|Briefing with Senior State Department Officials On the State Department’s Assessment of Recent Events in Burma|
USA,02 February 2021
Office of the Spokesperson Via Teleconference
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you, operator. Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining us for this background call to discuss the situation in Burma.As President Biden and Secretary Blinken have said, the United States is deeply concerned by the Burmese military’s detention of civilian government leaders, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and civil society leaders. After a review of all the facts, we have assessed that the Burmese military’s actions on February 1st, having deposed the duly elected head of government, constituted a military coup d’etat. The United States will continue to work closely with our partners throughout the region and the world to support respect for democracy and the rule of law in Burma, as well as to promote accountability for those responsible for overturning Burma’s democratic transition.Now, with us today to discuss this assessment and the situation in Burma is . We also have , as well as to answer your questions.As a reminder, the call is on background and you can refer to the speakers as State Department officials. The call is also embargoed until the completion of the call. As the operator said, you may enter the question queue at any time by dialing 1 and then 0.And so with that, I will turn it over to . , please go ahead.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you, , and good morning, everyone. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this important topic today. As said, we have expressed grave concern regarding the Burmese military’s detention of civilian government leaders, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and civil society leaders. After a careful review of the facts and circumstances, we have assessed that Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s ruling party, and Win Myint, the duly elected head of government, were deposed in a military coup on February 1st. We continue to call on the Burmese military leadership to release them and all other detained civil society and political leaders immediately and unconditionally. We have denounced in the strongest possible terms Burma’s military leaders for seeking to reject the will of the people of Burma as expressed in democratic elections on November 8th, and for taking control of the Government of Burma. We continue to stand with the people of Burma, as we have done for decades, in their efforts to achieve democracy, freedom, peace, and development. This assessment triggers certain restrictions in foreign assistance to the Government of Burma, as it should, and in addition, we will undertake a broader review of our assistance programs to ensure they align with recent events. At the same time, we will continue programs that benefit the people of Burma directly, including humanitarian assistance and democracy support programs that benefit civil society.A democratic, civilian-led government has always been Burma’s best opportunity to address the problems the country faces – weak democratic institutions, intercommunal conflict and strife, an underdeveloped and closed-off economy, and a long history of human rights abuses committed by the military.The return to civilian rule in 2015 enabled Burma to re-engage with countries and businesses across the globe and move beyond relying on others in the region that do not respect human rights and democratic institutions.The military’s actions over the last week, and frankly prior to that, have put that progress at grave risk. A very small circle of Burma’s military leaders have chosen their own interests over the will and well-being of the people.We reject any attempt by the military to alter the outcome of the November 2020 election in Burma. And, as President Biden has said, we will take action against those responsible, including through a careful review of our current sanctions posture as it relates to Burma’s military leaders and companies associated with them. Most importantly, we will continue to stand with the people of Burma. Thank you. That concludes my opening remarks.
MODERATOR: Great. We will turn to questions. We’ll start with Nick Wadhams of Bloomberg.
OPERATOR: Okay, one moment. Okay, Nick, your line’s open. Go ahead, sir.
QUESTION: Thanks very much. Could you give us a sense for what those sanctions actions might actually look like, when we might see them? And then also, just looking back more broadly, is there a sense now that U.S. posture toward Burma has largely been a failure? The U.S. lifted sanctions several times over the last few years, but we now find ourselves back in the same situation that the U.S. had hoped to avoid. So is there an assessment that essentially U.S. policy toward Burma didn’t work? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: This is . So the coup restrictions apply to U.S. foreign assistance for the Government of Burma, and we’ll continue programs for the – for the people of Burma that benefit them directly, including humanitarian assistance to Rohingya and other populations in need. But we will be conducting review of all our assistance programs for Burma. I don’t have a timeline for you on that, but we’re going to be guided by our longstanding commitment to the people of Burma and their aspirations for democracy, peace, justice, and development.Now, Burma today is very different than it was 10 years ago. There’s a more open civil society, more opportunity for young people in Burma. So that’s how we assess how our policy has worked in Burma thus far. Over.
MODERATOR: Great. We will go to Christina Ruffini, CBS.
OPERATOR: Ms. Ruffini, your line’s open. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I’m wondering if you have any insight into the timing, what triggered this move now. And we’re hearing some of the same rhetoric that we heard frankly in the end of the U.S. election, including voter fraud and things like that. And I’m wondering if you can say if what happened with the U.S. recent election and allegations of voter fraud you think emboldened the military to take this step at this time. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: On your second question, I’m a humble State Department official, so I’m going to decline to make any analysis of our own domestic situation here.And the first part of the question, could you repeat that again?QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Sorry, please repeat the question. You were still muted.
QUESTION: Hi. Just, why now? Do you have any insight into what prompted them to take this action at this time? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, we know that the Burmese military alleged that there were – there was fraud and – in the voting process that took place in November. According to local and international observers, there were no widespread provable fraud allegations; they’re just allegations. Parliament was going to sit on Monday, and so that was the impetus for the – this latest coup. Over.
MODERATOR: Great. We will go to Nick Schifrin of CBS.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) very much. Can I zoom in on the consequences of today, and then repeat a question about sanctions? So you mentioned all humanitarian assistance, including humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya. So could this coup declaration negatively affect assistance that is targeted at the Rohingya? And a separate question about sanctions: Do you believe that sanctions could be effective at changing the military behavior? And can you just confirm in general that sanctions are being discussed? I know Jen Psaki said that yesterday, but could you go a little bit farther in terms of what could be done to actually target the Myanmar military with sanctions? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Sure. On the second part of your question, the Government of Burma – including the Burmese military – is already subject to a number of foreign assistance restrictions, including statutory restrictions on military assistance, due to its human rights record. I mean, those who led the military seizure of the power in Burma are many of the same individuals responsible for previous abuses, including atrocities against the Rohingya. And we sanctioned the four senior military leaders with Global Magnitsky sanctions already due to their actions with the Rohingya.We don’t have foreign assistance programs that directly benefit the Burmese military as an institution. As part of our review, we’ll look at any programs that indirectly benefit the military or individual low-level officers.In terms of humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya, absolutely not. That assistance will not be affected. Humanitarian assistance is generally exempted from such coup restrictions or any kinds of sanctions. And our assistance review will aim to combine the support to the most vulnerable population and people. That’s our priority going forward. Over.
MODERATOR: Go to Kylie Atwood of CNN.
OPERATOR: I’m sorry, could you repeat the name again?
MODERATOR: Sure. Kylie Atwood.
OPERATOR: Kylie Atwood, thank you. One moment. Okay, Kylie, you’re open, go ahead.
QUESTION: Can you hear me? Good, thank you. Thanks for doing the call, guys. I’m wondering how much of the U.S. assistance to Burma goes to the government and is not for humanitarian assistance. So can you give us a rough percentage or dollar figure for how much of the actual total U.S. assistance to the country we’re talking about here? And I’m also wondering – you may have said this and I missed it, but – when the assistance will be cut off. Does this happen immediately, overnight? Is this a 30-day thing? What’s the timeframe here? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks for your question. Your question on how much of our assistance goes to the government: very little, almost none. So we’ll – we will be conducting that review process, as I mentioned, but for right now the vast majority of our assistance goes through civil society institutions. It doesn’t go directly to the Government of Burma.And then the other part of your question? I’m sorry.
MODERATOR: I think it was about the timeframe.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We’re going to start to conduct the review immediately, so – the coup assessment was just completed, so that means that U.S. Government agencies will now begin a review process. As far as a dollar amount, I don’t have an exact figure for you in terms of U.S. assistance that goes to the government, but I would say you could say “very little.” Over.
MODERATOR: Great. We’ll go to Matt Lee of the AP.
OPERATOR: One moment.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) figures that are on the foreignassistance.gov website for what was requested for 2021 are correct, that would be 108.65 million. And then I realize – that was total. And then I realize that you guys are doing a review and you haven’t, but there is no IMET funding; is that correct? I mean, that’s usually – those of us who’ve been dealing with coup determinations for some time know that IMET funding is the first to go when such a determination is made. But there isn’t any of that, is there? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. No, there’s no IMET due to the other restrictions I talked about on the Burmese military already. And in terms of the foreign assistance number, perhaps I could ask my colleague from F to confirm that. Over.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yes, that is correct. That is the correct number for the request. But again, most of that is – the vast majority of that is not for the Government of Burma.
MODERATOR: Great. We’ll take a couple final questions here. Conor Finnegan of ABC.
QUESTION: Hey, can you hear me?
MODERATOR: We’ve got you.
QUESTION: Great. You mentioned earlier how several of these military figures are already under U.S. sanctions. So what kind of leverage do you believe further sanctions have to change their actions at this point? And can you say whether or not the administration or the embassy on the ground has been in touch with any military leaders since the coup? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: In answering the second part of your question, nobody in Burma has been in touch, under our mission, in touch with the military. We’ve been coordinating closely with our like-minded allies and partners here – both here and the ground and then other regional capitals. But we have not had direct contact with the military on the ground.In terms of the various sanctions, since the Rohingya crisis and frankly since the earlier human rights abuses, our cooperation with the Burmese military has been extremely limited to virtually non-existent. So you’re correct in saying that the existing sanctions regimes that we have in place, including the Global Magnitsky sanctions I mentioned plus other sanctions on human rights abuses, have meant that we have very little to no direct contact or work with Burmese military. Over.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to Shaun Tandon, the AFP.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on Conor’s question about the contacts? You mentioned no contacts with the military. Has it been possible to contact anybody from the democratic government that’s been toppled? And regionally, you mentioned like-minded allies. Is there any thought of coordinating with countries that have relatively good relations with Burma, say Japan, India, et cetera? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: In terms of our ability to talk to members of the NLD party or Aung San Suu Kyi herself, no we’ve not been able to do that. Our understanding is that most of the senior officials are under house arrest in the NLD leadership, and some regional government figures and civil society figures. But we’ve not been able to reach them. We’ll obviously continue to try to do that. We have certainly been in frequent contact with our like-minded allies and partners in the region. You mentioned Japan and India. Those are – we’re having daily ongoing conversations with them, and we certainly appreciate that some other countries have better contact with Burmese military than we do. So we’re continuing those conversations. Over.
MODERATOR: Great. Let’s go to Abigail Williams of NBC.
OPERATOR: One moment. I’m not seeing her in queue.
MODERATOR: Okay. If Abigail’s not there, we can go to Kim Dozier.
OPERATOR: I’m not seeing Kim in queue either here. So do you have —
MODERATOR: All right. Well, let’s try to conclude then with Michael Crowley, New York Times.
OPERATOR: Okay. Mr. Crowley, your line’s open. Go ahead, sir.
QUESTION: Hi. Can you say anything about China’s role here and any communications with Beijing about the situation?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t have anything for you on that. Apologies.
MODERATOR: All right. Well again, thanks to our speakers. This call was on background to State Department officials. The embargo is now lifted. And of course, we’ll have additional opportunities to take your questions in the coming days. Very much appreciate everyone’s time and see you soon.