Former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Reflects on the Democratic Transition

Feb 8, 2017

What were Myanmar's major challenges during its transition to democracy--and indeed to this day? What was the U.S. role in the transition? What is the situation with the Rohingya minority? How will the Trump administration approach Myanmar, and Southeast Asia in general? For answers, don't miss this discussion with Ambassador Mitchell.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I am Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City. Today I am speaking with Derek Mitchell. He is the former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar from 2012 to 2016, and currently he serves as senior advisor to the Albright Stonebridge Group and the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC.

Derek, thank you for speaking with us today.

DEREK MITCHELL: Thank you, Devin. Good to talk to you.

DEVIN STEWART: You were sent to represent the United States in Myanmar right after the 2011 transition to democracy. The democratic transition in Myanmar was a historic event. What was your impression of the transition toward a more democratic government between 2012 and 2016 when you were based there?

DEREK MITCHELL: There was no linear path. It was surprising to all of us. I was actually first the special envoy based in Washington going back and forth from 2011 to 2012. We really had low expectations of how far and how fast they would go. Just seeing a new approach by the old government—which was a quasi-military government—continue to take steps to open up the society, to allow for more freedom of speech, to allow media, to allow Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party to be a part of the Parliament, to take part in elections, and to reach out to the world more broadly was a remarkable thing to watch firsthand.

But it wasn't something that was natural to them. I don't think they had a conscious plan of how they intended to proceed. It was step-by-step, with our encouragement, through our engagement, I think, and it ended up with an election where Aung San Suu Kyi's party took over with an absolute majority in the Parliament.

But the story isn't over. It is not as if elections or any single moment will mean that Myanmar is free and clear. We continue to have to watch things very closely and hope it stays on track.

DEVIN STEWART: During that time what were some of the major challenges that you saw the country faced in terms of its transition?

DEREK MITCHELL: They were the same challenges they have now. There are very structural challenges in the country.

One is fundamentally, since 1962 when the military had its coup, for 50 years they have systematically degraded every institution. The capacity of the country, the institutional development of the country, is very low. That is something you cannot change overnight, even with elections or with the will to change. That will take time to build up institutions and capacity.

You have the longest running civil war in the world in Myanmar. They have basically been fighting themselves ever since they won independence in 1948, and that continues. In fact, it has expanded over the past year, in the north in particular. A peace process, a unified country with a single national identity, is still a major challenge.

As far as economic development, they are one of the least developed countries in the world. They are trying to catch up quickly. They have a lot going for them, but it's going to take time for them to build up a more just and equitable development of their people.

DEVIN STEWART: As the U.S. ambassador, what was the American role during this transition so far? How have we helped? Have we done all the right things? Were there some things we could have done better?

DEREK MITCHELL: I think we had a very important role. You have to see what the former government said back there, and memoirs are starting to be written, from what I understand. I'm very confident that the United States putting its weight or its finger on the scales is one metaphor.

The other is blowing wind in the sails of reform by engaging. Having Secretary of State Clinton go, for the first secretary of state visit in 55 years, in 2011 really told them that there was an alternative for them, that there was a possibility of a good relationship with the United States. And we knew that they wanted a good relationship with the United States, that they appreciated us. I think in part it was concern about their neighborhood, having to deal with neighboring China, and wanting to have options. What they told me was they looked around the region and saw that nations that were aligned with the United States or that were democratic were doing well, were doing better.

I think when President Obama went, the first time a U.S. sitting president went to Myanmar, this all encouraged them to continue to take steps forward, knowing that if they stopped it could have an impact on their relationship with us, and I think, frankly, the relationship with the international community, which was easing at every moment as well. We took steps, the international community did as well, and it gave them more opportunities for investment, to raise their profile, and to better their reputation.

I think we had a real impact. But obviously the most important thing is what they do themselves inside the country.

DEVIN STEWART: Was the 2015 election seen as a success in your view?

DEREK MITCHELL: Yes. It was not a perfect election. Lord knows that there are very few perfect elections. We knew, again, the capacity to run the election—their voter lists, their election commission—was low capacity. Voter lists were very poor starting out.

But I think, looking at the result, you can say that it reflected the will of the people. All you're really looking for is a credible process and a result that people are confident reflects their will, and then you build on what happened there.

As a technical matter it was a success, and I think as a political matter it was very peaceful. There was a euphoric quality to it. I think in that way it affirmed that they could, at least in the process perspective, run a democratic process smoothly. It was probably my favorite day of my term there, just watching election day, regardless of the result, to see people embrace their democratic moment.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you think that the people feel freer in the current situation? Is it palpable on the ground?

DEREK MITCHELL: They do. It's a much different atmosphere. If you had traveled there five years ago—and people used to say, "I was there in 2010." I would say, "Well, then you haven't been here," because the country changed so much between 2010 and 2015, and certainly today in 2017. People are much more relaxed and feel free to speak up about their government.

There are still restrictions. People who write derogatory things on Facebook about the military, or even about Aung San Suu Kyi or other officials, sometimes find themselves in court, and even sentenced to prison for a short time. That's unfortunate. So it's not perfect freedom, but you do have a sense that the atmosphere is so much different than under the military, where there was an atmosphere of fear.

DEVIN STEWART: Is the sense on the ground in Myanmar that the future is bright, or are there any risks that reform might reverse and go backward?

DEREK MITCHELL: There is always that fear as long as the military is there, and the military still has a very strong institutional role in the constitution. They still have the guns, of course. And right next door you have Thailand where there was a coup and a similar attitude that, there, the last resort, if there is instability, is the military must step in, otherwise there will be chaos. That mindset, that possibility, is deeply ingrained in the people and in the military.

They are not out of the woods now. I don't think they will be out of the woods in five years or even ten years. There is always that potential. But there is a moment of hope that there hadn't been in, I would say, 50 years. They have the leader in Aung San Suu Kyi that they want. That is their icon, and she now leads the country.

Things are not moving as quickly as they may have wanted; change is not coming as quickly as folks may have wanted. Whether they are international investors or they are people inside the country, there is some frustration that is growing. I think the expectations are so high they are very difficult to meet. But there is still, I think, among the grassroots the sense that "She is our leader, this is our moment," and wanting to seize this remarkable moment in time.

I think the key is to meet at least some of the expectations so that stability continues. Otherwise you can have regression, which you've seen in other countries that have gone through democratic transition.

DEVIN STEWART: Absolutely.

Aung San Suu Kyi is sometimes compared to Nelson Mandela in South Africa. We can see today where South Africa is after apartheid, with concerns about political corruption and not a whole lot of progress recently. Do you see corruption as being a major stumbling block or something that could put a challenge to Myanmar's development?

DEREK MITCHELL: Yes, absolutely. There has been a culture of corruption that has developed over time because of the system in which people operated. It was based on an elite system of military rule, and people had to make their deals and do whatever they needed to do because there was no economic justice and no rules. They are trying to root that out. It is very difficult to do. But that kind of corruption will just eat away at a society, and eat away at economic development, and eat away at social justice.

Aung San Suu Kyi has said early on that one of her primary goals is to get rid of, or at least root out, the corruption as best she can. But that will take some time.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk about the Rohingya situation in the Rakhine State. It has gotten a lot of attention in Western media, as you know. You have been there. Can you shed some empirical insights on the situation?

DEREK MITCHELL: It is an awful, awful situation. I spent a lot of time focused on it, traveling there at least half a dozen times, probably more, meeting with the Rakhine and Rohingya in Yangon and elsewhere.

It's a tragedy. You have people there who do not have a right to citizenship, who have not had rights, who now are in pens because of violence and a deep sense of anti-Muslim fear within the country. It is very difficult to get at the core of the sense of fear that the people in Myanmar have.

What you have to understand is in the past, when we supported human rights of people inside the country, we knew we had 90 percent of the people on our side. With the Rohingya, you know when you're supporting their rights that 90 percent of the people in Myanmar are against you. They feel these people are illegal immigrants; they feel they're sort of the first vanguard of Islamic terrorism. They just feel that they are not Myanmar; they are not of the country. The more that we support them, the more there is a sense that "You don't understand us," and they get defensive, and it makes it harder to address these people's plight.

They are going through a horrific period, a continually degraded situation. First, they were in pens, then their voting rights were taken away, then they couldn't have livelihoods, and now we're hearing reports—we saw the United Nations report very recently—that there are just atrocities that they say very likely rise to the level of crimes against humanity. The concern is that there is no transparency. There is no ability to get in there to do an independent investigation and to try to give these people their humanity back.

It's very, very deeply concerning. I always said it's kind of the "black spot" of my time there. As everyone talked about this great story of Myanmar, in the corner of the country there was this black spot occurring that we just could not get traction on, that continues, if not gotten worse, since I left.

DEVIN STEWART: What are the risks to Myanmar and Southeast Asia in general from the Rakhine situation? Is violence a possibility, and if so, where?

DEREK MITCHELL: Certainly violence. And we saw again in October of last year, apparently there is an organization that has formed, an international organization, made up of Rohingya and others concerned about the Rohingya situation, who are dedicated to protecting them through violence.

Terrorism or having some kind of terrorist attack of a large kind inside Myanmar has always been my biggest fear because that will create even more division, and perhaps an opening for the military or security services to say that there needs to be some drastic action taken, both in the political and the law enforcement front. And that can spread over boundaries. If it happens in Myanmar, it can spread east and affect relations with neighbors.

I do worry that both through terrorism, through migrants, through refugees, through tensions between Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia and Malaysia towards Myanmar, these are things that can undermine the cohesion of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), can create tensions between countries and between peoples, and I think in that way undermine the American interest that there be a cohesive and strong ASEAN at the heart of Asia.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have a sense of how the new U.S. Trump administration will approach Myanmar or Southeast Asia in general?

DEREK MITCHELL: Everyone is playing the "game of Trump," I guess, trying to figure out what he is going to do in anything. I suppose most of the attention has been on the Middle East and on terrorism and Russia/Europe.

It's very hard to predict in Southeast Asia. I don't see any indication that he has people who know anything about it. The secretary of defense and the secretary of state have very little knowledge, I think, on Southeast Asia, or Asia generally. The new National Security Council (NSC) person for Asia is a China guy, Matt Pottinger. I think they will see it not through a prism of strategy and such, but more in terms of business and what we get out of these relationships.

I am hoping, though, that people like Mattis, whom I am encouraged by from his recent visit to Northeast Asia, and Tillerson, who has the trust of a lot of good people in Washington, will understand the importance of our allies, the importance of American leadership in the region, the importance of values in our foreign policy, I hope—at least Mattis has spoken out about that—so that our position in Southeast Asia will be secure and stable.

They will always be looking at a relationship with China as being central to our policy toward Southeast Asia. I think it will be important that we maintain a fairly stable and predictable strategy toward China so that Southeast Asia doesn't feel that they have to choose, or that the United States is somehow unhinged and putting them in a very awkward position.

DEVIN STEWART: And if you were to speak to the new administration, how would you explain Southeast Asia's importance to American foreign policy?

DEREK MITCHELL: Number one is they are a huge market for our goods. They are a huge destination for our investment. They are one of the top three or five of the markets in the world, with 600 million people and billions in investment. It supports 3 million American jobs, something along those lines. Just on a purely economic front, stability of this region, our continued engagement, and confidence in the United States, are going to be essential.

They do have Muslim-majority countries who should be allies of ours in the fight against whatever radicalism still exists out there. Even those who are not Muslim majority are allies in the fight against radicalism.

Some of these areas are critical sea lanes for ourselves and our allies for our trade and our security.

In Southeast Asia, including Myanmar, you have questions of health, of drug-resistant malaria, the epicenter of that, of tuberculosis; things that if we don't address—drugs, trafficking, and human trafficking—these are all things that don't stay within borders and can affect American security if we're not careful. If we can simply maintain our engagement in the region, try to keep it away from those who want to tweet about it, and just leave it to the managers and people that understand the importance of stability and predictability, and not the paramount importance of disruption—I know that Asians do not like disruption of any kind—I think that is how I would try to convince them why the United States must continue as we have.

I would also say it's important for us to show up if we can. There is a question whether this current president will be anything like the previous president in terms of feeling that he needs to show up.

If you want to deal with China, if there is a concern about China, my advice is to get Southeast Asia right, and deal with these countries forthrightly and thoughtfully and sensitively, and that is a better way of dealing with China than simply having a brash attitude toward Beijing itself.

DEVIN STEWART: Certainly. Many analysts have warned about the possibility of a conflict between the United States and China. Some people have called it "impending." Is this something that worries you? And, if not, what does worry you about the region?

DEREK MITCHELL: It worries me some. I am not thinking it's going to happen tomorrow. We have the early days of an administration with a small cadre in the Oval Office driving things, and one hopes that over time that will ease a bit. Backing into conflict of whatever kind—whether it's a trade conflict, or a hot conflict on the high seas, the South China Sea, or over the East China Sea—I don't think it's in China's interest to have a conflict. I don't think it is in our interest to have a conflict. I think there are enough folks who want to avoid that kind of thing, so I'm not worried about that per se.

I am most worried, frankly, about the fact that in Asia the psychology of balance, the psychology toward American presence, has always been very sensitive about whether we're too hostile or too disengaged. And I'm worried that the concern about American commitment, American staying power, and American predictability is going to be harmed, and I hope not irreparably harmed, by an erratic foreign policy, one that does not have insight into the ways of the Asia-Pacific.

I would really urge Asians to be patient, that it is a very difficult, very uncertain moment; that the White House is going to have an important voice. It is a face of the country, but it is not the only voice and not the predominant face, I hope that people understand about us. There are a lot of folks back here who are around and waiting for the moment, hopefully, when this moment passes, to reassert ourselves, and hope Asians don't make any rash judgement simply based on a Trump factor, because that is not really where America is at its heart.

DEVIN STEWART: Derek Mitchell, former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, thank you very much for your insights today.

DEREK MITCHELL: Thank you, Devin.

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