Background Briefing On Secretary Tillerson's Trip to Burma

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Manila, Philippines
November 14, 2017


Moderator: Hi thank you everyone for joining us and a particular thank you to our speaker [Senior State Department Official]. However, I just want to remind everyone of the ground rules before we get started. This briefing on Secretary Tillerson’s trip to Burma is on background so any reference to anything [Senior State Department Official] says here should be attributed to a senior State Department official. So again, the ground rules are this is on background and attribution is to a Senior State Department official. And if any – everything is embargoed until the completion of this call. In a moment I’m going to turn it over to [Senior State Department Official] to make some opening remarks and then we’ll go to question and answer. The format is a little difficult. We have some people in person and some people by phone. We’ll be alternating between those two groups for the question and answer session. Again, thank you so much for your patience tonight and thank you for doing this briefing after such a long day. Thank you.

Senior State Department Official: So hi everybody. Thank you very much, … and thanks to all of you for waiting such a long time. I know we were delayed several hours in the meeting both yesterday and today so I appreciate your patience. Of course, we’re heading off tomorrow from here to Manila, off to Naypyidaw in Myanmar to continue this trip and to make a very important stop in Myanmar… and of course over the past week, Secretary Tillerson has been actively engaged in advancing U.S. diplomatic efforts in ASEAN and East Asia Summit fora on the issue of Myanmar and particularly the crisis in Rakhine State and now we’re going to be traveling to Burma, Myanmar for the final stop in the region.

On November 15th, Secretary Tillerson will travel to Naypyidaw to meet separately with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and the Commander and Chief of Burma’s Armed Forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. In Naypyidaw the Secretary will reiterate support for Burma’s democratic transition and urge the Burmese government to protect local populations, allow for unhindered humanitarian and media access, support for a credible investigation of abuses, which hopefully would enable for those who are responsible for those abuses to be held accountable.

We note the government’s plans for voluntary repatriation and encourage the government to implement these plans as soon as possible and to create safe conditions that would allow refugees to voluntarily return to their own villages and their own land. In light of the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State, which has had a major impact on neighboring Bangladesh, the Secretary will, of course, express concerns over the displacement and violence and insecurity affecting Rohingya populations and other local populations and discuss ways to help Burma stakeholders implement commitments aimed at ending the crisis and charting productive ways forward.

Burma’s overall success is very important for the people of Burma, for the region and for U.S. interests. We will continue to work with the democratically elected civilian leadership and Burma’s diverse populations and other stakeholders inside the country and the region to address this crisis and to support efforts for a long-term, peaceful solution. Just to give you a recap on Burma-related visits and contacts that we’ve had recently, the Secretary did meet this morning with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi here in Manila to discuss the crisis in Rakhine and other issues concerning Myanmar and other U.S.-Myanmar relations and of course he’ll meet her again tomorrow as I just mentioned.

He has also been discussing the situation in Myanmar and potential actions to be taken with other counterparts both here in Manila, on the margins of the EAS [East Asia Summit] and also on various stops along this trip. And, of course, during the week of October 29th - and there was a background briefing on this at the State Department last week our acting Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration, Simon Henshaw, led a delegation to both Burma and Bangladesh to see firsthand what is happening with regards to the humanitarian and human rights situation and the impact of our assistance. The delegation pressed the government of Burma at that time to provide full humanitarian and media access, as well, and to guarantee respect for the human rights of all populations, including providing credible path to citizenship for the Rohingya population and to provide for the voluntary return of displaced people to their places of origin.

And then on October 26th, Secretary Tillerson called Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who he will also meet again tomorrow, to express concern about the continuing humanitarian crisis and urge the military support to the civilian leadership in responding to the crisis. Then we’ve had a number of sets of testimony including on October 24th when Deputy Assistant Secretary Patrick Murphy, Mark Cerilla from our Population, Refugees and Migration Bureau and USAID acting Deputy Assistant Administrator, V. KATE SOMVONGSIRI testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the humanitarian assistance efforts in Rakhine state. So the Secretary’s trip, his first trip to Burma, demonstrates sustained U.S. interest in addressing human rights and the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State and work with the Burmese government and the international community to identify immediate and longer-term responses. So thank you very much and I’ll be happy to take some questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Can you identify yourself please.

QUESTION: Nick Wadhams from Bloomberg News. I have two quick questions. One is the military issue in a statement earlier today basically denying any involvement in attacks [inaudible]. Do you believe that is credible and do you think there is clear evidence that the military is involved? Secondly, do you see Aung San Suu Kyi as being in a position where she can actually help solve this problem?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well regarding the statement today about the investigation, I think that’s one of the things we’ll be looking into when we go there tomorrow. I don’t know much about what the investigation might have done and I don’t know much about the contents and detail of the statement, but I think we’ll be looking into that when we’re there tomorrow. As far as whether or not Aung San Suu Kyi wants to solve this crisis, I can assure you she does. She’s been here in Manila for the last three days and had conversations with all of her counterparts, or almost all her counterparts and has been very forthcoming about wanting to solve the problem, what kinds of action need to be taken to improve the situation. And I think we’ll continue to talk to her about that tomorrow, but she certainly seems to be wanting to solve the problem. I think she has a lot to contribute to a solution. And, you know, it’s a unique power sharing government in Myanmar, but she certainly wields a lot of authority and influence I think there’s a lot she can do. She needs to have help in doing some of these things, but I think there’s a lot she can do as well.

MODERATOR: All right and now we’re moving over to one of the people who are calling in. AT&T go ahead…[ATT PROVIDES INSTRUCTIONS ON HOW TO QUEU FOR A QUESTION]

QUESTION: Hello. I’m Kris Mada from Kompas Morning Daily Indonesia. I like to explore how [inaudible] what are plans for the Rohingya … problems [inaudible] Burma, denied Rohingya is part of Burma. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Hi can you please repeat your question? You asked for what are the plans for the Rohingya.

REPORTER: I did.

MODERATOR: Was there more to the question or just the? The…

REPORTER: Yes. What are the US plans for Rohingya if the Burma government deny [inaudible] and they also deny Rohingya is part of Burma. Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay so I think where we started in all of this is the Kofi Annan Commission made a series of 88 recommendations that include many recommendations that would get to the issue of a long term path to status for the Rohingya population inside of Burma and other populations. So I think that’s still the longterm end goal and it’s clear that the Myanmar government remains committed to the Kofi Annan recommendations and is proceeding with the Advisory Commission’s recommendations and to implementation of those. Of course, in the meantime, well on the very day that the Commission presented its findings in fact was the attacks on the villages and then the subsequent crisis developed and so I think now the main issue is to, subsequent to the exodus of all these people out of the areas in northern Rakhine State into Bangladesh, the main issue is how to quickly return or in the near term, people who have left in that latest wave of migration back to their places of living and their land. So I think that – that’s one of the things that as I mentioned in my opening comments – that’s one of the things we’ll be exploring when we go Myanmar to meet with government officials there tomorrow to find out how is that going. There’s been ongoing conversations going on between Bangladesh and Burma on a memorandum of understanding on how to affect the returns of people who are currently in Bangladesh back to Burma and I think that’s a process that everyone is interested in trying to help along as quickly as possible so.

REPORTER: Thanks.

QUESTION: Serafin Gomez from Fox News. Basically, when you talk about a unique power structure, are you essentially saying that you want us to know that the State Counsellor has gotten a lot of criticism overall globally, it’s really the onus on the military. Is that why the Secretary of State is meeting with the head of the military tomorrow and are you essentially saying that the focus should really be on them [inaudible] the problem.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well the Constitution says that – the transitional Constitution in Burma - provides for a lot of power and authority to the military in addition to the civilian-led government so, you know, the military has a big block of seats in Parliament. They control ministries, they control security and they control certain parts of the country. So I think, you know, it’s important both parts of the government are going to have to work together in order to solve this problem. You know, and it’s stated in the Constitution, it’s laid out in the Constitution that both parts have these responsibilities and trying to get the two of them to work together to try solve the problem is certainly going to be very important. I don’t …I think both sides have responsibilities. Certainly the military was the main actor involved in the crisis in Northern Rakhine because that’s where they are present and they’re responding to attacks. Most of the recorded abuses seem to be linked to the military or other vigilantes in that region so I think it’s going to take actions on the part of the military and actions on the part of the civilian government both.

QUESTION: One quick follow-up. How involved has the President been? Is the reason Secretary Tillerson’s going now is because of the President? How involved has the President been AND active on this issue?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well this issue was a major feature of discussions here in Manila over the last couple of days in which the President participated so he has been very much involved in discussing it. I think the Secretary’s trip to Burma was planned at the end of this long trip, much before we had any of those discussions, but certainly there was emphasis on as far as the discussions over the last few days here in Manila.

MODERTATOR: AT&T you can go on with the next question.

OPERATOR: …Our next question comes from the line of Sally Maires with AP.

QUESTION: Hi there, thanks. I.. Could you comment on what Secretary Tillerson will be saying to the army – army commander and chief when he meets tomorrow? Will he maybe be discussing the threat of sanctions. Is he – how much is the U.S. weighing that right now? Also what time will they be meeting and will there be any press access afterwards?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay so the question on the schedule I think there is currently on the schedule some press access planned but we also have a very narrow time window for this trip so stay tuned on that but the intent is to have some press access while we’re there so we’re well intentioned.

MODERATOR: And we will follow up with you. I’ve got your name and I’ll follow-up with you after this.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the question of the meeting with the Commander-in-Chief, I don’t know exactly what he’s going to say tomorrow but I can tell you that in the conversation that he had with him on the telephone and in his planned remarks for tomorrow, we’re focusing on trying to stabilize the areas in northern Rakhine so that people can return there, stopping the violence, making sure the military is going to be responsible for protecting all populations in that area equally and that they conduct a credible investigation that’s going to lead to accountability for people who may have perpetrated abuses. Certainly there are consequences for Burma if they can’t come through the crisis with the kind of credible response that the international community is looking for. I think that could be part of the conversation as well. Certainly, we think Burma’s made a lot of progress in the last few years and we would not want to see that progress reversed because of an inadequate response to a crisis like this so I think the entire international community and certainly the leaders at the EAS here who discussed the issue all made clear that they are very dedicated to trying to support the government to get through this crisis and they don’t want to see Burma go through any regression or backsliding. They want to see them moving out and dealing with this crisis forthrightly and that’s what we’ll be bringing to the table tomorrow.

MODERATOR: I do – I just want to check because I was just check because [the offical] has other meetings tonight, we’ll take one more question from here and one more from the line.

QUESTION: [inaudible] ..Straits Times. What do you think [inaudible] is not offering anything beyond humanitarian assistance. [inaudible] ASEAN you think mission?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well I think we want to have as many countries and organizations that will offer help as are useful and will be able to contribute to the resolution of the crisis, so in that vein I think ASEAN efforts to try to bolster the support for the government as they try to deal with this crisis have been very helpful. I know during the U.N. high level week in New York the ASEAN leaders had a meeting and talked with and came out with a statement on the situation in Rakhine which is timely and helpful and they also offered to set up the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Center to try help with facilitating the flow of humanitarian aid into northern Rakhine, which at that point had really gotten kind of slowed down to a trickle because of the situation with stability and also the problems with U.N. agencies, so I think that kind of response is very, very welcome.

I think some of the ASEAN countries have also actually been engaged in a kind of shuttle diplomacy between the countries of Bangladesh and Burma, which has been helpful on the issues of returning IDPs and figuring out how that process will work. Other countries have offered and contributed expertise in how to sort of repatriate people and what experience they’ve had. So I think the ASEAN contributions to date have been helpful. What needs to happen now, though, is that since the crisis has reached the magnitude that it has you need to have a lot more capacity to deal with the crisis in a way that is going to be effective and can give people some confidence that it’s being dealt with effectively. I think that the initial response from ASEAN, and the diplomacy that ASEAN’s put in has been helpful, but we need to keep going and do more.

MODERATOR: And AT&T can you select the next and final question from someone on our phone line.

OPERATOR: Okay so the final question on our phone line comes from the line of James Griffith with CNN. Please go ahead, sir.

QUESTION: Hi. Will Secretary Tillerson meet with some of ethnic cleansing [inaudible] U.K and U.N have? And the second question will the Secretary be pushing for unfettered media access for Rakhine State?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah well, I think, and I think I said in my remarks that he will be pushing for unfettered access for humanitarian assistance and also for media and other observers to go up there. On the issue of what kind of terms he’s going to use, I cannot say what kind of terms he’s gonna use at this point, but I think he’ll speak to the issues that we’re all concerned about and he’ll be listening for what the interlocutors he is there to talk to have to say about that but I am not sure what terms he will. For that, you’ll have to tune in tomorrow and see what he says.