Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss Myanmar and its international diplomacy. The diplomatic affairs of a country are critically important for its political, economic and social improvement. Myanmar has faced a lot challenges on the diplomatic front because of its rulers over the past five decades. Though it was expected that Myanmar’s international diplomatic relations would recover after the elected National League for Democracy [NLD] government came to power, the conflict in Rakhine State last year and its consequences have reversed the country’s political transition and diplomatic relations. Political analyst Dr. Yan Myo Thein and human rights activist Cheery Zahau will join me to discuss how the NLD government can salvage diplomatic relations.
One of the problems facing our country is diplomacy. As I’ve said, it was thought that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government would be able to foster diplomatic relations, but the Rakhine issue has taken [Myanmar’s] relations with the international community almost to the lowest level. The international community has blamed [the government] for human right violations and its handling of the issue. Ko Yan Myo Thein, what is your assessment of it?
Yan Myo Thein: As you have discussed, international diplomacy is quite weak under the government led by President U Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We are in a transition, but there is still no sweeping institutional change in foreign relations. For example, most of the staff members at the Foreign Ministry are bureaucrats. And almost two-thirds of the ambassadors are retired military officers. Ambassadors play the role of [a football team’s] strikers in international diplomacy. They will be able to respond, discuss, represent their country on the front line. But the institution is weak. Another weak point is we are going with total defense in facing the international community. Sometimes it is really difficult to know exactly what is happening on the ground in areas of war and conflict. Under such circumstances there may be extrajudicial actions. When there are reports and allegations about those cases, the government should, rather than denying those cases, investigate and find out the truth. With such an approach, its relations with international countries would be better, I think.
KZM: So it is about its cooperation with international countries. Myanmar denied the UN human rights envoy access to the country. Again, it also rejected the investigation mission demanded by the UN and other western countries into the Rakhine issue. Our country has been quite weak in international relations. While we call our country the Golden Land, we were called a weak state and a failed state because of continuous human rights problems associated with the Tatmadaw government. We were also called a rouge and a pariah state, and a thuggish state, and [a member of the] Axis of Evil by the US along with Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Following the outbreak of the Rakhine issue under the NLD government, they call us a country of rising nationalism. Ma Cheery, how do you assess it?
Cheery Zahau: The international relations landscape changed a lot before and after the outbreak of World War II and the emergence of the UN. The UN was established for the sake of people and democracy. Myanmar is one of the founding members. The UN has adopted norms, and there are descriptions, as Ko Kyaw Zwa Moe has mentioned, for countries that don’t meet those norms. Our country has continuously ignored those norms of the international community, especially the norms for democratization and for the political and civil rights of the country. That’s why the international community has given the country bad names. The international community had pinned very high hopes on the NLD government, because people expected that Myanmar would then be on the right path to democracy and that political and fundamental rights would be guaranteed. But then over the past two years there was not only the Rakhine issue, but also other issues such as the arrest of journalists, media censorship and the arrest of human rights activists. The world knows that. The international community is concerned that political and civil rights are being restricted more and more. So the perception of the international community is that Myanmar does not meet those norms. That perception is further reinforced by the Rakhine issue. Villages were reduced to ashes there. There are satellite images of them. We can’t deny there was no arson. The international community is watching and we, especially those in Naypyitaw, can’t turn a blind eye to it. That’s why the international community is blaming us. Again, the world has seen serious problems since 2012. War is still going on in Syria, and problems still exist in Yemen. South Sudan and North Korea also have problems. Richer countries, especially in Europe, have been suffering the consequences of those crises. They are faced with a refugee crisis, and while they have a big burden to handle, the crisis in our country has sent more than 600,000 people to the neighboring country. Who will feed them? Bangladesh or our country? While those who earned their living from farming and fishing were forced to leave, the world already had crises, so the entire world got angry. To the international community it seems that our country, which has never met those norms, has worsened the crises. So the international community has a negative view of us.
KZM: Ma Cheery spoke about causes and effects. But Ko Yan Myo Thein, let’s analyze the NLD’s policy and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s attitude toward international relations. According to its election manifesto, the policy of the NLD is to promote friendship with the world’s countries with an active, independent and non-aligned foreign policy, and to stand firmly by the cause of genuine democracy in handling issues arising from engagement with the countries of the world. This is one of the points of the NLD’s policy. As Ma Cheery pointed out, the whole world has blamed this country for not adhering to democratic norms in the past. On Monday, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about this issue [at the Myanmar Development Effectiveness Roundtable]. Ko Yan Myo Thein, how can you differentiate between her foreign policy and that of her government?
YMT: I think the NLD government believes it is critically important to cooperate with the international community on the current democratization of the country. She also spoke about expanding cooperation with the international community at the roundtable. But there are restrictions, I think. There are tough restrictions on the functions of the government and the Parliament because of the 2008 Constitution. In my view, no matter how tough the restrictions are, the leaders of the country, including the state counselor, should try to negotiate with the Tatmadaw leaders to be able to stabilize the democratization of the country. The support and trust of Western countries, including the USA and EU, are very important for our democratization process to gain momentum. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has received that support and trust for many years. And the country needs support and trust now. And we need to utilize that support and trust effectively and wisely. Though the government’s policy is to implement an active and independent foreign policy, that policy has restrictions, I think. It appears that our foreign policy always has to take our neighbor China into consideration. It is necessary to build broad trust and understanding between internal forces such as the government, Parliament, political parties, Tatmadaw and ethnic groups. In solving the Rakhine issue, the government has apparently neglected Arakanese lawmakers of the Arakan National Party elected by Rakhine people. Elected ANP lawmakers should participate in solving the issue. It is important to establish a practice in which all can find solutions for similar problems through negotiation.
KZM: Speaking of China’s foreign policy toward Myanmar and Myanmar’s foreign policy toward China, it seems that Myanmar’s government, even the NLD government, has to seek China’s help when it has problems with Western countries over those norms. The entire social infrastructure of our country is deteriorating. Frankly speaking, we will need the support of Western and other countries that meet those norms in order to rebuild that infrastructure. Now, not only China, but also Russia protects us. We need to cooperate with them as they [the Chinese] are neighbors. But to build genuine democracy and a good society in the long run, Western countries can help a lot more than China and Russia. Ma Cheery Zahau, what do you think?
CZ: Our country is very weak in researching how to deal with each country. China has done very thorough research. It has researched even the small details of how to deal with our country. It has even researched the preferences of individual leaders. Our country has studied nothing about other countries. The leaders of our country apparently receive guests without preparation and pay visits without preparation.
KZM: They fail to do homework.
CZ: Yes, they don’t do homework. They can’t practice a foreign policy like that. I don’t mean I oppose establishing ties with China; Myanmar has to maintain ties with China. But at the same time, it must be clear about the purpose of maintaining ties. For expediting democratization or what? To promote democracy and civil rights in the society, maintaining ties with China won’t work. We can’t rely on it for that. But we must cooperate with it in other sectors like trade. A lot of institutional study is needed on how to deal with other countries — for example with ASEAN — and on what benefits we can get, and what they can give and what we can give. Our country has yet to do such research. As the government has no clear direction, it doesn’t know what message to send the USA and what message to send the EU. It appears that our country starts to formulate a response only after those countries point out the problem. As a result, we don’t have a say in the international community. Maintaining ties with neighbors like China, Russia and ASEAN is inevitable. But from a security point of view, we buy weapons from Russia and China. They know all our military strengths as well as the technology we use. How can we be safe when our neighbors know all our possessions? And they will surely not look on us [highly]. So if we are to find other friends, we have to please them. We have to try to meet democracy and human rights norms to win those friends. We have to mend ourselves if we want to get good friends. This is the requirement we have to fulfill.
KZM: This is the weak point of Myanmar and the government. From the international community’s point of view, Myanmar is an important country. Thinking about why the international community should support and have an interest in Myanmar, I found four or five factors. First, Myanmar has a strategic geopolitical position. It lies between China and India and is a member of ASEAN. The Malacca Straits are important for trade between the Middle East and East Asian countries. And Myanmar is rich in natural resources. And talking of public sentiment, people have fought for the cause of democracy for years. The country was under dictatorship for around 50 years and was in isolation for around 30 years. It was a British colony for around 100 years. To what extent should the international community have expectations of such a country?
YMT: My view is that the majority of our people are poor. The consequence of poverty is a decline in educational standards. Because of low education levels and severe poverty, people have to live a hand-to-mouth existence and do not bother to care about other issues. So both the international community and our government should educate the people, for example about fundamental rights, human rights and what the international community is about. There is a need for such education on a wide scale among the people. Another thing is that our people were ruled by various forms of dictatorship since 1962, so they have psychological trauma. As a result, I think, they will always be worried about something and have doubts. And they also have nationalism, or a nationalistic mindset, and psychological trauma has made that nationalistic mindset extreme. The international community should think about this, I think. So should the government, Parliament, the Tatmadaw and the educated. They should take these into serious consideration and think about how to heal them.
KZM: The international community has a lot of interests in Myanmar. The USA gained credit when Myanmar started democratizing. They said the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar had changed because of their engagement policy. What do you want to suggest to them? Myanmar is a fragile country. The government doesn’t have absolute power. The Constitution provides a large space for the Tatmadaw. Under such circumstances, what do you want to suggest to the international community?
CZ: Before making any suggestions, the point I would like to make is that our country holds a strategic geopolitical position. We have to sell the benefits of establishing ties with us. Our country is not good at marketing. But the image we are selling to the international community now is that there are human rights violations and that the civil war has not ended. We should design a good plan to present our good points and resources. The democracy the people aspire to will go from strength to strength if we maintain ties with Western countries. The international community, especially the USA, should not ignore us, but continuously engage with us. By engagement I don’t mean selling weapons to the Tatmadaw and ignoring human rights. But it should continuously engage with all the stakeholders — the NLD government, ethnic groups, political organizations and civil society. CSOs and the media are the key players in the burgeoning of democracy. The government may lose the election if it doesn’t perform well. Then another government will take office. It is the media and civil society that will stay. Therefore, Western countries need to engage more with the media and civil society.
KZM: Ko Yan Myo Thein, what is your suggestion for the NLD government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to improve their diplomatic maneuvers?
YMT: There is a need to review the existing institution and policies in practice. There is a need to review their strengths and weaknesses. If the review is carried out promptly — and the necessary reforms can be made to the institution, policies and procedures — we will be able to breathe easy on the international stage in the next two years.
KZM: But what if the old guard is not changed while old policies are changed?
YMT: In my view, institutional reform should include changes in both policy and in people.
KMZ: You mean there is no problem if old personnel have changed their mindset?
YMT: Yes. But then, around two-thirds of ambassadors are retired military officers. For example, Myanmar’s ambassador to the UK. Our relations with the UK are very important. But what if the ambassador there is a retired military officer? Again, if we want to make some changes to ties with China, the ambassador should be a civilian ambassador with a political background. Only then will our reforms have greater effect in the international community.
CZ: It is very important that the right people are in the right places.
KZM: Thank you for your contributions!