The United States ended a decades-long era of isolation toward Burma when it restored full diplomatic relations about three years ago. Since that time, an ambassador was appointed for the first time since 1990, long-standing economic sanctions were eased and legislation has been amended to allow for more humanitarian aid and limited military engagement.
A central figure in implementing those policies, Scot Marciel serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of East Asian and Pacific Affairs in Washington, DC, a position he began in 2013 after three years as the US Ambassador to Indonesia. During a recent visit to Burma, Marciel spoke with The Irrawaddy about the state of relations between the White House and Naypyidaw, and the future of US-Burma policy.
Please tell us a bit about your trip, what you did and where you went.
I’m responsible for Southeast Asia at the State Department. So I travel a lot to the region, regularly, all of the countries in Southeast Asia, just to see what’s going on, because I work on the policy back at home.
We were up in Naypyidaw on Wednesday, mostly meeting government officials and parliamentarians. Then we went out to Shan State. For me it’s useful—you know, usually it’s just Yangon [Rangoon] and Naypyidaw—it’s useful just to get out. It’s like going to Washington and thinking that you know the United States. So it’s useful to get out and see a place. And the ambassador wanted to get out and look at a couple of projects, USAID [United States Agency for International Development]projects. We were in Taunggyi, and [some areas] outside of Taunggyi.
You served as the US ambassador to Indonesia from 2010 to 2013. How has that informed your long-term vision for Burma?
Well, first, they’re obviously very different places. There are a few parallels that we’re thinking about, for example, the democratic transformation, the movement of the military out of politics, dealing with separatism. I wouldn’t read too much into it. I wouldn’t say, therefore, do exactly what Indonesia did. You can see some things that worked and some things that didn’t.
Some Burma policy analysts have been critical of the United States’ early lifting of sanctions. Has the removal of sanctions been successful?
The way we look at it from the administration point of view is that we know what this place was like from 1962 on, for 60 years. When there was an opening, an opportunity for this country to move in a better direction, we thought it was important to do all that we could to encourage that. That’s been our policy from day one. In a response to positive developments here—significant positive developments here—we waived a number of the sanctions, which I think was absolutely the right thing to do.
In light of Burma’s stalled peace process, recent allegations against the Burma Army and a series of attacks on ethnic minority rebels, particularly in Kachin State, how does the United States counter the argument that military-to-military engagement is premature and perhaps even dangerous?
Well, I would say two things: First, the peace process is obviously critically important to the success of this country and something that we very much support. So we’ve continually urged the government and all the players to, even when you have incidents, to look into those incidents and investigate them, and try to prevent them from happening. But also to keep the talks going.
On the mil-to-mil side, the truth is there’s very little happening in the US military relationship with Myanmar [Burma]. There seems to be some perception that there’s a lot, but there’s a very minimal amount happening, and whatever is happening is designed to try to encourage reform within the military, to help the Burmese military become more appropriate for a democratic country.
I know it’s very early in the engagement, but is there any sign of progress on that front?
I don’t know, to be perfectly honest. I think the way I would put it is that it’s going to be driven mostly by what happens internally. We think that a certain amount of engagement, the right type of engagement—like courses on civilian control of the military and international rules on human rights—can play a helpful role as part of a larger process of encouraging reform within the military. I wouldn’t exaggerate it, I wouldn’t say that a few courses suddenly brings about a dramatic transformation; it’s meant to contribute. But the main point is that it’s a very small amount that’s going on, it’s not a significant mil-to-mil relationship.
There was an incident in northern Shan State a few weeks ago [in reference to the deaths and possible rape of two young women in an area reportedly occupied by the Burma Army, into which a government-led investigation is still ongoing]. A military-owned newspaper said the Army was not involved and that anybody who claimed otherwise [following the investigation] could face legal action. Could you comment on that?
Sure. First of all, whether here or elsewhere, impunity is not a good thing and accountability is essential. That’s a message we push in the region in general, and certainly here. In terms of this particular horrific attack, we have called [for] and stressed the importance of a credible, transparent investigation that results in justice. We have done that as recently as Wednesday with the government in Naypyidaw. It’s important, and it’s important not because America is asking for it, but because it’s the right thing to do. But also, it’s essential for beginning to build some trust. It’s part of the peace process, it’s part of the effort of moving forward. You’ve got to have trust, and to do that you’ve got to have some sense of accountability and justice.
When you have these discussions with the government about credible investigations, how are they responding?
I don’t want to speak on behalf of the government, but I think the people we spoke with certainly indicated that they recognize that. I won’t make any predictions about what will happen, but they certainly listened and took the point.
Moving back to the region more generally, in light of Thailand’s continuation of martial law, what role do you expect Burma to play as an American partner in Southeast Asia over the coming years?
Whatever happens in Thailand—and we hope, certainly, that Thailand moves back to democracy as quickly as possible—but either way our hope is that we can build a good, solid partnership with this country. Working together on health and economics and regional issues, you name it.
That said, what is at stake in the upcoming elections? What happens if they aren’t held in 2015, for instance?
There’s a lot at stake, certainly, for the country. This process of reform over the last few years has created a tremendous opportunity, but there’s no question that there’s a huge amount of work still to do. The elections won’t finish that work, but I think credible elections, credible to the people of the country, are essential to begin building more trust and to give people throughout the country a sense that their voice counts, and gives them some faith in the process moving forward. So these elections are absolutely critical. There is no question that successful, credible elections, we would welcome, and would certainly make it easier for us to continue to build a relationship.
President Obama stressed the importance of timely elections, which seems to have become more of a priority than constitutional reform. Where does this fall in the list of priorities at this time?
First, I think we try to look at what the people of this country are asking for. [You could] argue that, as you build a democracy, it’s important to have a constitution that’s appropriate for a democracy. The president spoke to that. At this point elections look like they’re going to happen in November, maybe late October, so it’s critical to make those as successful as possible. So we’re not choosing between the two. I think what we see is elections with a pretty clear schedule, and it’s very important that those happen. Constitutional reform is on a different track. I don’t know when amendments may or may not be passed, before or after elections.
How is the US prepared to adjust its Burma policy in the event that the government doesn’t fulfill those promises of timely and fair elections, or if the military asserts more dominance over the government?
It’s really hard to answer that because there are a million different scenarios. As Burma moves forward, has successful elections, continues reform, moves on the peace process, all those sorts of things, that absolutely makes it easier for us to build on our relationship. To the extent that those things don’t happen, it makes it harder. Again, it’s hard to know because there are so many scenarios that could happen. I wouldn’t want to make a specific prediction.
Just one last question for you, Mr. Marciel. How would you characterize the policy views of Congress and the White House; do they share the same vision and benchmarks of success, or are they at odds?
The points I’m making are the administration’s position, and certainly reflect the White House’s views. Congress consists of a lot of different people, so there’s not a uniform view. I spent a lot of time talking to, particularly, staff in Congress, and I hear a lot of those views, as I know the ambassador does. So what I would say is that there’s a huge amount of interest in Congress, a lot of people hoping that things will head in a positive way. I think generally there has been support for our policy since the reforms began. There’s a lot of difference on the tactics, and how to respond to specific incidents, certainly, some differing views about how things are going, but I think a lot of interest overall in the success of the country.