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‘Deeper Change Brings Deeper Resistance’

US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski speaks about Burma’s transition, the 2015 elections, religious violence and military cooperation.

Tom Malinowski, United States Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, recently made his first visit to Burma, leading a delegation of senior officials to Rangoon, Naypyidaw, and Mon and Karen states from June 22-28. Formerly the Washington director of the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), Malinowski has long concerned himself with the rights situation and democracy movement in Burma, and he visited the country several times before.

The Irrawaddy’s Editor-in-Chief Aung Zaw recently interviewed the assistant secretary of state via email and asked what he thinks of the democratic transition, the 2015 elections, human rights issues and the ongoing media clamp down, as well as US-Burma military-to-military engagement and the US sanctioning of “crony” businessmen.

You were involved in Burma issues for many years and visited several times before working for HRW. Now you visited as a US official representing a government that is building its relations with Burma. How does it compare and what was your impression this time?

My first trips to Burma were in 1986 and 1987; after the 88 uprising, I also made several visits to the border areas, meeting the students who had fled to the jungle after seeing their friends gunned down in Rangoon and Mandalay, and the rebel groups holding out against the army there. So I have some perspective. I know how Burma was under absolute military dictatorship, and how far it has traveled.

I came to Burma to focus on the challenges of the present, and there are some very serious ones: The humanitarian crisis in [Arakan] State, the ongoing conflict in Kachin, the recent arrests of journalists, to name a few. But I also remember that virtually everyone I met who is now working for change—every activist, and journalist and parliamentarian—would have been considered a criminal just a few years ago. The freedom they have won is fragile and reversible, but it is real and must be fully secured.

This progress is first and foremost the work of the people of Burma, who sacrificed a great deal to bring it about. But on every visit, I have always been struck by the special role the United States has played— and that the people of Burma expect us to play—in supporting change.

As I see it, America’s current strong ties with the nation of Burma were forged years ago, in the days of military dictatorship, when we stood with what was then a popular but powerless democracy movement, even though our short term interests might have argued for an accommodation with those who had power. Now, fortunately, we are able to forge closer ties with the government of Burma as well, because the government is increasingly representative of the people.

In 2013, while at HRW, you said that Burma “becoming a democracy” is very different from saying that it “has become” one. In recent months, there has been growing concern over backsliding on reforms as inter-communal tensions continue, while activists are still being jailed and the government began a media clampdown. Are you concerned that the “becoming a democracy” phase is looking more difficult than expected?

The transition from absolute dictatorship to democracy has not proven more difficult than I personally expected. I expected it to be very hard. Burma has to transform its political and economic system, create a completely new mindset of governance, and build and support institutions, like an independent judiciary and free press, that haven’t existed for decades. It is doing this as part of an evolutionary, not revolutionary, process, which means that the old power structures coexist with the new ones. Naturally, there have been and will continue to be forces that resist this change.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski. (Photo: www.state.gov)
US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski. (Photo: www.state.gov)

I never thought that the release of political prisoners or holding of parliamentary elections made Burma an instant success story; by the same token, I don’t view the current setbacks as a sign that reform has failed. As I see it, the easiest work has mostly been done, and now the country is beginning to confront deeper challenges: how to change the Constitution and redefine the role of the military; how to end decades of conflict between the Burmese military and ethnic armed groups; how to guarantee in law the human rights that have been promised in name, whether to journalists or activists or farmers on their land. Deeper change brings deeper resistance, and the outcome is not foreordained.

The US began cooperation with the Burma Army in 2013, and pledged to limit training to human rights, law of conflict and natural disaster training. But the military is still fighting with some ethnic armed groups and has a fragile ceasefire with others. These groups worry that US training will strengthen the military’s hand in conflict areas. What is your response to those concerns?

I met with representatives of the ethnic nationalities during my trip, and before that in Washington, and some are indeed wary about the US taking further steps to engage with the military, especially while fighting and human rights violations continue. I assured them that none of the engagement we have carried out, and none we might contemplate in the current circumstances, involves teaching skills that could be applied in combat situations. Our engagements and exchanges are designed exclusively to encourage respect for human rights and the rule of law and a full transition to civilian control of the military.

Pursuant to our law and policy, we vet any potential training recipient, and would not train any military units for whom we have credible information of involvement in gross human rights violations in the past, unless the government is taking effective steps to bring those responsible to justice or has taken all necessary corrective steps.

Meanwhile, our message is that militaries are stronger and more respected in their societies when they take on fewer responsibilities, focusing on national defense, not on politics or the economy.

Do you believe this cooperation will contribute to a better, more respectable and professional Burmese military in the near future? Or is this just wishful thinking?

Our goals and expectations are modest. In 2013 and 2014, our Department of Defense conducted three introductory exchanges with Burmese military officials, judge advocate officers, and professional development staff. Those exchanges focused on human rights law and the law of armed conflict.  We have also offered short exchanges with a Department of Defense academic institute that offers workshops on issues such as rule of law and international law norms.

A much deeper military to military relationship is possible—in fact I would very much like to see it—but only if the conflict and serious human rights abuses end, and we see a demonstrated commitment to reform within a democratic system. Until then, we have sought dialogue to get to know each other better. The goal of these limited engagements is also to introduce new ideas into the Burmese military about the qualities of a professional military from an American perspective.

We believe that soldier-to-soldier conversations like this can have some impact on the thinking of the younger officers who will become the leaders of the military five or ten years from now, and thus promote future change.… But the key determinant of the future of Burma’s military will be the decisions its own leadership makes over the next few years.

Since 2012, inter-communal violence has been growing in Burma, with a rise in extremist Buddhists targeting Muslims. Many people believe that the attacks are organized and connected to domestic politics. While in Burma, how often did you raise this issue with the stakeholders, monks, ordinary people and activists that you met?

I raised this issue in virtually every meeting I had—with leaders from the Buddhist, Muslim and Christian communities in [Moulmein], with activists in Rangoon who have received death threats for speaking out against restrictions on women’s rights and religious freedoms, and with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and senior government and military officials in Naypyidaw. The exploitation of religious and racial differences for political ends is dangerous for democracy and, as we have repeatedly seen, threatens lives.

Whoever is behind the hate speech and violence, the effect—and possible intent—could be to turn the 2015 election into a referendum on religious and racial identity rather than democracy.

President Thein Sein spoke out strongly against these self-interested calls to violence. He called the events in Mandalay “the deliberate acts of a group or organization” and pledged to take “swift legal action against those participating in and promoting violence.” Burma’s friends, who want the country and its transition to succeed, hope that its people and political leaders will rally around this message and act on it.

This will require rejecting divisive legislation that restricts the ability to convert to another religion. It will also require implementing the government’s [Arakan] State Action plan, facilitating unimpeded humanitarian access, fully restoring humanitarian services, especially health services to all those in need in the state as the government has now promised, and reintegrating displaced Rohingya and other Muslims back into their communities.

What was your overall impression of government officials who you met on this visit, are they willing to reform?

In all my meetings with government and military officials we were able to discuss every issue, no matter how sensitive, openly and honestly. Even where we disagreed I felt that our conversations were constructive.

What was the key message you received from activists and ethnic groups and women’s groups when you met them? Do you feel that the country has hope because these people and former political prisoners are still active?

Absolutely—I agree that Burma has hope exactly because it is now benefiting from the talent and energy of people who were silenced, imprisoned or exiled in the past. The specific topics they raised varied depending on the group—from the need for legal reforms, to the peace process, to the dangers of damming Burma’s rivers. Land confiscations came up in almost every meeting—unless the government begins to tackle this problem, I fear it will drive social unrest as Burma opens its economy.

Overall, groups expressed a combination of cautious hope and healthy skepticism, and asked the United States to keep supporting them and encouraging their government further along the path of reform.

You also met the Chairman of the Union Election Commission Tin Aye (a former junta general). His commission is trying to impose strict rules and regulations ahead of the 2015 election, and there are concerns it may try to prevent the opposition party (NLD) and ethnic parties from winning a majority. What was your message to him on this issue?

I told the UEC Chairman that next year’s vote will be the most watched event in the country’s modern history. I also expressed concern about regulations that restrict campaigning, and continued arrests of journalists and peaceful demonstrators. The United States will support a transparent, inclusive and credible electoral process that reflects the will of Burma’s people. Our interest in that process starts now, and will run not just until election day, but as votes are tabulated, results finalized and a new government takes over in March 2016.

What will the US do if the government decides to postpone the election, or when it is not free and fair? What tools does US government have to prevent that from happening, would it reinstate sanctions?

As we’ve made clear, the US relationship with Burma can move forward, as we hope, or backward, depending on what happens in the country. But the expectations of the Burmese people are the best guarantee that the elections proceed next year in a credible, transparent way.

You spent a day in Rangoon meeting with several US blacklisted Burmese businessmen. The meetings laid out guidelines that could lead to their removal from the Specially Designated Nationals list. What sort of changes do they need implement to be removed from the list?

We offered meetings with all members of the Burmese business community currently on the U.S. Specially Designated National (SDN) List – the so-called “cronies”—and many of them accepted. We explained that removal from the SDN list is an administrative—not a political—process managed by the United States Treasury Department in which petitioners must submit proof of fundamental behavior change. We want SDNs to change their behavior and not stand in the way of Burma’s transition. We will look to see SDNs sever business ties with the military, respect human rights, including by avoiding involvement in land seizures, and respect civilian rule.
One good way to demonstrate these things would be to conduct a credible, independent audit of all business holdings, plus a credible, independent social and environmental impact assessment of their operations. We also made clear that donations to charity, while welcome, would not be taken into consideration—for this purpose, what’s important is not how they spend their money but how they make their money.

In recent months, the government has increased threats and arrests of journalists, and the president has spoken out strongly against the media. Are you concerned about a rolling back on media freedom?

Yes, we are very concerned about the recent prosecutions of journalists. Burma has made huge progress in building respect for a free media, and it would be a great setback for the country if that progress were reversed.

We also recognize that there is a lot of irresponsible journalism in Burma, which is not surprising in such a new media environment. But democracies don’t address that problem by arresting journalists; they do so by establishing a code and culture of journalistic ethics.

We hope that the government will resolve these recent cases as it has others when people were arrested for non-violent expression, and that the laws under which journalists have been prosecuted will be reformed.

There are some international analysts who have argued that the oppressed Burmese people need to patient, and that managing people’s expectations is one of the most important things during the democratic transition. What do you think of this position?

The proponents of democracy in Burma didn’t risk their lives, or spend 20 years in prison or exile, only to be told to lower their standards—to settle for ‘good enough.’ My own expectations are tempered by a sense of how far Burma has had to travel just to get to this point, and how hard it is for any country to build a democratic, rule of law state. But that must and will remain the goal of Burma’s friends in the international community. We should see the high expectations of the people of Burma as an asset, a motivator, and driver of change—not the problem.