Derek Chollet on How the US Is Handling the Myanmar Crisis

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Derek Chollet on How the US Is Handling the Myanmar Crisis

“We believe in ASEAN centrality when it comes to addressing the crisis in Myanmar, which is the most acute security crisis that Southeast Asia is facing right now.”

Derek Chollet on How the US Is Handling the Myanmar Crisis

U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet meets with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi during a trip to Jakarta, Indonesia, Mar. 10. 2023.

Credit: U.S. State Department photo

Over two years since Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup, the country is in ruins. When the initial mass peaceful protests against the coup were met with violence, the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) began to organize its own military forces. Now the country is riven by civil war, as pro-democracy and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) vie with Myanmar’s military for control of the country. As Sebastian Strangio wrote earlier this month, a new report from the United Nations Human Rights Office for Myanmar “found that 255 of Myanmar’s 330 townships, or nearly four in five, had been impacted by armed clashes between the military and those resisting its rule.”

Against that backdrop, from March 20 to 24, the U.S. State Department’s Counselor Derek Chollet traveled to Indonesia and Thailand. According to the pre-trip readout, Chollet was going to “engage with senior government leaders and key stakeholders on bilateral and regional issues, including efforts to address the worsening crisis in Burma [Myanmar] and to seek peaceful and just resolution rooted in the will of the people of Burma.”

On March 27, The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi interviewed Chollet about U.S. efforts to address the crisis in Myanmar, including its engagement with the NUG and coordinated diplomatic action with ASEAN and China. Below is a transcript of the interview, lightly edited for clarity.

The Burma Act 2023, which was included in the 2023 NDAA, raised hope among many of the NUG supporters that the U.S. was going to be more proactive about engaging with supporting the National Unity Government. Are there any plans to that end in the works?

Well, we have been consistently engaging with the National Unity Government publicly and privately now for nearly two years, since the National Unity Government was first formed. We have consistently advocated with our partners, including during my trip last week, in Indonesia and Thailand, to also engage with the National Unity Government, and other pro-democracy actors inside Myanmar in particular the NUCC [National Unity Consultative Council] and some of the ethnic armed organizations (the EAOs or EROs). We’ve been engaging with them as well. We think it’s really critical that countries do whatever they can to engage with the NUG and we have.

Beyond engaging, we are working to provide them support to make them more capable as they are trying to administer government – so their administrative capacities that they need assistance with, and planning, and budgeting, things like that. Given challenges they’re facing, given the fact that they are of course spread out, because many of them were driven out of the country, there are lots of things that we can do along with our with our allies and partners to provide them support.

We are grateful that the Hill also has been engaging with the NUG and it’s important that members of Congress also take the opportunity to engage with them.

That’s something we’re doing by all means. We do it virtually, we do it in person – we’ve hosted here at least twice the foreign minister of the NUG. I have visited the offices here in Washington for the NUG, as have [Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs] Dan Kritenbrink and Melissa Brown [the deputy assistant secretary with responsibility for the Office of Mainland Southeast Asia Affairs], my colleagues. Our view is that other countries should be doing the same. And some are – some are not, and we’re strongly encouraging countries to also step up and support the NUG as much as they can.

I want to talk a little bit about ASEAN’s response. Many, even within the group itself, have been sharply critical of the lack of progress on the Five-Point Consensus. Some have even questioned its viability, given the lack of progress that’s been seen thus far.  So how does Washington assess ASEAN’s efforts to address the crisis?

First, we fully support ASEAN’s efforts. We believe in ASEAN centrality when it comes to addressing the crisis in Myanmar, which is the most acute security crisis that Southeast Asia is facing right now. We think that ASEAN’s leadership on this has been significant, even if it has perhaps been slow and frustrating to some.

Your readers will know very well how significant it is that ASEAN took the decision and has stuck to the decision to downgrade Myanmar’s participation in key meetings – in summits and foreign ministerial meetings and some other meetings. That’s unprecedented for ASEAN to do that to one of its own. We think it’s absolutely warranted here.

I come away from my meetings in Jakarta last week, where I had a chance to see Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi as well as the key ASEAN team and the key Burma team in Jakarta, that they are taking very seriously their chair year role. They have understandably put expectations in check in the sense of – this is such a difficult, complex, deep-rooted crisis, there’s no easy fix here, but Indonesia is taking its chair year quite seriously in this regard. They’ve set up a new office within the Foreign Ministry to focus on the the crisis in Myanmar, and have appointed one of their most senior and respected diplomats to lead that office – someone we know very well and is a very great partner of ours here, from the Washington perspective.

They are very focused on what we can do collectively to continue to pressure and isolate the junta, to do what we can to support the pro-democratic opposition, and to provide humanitarian assistance to the people on the ground inside Myanmar, whose needs are only growing day by day.

Look, sometimes it’s the nature of any kind of a multilateral effort – whether it’s NATO or ASEAN – sometimes things don’t move at the at the pace others would want to, but we have been quite impressed with ASEAN’s leadership and unity here, and we’re going to do whatever we can to try to be a partner of ASEAN in this effort.

It’s also important to note that other key international organizations have spoken to this issue and have a piece of the Myanmar puzzle. For example the U.N. Security Council acted for the first time last year, passing a resolution about the crisis inside Myanmar. The U.N. special enjoy has been very active, as have other like-minded countries outside of the region, and we in the United States try to remain as engaged as we can with all of them.

Particularly with consensus-based organizations – we experience this all the time with NATO – you’re bringing together countries with multiple perspectives, and sometimes different incentives and different priorities, and so sometimes not everyone moves with the same speed. But what matters is maintaining that consensus, and I think it’s important to note that ASEAN has maintained that consensus – consensus of the nine. Of course they’re not getting Myanmar’s consensus, but the nine have stuck together quite strong.

But there is sometimes a temptation to just cut out those slower moving members. Some academics have raised the possibility of maybe moving forward more aggressively with countries like Indonesia, possibly Malaysia, who have been more forward-leaning and more critical of Myanmar’s military. Is there any appetite to do that or does Washington want to continue to work through the “ASEAN way” of consensus of all the nine members – again, excluding Myanmar at this point?

Again, we believe in ASEAN centrality and we fully agree with ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus, but also the kind of addendum made to that concept of the Five-Point Consensus at the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting last year, where Malaysia stepped up and talking about putting forth specific milestones when it comes to achieving the elements of that Five-Point Consensus.

But I think it’s important also to zoom out and just remember our overall goal when it comes to ASEAN. We have made a strategic decision to deepen our relationship – this is the Biden administration’s relationship – with ASEAN. The president last year here in Washington hosted a special summit of the U.S. and ASEAN, the first time ASEAN leaders came to Washington. We believe that increasingly our strategic future is going to be defined by the challenges and opportunities in Southeast Asia. ASEAN is a critical partner of ours, whether it’s addressing a crisis within Southeast Asia, Myanmar, or dealing with the multiplicity of challenges coming from China’s rise, to addressing climate change, to ensuring that our economies can be thriving in the 21st century – we see, increasingly, our relationship with ASEAN as defining all of that.

So when we approach our ASEAN friends about Myanmar, we have to also keep this bigger picture in mind as well.

Moving outside ASEAN, China obviously is another major stakeholder. They border Myanmar, they had close relationships with the Aung San Suu Kyi government and now with Myanmar’s military. What role does the U.S. see China playing in an eventual resolution of this crisis and have there been any conversations with the Chinese government about this?

China and all of Myanmar’s direct neighbors – so Thailand, India, Bangladesh, Laos (it has a small border), as well as China – are going to play a critical role in helping to define Myanmar’s future, get Myanmar back on the path of democracy, and ensure that Myanmar remains or becomes stable. They all have an interest in that.

We definitely want to work with China on trying to address the challenges inside Myanmar. We have discussed it with the Chinese at at fairly general levels, I should say, thus far. China has a relatively new envoy to the crisis in Myanmar that we have not engaged with yet, but we look forward to doing so.

Whether it’s the countries that border Myanmar, the ASEAN countries, or other like-minded countries – so for example the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, or the EU – we remain intensively engaged with them. In some cases, particularly our like-minded countries, that’s coordinating our sanctions and trying to coordinate our diplomacy as well. To our ASEAN friends, that’s trying to help provide humanitarian assistance and the diplomacy required to isolate and pressure the junta to try to get it to change its ways, but also working with the pro-democracy groups inside Myanmar.

The horrific reports were seen from Myanmar also raised a broader question about the role that human rights plays in the U.S. Southeast Asia policy. Obviously Myanmar is on the verge of civil war; it’s a very extreme case. But there are other regional countries who range the scale of human rights abuses, from Laos, a one-party state, to Thailand, a close U.S. ally where there are serious concerns about whether its election is going to be free and fair. So in the broad range of U.S. interests in the region, where does human rights fit? And how do you try to advance human rights without potentially sacrificing some of your goals in other areas? 

It’s a good week to be asking this question because this week is the second Summit for Democracy that the U.S. has helped organize. It’s unfolding in multiple places this week, and the Indo-Pacific piece of that will be in Seoul.  The Indonesian foreign minister, I know, will be traveling up for that.

Look, human rights is at the heart of our foreign policy, whether it’s in Southeast Asia or Europe or the Middle East. We bring it up everywhere, and we make the case for the importance of our view: that countries can best thrive and prosper in the 21st century when their societies are free and open, and rules-based, and leaders can be held accountable, and there’s a free and open press.

It’s not easy. The United States certainly can speak from experience in just recent history of how difficult this can be. So when we talk about these issues, and the importance of these issues, with other countries, we do it from a place of empathy and humility on how difficult this can be. But we also hold the strong belief that by acknowledging the stakes and by always striving to make our societies more inclusive and open and accountable, that we think that’s a source of strength over time.

Human rights is at the heart of our policy, but of course as everyone knows the heart – even though it is a vital organ – is not the only vital organ we have. So therefore we have to, of course, constantly be weighing this and how all of this fits together and how everything works in synchronicity.

We don’t shirk from raising issues that are concerning to us. Just a few weeks ago we raised serious concerns on behalf of the United States about the conviction of a respected Cambodian political leader Kem Sokha. Our ambassador went to the courthouse to make some very clear remarks there about our concerns. When I was in Thailand last week, I had the opportunity to meet with civil society leaders to hear about some of what’s on their minds as we lead up to what is a very important election on May 14th.

I can say that, again, whether in Asia, the Middle East, or in Europe, we are constantly raising these issues of the importance of human rights and democracy. We believe it is in the interest of all countries to help promote [these areas] and make stronger.