East Asia and the Pacific: Press Conference in Rangoon, Burma

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: I am very pleased to be with you today in Myanmar, and I thank the people of Myanmar for welcoming me and my colleagues with such kindness and warmth. Yesterday I met with President Thein Sein and other senior government leaders to discuss how the United States can continue to support the democratic aspirations of the people of Myanmar in this time of political, economic and social change. We discussed the progress Myanmar has made as well as the ongoing challenges, including protecting the rights and dignity of all minority groups.

As you know, authorities in Thailand recently discovered camps and mass graves of migrants. At the same time, thousands of other migrants from Rakhine State and Bangladesh are stranded at sea, where they fled economic deprivation, social exclusion, human rights concerns, communal conflict, looking for a better future and putting their lives in jeopardy. The United States is here to help the countries of the region save lives today. That has to be our first priority. We urge all governments in the region to act immediately to bring migrants ashore, provide humanitarian medical assistance, and treat those aboard ships humanely, in line with international norms and international law.

I was encouraged by the announcement just a few days ago that Indonesia and Malaysia will work together to take in some 7,000 migrants currently at sea. And the United Nations has just reported that last night, Myanmar’s navy helped more than 200 migrants reach its shores. These efforts highlight the fact that this is a regional crisis that will require a regional response to resolve both the short-term and long-term challenges. That effort will be greatly aided by a high-level meeting hosted by Thailand on May the 29th that will bring countries together to share information and coordinate action. Our hope is that this meeting will also generate new ideas for tackling human trafficking and smuggling in the region, which has been one of the key drivers of this crisis.

The United States is ready to play our part as well. We have been a leader in both resettlement and refugee assistance worldwide. We’re ready to respond to any appeal issued by the International Organization for Migration and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees if they seek additional funds to help governments establish reception centers and ensure protection screening procedures. We’ve provided extensive humanitarian funding in the region for many years; we’re prepared to continue to do so. We also encourage other governments to swiftly and generously respond to any emergency funding appeals.

Even as we address the immediate crisis, we also must confront its root causes in order to achieve a sustainable solution. I noted in my meetings yesterday with the government that the root of the problem for those leaving from Myanmar is the political and social situation on the ground in Rakhine State. In order to develop a sustainable and durable solution, the union government must fulfill its previous commitments to improve the living conditions and secure the full protection, human rights and fundamental freedoms of all communities in Rakhine State, in accordance with international standards.

The United States is committed to supporting humanitarian assistance efforts in Rakhine State and throughout the country. Over the past two years, we’ve provided more than 109 million in humanitarian assistance for vulnerable communities in Myanmar and in the region, including 10 million to the World Food Program to provide food assistance to those in need in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States over the past year alone.

In my meetings, I stressed that respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom for all persons in the country, regardless of race and religion, are critical components of national security, stability, unity, and the country’s reform process. We are also deeply concerned by four bills that are before the assembly, the parliament, related to race and religion. This legislation contains provisions that could be enforced in a manner that would undermine reproductive rights, women’s rights and religious freedom. We shared the concerns that these bills could exacerbate ethnic and religious divisions and undermine the country’s efforts to promote tolerance and diversity.

The United States remains committed to supporting Myanmar’s democratic transition. We have seen remarkable progress over the last few years, but just as President Obama noted last year during his visit, a long road lies ahead. Earlier today I met with representatives of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team, and commended all sides for their strong commitment to dialogue and their spirit of compromise toward resolving longstanding differences. Inclusive political dialogue is the first step to establishing a durable peace, and we encourage the leaders of the NCCT to include the voices of civil society representatives, including women, in future peace discussions. The United States stands ready to provide continued support for a durable peace and national reconciliation, as welcomed by the people of this country.

Although there’s still a lot of work to do on many fronts, it’s inspiring to see the way young people have stepped forward as leaders in shaping their country’s future. Through the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative network, we’ve offered scholarships, workshops and seed money for community projects to help young people turn their ideas into action. Since President Obama launched the YSEALI in 2013, more than 33,000 young people from across ASEAN have become part of the network, including more than 3,000 students here in Myanmar. This is a community whose impact will only grow.

Ultimately, it is up to the people of Myanmar to determine the future of their nation. Reform is a long-term process. You have to work every day to build the durable, democratic institutions and practices that reflect the values and live up to the aspirations of Myanmar’s citizens. This includes amending the Myanmar constitution to reflect the will of all its people; support fundamental democratic principles; and respect the right of all to participate in the country’s democratic process.

All eyes will be on Myanmar during the parliamentary elections later this year. We welcome the government’s pledge to hold credible, inclusive, transparent parliamentary elections in November, and we’re working together to promote a peaceful, inclusive election environment. The election will be an important marker in reaffirming to the world Myanmar’s commitment to political reform. Journalists must have the freedom to report freely and accurately. Citizens must have the freedom to speak their minds without reprisal. And all people of Myanmar must be able to elect their representatives without fear.

This is an important moment, when Myanmar must move forward together as one nation to advance its reforms, strengthen the roots of democracy, and protect the rights and freedoms for all people in Myanmar, regardless of race, regardless of religion. Doing so is critical to Myanmar’s national security, to its prosperity, to its unity, and to its future.

Thanks very much. I’m happy to take any questions.

MODERATOR: You guys have microphones. (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Blinken. (Inaudible) from Channel News Asia television station. My first question to you is the issue of religious (inaudible) is a very sensitive one here in this country, and also it’s one of the root causes of the migrant crisis. How do you think that this issue can be handled and tackled in a win-win situation without causing the Myanmar Government to back away the minute that word is mentioned?

My second question to you is: Some of the people in the U.S. have actually called for additional sanctions to be placed, due to the crisis, on Myanmar. ASEAN is never in favor of having sanctions and object to it. Is the U.S. going to take this route? Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much. I think we are seeing in the crisis now before us, that is people from Rakhine State, Rohingya, who have chosen to put their lives in jeopardy in taking to the seas and putting themselves in the hands of human traffickers, we see in that a reflection of conditions in Rakhine State that are leading people to make this choice. And we have long expressed concerns about those conditions to the government, and it is very important that even as we tackle the immediate humanitarian emergency – that is literally helping to save and rescue people, bring them back to land, give them the care that they need and treat them appropriately – we also have to get at the underlying conditions. And as I said earlier with regard to those fleeing from Rakhine State, those conditions include a number of things that we urge the government – and we urged them directly yesterday – to work on to change.

So for example, people are in despair and don’t see a future when they’re in internally displaced persons camps. They need to be moved back to their own homes. They need to be provided for in terms of education, in terms of health care, in terms of having opportunity. And that, in turn, requires freedom of movement. And then they should have a path to citizenship and to a durable future in this country, if they meet the requirements. Because the uncertainty that comes from not even having any status is one of the things that may drive people to leave.

So there are many steps that it would be important for the government to work on to arrest and reverse the underlying conditions that cause people to flee, but this can be and should be a win-win situation. One of the critical aspects of this is fully developing Rakhine State for everyone who lives there, and as that support and assistance goes in, it can lift all communities in Rakhine State and give them all a better future. I think that is the path forward.

Right now, in terms of the future and the approach that our country takes to Myanmar, we are looking at some of the important next steps, and the most important one is the elections coming up in November. And we will be looking – and the entire international community will be looking – to see that those elections are credible, transparent, inclusive, and happen on time. Thank you.

QUESTION: Excuse me, sir, did you – you didn’t really address my question on the sanctions.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: So what was the specific – I’m sorry, the specific question?

QUESTION: Will the U.S. put additional sanctions on?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: We have – as a result of the significant progress and changes that have been made in recent years, obviously, we have reduced but not eliminated the sanctions. We’ll be watching carefully to see the evolution of Myanmar’s progress over the coming months and over the coming years, and based on that we’ll determine the nature of our relationship. But right now there are significant remaining challenges, but at the same time Myanmar has been on a path forward, and that’s what we’re looking to see continue.

MODERATOR: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. You mentioned about inclusive elections, and if the general elections go without any constitution amendment, would the United States consider this election free and fair elections?

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: That is really up to the people of Myanmar. They will have to decide whether the election is, in fact, free and fair, whether it’s credible, whether it’s authentic, and in particular, whether the outcome reflects their will. That is the test for the election.

Now, there are provisions in the constitution that are clearly problematic in terms of democratic principles. The constitution itself is a sovereign decision for the people of Myanmar to decide, and there is – there are high-level conversations, dialogues going on looking at how the constitution might be amended. And again, it’s not for us to say; this is up to the people of Myanmar. But as a matter of principle, provisions in the existing constitution that, for example, give the military a veto or prevent the people of Myanmar from being able to have the leader that they want, those provisions are in conflict with basic democratic principles.

MODERATOR: Tim.

QUESTION: Yeah, Tim McLaughlin from Reuters. I just wanted to ask about the – the government – the message you’re getting from Nay Pyi Taw today and yesterday is that the people that are getting found on these boats, even the boat that you mentioned, are not – they’re not from Myanmar, they’re all from – they all come from Bangladesh. And I just wanted to see if you had any comment on that because even following your discussions with Min Aung Hlaing yesterday, he told the Myanmar media that, yeah, that these people are keen to get UNHCR status and they’re doing that by lying and saying they’re from Myanmar. Thanks.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. We know from the people who have been saved from the high seas and the very good work that the United Nations and other organizations have done that at least half of the people are, in fact, from Myanmar and from Rakhine State. They have been identified as such. And there are also Bangladeshis. There may be, for some people, different motivations for what caused them to put their lives at risk and put themselves in the hands of human traffickers. But our best information, based on the work that we’ve done, the United Nations and others have done, is that a significant number and a good majority are, in fact, from Rakhine State, are Rohingya, and have left because of desperate conditions that they face in Rakhine State. And we discussed this with the leadership here yesterday, and we talked about the imperative in the first instance of coming to the rescue of these people, and an obligation that all countries in the region should share, but then dealing with the underlying conditions. And the government talked about efforts it is making in Rakhine State to try to improve conditions, but manifestly, those efforts are not sufficient.

QUESTION: Just to clarify, were you talking – when you say “half,” do you mean the one specific boat or do you mean this whole thousands of people that we’ve seen —

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Our best assessment based on people that have been identified to date, if they’re a representative sample of all of those who are out there, is that about half, but it’s hard to pin a specific number on it, but that’s approximately what we would assess.

MODERATOR: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Your Excellency, I am local reporter from The Voice, and I believe you had a very good discussion with our leaders from the government and the opposition, and talked about various issues. And (inaudible) about Myanmar’s transition to democracy, some say positive and some say negative. What is your view of the current Myanmar transition to democracy?

And my second question is (inaudible) that President Obama and the United States have brought (inaudible) support to Myanmar in our democratic transition. And so the question is: Will the United States continue to support to Myanmar, regardless of whoever wins in coming election? Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. First, with regard to the progress toward democracy, I think a few things are important. First, the progress is real and it’s significant, but there are very significant challenges that remain. And it’s important in evaluating where Myanmar is, at least in my judgment, to look not only at a single picture at a single moment, but to look at the moving picture – excuse me – the moving picture over the last few years. And I think what we’ve seen in the moving picture is real progress: the release of more than a thousand political prisoners; labor unions formed; increased space for civil society; work that is being done now in a peace process to resolve a generation and more of conflict; and of course, the big test which is the election coming up in November. Those are all indicators of real progress and real movement forward.

At the same time, very significant challenges remain, particularly in institutionalizing change and guaranteeing in law what has been promised in name to the people of Myanmar. And of course, we continue to have significant concerns about the treatment of journalists, of protestors, human rights in Rakhine, as we talked about a little bit earlier, armed clashes that continue in ethnic states.

So I would say that this is a work in progress, and there is progress, but it is not yet sufficient. We are working to support the transition in ways that I described, and it’s our hope that the positive trajectory we’ve seen will continue, but also that the significant challenges and problems that remain will be addressed.

And with regard to the elections, the United States will respect the will of the people of Myanmar, provided the elections are credible, transparent, free and fair, and the people of Myanmar themselves accept the outcome. We will certainly work on that basis. Thank you.

MODERATOR: One more.

QUESTION: Well, I wanted to ask you, first of all, what you hope to see come out of the meeting on the 29th – what would be a successful meeting there? The second question I have is: Operationally, what exactly is the United States doing? We’ve heard things about using spotter planes, that kind of thing. And lastly, I want to ask you what you think about ASEAN’s performance and what this episode and really the past few years of this crisis, what it has said about that organization and what you think they should be doing.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good, thank you. Look, I think the meeting on the 29th is very important in a few ways. First, it’s an acknowledgment that this is a regional problem and it needs to have a regional, and even beyond a regional, an international solution. And different countries have responsibilities that they need to meet, and coming together in this fashion on the 29th is a good way to start to do that.

Second, as a practical matter, it’s important because it will allow the countries concerned to exchange information to better coordinate their efforts. And so in those two ways it’s significant.

And then finally, I think it’s significant because it has the potential with countries coming together to try and identify not only what needs to be done right now to save people in jeopardy, but also how to address some of the underlying problems that have either caused or facilitated this migration in the first place. And so we’ve already talked about some of the conditions in different countries that lead people to flee. A very important part of this problem is the human trafficking network that has facilitated and in some cases possibly even induced this migration. This will be an opportunity, on the 29th, to look at what countries can do together and more effectively to deal with these trafficking networks.

As I noted earlier, the United States has been providing significant support to deal with this immediate crisis, but also ongoing refugee crises that have afflicted the region, both in terms of the humanitarian support we’ve provided, the fact that we’ve taken in many people ourselves, including upward of a thousand Rohingya over the last year alone, and we are now looking at ways that we can help provide as much information as possible to countries who are willing to take responsibility for helping to secure and save people who are in jeopardy. So we’re talking directly to the different governments involved and looking to see what we can do, also what the United Nations can do, to create as clear a picture as possible of where the problem is and the information necessary to act on it.

In terms of ASEAN, I think we heard the foreign ministers of Indonesia and Malaysia the other day call upon ASEAN to be seized with this problem. The meeting on the 29th, we’ll have a collective of most of the countries in the institution. I think ASEAN itself has an important role to play in helping countries have the ability to better coordinate, to share information, to pool resources as necessary. It also has, I think, an ability to try to look collectively at this problem of trafficking and to see if we can be more effective in getting at that. And of course, it has a strong voice that it should use to focus concern on this problem.

I also think it is a good vehicle for, again, reminding everyone concerned that individual countries must meet their own responsibilities, but that this is also a collective and regional problem and needs to be addressed in that fashion as well.

So we’re certainly encouraging and looking to ASEAN to play an important role in this process. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, everyone. That’s all the time we have.

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.