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Moral Leadership Missing in Burma, with Ambassador Derek Mitchell

January 24, 2018

Aung San Suu Kyi, state counsellor of Myanmar. CREDIT: Claude TRUONG-NGOC (CC)

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

Editor's note: This interview was recorded before former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced that he was quitting an international panel set up by the Myanmar government to advise on the Rohingya crisis.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm sitting down to speak with former U.S. ambassador to Burma, also known as Myanmar, Derek Mitchell.

Derek, thanks so much for coming by to Carnegie Council. It's great to see you again.

DEREK MITCHELL: Sure. Thank you.

DEVIN STEWART: Derek, you were U.S. ambassador to Burma from 2012 to 2016. Looking back to the end of your term, 2016, how would you characterize the overall situation in Myanmar? Do you like to say "Myanmar" or "Burma?"

DEREK MITCHELL: You can say either. I tend to say Burma. I'm old-fashioned.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's stick with Burma. How would you characterize the overall situation since 2016, looking back? Is it going in the right direction, the country?

DEREK MITCHELL: No. I think with many measures you can say it has taken some steps backward. Nobody can ignore the headlines and the huge issue of what has happened to the Rohingya, not just since last August but the previous October and even going back to my time there in 2012, when the original violence placed many of these in internally displaced camps and steadily degrading conditions.

We had hoped, though, with the election in 2015, the election of the National League for Democracy (NLD) under Aung San Suu Kyi, that that could signify a turn. But we knew a few things: One is that this was not an election for leadership of the entire country. We knew the military still had prerogatives, they still had power. So it was not a fully formed or remotely complete democratic transition. We also knew there were just so many structural problems that had been left over from the past, economic problems, peace, but I am sure we will go into this.

DEVIN STEWART: Sure. Education.

DEREK MITCHELL: Education, you name it. The defining challenge of the country is actually peace: How does this place hold together? They have been fighting a civil war for 70 years.

DEVIN STEWART: With the various ethnic groups.

DEREK MITCHELL: And then you have the Rohingya as another issue. You have certainly seen steady degradation of conditions at various levels, but we always knew it was going to be hard.

DEVIN STEWART: Is the effort toward pacifying the country, toward peace, subordinating the plight of the Rohingya? As we know, this week the plan was to repatriate some, I believe it is 800,000 roughly.

DEREK MITCHELL: About 760,000.

DEVIN STEWART: Between 700,000 and 800,000 Rohingya from Bangladesh where they fled back to Burma. Human Rights Watch is calling the camps where they are supposed to come back to in Burma an "open-air prison." What do you make of the Rohingya situation? Is the government addressing it correctly? Give me the overall impression. What have you seen on the ground and then looking at the news there?

DEREK MITCHELL: Just specifically on the repatriation, there are standards for this. It should be safe, dignified, and voluntary. It is clear that they have not consulted with the Rohingya. It is just an agreement between the Bangladesh government and the Myanmar government.

You can say the Myanmar government is responding to international pressure, where we say: "All these people left the country. You need to accept them back. This is unacceptable."

And they are saying: "Sure, okay. We'll take them back."

But the process is very important. These people left because they are terrified, because their family members have been raped. There have been murders. There are a lot of question marks, but there is enormous fear.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you describe who is doing the violence? It is often described as military people. Are they local militias or are they commanded by the national government? Who are these people?

DEREK MITCHELL: It is hard to be precise because we cannot get access. That is one of the issues. We cannot get human rights groups and independent observers and others access to get a firm understanding of what is happening. There have been interviews by the media and others with the Rohingya on the Bangladesh side, so we have anecdotal information. There are satellite photos of villages being burned.

The sense is that, certainly at least early on, the military had gone in looking for the attackers. This originated because of militants under the name of the Rohingya who attacked border guard forces. So what they were responding to was an initial attack by Rohingya or those acting as Rohingya, under the name of the Rohingya. They were looking for these people, and they were furious and angry at people they did not like anyway, so there were certainly excesses by the military for at least a week or two. It could have gone on longer.

After a while, people talk about militias, local militias, local Rakhine maybe in cahoots with local police, local security forces. There needs to be an accounting of what happened, no doubt about it. But frankly, my focus right now initially is on these people, the Rohingya. Instead of their being a pawn of people charging different things happened, which certainly we need to understand what happened, we have to figure out how to assist these people to have a dignified life which they have not had for some time.

DEVIN STEWART: I am curious. In Rakhine, where the Rohingya have fled—have you been to Rakhine?

DEREK MITCHELL: Yes, many times.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you give our listeners a sense of what it is like there? It is famously poor. Can you just give a description of what type of life they are fleeing from?

DEREK MITCHELL: There are different parts of life there. Many are farmers, many are fishermen. It is actually a beautiful place. It is along the coastline of the Bay of Bengal. It should be—it has tremendous potential for tourism. It has a shoreline that is gorgeous, and the southern part of Rakhine commonly tourists go, a place called Ngapali Beach, hills and lots of farming terrain, very flat with some hills in aspects of it.

But people fled a very subsistence-like lifestyle. There would be segregated villages. You have Rakhine and Rohingya side by side. They interacted correctly. There was not a lot of love there, but they would interact peacefully, and many times they would cultivate friendships.

The Rohingya tended to be the ones who worked the fields and worked the shops, and the ones who owned the farms and owned the shops would be the Rakhine. So there was actually an integrated economy that they established that was disrupted by the violence. So many Rakhine lost their livelihoods because of the violence against Rohingya. They are not leaving much, but they had enough, some of these people, to at least have a home, at least to have some schooling, a very subsistence level, and what they were hoping for was that a rising tide would lift all boats, that there would be development brought in, and then everybody can succeed based on that.

DEVIN STEWART: What would you say are the causes of the violence? Is it historical? What are the triggers here? What's at play?

DEREK MITCHELL: It is very deeply ingrained. Each side has its narrative about why the other side has been aggressive and perfidious against the other. In the Rakhine's mind it goes—and this is very complex, but Rakhine is one of the ethnic minorities of the country, ethnic nationalities. They have a grudge against the majority Burmans, just like many of the other ethnic nationalities have been fighting for 70 years for autonomy and respect and ability to preserve their heritage. They have been fighting the Burmans.

So they feel that the Burmans have imposed this issue on them. They have forced them to take the Rohingya in. Because Rohingya do not have citizenship, they cannot move, so they are a Rakhine problem. So they resent the Rohingya, they resent the Burmans, they resent the outside world for only focusing on the Rohingya. Meanwhile, the Rakhine people steadily suffer themselves as a people.

The Rohingya feel the Rakhine have treated them as second class and believe that they are illegal immigrants—and they do, the Rakhine do believe that—and that the Rakhine have therefore repressed them and committed violence against them over the years.

So there is a very deeply ingrained friction, and it goes back to World War II when they fought, these two communities. One was on the side of the Japanese, one was on the side of the British. It goes to religious issues between Muslim and Buddhist. There is fear that these people do not assimilate, the Rohingya, among the Rakhine in the Rakhine mindset, so therefore they could be a leading edge of terrorism, and then you have this narrative that Islam is on the march in the region and the Rohingya are part of this, and they have to preserve that Buddhist heritage. It gets wrapped up in identity, and existential basically threat that both sides feel about the other.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you feel like the slow and gradual democratic transition and the move away from having essentially a military government, did that play a role in contributing to some of the chaos in Burma?

DEREK MITCHELL: It is interesting that you ask that. I think there strangely is an irony there that democracy may not have helped the situation. It is not as if democracy caused it, and I certainly think we should be in the position of supporting democracy inside Burma, inside Myanmar.

But if a majority of people are against these people, the Rohingya, particularly as you got close to the 2015 election, who is going to stand up for them? No one is going to stand up for them because it is politically suicide, and it is just not viable to stand up for these people who are viewed as illegal and a potential threat to the country.

So as you got closer to the election it got harder to get the government to take decisive action, assuming that they would be willing to do it anyway, which is a big 'if' as well, and I think it still weighs on Aung San Suu Kyi to some degree that she is running against the tide where you have 90 percent of the people viewing them as hostile and the Rohingya as not part of the fabric of the country. She has to deal with that question.

And the military is still powerful. They still control the security forces. They can do whatever they want to protect the country, and in fact the people will back them in it, which they have been. The military perhaps has never been more popular inside Burma, which is an irony because of what is happening with the Rohingya.

Aung San Suu Kyi has to be sensitive to this because it is defending the honor of the country, defending the security and the dignity of our Buddhist nation. That is not to give her a complete pass certainly on the human rights because she is head of the country, she is the moral leader of the country, but we do have to understand how complex and difficult this environment is. Even if we recognize that the humanitarian issue is simple, the context and the solution are more complex.

DEVIN STEWART: Certainly all people around the world want security. They want a basic livelihood at the very least. Democracy is becoming like a luxury these days, it seems. Do you think that most Burmese citizens want democracy?

DEREK MITCHELL: Yes, I think they do. I think they absolutely do. I think that we have seen this in other places around the world over the past 25 years with the whole wave of democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union and such that people expect maybe too much out of democracy oftentimes. They think, Well, we'll be a democracy and then we'll be as powerful and rich as the United States, or Japan, or any other.

And it may not happen that way, and oftentimes in countries like this you have a place that people were not able to speak for 50 years, and now they are able to speak, and we promoted their freedom to speak. We may not like what they say. We believe in the civil liberty, but then they may say things that we do not like, and how do you deal with that? How do you deal with the balance of free speech and responsibility to protect everyone with equal justice?

DEVIN STEWART: When you say we don't like what they say, are you referring to the famous monk Wirathu?

DEREK MITCHELL: Not just him, but he represents certainly that. But people may call the Rohingya illegal immigrants, a threat; Islam as a religion is a threat. There may be racism, in other words, that is there, which is in every society.

DEVIN STEWART: We're dealing with it here.

DEREK MITCHELL: We deal with it here. I am not casting specific aspersions on that. Maybe every human being has this instinct for racism. But the question is, how do they deal with this, and they have not dealt with it for 50 years. It has been frozen in amber because of a military dictatorship, and now they have to work through issues that they have not worked through over decades.

DEVIN STEWART: You played a vital role in Obama's approach to Burma, I think you and our old friend Kurt Campbell. There was a lot of enthusiasm during the Obama years that this could be one of the biggest foreign policy successes, Burma and possibly Cuba. Do you look back at your time working on U.S. policy toward Burma and reconsider things? Did we move too fast with Burma, or any sort of criticism or critiques?

DEREK MITCHELL: Yes. Those questions do come up all the time. Certainly I and even folks from my embassy and people I worked with have thought about that and written could we have done more on Rakhine, this or that? There is a place for it. I am writing as well kind of a memoir for myself, working all this through.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have a title?

DEREK MITCHELL: Myanmar Days, like Burmese Days, after Orwell.

DEVIN STEWART: Nice. That's clever.

DEREK MITCHELL: So no one out there steal that.

DEVIN STEWART: I love it. I will read it, definitely.

DEREK MITCHELL: Well, I have to write it. I am looking forward to reading it myself.

DEVIN STEWART: Sorry to interrupt, but go ahead

DEREK MITCHELL: But the idea of looking at this again. Let me just take it broadly. I do not have any regrets. I certainly regret— I always say that the Rakhine issue, the Rohingya issue, was a black spot during my time there, but my expectations and my view of our policy were managed.

My view of it was pretty realistic: We're not going to save Burma. It is not up to the United States to save. We are not responsible for the success or failure of the country. We are not responsible for the success during the so-called "successful" period when I was there. The people of Burma did that. They suffered, they struggled, and I think our support for it had measurable impact. I am very proud of what we did to give the place a chance. I think we saw it in the election. We saw it in the release of political prisoners. I saw it firsthand. So I don't regret it.

I spent more time in Rakhine State than I spent anywhere except maybe Naypyidaw, certainly Yangon because I lived there. I went over and over, and we put enormous attention to this issue and thought strategically about it and got the Yangon Commission set up, and warned them that "time was not on your side, and this is not going to work to your advantage if you don't get out in front of this for your own interest."

The fact is, they are not winning. The Rakhine people are not winning from what is happening right now. The Burmese are not winning from what is happening in Rakhine state.

DEVIN STEWART: What do you mean by that?

DEREK MITCHELL: Let me just finish that thought, which is I don't believe—I think we did not move too fast. I think we moved at the right pace, and I think we had the right decisions at the right time, and if it doesn't turn out right, I don't feel that we were somehow responsible, that if only we had sanctions, then they would not have treated the Rohingya the way they did. I do not think that is a reasonable perspective. I think that is a little arrogant, frankly, of people who think we have that kind of control over people's actions.

DEVIN STEWART: You said the Rohingya are not winning.

DEREK MITCHELL: I said the Rakhine are not winning. There are no winners in this. It is not as if pushing these people out, they win or anyone wins or that Burma is winning. They have been isolated. Their reputation has been smashed. They are not getting investment except from certain countries, and I am not sure they want to have only China or only other countries coming in. I think they want the West to come in.

The Rakhine have been suffering themselves, and I think that is something that we needed to understand from day one on this issue, that they feel like they are victims and they are underdeveloped and that they feel an existential threat and they are misunderstood, and that is all true. That does not defend aggressing against others. That is not what I am saying, but the Rakhine are not getting the development they want and the respect that they want, and certainly not the security. If the military thinks they are becoming more secure by doing what they did, they are less secure than ever because they are getting the attention of some of the worst actors in the world. So no one is winning in this.

DEVIN STEWART: Getting the attention of some of the worst actors, do you think that now Rakhine could be a target for terrorism?

DEREK MITCHELL: Some will call the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attack last August terrorism. I will not get into that debate. I do not know how you define terrorism in that way.

Of course, I think everybody is subject to it. There is no country that is immune. It was the issue that kept me up at night while I was there, that the longer this goes on the more that the extreme violent Muslim, whether it is al-Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), they pay attention to these things. That can give folks an incentive to take drastic action. So yes, of course I worry, and I have for years.

DEVIN STEWART: Another difficult question for you, Derek, none of these are easy.

DEREK MITCHELL: No, I expected that.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you. Let's look at Aung San Suu Kyi. She seems to be getting a bad rap in the global media. It actually seems to be getting worse and worse. Does she deserve such a bad reputation? In other words, not only just a sort of assessment of how she is doing, but is she not only managing things the right way, but also is she putting the right priorities in place? What do you think?

DEREK MITCHELL: First of all, I think the calumny—I'm not sure of the other word—I think it is excessive, the attention on her. That is not to say that a legitimate critique does not exist about her leadership, about how she has dealt with this, and I have been public with that. I even challenged before what happened in August; I wrote a piece that I am not sure she was terribly happy about, saying after a year there has been some disappointment in the NLD and she need to up her game. Now with what happened in August it gets even more so.

They need to get ahead of this issue. She needs to lead as basically the leader of the country. She has not gone out, she has governed, but she has not—this is a moment where a new country is being formed. A new country. She talked about the democratic movement as a second movement for independence of the country. Her father led the first movement for independence, hers was the second.

She had won the election, so therefore there is a new country forming. What is it based on? W0hat are the principles of that country? What is the vision of that country? She needs to be laying down those principles as the person everyone is looking to as a unique figure in the country, and she has not.

DEVIN STEWART: Like a moral leader.

DEREK MITCHELL: The moral leader. And kind of the way Jefferson was not perfect. None of our Founding Fathers or mothers were perfect, but they laid down those principles that we go back to and say: "Those are our lode stars. Those are the things we are striving toward, even if we are falling back in today's America and we never achieved these things, that all are created equal, that everyone deserves equal justice under law." We have had to deal with this step by step.

So when people see her, when I look at her, it is not that she is not doing everything perfectly or imperfectly, it is that she is not providing the leadership that I think is necessary. And I think on something like the Rohingya or the arrest of the journalist from Reuters—which is getting a lot of attention for good reason—we are not hearing her voice say free speech and free media are extremely important. She may not be able to have any control of the judiciary there, or if these people are rounded up by the security forces, that is the military. So she may feel, "Rule of law, I can't touch that, and maybe after it's done I can pardon them," which is what happened in the previous government. But she can speak out. She has a voice, and she can lead, and she is not doing enough of that.

But I think that what is very important, and I am glad you asked the question, is that the singular attention on her, and in my view excessive attention on her certainly that first month after what happened in Rakhine State, was very damaging not only to her but to the Rohingya because she felt—and I felt really angry about it myself, that she was getting too much of the flak. Again, she deserves some, but there was just too much of it, not enough on the military, not enough understanding of context, and then she withdrew.

I feel like that is where she is now. She is not listening anymore. This is what happens if you attack somebody over and over, just think, as a human being—I think she now does not trust the West, she does not trust the media, and I think she stopped listening and she is becoming more isolated, and that is not helpful for our needed partnership with her to get out of this situation in a way that helps her, democracy, helps the transition in the country, and most importantly for those who care about human rights, helps the Rohingya.

DEVIN STEWART: It is challenging to get an accurate picture of what is happening inside Burma. What do you make of the portrayal of Burma in Western media?

DEREK MITCHELL: Right. I think bearing witness is absolutely essential. You need folks to go out there and see what is going on. I really appreciate that they keep it in the limelight and tell the story of 700,000 people in refugee camps. You have to keep the light shining on it.

I have been concerned about the lack of context at times. I used to say to my embassy that facts without context is not truth. And the facts are right, but if you don't have the context, you can't get at the full truth, and if you cannot get at the full truth, you are not going to find the right solution. And what we are looking for are solutions, not just condemnations and easy virtue. We are looking to help these people, the Rohingya, and help Burma, and help the Rakhine.

I get frustrated, for instance, that people like Nick Kristof at The New York Times, who, frankly, I talked to about context at one point, and he could not care less about it. He has written columns—again, I am not saying he is wrong about facts, about the plight of the Rohingya, but for instance piling on Aung San Suu Kyi in September gratuitously, showing no real concern about the context and the rest—"shame on you Daw Suu" [honorific for Suu Kyi]—was actually extraordinarily unhelpful and I thought was real grandstanding.

I think it didn't help the Rohingya. She withdrew, I think, not just because of him, but people did read that. The New York Times matters. It sent a signal that people do not care to learn about this issue in its full complexity, which makes them listen to us less. That kind of thing I think is unhelpful, it's grandstanding, and I really hope that as time has gone on people have understood better what is happening there, and that we can get to some solutions.

DEVIN STEWART: If The New York Times presents a sort of sanctimonious story, can you recommend to our listeners where to go for—

DEREK MITCHELL: Well, you know what I should say, and I want to say this: They also did an excellent series by Roger Cohen. Roger Cohen went, and he wrote probably the best piece that I have seen in any journalism.

DEVIN STEWART: I know the piece.

DEREK MITCHELL: It was a front page of the Sunday Times, and I give The New York Times credit. They gave him space. It was not his typical column where he had limited space because you cannot tell the story with that kind of limited space. I was overseas at the time, so I didn't see it when it came out except online, but he told a full, balanced, contextual, complex story that let no one off the hook, but went in there and told the story well.

DEVIN STEWART: I remember that piece.

DEREK MITCHELL: He was wonderful. So that is the other way of dealing with it, if you want to actually get at understanding and finding light and not just heat.

DEVIN STEWART: You have said that we have a lot of ironies here. One of the ironies is that the West is now being looked at increasing like a suspicious character in Burma, and guess who can swoop in and take advantage of that—China.

DEREK MITCHELL: They have been talking that up privately, "Oh, the Americans are behind this." They said that even when I was there. The Americans are behind this because we have interest in Rakhine, and the Americans are trying to undermine our interests with this pipeline and road network and this Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Rakhine State, which China is setting up; the Americans are all behind it.

And we are starting to hear—I have heard this from grassroots friends in Burma—that: "Oh, yes, it's the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that is behind all this. They are giving the weapons to the Rohingya." Like, no.

"Well, maybe you don't know, but that's probably what's going"—

This is the type of conspiracy theory and rumors that happen in Burma. And the Chinese do play that up. They like to always feel that everything is about them, and if something bad happens, it is because of our black hand.

DEVIN STEWART: So the Chinese are fueling some suspicions?

DEREK MITCHELL: Yes, and I think others may.

DEVIN STEWART: About the United States?

DEREK MITCHELL: They do it all over Southeast Asia.

DEVIN STEWART: I actually heard something similar recently in Indonesia, in Central Java, a similar type of conspiracy theory from an Indonesian, who said it to our group.

What would you make of China's relationship with Burma going forward, given the suspicion toward the West, the chaos, and I wouldn't say 100 percent great experience with democracy so far? China has had a relationship with Burma for a long time.

DEREK MITCHELL: They always will. They have a long border, a 2,000-kilometer border.

DEVIN STEWART: To use your word "winning," is China winning here?

DEREK MITCHELL: They feel they are. I think they feel they are back in the game. They felt that they were losing. And I even heard, reportedly the rumor was that Xi Jinping was running around saying, "Who lost Burma?" around 2012, 2013, because they felt Burma had taken a turn to the West and the United States.

I know there is all this suspicion: "Oh, it's all about China. It's why the United States did this, blah, blah, blah." And we can get into why we did it, but in my view—and I was certainly at the center of all of this—this was a very consistent policy.

Our policy toward Burma evolved because Burma was evolving, and we realized that our partnership could help them continue to evolve. And that certainly helped with our partnership with them and our relationship with them, and China views all these things as zero-sum. They always say, don't have a zero-sum mentality. They talk win-win, but they think zero-sum, so they were thinking in these terms.

DEVIN STEWART: But they also talk about free trade and don't really walk the walk either.

DEREK MITCHELL: That is called "shaping the battlefield," yes. It is all about rhetoric.

DEVIN STEWART: When you say it is "all about China," I think you are referring to the theory back then around 2012 that one of the major reasons for the Burmese people and the government to open up and have a better relationship with the United States was a sort of hedging against China's influence in Burma.

DEREK MITCHELL: I think that is probably true, and it gets to your question of how Burma views China and China's influence there. Burma is another Southeast Asian country. They have to have a good relationship with China. They have a border with them, they have economic connections, in Burma's case they have ethnic connections. The population of Kachin has a similar population across the border in China. So there is a lot that connects them, and it makes sense that they would have a connection. They can lift each other.

But there is no love lost, in Burma particularly. I think there is an appreciation now in Burma toward China because just like 10 years ago when Burma was isolated ironically under the military, the military appreciated when China would stand up in the United Nations and defend them and prevent bad things from happening, preventing sanctions, preventing resolutions condemning them. So they feel that China is on their side, and now the people ironically are where the military was 10 years ago and seeing China as defending them.

But they also recognize that China does things in a way that does not necessarily take Burma's interests really into account, and there is a concern of China overrunning Burma demographically because Chinese come in and can get citizenship in various ways, buying up land, investing in ways that are not responsible. They want balance, but they now are so angry at us that there is a resentment toward the West.

DEVIN STEWART: When you say building in Burma, part of that is One Belt, One Road, China's massive infrastructure project that goes pretty much all around Eurasia. It is about $1 trillion.

DEREK MITCHELL: That's the plan, anyway.

DEVIN STEWART: That's the plan. What do you think is going to happen with One Belt, One Road in Burma? What is your bet? is it going to be okay?

DEREK MITCHELL: They have already started it. Before they had the term "One Belt, One Road," they had an oil and gas pipeline and road and rail network running, as I mentioned, from Rakhine State straight across into Yunnan, Southwest China, so that they can avoid what was called the "Malacca Dilemma": 70 percent of their imported oil comes via the Malacca Straits, through the sea lanes in the South China Sea to China. And who controls those sea lanes? The United States. So they are afraid of our ability to shut that down and therefore basically hold China at bay.

DEVIN STEWART: That's the dilemma?

DEREK MITCHELL: That is the dilemma. It is called the Malacca Dilemma.

So what they want to do is avoid that: You get stuff through the Indian Ocean, from the Persian Gulf, offload it in Burma before the Malacca Strait, and run it over land and get it into China. So you have an alternative route that the United States can't control or is much more difficult to control. And they get other oil, as you say, overland, through Russia and otherwise.

They have been thinking in these terms of connecting for oil and gas resource reasons, as well as access to the Indian Ocean, that the west doesn't have a west coast. There is an east coast and a southern coast that have maritime borders, but the west does not—the southwest—and Burma to them is that west coast, and they want to extend into the Indian Ocean to extend its reach through Burma. So One Belt, One Road has kind of played into that.

DEVIN STEWART: Josh Eisenman, who you know well, he and I wrote a piece about this about a year ago, risks around One Belt, One Road. Do you see any risks, whether it be corruption or environmental degradation, political instability? Waste? What do you think?

DEREK MITCHELL: Absolutely. It is the how of all these things. It could be a positive thing. I don't think we should just assume if they have a lot of money to build infrastructure in a region that needs infrastructure—there is no doubt they need infrastructure—and some of that should go to China because they are a large market, and that is going to help the growth of Asia and the growth of the world. So we should not view it as inherently a bad thing.

The question is whether all roads lead to China, and if all roads lead to China there's no diversity. If there is not infrastructure that leads across from, say, India to Vietnam to Taiwan or into the Philippines, then you have a different issue, and I think that is where the concern is, that this is all about China, and it is a way for them to have a political component to their economic strategy.

DEVIN STEWART: So what, too much influence? Too hegemonic?

DEREK MITCHELL: Yes. Too much power, too much control over economic futures of countries.

DEVIN STEWART: That can fuel resentment?

DEREK MITCHELL: It can fuel a lot of things. It certainly can fuel if they are not careful—as I mentioned, it is the how—if they do not do it in a way that is responsible, doesn't take into account local populations, that it runs through land that does not have clear title— that can fuel conflict. It can be an environmental degradation, all kind of things that can happen in the process that create challenges. But it's a question not again of whether it is good or bad, it is how they decide to implement it.

DEVIN STEWART: Derek, I know you have a busy schedule, but before you go there is one elephant we haven't mentioned this entire time. I cannot believe we never mentioned Trump in this entire conversation.

DEREK MITCHELL: Yes. It is very refreshing.

DEVIN STEWART: It's different. Real quick, how would you describe Trump's Asia approach, if there is one, and do you have any parting advice for him before you leave the podcast today?

DEREK MITCHELL: My advice to him? I don't know if I have advice to him. There is his view. He views Asia as trade and North Korea, and we don't see anything other than that. There is no real strategy there.

His people have put our national security strategy together and they talk the right talk about alliances and making sure that we have the right relationship with China that is a balance of cooperative and competitive with probably more emphasis on competition, which I think is realistic given the way China is treating us. If you treat someone as an enemy, you are going to make him into an enemy, and China has been treating us for many years as a rival, so they are going to create a rival and an enemy, potentially, if they do that. They have always said that about us, but frankly I think they have been doing that for the past 10 to 20 years. And we have reached out to them and brought them into all these institutions.

There is no advice except that. I think we need to stay really true to our alliances, keep our focus on what has brought us here. We are strong if we have the region with us, if we are acting consistent with norms. The trade issue is really important, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade initiative, we lost a lot there.

We send a signal about our credibility through the way we act in the White House, the way we act in Washington, how we act in our country, and probably the most important thing we could do for Asia is get our own house in order. That is the most important thing we can do in the world, for Burma, anywhere else. If we can get our house in order, then we have a much better ability to assist others, not in projecting or imposing ourselves, but helping others succeed as well.

DEVIN STEWART: Derek Mitchell was the U.S. ambassador to Burma. He is also an advisor to the United States Institute of Peace. Derek, thanks again for coming today.

DEREK MITCHELL: Thank you. Appreciate it.

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