The people of Burma made history on Nov. 8, when they took to the polls to select the country’s new leadership. Lauded as the country’s freest and fairest in a quarter century, the election resulted in a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD)—the opposition party led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi—signaling the electorate’s unambiguous desire for change after decades of authoritarian rule.
Dubbed “the acid test” of Burma’s reform effort, the vote’s passing grade and subsequent smooth transfer of power will have far-reaching impacts among the international community, which has welcomed the former hermit state back into the global fold—pending further progress. The United States, for its part, was among the Western powers to suspend some sanctions and encourage reform, though US President Barack Obama has made clear that Burma’s transition is not yet complete.
Daniel Russel, the United States’ top diplomat in East Asia and the Pacific, wrapped up a post-election visit to Burma on Tuesday, a follow-up to his pre-poll trip in September. Following two days of talks with civil society, teashop-goers, government officials and the incoming leadership, Russel sat down with The Irrawaddy to discuss the views of the White House and the future of US-Burma relations.
Welcome back, Mr. Russel. Please tell us a bit about the purpose of your visit.
I met with some different civil society groups and representatives while I was here, I got here yesterday [Monday], and today in Naypyidaw I met with the foreign affairs minister, the home affairs minister, the presidential minister Soe Thane, the commander-in-chief [Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing], President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, I think that’s everybody.
I had been at APEC and the Asean summits in Manila and Kuala Lumpur with the President [Barack Obama] and I had worked for him in the White House during the period when we formulated our Burma policy, so we had an extensive chance to talk. He wanted me to come here, of course to consult with Ambassador [Derek] Mitchell, and also to make an assessment about what seems to be going on, to talk to and to probe the key players as to what their intentions and plans are.
Also to convey our views—to convey his views—which I did, and at the top of the list of my messages from Washington, from the president, was our expectation or insistence that all parties, including the military, must respect the will of the voters. I made that very clear. I also urged them to come together in the proverbial morning after the election, and put their differences behind them in the interests of the country, and make a concerted effort not only to have dialogue, but to make common cause and to promote reconciliation and a political consensus around bridging differences.
I made very clear that, in the first instance, through the transition, but more broadly as a new government takes power and begins to tackle the problems ahead, that the United States was squarely on their side; that we would support and assist in every way that we can so that there is a smooth and peaceful transition, and that the new government has the wherewithal to meet the pretty formidable challenges that Burma faces.
As I said, a big part of why I came here was to form an assessment of what happened; how did things go, what we can expect now. And it’s still very much a work in progress. Kind of waiting to exhale, hoping that things go well and that it all ends well, and careful not to be unduly optimistic or romantic. There’s abundant reason for skepticism…
About the transfer of power?
Well, where things stand and what’s going to come next. But even just looking at the election itself, the indications are that the election was overall well-managed and was peaceful. That’s good news. The outcome is decisive, and the scenario which many of us worried about, in which the NLD wins but only by a certain number of seats—and then there are questions, and then the backroom deal-making ensues—that didn’t materialize. And hey, that’s good news.
The USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party] and President Thein Sein have gone firmly on record in saying that they are committed to ensuring a smooth handover of power to the NLD. That’s good news. And, the military, in the person of Min Aung Hlaing, has said ‘We will respect the outcome.’ That’s very good news.
So some quite encouraging signs, but all that said, now comes the hard part. Because, number one, transitions are hard in the best of circumstances—and these ain’t the best of circumstances. Number two, there are many serious problems that are awaiting a new government. Some of them are problems that the current government has tried to tackle and made some headway, some of them are problems that the current government felt were too difficult. In any case—whether it was human rights, political prisoners, Rakhine [also called Arakan] State and the treatment of the Rohingya minority; whether it’s ethnic conflict and the struggle to implement or achieve a broad-based and inclusive national ceasefire and begin a political reconciliation process; or whether it’s a host of economic challenges that the country faces, or an education deficit—the fact of the matter is that a new government faces some pretty daunting challenges.
All that said, the move toward democratic governance and the commitment to reform guarantees Burma the support and the best wishes of the American people and the American government. I made it very clear to Aung San Suu Kyi and to others that she and the Burmese people can count on the United States.
I also should mention that I brought with me the condolences of the president and the American people in light of the awful natural disaster in Kachin State that killed so many mine workers.
Moving on to some more questions, Aung San Suu Kyi has been clear that she will be ‘above the president,’ as she herself is barred from the job. How does the United States intend to work with what’s now being referred to as a ‘puppet president,’ and are you concerned that this might limit your access to the person who is actually making decisions?
It still remains to be seen what the exact formula will be for governance in Burma. There’s a pretty complicated system of selecting leaders, and we just don’t know yet who is going to wind up where. But that’s not a concern to us. Aung San Suu Kyi is decisively the leader of the NLD. The NLD decisively won the election and garnered an absolute majority in the Parliament.
The United States is never going to have a problem dealing with her or dealing with her duly constituted representatives.”
There are any number of arrangements in government among countries, from kings, sultans, presidents, prime ministers, minister mentors, secretary generals and the like. Not that I’m holding up China as an example, but Deng Xiaoping seemed to do a pretty good job of holding up power without much by way of titles. I don’t know what Aung San Suu Kyi’s title ultimately will be, but as the head of a party that won so decisively in what is shaping up to be seen as a free and fair election, the United States is never going to have a problem dealing with her or dealing with her duly constituted representatives.
President Obama has stressed the importance of a peaceful transfer of power. Ongoing conflict in Shan and Kachin states has recently displaced thousands of civilians. Does the United States view Burma’s civil conflict as a separate issue from the political handover, and what exactly qualifies as a peaceful transition period?
Well the ethnic conflicts, which have endured for decades, are part and parcel of the inheritance that the new government will face. We, of course, have expressed our hope that the election and the political transition will not be marred by violence or the threat of violence. But the fighting in Kachin and in Shan states is part of an ongoing conflict or civil war. That said, it is a concern to us that the fighting is underway, that civilian populations are at serious risk, and that the pressure on some of the ethnic groups could undermine the partial national ceasefire that’s been achieved and could represent an obstacle to progress in resolving the ethnic conflict.
I met with the C-in-C and urged that the military show restraint at this sensitive time. I encouraged him to work toward an inclusive and peaceful approach, and I asked that the welfare of the civilians in the region be protected to the maximum extent.
Building on that, I think here there’s some concern that Suu Kyi and the NLD government won’t actually be able to control the military. What do you see as the necessary steps to bringing the military under civilian control and how long do you think that could take?
Well it’s, in most countries, an incremental process. We as Americans are committed to the principle of civilian control of the military. But in Burma, after five decades of military rule, it will clearly take a determined effort—not only by the voters and not only by the new government but also by the Tatmadaw, the military.
There is a case to be made that the reforms that we’ve witnessed over the last four—soon to be five—years here in Burma couldn’t have occurred without the concurrence, or at least the tacit concurrence, of the military. That tends to give some weight to the statements by the commander-in-chief that the Burmese military wants to see reform; that the Burmese military is committed to a stable, unified and prosperous Burma. Burma won’t be stable, unified or prosperous unless the whole country pulls together. The experiment over the last five decades shows that unity can’t be achieved through the barrel of a gun.
Like the United States, Burma is a union. It’s a diverse union formed among many different ethnic groups and cultures and religions. There has to be a unifying principle, and it is clear to me from the overwhelming results of the election that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have tapped into a common aspiration among the Burmese people. So it is very much our hope that the military will support that transition and, as so many countries have done, move to professionalize themselves as soldiers and leave the business of governance to the political leaders.
This will require some constitutional reform, though, won’t it?
Yes, the Constitution now builds in certain advantages and powers to the military that are inconsistent with the basic principle of ‘one man, one vote’ and of civilian rule. But there is a lot of progress that can be made in promoting civilian-military cooperation and an inclusive political system, even without constitutional change.
Given the success of the election, there’s an expectation that remaining US sanctions could be lifted soon. Could you explain which restrictions remain and what you expect to change in the coming months or year, for example, will sanctions be lifted for state-owned enterprises that are controlled by the military?
It’s too soon to make any judgments about what changes are warranted to US sanctions programs. First things first. What we want to see now is a serious dialogue between Aung San Suu Kyi, Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing that moves in the direction of full cooperation to ensure a smooth transition. We then want to see the launch of a new government that has the support of the military and other stakeholders. We’re always looking at policy, including our sanctions regime, and asking ourselves whether it’s appropriate to our objectives and priorities. We don’t want to get in our own way; we want to ensure that the purpose of the sanctions is being met, and that there aren’t unintended negative consequences from our policies that inhibit the kind of reform or economic growth that we want to promote.
Let’s see what the coming months bring. When the US government, on review, judges that changes to our sanctions policy are warranted, we will in the first instance consult with Congress—the author of most of the sanctions. But secondly we’ll consult with the newly elected civilian authorities here, because it’s important that our policies reflect and complement the priorities and the strategies that the new civilian government will apply in order to advance Burma’s interests in economic development, good governance, human rights, and in the protection of the natural resources which, in the past, have been pillaged and stolen.
You recently traveled to Malaysia and the Philippines with President Obama, and by now we’ve all seen photographs of the president visiting a refugee center in Malaysia, where he met with some Rohingya Muslims who fled Burma earlier this year. At the height of the crisis, Deputy Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken called on the Burmese government to address the root causes of the exodus. We’d like to know what the United States is doing here or in the region to preempt a possible repeat of this year’s migrant and refugee crisis.
Our efforts follow several different lines. One, we work through international organizations like the IOM and UNHCR. Two, we are engaged in multilateral diplomatic efforts with Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to ensure that there is a coordinated effort to get at smuggling rings and to block the criminal syndicates that foster human smuggling and human trafficking.
We also are addressing the issues on a bilateral basis with the government of Burma, and we are—as a government and through international NGOs—supporting efforts to bring humanitarian assistance to the disadvantaged people in Rakhine State. Now, it is my view that there is no one single easy answer to the problems there, and that the root causes include a combination of social, economic, religious and historical problems that don’t yield to easy solutions. However, the fundamental premise that all human life is precious needs to guide the behavior of all governments. And the burden is on governments in the region to act quickly to save lives and to prevent a recurrence of the really appalling deaths and other tragedies that befell those—both from Rakhine State and from Bangladesh—who sought, on rickety boats, to cross the Andaman Sea to either escape repression or to find employment in Malaysia or other countries.
It’s worth noting that the refugee center that President Obama went to—it was a very moving experience, I went with him—included people from a variety of different countries. There was no coded message there. This is a global problem, and President Obama couldn’t have been clearer: that the United States also needs to honor both our traditions of sanctuary and of basic human rights in offering shelter and aid to migrants, regardless of their origin, regardless of their ethnicity or their religion.