Diplomats in Yangon still joke about the speed with which the new US ambassador to Burma, Derek Mitchell, was accredited by the Burmese government following his appointment last year. A process that used to take months took a matter of hours. “I arrived and I got in the car and took the four-hour drive to the capital, Naypyidaw, and went straight in and saw the president and was accredited,” he says. “It was probably the quickest, shortest route to accreditation that anyone had seen.” Such fast-track diplomacy speaks to the dramatically changing relationship between the US and Burma as the government in Naypyidaw pushes ahead on democratic reforms. They’re not quite allies or even friends yet, but relations are at their best since 1990 when the US downgraded its diplomatic relations with Burma. Mitchell was named to the post last May, shortly after Burma held parliamentary elections that saw large gains for Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party. Naypyidaw responded in kind by appointing former military officer Than Swe as its ambassador to Washington. “They’ve been extremely gracious,” Mitchell says of the Burmese leadership.
Mitchell, 48, stresses, however, that there is “no end to the challenges” in the country and the US must remain patient and realistic in its expectations. One of the trickiest parts of his job, he says, is building trust in Naypyidaw while also remaining vigilant on human rights issues. For instance, he expressed concern over recent Burmese air strikes against Kachin rebels in the north. But he did so quietly, behind closed doors. “We’re certainly not going to censor ourselves if we feel reason to speak openly about things we’re concerned with,” he says. “But we try to do it in a constructive fashion. We try to work with them privately on these issues.”
His diplomatic duties also involve allaying Chinese concerns about the US’s new role in the country. Mitchell, who speaks fluent Mandarin, has an “open” relationship with his Chinese counterpart, Li Junhua, and they meet regularly in Yangon to discuss ways of partnering on health issues, human trafficking and narcotics.
“There’s been a narrative out there for some time in China about America’s policy of encirclement,” he says. “Whatever suspicions there are on the Chinese side, we need to work at them and figure out ways forward through dialogue. I am confident that we will.”
The embassy: In 2007, the US moved into a new embassy on leafy University Avenue in Yangon, within walking distance from Suu Kyi’s compound. Most foreign embassies have so far resisted relocating to isolated Naypyidaw, built by the regime in the mid-2000s.
The staff: There are more than 300 Burmese and American employees at the embassy, including a new deputy chief of mission, also appointed last year.
Challenges: Many Burmese leaders speak English (probably better English than they reveal sometimes, Mitchell says) but the ambassador doesn’t speak Burmese. He’s planning to start Burmese lessons when he can find the time.
Geostrategic isolation makes for strange bedfellows. Fijian strongman “Frank” Bainimarama has angered regional allies Australia and New Zealand so, faced with an expanse of ocean to the east, he needed options: hence the Look North policy. China and Russia are not too bothered about Fiji’s dismal rights record but just in case, Suva has added another player with even lower standards: North Korea. In June 2012 a delegation from Pyongyang visited Fiji for economic and diplomatic talks and Fiji has now opened its first diplomatic offices in Pyongyang.
The Iraqi Mission to Canada has recently shown great enthusiasm for a bit of modest bricks and mortar diplomacy. Grand plans to build a new Arabesque residence were ditched following concerns from their neighbours in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Park – the current 1960s lodge-style mansion will be restored instead.
The mission had more success when its plans for an embassy inspired by a Mesopotamian ziggurat were called too imposing by one of the neighbours on McLeod Street. On this occasion Ottawa’s City Hall decided to ignore the reservations and has granted full planning permission to the Iraqis and their new embassy.