restrictions and to implement what we’ve done, particularly on the services and investment side. The others are fairly straightforward but will take a little bit of a process. I think the others can be in a matter of days and weeks.
The – in terms of overall sanctions, legislative sanctions and such, I don’t think we have a timeframe. It really depends on the conditions on the ground and whether momentum continues, whether Aung San Suu Kyi is fully integrated in her party, and the others in the opposition are fully integrated as respected members of governance. There are a lot of issues still that remain to be worked on, along with all the other things we listed earlier of concern. So I wouldn’t put a timeframe on lifting all sanctions or normalizing the relationship. I think we’re going to take it a step at a time.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think that’s actually maybe a good place to end this. I think you’ve probably gotten enough from us. Moderator, do you think that’s okay?
MODERATOR: Yeah. We’re okay to end the call. Thank you so much.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. Thank you all very much.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Okay. Thank you.