Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Rangoon, Burma
December 2, 2011

QUESTION: Madam Secretary, thank you very much for talking to the BBC.


QUESTION: As usual, we’re very delighted to be here with you in Burma. It’s very special for the BBC to be in the country.

I wanted to start by asking you about your meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. You’ve said that she is an inspiration to you. She has talked about the fact that she’s read your book. What was it like? What did it feel like when you finally came face to face?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Kim, it felt very familiar, and perhaps because I certainly have followed her over the years and have communicated with her directly and indirectly. So it was like seeing a friend you hadn’t seen for a very long time even though it was our first meeting. And it was also incredibly emotional and gratifying to see her free from the many years of house arrest and to see her once again leading her party and standing for elections in this new democratic process they are trying to put into place. So it was, for me, a great honor and a delight to spend time with her.

QUESTION: She sounded quite positive, cautiously so perhaps, but positive about the path towards reform that this country seems to be embarking on. Are you on the same page?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think it’s important for those of us on the outside, whether we’re in government or in an NGO or a human rights activist, to appreciate how it looks from the inside. And certainly, her perspective is there are signs of change, that there is a rhetorical commitment to reform. I think it’s very wise of her to take advantage of that, to do everything she can to support it because, as in any transition, as this one could very well be, there are those who are pushing reform, and there are those who are dead set against it, and then there are probably the most people in the middle trying to gauge which way they should jump. So anything that can be done which legitimates the reformist tendencies should be, in her view, and I agree with this, validated and encouraged. But at the same time, you have to see continuing actions. It’s not enough just to give a speech or to do a few things. There has to be a momentum behind reform, and we’re waiting and watching for that.

QUESTION: You’re obviously coordinating quite closely with Aung San Suu Kyi in terms of America’s own engagement, reengagement with Burma. Do you run the risk that you’re basing your whole policy just on one person?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, of course we’re not. We are closely coordinating with her, but with many others. We’ve had high-level visits to Burma for nearly two and a half years, because when I became Secretary of State, I said we needed a Burma review, that I wasn’t satisfied with what our policy had produced, which was, frankly, not very much.

And in the course of the last two and a half years, we’ve had more than 20 high-level visits. And whether it’s our Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell or our Special Representative Derek Mitchell, they’ve met people across society – a lot of the representatives of the ethnic nationalities, a lot of civil society members, a lot of government members. So we’ve had a good sense of where people were.

So, yes, of course, it was critical that we closely coordinated with Aung San Suu Kyi, but she was not the only person we were working with. And uniformly led by her, we were encouraged to engage. And as she said publicly, she appreciated what the United States was doing, and we all hope that it can continue.

QUESTION: She said that she will run in the parliamentary by-elections that are coming in the next few months. Do you think that she runs the risks of being absorbed by the system? Is it perhaps better for her to continue leading the call for reform from the outside?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, of course, that’s her decision, and I totally respect what she has decided. And I think from her perspective, it’s important to validate the political process. And the only way to do that is to ensure there is as much participation as possible. Her deciding to run sends a very important signal to others as well that this is worth doing. Because if all the people who have a deep, abiding commitment to democracy decided it was better to stay on the sidelines – because after all, getting involved in politics anywhere is a messy business, as I know from my own experience – then you would leave that to perhaps those whose commitment to reform and democracy are not as deep as they should be.

I think as a member – an elected member of parliament, she would have an important role to play, because she’s the one who has read deeply and thought deeply about how do you actually do this. And when I was meeting with members and leaders of the parliament, it was very clear they’re seeking advice. They wanted all kinds of ideas about how do you run an elected body. And so I think she is following through on what she believes to be her responsibility to the future.

QUESTION: Did you give her political advice about how to run?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, she, I think, is more than capable of doing that on her own, but we did discuss how challenging the political process can be.

QUESTION: Now, you had other meetings here in the country up in the capital in Nay Pyi Taw. You met with the country’s civilian president, Thein Sein. He’s a former junta leader. What were your impressions of him? Because you did come here to try to gauge his intentions. Is he really serious about reforming? What were your impressions?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think that certainly what I heard from him and what I heard from all of the leaders that I met with in Nay Pyi Taw was a stated commitment to continue the reform process. That’s obviously a first and important step, but it can’t end there; there has to be a series of actions that create a momentum toward democracy that cannot be reversed or undermined.

And I had the impression in speaking with all of the leaders that they’re well aware of the tensions within their own government about how far to go, how fast to go. That’s not unusual. But what I was reminded of is that we have experience in Latin America and in Asia, even in Africa, where military leaders transition into civilian leaders, and then create a democratic process which is left for those who come after them. That’s the hope that I think we all share.

QUESTION: Well, when you, let’s say, looked into his eyes, did you see a real intention for reform?

SECRETARY CLINTON: I don’t speculate on matters like that. I judge people by their actions, and there have been some promising actions, but there needs to be a lot more.

QUESTION: Because indeed, as you said, there are those who are perhaps sitting on the fence, and you’re hoping that your visit will encourage the reformers, reinforce their hands, but also encourage others to join the camp of the reformers. That is the hope. The risk, of course, is that your visit might give legitimacy to a government that is desperately seeking it, and then when you leave, who knows what might happen on the ground. Are you worried about that?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I can’t predict what’s going to happen, but I think it certainly is important for the United States to be on the side of democratic reform, and when there is such an opening, as we see here, to demonstrate what the engagement might lead to on behalf of investment in the country and the like.

I was struck by how everyone I met with from civil society representing the ethnic nationalities were all so welcoming of engagement. I mean, people who – and it’s not just whom I met, but the stories and reports I’ve received from all of my team, people who had just gotten out of prison who said, “Thank you so much for engaging.” Well, how can we have less of a willingness to try to move this forward than the people inside the country who have suffered because of the repression? So I think it certainly is the right thing to do, but we’re not making any long-term commitment. This is a first date, not a marriage, and we’ll see where it leads.

QUESTION: So where are we going next? North Korea? Cuba?

SECRETARY CLINTON: No. I think that if they ever had a leader who did things like begin releasing political prisoners and – on a wide scale and set up a system for elections and the like, then we’d think about it. But right now, we’re focused on what we could see happening here.

QUESTION: Madam Secretary, thank you very much for talking to the BBC.


QUESTION: Thank you.

PRN: 2011/T56-09

[This is a mobile copy of Interview With Kim Ghattas of BBC]