Washington will keep economic sanctions against the Burmese government until “real” democratic reforms are in place, the leader of an opposition group said Tuesday after talks with U.S. Special Envoy and Policy Coordinator for Burma Derek Mitchell.
But the U.S. will move to increase humanitarian aid and ease some travel restrictions on officials amid a flurry of political reforms introduced recently by the nominally civilian government, said National Democratic Front (NDF) leader Khin Maung Swe.
Mitchell, the former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Defense who became the U.S. special envoy to Burma on Aug. 15, is in Burma on a five-day visit which began Friday.
His talks with Khin Maung Swe came a day after the special envoy held a meeting with National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss funding for education and health, marking the first time the Nobel Laureate has highlighted the issue of U.S. aid in public.
“I asked Derek Mitchell about the U.S. position on Burma. He said that sanctions will not be lifted right now, but will be when reform in Burma is evident,” Khin Maung Swe told RFA.
“So I asked if there will be help [from the U.S.] for the health and education sectors while economic sanctions are still in place. He said those sectors will get help. He said he will report about the situation when he is back in Washington and humanitarian assistance will be increased.”
Mitchell also said that travel restrictions on Burmese officials in the U.S. could be eased.
"Mitchell said he is encouraged to see change underway in Burma and that he is awaiting further developments,” Khin Maung Swe said.
“He asked me what we political parties think of the change—whether they are moving towards democracy or not. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi [has] said that the president really wants democratic reform. So it is definite that the change will happen, but it will happen slowly and over time.”
But Mitchell said Burma still has to meet a number of preconditions before Washington will give the go ahead to lift sanctions and boost bilateral relations.
“Important changes like the release of political prisoners, Aung San Suu Kyi’s involvement in Burmese politics, and national reconciliation—if these goals are reached, it will be considered real change and the achievement of democratic reform,” Khin Maung Swe said Mitchell told him in the meeting.
“He said that when this happens, cooperation from the U.S. will increase extensively."
Burma’s government has launched a series of reform initiatives in recent months, including an invitation to armed ethnic groups to hold peace talks and planned changes to Burma's currency system.
But some 2,000 political prisoners continue to languish in Burmese jails and the international community has repeatedly called for their release ahead of any relaxation of sanctions on the Burmese government.
Suu Kyi meeting
Few details were made public about Mitchell’s meeting with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday morning.
NLD spokesperson Ohn Kyaing told RFA that the two met at Suu Kyi’s home at 10:00 a.m. for a discussion that lasted around 40 minutes.
"Since this was only between them, we don't know the details. After that, Mitchell met with vice-chairman U Tin Oo and members of the Committee Representing the People's Parliament (CRPP),” an opposition group formed by the NLD after the former military junta refused to acknowledge election results in 1990.
“U Tin Oo told him about the change and progress that had occurred after Aung San Suu Kyi and [Burmese] President Thein Sein met [in August], and that the NLD has been able to engage in social assistance with the people.,” he said.
“The CRPP members talked about ethnic issues and the urgency of releasing the political prisoners.”
After meeting with Mitchell, Suu Kyi briefed the media but did not reveal any details.
"The meeting with U.S. Special Envoy Mr. Derek Mitchell was not like our meetings with other officials including Senator John McCain," Suu Kyi told reporters, without providing specifics on how the meetings differed.
"The past situation is the past. The current situation is the current one and there has been some progress. Due to the situation, [the U.S. delegation] is also interested and so we exchanged our perspectives," she said.
Suu Kyi told reporters that she and Mitchell did not discuss the issue of U.S. sanctions.
Before traveling to Rangoon, Mitchell and his delegation met with senior officials of the Burmese government, including Lower House Speaker ex-Gen Shwe Mann, Upper House Speaker ex-Maj-Gen Khin Aung Myint, Foreign Minister ex-Col Wunna Maung Lwin, Border Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Thein Htay and Information and Culture Minister ex-Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan in the capital of Naypyidaw on Friday.
New U.S. Charge d'Affaires to Burma Michael E. Thurston accompanied Mitchell during the meetings.
On Sunday, Mitchell visited an HIV/AIDS clinic run by NLD youth leader Phyu Phyu Thin, a government-run HIV/AIDS hospital and the office of the NGO Free Funeral Service Society.
Ahead of his trip, the U.S. State Department announced that Mitchell’s visit was intended to "build upon U.S. dialogue and engagement towards the shared goals of genuine reform, reconciliation and development for the Burmese people."
Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.