MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Asia Pacific region and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with the Counselor of the U.S. Department of State Derek Chollet. Counselor Chollet will discuss U.S. efforts to promote accountability for the Burma military regime’s atrocities and the U.S. commitment to the people of Burma as it marks the second year of the military coup. He will take questions from participating journalists.
I’ll now turn it over to the counselor for his opening remarks. Sir, the floor is yours.
MR CHOLLET: Well, thank you, Katie, and thanks, everyone, for joining. I particularly appreciate it given the late hour where most of you are. So I just have a short statement I’ll make up front, and then we’ll really look forward to your questions.
Today marks a grim milestone, but it also is a moment to renew our resolve. Two years since the coup, we have seen the Burmese military regime escalate its crackdown, having killed nearly 3,000 people, including women and young children, displaced more than one and a half million people from their homes, imprisoned tens of thousands, executed political prisoners, and committed egregious abuses against those in detention. And while today we remember a dark moment – sorry – we also will use this occasion of the second coup anniversary to reiterate the United States support for the people of Myanmar who continue to bravely voice their aspirations for democracy, for the rule of law, for justice, and the respect of human rights.
Yesterday, as you know, the United States imposed sanctions on six individuals and three entities linked to the regime’s revenue streams, including the senior leadership of the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, arms dealers, regime leaders, family members, and their business cronies. We also sanctioned the Union Election Commission, which the regime has manipulated to advance its flawed elections. These steps will make it harder for the junta to generate revenue and procure arms, and firmly signal our position that any regime-led elections have no chance of being free or fair. Any election without the full participation of Myanmar’s people would represent a naked attempt by the junta to cling to power.
So for the past two years, the United States has worked tirelessly with our allies and partners to help put Myanmar back on the path of democracy and to address the humanitarian crisis caused by the military’s brutal crackdown. And let me briefly highlight three important lines of effort that have guided our policy.
First, as we – we have stepped up economic and political pressure on the regime. And as I mentioned, our steps from yesterday will impose costs on the junta. And in lockstep with our partners such as Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada, our sanctions have been an important component in showing that the United States and its partners stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar and will take action against those enabling the military regime. And to date we have designated 80 individuals and 32 entities, and most of those steps have been mirrored by our allies and partners. As you also recall, last year Secretary of State Blinken also announced that he had determined that members of the Burmese military had committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya.
The second line of effort is we are actively and vigorously supporting the pro-democracy movement. And we saw yet another example of the resilience and the diversity of Burmese civil society with the silent strike that took place over the last 24 hours. As part of this second line of effort to support the pro-democracy movement, we have ramped up our support to them. We very much welcome the passage here in the United States Congress of the BURMA Act, which is a bipartisan piece of legislation reflecting the United States commitment to support the people of Myanmar, and we are committed to working with the United States Congress to impose severe consequences for the regime’s atrocities, to support the pro-democracy movement, and to provide critical humanitarian assistance.
We have done what we can and are committed to do more to help the National Unity Government and other pro-democracy actors gain capability and effectiveness. I have met multiple times, along with my colleagues here in Washington, with senior leaders from the National Unity Government, and we regularly engage with them in person and by video, and we also engage with other pro-democracy leaders and we are working to provide them support. Just yesterday, my colleague Dan Kritenbrink, who is our Assistant Secretary of State for the department’s Bureau of East Asian Affairs, visited the NUG office here in Washington and met with a diverse group of civil society leaders here in the United States to learn how the U.S. can deepen our support for the pro-democracy movement.
Third, we are working to deliver critical humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar, whose needs are only growing more desperate. The United States is the largest single-country donor to the crisis in Burma, and since the coup two years ago, we have provided nearly half a billion dollars in life-saving humanitarian assistance for vulnerable communities in Burma and those who have sought refuge in neighboring countries, especially the Rohingya refugee communities, and we are constantly looking for ways to do more.
Now, in all this it’s very important to underscore that we are coordinating closely with our allies and partners, including ASEAN and its members, as well as with the United Nations and other international organizations. And this is really the foundation of our support: to work in lockstep with our allies and partners. We strongly support ASEAN members to continue to hold Burma accountable with the Five-Point Consensus. We very much support the ASEAN decision to downgrade Burma’s representation at ASEAN meetings, including last November’s ASEAN summit, the August ASEAN ministerial, and of course we took a similar step at the U.S.-ASEAN special summit last May. We very much welcome our partner Indonesia’s new role this year as the ASEAN chair, and we look forward to working closely with its new office of the special envoy to the crisis in Myanmar, and we will continue to support ASEAN leadership in addressing this crisis.
Our overarching goal in Myanmar remains to foster conditions that end the current crisis but, more importantly, return Burma to the path of inclusive, representative, multiparty democracy. And we have to be prepared for the year ahead. Any election that the regime might have – and I know that they extended their state of emergency today – but any election that they might have will have no chance of being free or fair given that the regime has imprisoned or intimidated nearly all credible potential contenders and indeed does not control nearly 50 percent of Burma’s territory.
The people of Burma have suffered under the military’s tyranny for far too long, and they deserve our full support. So we will continue along the lines of effort that I’ve outlined today: increasing pressure on the junta and not allowing it to gain legitimacy, supporting the pro-democracy movement and providing humanitarian support, all in coordination with our allies and partners in the region and beyond.
And so with that, I look forward to taking your questions. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Counselor Chollet. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. Our first question was submitted in advance and it goes to Moe Myint of BBC Burmese in the UK. He asks, “How important is the Myanmar issue in U.S. foreign policy, and why? And how are you supporting Myanmar’s struggle to return to democracy?”
MR CHOLLET: Thanks for that question. The crisis in Myanmar remains foremost in our minds given the brutality with which the junta is prosecuting its war, but also the potential for destabilizing effects throughout Southeast Asia, which is a critical region for U.S. interests. As you know, the Biden administration has worked very hard over the last few years to deepen our cooperation with the countries of Southeast Asia, in particular with ASEAN. That’s why President Biden last May hosted a U.S.-ASEAN summit here in Washington. And we believe that increasingly our strategic interests rest with the potential challenges but also, more importantly, the opportunities in Southeast Asia. And therefore, the crisis in Myanmar, which we’re on the brink of having a failed state in the heart of Southeast Asia, matters greatly to the United States.
So despite the fact that there is no shortage of important issues on the U.S. agenda – foreign policy agenda right now, we remain focused on the people of Myanmar and helping put Myanmar back on the path towards democracy. It’s why we are working so hard along the lines of effort that I have outlined today, from punishing and isolating the junta and increasing the pressure on them, to helping support the pro-democracy movement, to helping provide critical humanitarian assistance to the people inside Myanmar.
This is an effort that we will not waver from in the coming months, and we very much hope that a year from now, we will not have to commemorate the grim milestone of the third year after the coup, but, in fact, reflect on a moment in which Myanmar has returned to the path of democracy.
MODERATOR: The next question goes to Allegra Mendelson of Frontier Myanmar. Operator, please open the line.
OPERATOR: Allegra, your line is open.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you. Counselor Chollet, thank you for hosting this press conference today. You said in your opening remarks that the U.S. supports downgrading the junta’s representation at ASEAN summits and high-level meetings, and yet the regime was invited to a regional conference co-hosted by the U.S. and Thailand next month. How does the U.S. Government reconcile inviting the junta to these regional meetings, especially defense-based ones, with limiting the regime’s participation?
MR CHOLLET: Yeah, thank you for that question. I just want to underscore that we are very careful to ensure that our support for ASEAN-led mechanisms doesn’t lend credibility to the Burmese regime. And there has been no change to our policy. There is a multilateral ASEAN defense ministers meeting, so the so-called ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Group on Maritime Security and a table talk exercise that Thailand is hosting in February. I should note that these working-level meetings have been occurring over the last two years roughly at the frequency of every six months, mostly virtual or hybrid because of the pandemic, and this would be an in-person meeting.
As you know, Burma has continued – it’s still in ASEAN. It is not being represented at any of these meetings at a political level, but rather at a technical and expert level. And this experts’ working group meeting – again, consistent with our policy – has been downgraded to include only working-level invitations to Myanmar. And per our precedent at these working group meetings, Burma has only attended virtually or at the working level or not at all. And we remain very focused on ensuring that ADMM-plus meetings and any other ASEAN engagements are consistent with our ASEAN and Burma policies, which includes our push to downgrade Burma’s participation at senior-level ASEAN meetings. And we’re going to continue to work with our allies and partners in ASEAN and beyond to deny the regime credibility, to address this crisis, while also advancing our robust cooperation with ASEAN, which is only growing, and recognizing ASEAN’s individual policies. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Our next question goes to Tetsuo Shintomi of Kyodo News based in Washington, D.C. Operator, please open the line.
OPERATOR: Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
MR CHOLLET: Yes, I can hear you. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you for taking my question. If I didn’t miss it, I want to ask about military ties between Burma and Russia. Last October, State Department indicated that Burmese procurement will soon produce military arms in the announcement of designating Burmese individuals. How do you evaluate current connection between Burma and Russia? Also, is there any possibility for Burmese military regime to give military assistance to Russia? Thank you.
MR CHOLLET: Well, thank you for that question. The relationship between the Burmese military and the Russian military is deep and it’s only getting deeper. We have seen over the last two years, and particularly in the last year, the level of cooperation between Burma and Russia only increase. Russia is the most reliable supplier of military equipment to Myanmar. It’s something we are deeply concerned about because, of course, Russian military capability is being used directly against the people of Myanmar.
So this is something that we will continue to call out. It’s also something that we will continue to explore ways so that we can take steps to try to limit the cooperation between these two countries. As we have seen, Russia’s circle of friends grows smaller and smaller over the last year since its unjustified and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Myanmar and the junta has proven to be one of Russia’s most reliable friends, and that’s something that must be strongly condemned. It’s also something of great concern given what Russia is giving to Myanmar and which then is being used against the people of Myanmar by the junta.
So we’ll continue to take steps to try to cut off Myanmar’s ability to acquire arms and generate revenue. That’s really what we were trying to get at yesterday with the recent sanctions announcement, and we’ll continue to take further steps along those lines in the weeks and months to come.
MODERATOR: Our next question was received in advance from Tommy Rony of Liputan6.com in Indonesia. Tommy asks, “So far Myanmar has ignored the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus, which was designed to calm the tensions. Do you think ASEAN should give stronger measures against Myanmar’s military?”
MR CHOLLET: Well, we are in constant conversations with our colleagues in ASEAN about their collective approach to this crisis. We strongly support the Five-Point Consensus, and we are very much looking forward to working with Indonesia as this year’s chair in ASEAN just as we worked very closely with Cambodia last year and Brunei the year before in terms of the ASEAN approach to this crisis.
I think ASEAN deserves a lot of credit for maintaining a very principled and very tough stance to ensure that Myanmar is not represented at a political level at any senior-level meetings. I know that has not been an easy consensus to keep, but nevertheless, ASEAN has kept it, and I believe ASEAN countries deserve credit for doing so. And I know that ASEAN is also very keen to work with us and others when it comes to providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar and trying to find a way to resolve this crisis.
So what I can say – if I reflect on the last two years, what we have seen is the U.S. cooperation and engagement with ASEAN has only grown as a result of this crisis, and it’s something we are keenly focused on working closely with our ASEAN colleagues to try to help resolve.
MODERATOR: All right. Our next question goes to the live queue – Moe Myint of BBC Burmese in London. Operator, please open the line.
OPERATOR: The line is open.
QUESTION: Hello, sir, do you hear me?
MR CHOLLET: Yes, I can hear you loud and clear.
QUESTION: Yeah, the U.S. has now imposed further sanctions on Myanmar generals. Do you think that it’s a best way to put pressure on the generals? And what do you think are the best way out of Burma’s political crisis?
MR CHOLLET: Well, again, we think it’s very important to try to ensure that the junta has fewer ways to acquire arms, to generate revenue, and to gain legitimacy. And we believe that that’s why sanctions against individuals and entities that are critical to the junta’s ability to generate revenue and acquire arms are very important. And we have seen, by the way, the sanctions have had an effect on the junta – the economy last year in Myanmar contracted by nearly 20 percent. We’ve seen investors fleeing. We see foreign currency reserves dwindling. And we see it becoming harder for the regime to acquire arms, even though they – unfortunately there continues to be a steady pipeline of arms coming in. They’re having to take more extraordinary steps to steer clear of sanctions.
And so we’re going to continue to explore ways that we can tighten the sanctions and increase the sanctions to make it difficult for the junta to acquire arms or to generate revenue. And importantly, this is something that not just the United States is doing. We’re doing it in coordination with our closest allies and partners. Just yesterday, you saw the United Kingdom and Australia also announce these sanctions, and this is something that in the days and weeks ahead we will continue that dialogue. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Okay. Our final question is one received in advance from James Griffiths of The Globe and Mail in Hong Kong. James asks, “What support is the U.S. providing the National Unity Government and other anti-coup organizations? Has U.S. policy changed on recognizing a government of Myanmar? How will elections this year change this?”
MR CHOLLET: Well, thanks for the question. As I said, we have been steadily increasing our engagement with the National Unity Government and other pro-democracy actors in Myanmar. We meet with them regularly very publicly, as you know, including yesterday when Assistant Secretary Kritenbrink visited the NUG office here in Washington. We encourage other countries to also engage actively with the NUG to learn about their needs, to hear about their own aspirations for Myanmar’s future and its path to return to democracy. The United States, through our USAID and our – the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, has provided a significant amount of humanitarian assistance, nearly over $350 million of humanitarian assistance to Burma since 2017. And we’ve in total provided more than almost $2 billion in assistance to those affected by the crisis in Burma and Bangladesh and elsewhere in the region.
As I said in my opening, we are the single largest donor to the humanitarian response to the Rohingya crisis. And just since the coup, the United States has provided nearly half a billion dollars in humanitarian assistance to vulnerable communities in Burma as well as those who sought refuge in neighboring countries, especially the Rohingya refugee community. And these core relief items include kitchen sets, blankets, sleeping mats, and also help to displaced persons.
But when it comes to the pro-democratic opposition, we’re working to help them build their capacity, to help with their development of health and education policies, also training programs and budgeting, and also working with them as they are sketching their plans for Burma’s future democracy. And we have been given some new authorities by the BURMA Act here in the Congress, and we’re looking forward to working with our Congress in implementing some of those new authorities in the coming year, but also, again, working closely with our allies and partners as collectively we are seeking to strengthen those inside and outside Burma who are fighting for their democracy.
MODERATOR: And now, Counselor Chollet, if you have any closing remarks, I’ll turn it back over to you.
MR CHOLLET: Well, thank you, everyone, for taking the time this morning, this evening, wherever you are. I very much appreciate your intense focus and attention to this issue today. And what I can say on behalf of the United States is that we are going to continue to move out with great dispatch in terms of our work along the three lines of efforts I have outlined today: punishing and isolating the regime, restricting its ability to generate revenue and gain legitimacy and acquire arms, working to help support the pro-democracy movement inside Burma but also providing humanitarian support. And we’re – our fervent hope is that a year from now, we are gathering together to talk about Burma’s path towards democracy. And I very much appreciate your time and attention today. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, sir. That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank the counselor for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Asia Pacific Media Hub at AsiaPacMedia@state.gov. Information on how to access the recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you and have a great day.