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Will the new Burma envoy make a difference?

The Obama administration is appointing the first-ever U.S. special envoy to Burma, but the potential absence of any significant change in U.S. policy toward the country calls into question whether he will be able to produce an improvement in the brutal Burmese regime’s behavior. President Barack Obama appointed Pentagon official and Asia hand Derek Mitchell ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration is appointing the first-ever U.S. special envoy to Burma, but the potential absence of any significant change in U.S. policy toward the country calls into question whether he will be able to produce an improvement in the brutal Burmese regime’s behavior.

President Barack Obama appointed Pentagon official and Asia hand Derek Mitchell to the post of Burma Special Envoy on April 14, about 18 months after the State Department rolled out its new Burma policy, which was meant to mix limited engagement with the prospect of additional pressures. But the junta simply continued its long record of attacking ethnic minorities, suppressing political dissent, and rigging elections. Following what the State Department called the "fatally flawed" elections in Burma last November, the engagement has trailed off.

A top State Department official said today that the Obama administration is not contemplating any change in its Burma policy, despite the fact that its current strategy hasn’t yielded positive results.

"We will acknowledge that we’ve had either no or limited success, and this has been going on for a while," said Joe Yun, deputy assistant secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. "But we do believe ultimately is that the system there in Burma is not sustainable and that we will try to improve it, we will try to change it, and we will try to bring democracy there, justice, and respect for human rights."

Asked by The Cable whether Mitchell’s appointment would be accompanied by a review of Burma policy or if Mitchell will simply be adding some high-level attention to the current policy, Yun said it would probably be the latter.

"We’ll have to see once he gets on board, but at this moment there is no thinking going on that we will change our policy that was announced 18 months ago," said Yun, "I think it is high-level attention, at the end of the day, that will have results."

Yun was speaking as part of a panel discussion following a State Department screening of "Burma Soldier," a documentary starring Colin Farrell that tells the story of a former political prisoner who went from being a solder in Burma’s army to a pro-democracy activist. Yun was joined on the panel by Assistant Secretary Eric Schwartz, the film’s subject Myo Myint, film producer Julie LeBrocquy, and Office of War Crimes Issues Deputy Diane Orentlicher.

Yun explained that the "carrots" in the current policy include the prospect of international recognition, a lifting of sanctions, and increased foreign investment for Burma. He didn’t detail what "sticks" were being threatened. He also said there is no consensus among the Burmese leadership that there is something for them to gain from engaging the United States in the first place.

Aung Din, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told The Cable that Mitchell’s appointment could make a difference, even without a change in the overall policy.

"We believe this is very significant, because even though [Assistant Secretary] Kurt Campbell and Joseph Yun are handling Burma, Campbell is handling 32 countries and Yun is handling 10 countries, so I don’t think they have so much time to concentrate on Burma," he said. "When we have the special envoy he will coordinate with the U.S. bureaucracies and with the other countries, and will try to concentrate on Burma on a daily basis."

Schwartz was optimistic but not specific in his prediction that positive change in Burma was in the offing. "One never knows exactly how political change takes place," he said. "And if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past decades… is that it’s very difficult indefinitely to suppress the basic will and desire of people to chart their own futures."

Myint asked the assembled crowd to focus on the freeing of political prisoners and to help the over 100,000 refugees and internally displaced people along the Thai-Burmese border.

"We hope there will be political change, but the military regime has changed everything except politics. They changed military uniform to civilian clothes, they changed city names, but not politics. So without changing politics inside Burma, the political situation is the same before the elections and after the elections," he said.

The Obama administration is appointing the first-ever U.S. special envoy to Burma, but the potential absence of any significant change in U.S. policy toward the country calls into question whether he will be able to produce an improvement in the brutal Burmese regime’s behavior.

President Barack Obama appointed Pentagon official and Asia hand Derek Mitchell to the post of Burma Special Envoy on April 14, about 18 months after the State Department rolled out its new Burma policy, which was meant to mix limited engagement with the prospect of additional pressures. But the junta simply continued its long record of attacking ethnic minorities, suppressing political dissent, and rigging elections. Following what the State Department called the "fatally flawed" elections in Burma last November, the engagement has trailed off.

A top State Department official said today that the Obama administration is not contemplating any change in its Burma policy, despite the fact that its current strategy hasn’t yielded positive results.

"We will acknowledge that we’ve had either no or limited success, and this has been going on for a while," said Joe Yun, deputy assistant secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. "But we do believe ultimately is that the system there in Burma is not sustainable and that we will try to improve it, we will try to change it, and we will try to bring democracy there, justice, and respect for human rights."

Asked by The Cable whether Mitchell’s appointment would be accompanied by a review of Burma policy or if Mitchell will simply be adding some high-level attention to the current policy, Yun said it would probably be the latter.

"We’ll have to see once he gets on board, but at this moment there is no thinking going on that we will change our policy that was announced 18 months ago," said Yun, "I think it is high-level attention, at the end of the day, that will have results."

Yun was speaking as part of a panel discussion following a State Department screening of "Burma Soldier," a documentary starring Colin Farrell that tells the story of a former political prisoner who went from being a solder in Burma’s army to a pro-democracy activist. Yun was joined on the panel by Assistant Secretary Eric Schwartz, the film’s subject Myo Myint, film producer Julie LeBrocquy, and Office of War Crimes Issues Deputy Diane Orentlicher.

Yun explained that the "carrots" in the current policy include the prospect of international recognition, a lifting of sanctions, and increased foreign investment for Burma. He didn’t detail what "sticks" were being threatened. He also said there is no consensus among the Burmese leadership that there is something for them to gain from engaging the United States in the first place.

Aung Din, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told The Cable that Mitchell’s appointment could make a difference, even without a change in the overall policy.

"We believe this is very significant, because even though [Assistant Secretary] Kurt Campbell and Joseph Yun are handling Burma, Campbell is handling 32 countries and Yun is handling 10 countries, so I don’t think they have so much time to concentrate on Burma," he said. "When we have the special envoy he will coordinate with the U.S. bureaucracies and with the other countries, and will try to concentrate on Burma on a daily basis."

Schwartz was optimistic but not specific in his prediction that positive change in Burma was in the offing. "One never knows exactly how political change takes place," he said. "And if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past decades… is that it’s very difficult indefinitely to suppress the basic will and desire of people to chart their own futures."

Myint asked the assembled crowd to focus on the freeing of political prisoners and to help the over 100,000 refugees and internally displaced people along the Thai-Burmese border.

"We hope there will be political change, but the military regime has changed everything except politics. They changed military uniform to civilian clothes, they changed city names, but not politics. So without changing politics inside Burma, the political situation is the same before the elections and after the elections," he said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin