Joint Press Availability With Burmese Foreign Minister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Secretary of State John Kerry with Burmese Foreign Minister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Press Availability

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Naypyitaw, Burma
May 22, 2016

MODERATOR: (Inaudible.) We will commence this press briefing with a brief statement by the Minister for (inaudible) of Myanmar, to be followed by the Secretary of State of the United States of America, and then the minister will take questions.

And may I now call upon the minister for to deliver a speech.

FOREIGN MINISTER AUNG SAN SUU KYI: Thank you. I won’t take too much time because I don’t think we have too much time left, but it’s a great pleasure for me to welcome Secretary of State John Kerry to our country for the third time – or is it the fourth time? He is inclined to come and we’ve lost track – (laughter) – of the times he’s been here. But always, always too short. I think we need more time together and I hope that next time we meet, we will be able to spend more time together to discuss matters of mutual interest to our two countries.

And now I think I’ll give the floor to our honored guest, because that will save me from having to make too long a speech. Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, thank you very much, Madam Foreign Minister, State Counselor. What a pleasure to see you again. It’s very special for me. And as the minister said, I’ve been here several times; we have lost track. But this is the first time – and I have not lost track of – this is the first time that I have been here when the government is officially recognized by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who for more than a quarter of a century has embodied the aspirations and the ideals of her people.

Before I say more, with your indulgence, Madam Minister, I do need to say something about – a comment on the situation in Afghanistan. Yesterday the United States conducted a precision airstrike that targeted Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in a remote area of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. And Mansour posed a continuing imminent threat to U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, to Afghan civilians, Afghan Security Forces, and Resolute Support coalition members across the country. And this action sends a clear message to the world that we will continue to stand with our Afghan partners as they work to build a more stable, united, secure, and prosperous Afghanistan. The United States has long maintained that an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process is the surest way to achieve peace, and peace is what we want. Mansour was a threat to that effort and to bringing an end to the violence and the suffering that the people of Afghanistan have endured for so many years now. He also was directly opposed to peace negotiations and to the reconciliation process. It is time for Afghans to stop fighting and to start building a real future together. And it is no secret that we are all living in a time and in a world that is marked by very complicated challenges.

The bottom line is – and I know the minister and state counselor will agree with me – that this is a moment of extraordinary promise for many countries in many parts of the world. That is precisely what brings me here today. The recent seating of Myanmar’s first democratically-elected, civilian-led government since 1962 was an historic event for this country, but it wasn’t just historic for this country; it was really a historic cause for democracy worldwide.

When I first visited Myanmar as a United States senator 17 years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi and her movements, her activities, were then heavily restricted. And I visited with her in her home – a home in which she spent many years isolated, but never giving up hope, never unwilling to fight for the future of her country. At that time, the military leadership assured me that there were no political prisoners but the people of Myanmar prized – well, they tried to tell me that the people of Myanmar prized order more than they prized democratic rights.

Time and again, the Burmese people risked their lives in order to prove that theory was wrong, and we were very privileged in the United States along with many other countries and people to support the cause of the people of Myanmar.

Today, my message is very, very simple: We strongly support the democratic transition that is taking place here. The landslide election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, the inauguration of President U Htin Kyaw, and the seating of a new Union Parliament – all of which includes more than 100 former political prisoners – is a remarkable statement to people in the world. The people of Myanmar should be – and I know are – extremely proud of the journey that you are on. The United States also welcomes Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s appointment as state counselor and foreign minister. And we applaud the actions that the new government has already taken to release political prisoners.

Obviously, Myanmar has changed, and it has changed much for the better, and so has our bilateral relationship as a result.

Just as President Obama has made Asia a priority of his presidency, he has made Myanmar a central focus of our policy towards Asia. He has visited this country twice – significant. And in consultation with the elected government and working with our own Congress, we have adjusted our sanctions policy now to strengthen democracy, to encourage inclusive economic growth, and to facilitate foreign investment in the civilian-led economy; and at the same time, we are maintaining some sanctions in order to encourage all institutions, investors, and members of society to support the government’s continued reform efforts that are aimed at consolidating a civilian-led democracy. Since 2012, we have provided more than $500 million in assistance for civil society, for national reconciliation, for democracy, for respect for human rights, and enhancing the health and the food security of vulnerable populations. And we have supported peace and reconciliation, as well as families and communities in many parts of the countries that – a country that have suffered from natural disaster or conflict, including in Rakhine state.

So I discussed each of these issues and more with the foreign minister this morning, and I emphasize that, although I came to this country with a message of support, I also came to listen. And I listened carefully this morning to the priorities of the government, to the ways in which the United States can try to be helpful, and to the important hurdles we still need to work together to get over. We also listened with respect to the relationship of Myanmar to ASEAN, to the region, to neighbors, and to the other challenges that the country faces.

I know that the legacy of more than half a century of military rule has not yet been completely erased, and I will be discussing the military’s role in the democratic reform process – and in the region – when I meet with Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing later today.

So let me just make it clear that the late Vaclav Havel often talked about the difference between serving as a member of a democratic opposition and as your country’s national leader. The difference, as he put it, between the poetry of revolution and the prose of governing. It should be obvious today that governing effectively is as challenging as it has ever been anywhere, in many countries, even in countries that have been stable and democratic for centuries. The new Government of Myanmar faces enormous economic and social challenges, but I want to underscore it has already accomplished extraordinary things.

So we wish the men and women of the new government well, and we will do all that the diverse people of this extraordinary country want to and are hoping for in order to try to expedite this journey towards the completion of full democracy and towards the increase of economic benefits and stability for all of the people of Myanmar.

And it’s my privilege again, as I said before, to be here with a person that I have respected for all of these years and whose example to all of us has been so important. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Excellencies. Now, this is the time for the first questions.

QUESTION: (In Burmese.) Well, I am a reporter from Irrawaddy Media Group. What I would like to ask you, Mr. Secretary, is about the sanctions you’ve made it possible for Burma to go – get off. So what are the principles by which you eased those sanctions? Because there are many rumors going around, floating around, and I would like to get a clarification from you. Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, thank you very much. Well, the key to the lifting of the sanctions is really the progress that is made within Myanmar in continuing to move down the road of democratization. One of the things that I will emphasize today is that it’s very difficult to complete that journey – in fact, impossible to complete that journey with the current constitution. It needs to be changed. It needs to be a reflection of how civilian authority is fully respected and how the separation of powers, if you will, is clearly defined. In addition, there has to be an inclusivity, a resolution of some of the other issues with respect to normal democratic reforms.

But we think – we’re prepared to make changes as we not only see, but as the foreign minister and state counselor encourages us to believe that she and the democratic movement in the country are satisfied that progress is, in fact, being made. And so we have made a lot of changes in the last week – the last – a week ago in the current regime of sanctions. We’ve kept some, as I said, in order to continue to leverage certain individuals and certain sectors that they must do more to help support and complete this transition to democracy. As we see that happen, and as the state counselor/foreign minister indicates to us that it is appropriate, we will consider taking further action at that time.

MODERATOR: Next question.

QUESTION: Yes, hello. Lesley Wroughton from Reuters. Mr. Secretary, there are conflicting reports that the U.S. actually hit the target of the Taliban leader. Can you clarify what the situation is? We also understand that the United States did not notify Pakistan in advance of the attacks, much as you didn’t in the bin Ladin raid. Can you tell us what went into that decision and whether you believe the chances of a peace agreement with the Taliban are now improved or set back by that attack?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me make it crystal clear —

QUESTION: And can I ask the Madam Counselor?


QUESTION: (Inaudible.) (Laughter.) Do you believe the United States went far enough in easing sanctions this time? At what stage in your country’s transition can you see or do you think that the U.S. should entirely lift those sanctions?

(Inaudible) to answer first. (Laughter.)

FOREIGN MINISTER AUNG SAN SUU KYI: All right. Very shortly, we’re not afraid of sanctions. We’re not afraid of scrutiny. We believe that if we are going along the right path, all sanctions should be lifted in good time. John, you – you’ve been (inaudible) spoken to this, and I understand and I accept and I believe that the United States is a friend, and are not keeping the sanctions to hurt us, but to (inaudible) that it would help us. And I’m ready to accept that; I’m not afraid of sanctions. We’ll get (inaudible), and I’m sure that the time will come soon where the United States will rule that this is not the time for sanctions.

SECRETARY KERRY: We have had longstanding conversations with Pakistan and Afghanistan about this objective with respect to Mullah Mansour, and both countries’ leaders were notified of the airstrike. I’m not going to get into further details about the timing, the tick-tocks. I will say to you that this morning, I know that General Nicholson talked directly to General Raheel Sharif and I talked directly to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. And it is important for people to understand that Mullah Mansour, as I said a moment ago, has been actively involved in planning attacks in Kabul, across Afghanistan, presenting a threat to Afghan civilians and to the coalition forces that are there. And this is a decision that was made by the President of the United States and it’s one that I wholeheartedly, completely support, and it was done appropriately and in conversation with both parties.

QUESTION: But do you think peace – you can move ahead with talking to the Taliban now about peace?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, he was not – he was not – neither – he was neither encouraging people to talk nor supporting the talks nor supportive of reconciliation. So hopefully this is a message to people that if nobody wants to talk about peace, we’re prepared to continue to do what we need to do to protect our country and to protect the journey of Afghans towards their full sovereignty and independence as a democratic country. The president of Afghanistan has made it clear that he’s prepared to have talks. We are prepared to have talks. But if people want to stand in the way of peace, continue to threaten and kill and blow people up, we have no recourse but to respond, and I think we responded appropriately.

MODERATOR: Next question.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Win Naing from Radio Free Asia. And then my question goes to our foreign minister (inaudible). There has been a lot of, like, writings about the Rohingya issue these days. Yesterday I think The Washington Post wrote an editorial saying directly to you that we cannot repeat Burma’s past mistake regarding Rohingya issue. And there is a campaign launching outside of Burma for the Rohingya in the United States last week. Do you have any comment on this particular issue? Thank you.

FOREIGN MINISTER AUN SAN SUU KYI: Well, what we want to do is avoid any terms that (inaudible) go too far. I wasn’t talking about one particular term. I was talking about all the terms that are incendiary and which create greater divisions between our peoples in the Rakhine and, of course, elsewhere too.

Now, the reason why I say that we’ve got to be very firm about not using emotive terms is because emotive terms make it very difficult for us to find a peaceful and sensible resolution of our problems. There are two terms which are emotive, and we’ve got to face them fairly and squarely. The Rakhine Buddhists object to the term “Rohingya,” just as much as the Muslims object to the term Bengali, because these have all kinds of political and emotional implications which are unacceptable to the opposing parties. All we are asking is that people should be aware of the difficulties that we are facing and to give us enough space to sort out our problems. If there is an insistence on other part – either on the part of the Rakhine Buddhists or on the part of the Muslims to insist on particular terms, knowing full well that these will create more animosity, this does not help to our finding a resolution to the problem at all.

What we want is to find a practical resolution. We are not interested in rhetoric. We are not trying to outtalk anybody. We are not trying to say that any particular stand with regard to nomenclature is better than another. What we are staying – saying is that there are more important things for us to cope with than just the issue of nomenclature. I know that is important because it has to do with identity, and identity is of extreme importance to peoples all over the world. We are not in any way undermining people’s desire to establish their own identity. What we are asking for is that those who really wish us well should be aware of the implications of terms that they use quite, perhaps, unwittingly, not knowing what the implications are for those of us who have to cope with the actual problems that arise from this disagreement over what name to use.

We are trying to find a solution to this problem, and while we are trying to find that solution, we would like our friends to be helpful in this – to understand that we are not trying to (inaudible) down any particular group, but we are trying to find something, some way forward that would be acceptable to both. That is very difficult. I’m not denying that. And if our well-wishers are not ready to cooperate with us, it will make our task that much more difficult, which is not to say that we’re going to back away from it. We will still accept it as our responsibility and we will try to do the best we can to resolve the problem to the benefit of both communities.

MODERATOR: This (inaudible), this will be the last question.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, would you like to —

SECRETARY KERRY: Would I like to or do I have to? (Laughter.)


SECRETARY KERRY: Trying to drag me into the middle of this. No, let me – I’m happy to – I’m very happy to speak to it. First of all, I think – I think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi just gave you an important and courageous answer that speaks to the challenge. Of course we talked about it this morning – we absolutely did talk about it. The name issue is obviously very sensitive, and she’s just spoken to sensitivity. It’s divisive, and I know that it arouses strong passions here. At the same time, we all understand, as a matter of fact, that there is a group here in Myanmar that calls itself Rohingya. We understand that. And we use that term ourselves sometimes. But what the minister and I talked about today is very much in line with what she has just said, and that is that what’s critical to focus on is solving the problem; what’s critical to focus on is improving the situation on the ground to promote development, promote respect for human rights, and to benefit all of those who live in Rakhine and throughout Myanmar. And that’s what we’ve come here to say to the minister, that we are committed to work with her in the effort to do that – to try to solve the problem, not grow the problem; to try to provide solutions, not to provide divisions. And I think it’s important for everybody to try to work constructively in that direction.

MODERATOR: The last question.

QUESTION: Madam Foreign Minister, David Sanger from The New York Times. Good to see you again after many years. I’d like to ask you about two areas of policy that are now your responsibility. One, to follow up on this question of these – this group of refugees who many in the U.S. are concerned are being detained in almost apartheid-like conditions. I’d like to know practically what you think you can do to relieve the human suffering that you see there, which goes beyond the naming issue.

And secondly, since you entered office, what have you learned about an effort that the United States was concerned a few years ago that the military government, it seemed to be, was involved in to obtain nuclear weapons technology, including from the Russians and the North Koreans? And Mr. Secretary, you’ve already addressed the first issue, but on the second, in 2011, the State Department did turn out a report concerning that Myanmar was not in compliance with its NPT responsibilities because of this effort. Later you said that those have been partially allayed, but I’d like to know whether you believe right now that problem is solved.

FOREIGN MINISTER AUNG SAN SUU KYI: In response to the first question, there are, of course, two steps that we have to take. First of all, humanitarian access. We have already given as much humanitarian access as has been requested with regard to the IDP camps. Now, in order to stop people from having to live in these IDP camps, we have to create the kind of situation where they can live peacefully and securely outside of the camps, and that is what we are working at. That is why we say that we need the space in which to build up trust and security within the community.

Now, with regard to your second question, the United States actually didn’t push us on this. Secretary Kerry mentioned it in passing. I know that it was a sensitive issue two years ago. I have not yet heard it discussed publicly in recent years. Of course, we understand, we know, everybody knows that Thailand and Burma are two of the countries which have not yet signed the anti-nuclear proliferation agreement, and perhaps this is a matter of concern to some, but then you’d have to ask the Thais the same question: Why have they not yet signed this agreement? And it does not mean that we don’t intend to sign it. I think we are all working towards a world where there will be no need for nuclear weapons.

QUESTION: Do you believe you had a program at one point, or the government, the previous government, had a program?

FOREIGN MINISTER AUNG SAN SUU KYI: Well, if they did, they haven’t said anything about that to me. The previous government was not in the habit of informing me of what they were doing. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Let me just say that, as the minister mentioned, that I did raise the issue with her, and (inaudible). And I am satisfied that with respect to the DPRK, clearly, Myanmar has taken the steps to address that issue and we’re satisfied that we’re on the same page.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Excellencies.