Back to Officials Back to Burma (Myanmar)


Name: Mitchell, Derek
Current Position: Ambassador

There is a saying in Burma that one must be wary of five evils:  fire, water (storms and floods), thieves, mean people and…government. The military junta that has ruled Burma (which it renamed as “Myanmar”) since 1962, has been one of the most repressive of recent decades. After opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party swept to victory in a September 1990 election, the junta simply cancelled the results of the election. In response, the U.S. downgraded its level of representation in Burma from ambassador to chargé d’affaires, and Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.


However, in recognition of recent elections and other tiny moves toward democracy in Burma, on April 6, 2012, President Obama announced his intent to nominate Derek J. Mitchell, who is currently American special envoy to Burma, to be the first U.S. ambassador to Burma since ambassador Burton Levin left in September 1990.


Mitchell was born September 16, 1964, in Atlanta, Georgia, to Charlotte (née Mendelsohn) and Dr. Malcolm S. Mitchell, an academic medical oncologist and tumor immunologist, while his father was serving in the U.S. Public Health Service. The family settled in Orange, Connecticut, a suburb of New Haven, where Derek Mitchell grew up. He earned a B.A. in Foreign Affairs, with a concentration in Soviet Studies, at the University of Virginia in 1986, and an M.A. in Law and Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University in 1991, earning a certificate for proficiency in Mandarin Chinese.


In the years between graduating in Charlottesville and matriculating at Tufts, Mitchell worked as a Senate aide and a journalist in Taiwan. He served as an aide to Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) from 1986 to 1988, working as assistant to senior foreign policy adviser Gregory Craig, who was later White House counsel for President Barack Obama.


Mitchell started studying Chinese while working in Taipei as a copy editor at The China Post (then Taiwan’s largest English-language daily) from December 1988 to June 1989, and continued his study of Chinese at Nanjing (China) University in the summer of 1990.


From 1993 to 1997, Mitchell worked at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), an organization funded since 1983 by the National Endowment for Democracy to channel U.S. money to “pro-democracy” groups that are also friendly to U.S. policy in developing nations. He was senior program officer, first for Asia, from 1993 to 1996, and then to the former Soviet Union from 1996 to 1997.


From 2001 to 2009 he was a senior fellow, director for Asia, and director of the Southeast Asia Initiative, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in Washington, D.C. He established CSIS’s first dedicated Southeast Asian studies program, and in 2008-2009 led a study on the future of U.S. relations with Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. His 2007 article in Foreign Affairs, co-authored with Michael Green, has been credited with prefiguring the Obama administration’s new policy toward Burma, whose apparent early success has led to Mitchell’s nomination to be ambassador to Burma. During this time, Mitchell was also a visiting scholar, from April to June 2007, at Peking University’s School of International Studies.


Mitchell was appointed principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs by President Obama, serving from 2009 to 2011. He also served as acting assistant secretary of defense when the position was vacant for several months in 2011. On April 14, 2011, President Obama appointed Mitchell to be the first U.S. special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, with rank of ambassador.


A lifelong Democrat, Mitchell worked for the 1988 Democratic Presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis  as personnel firector for field operations in California. In 1992 he was logistics and operations manager of the United Democratic Campaign (Clinton-Gore; Senators Barbara Boxer & Dianne Feinstein) in California, for a field program with 20 offices. He has also contributed more than $9,000 to Democratic candidates and causes, including $1,500 to John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, $4,600 to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and $2,500 to his 2012 presidential campaign.


Mitchell has been married since April 30, 2006 to Lee Hun-min (a.k.a. Min Lee), a Taiwanese reporter who has worked as a TV journalist in Hong Kong. An excellent pianist, Mitchell has played at social events in and around Washington, including public and private functions for Senator Edward Kennedy.

-Matt Bewig


Official Biography

Voice of America Interviews

Testimony Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (pdf)

Derek Mitchell to be Named Ambassador to Burma (by Josh Rogin, Foreign Policy)

US Burma Envoy Meets Aung San Suu Kyi (Voice of America)


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