Clear Political Plan Would Help Myanmar Resistance’s Cause: Ex-US Ambassador

By Aung Zaw 2 January 2023

Scot Marciel served as US ambassador to Myanmar from 2016 to 2020 and is now Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, affiliated with the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. He recently spoke with The Irrawaddy’s editor-in-chief Aung Zaw about new US legislation authorizing nonlethal assistance for the Myanmar resistance, as well as efforts to isolate the Myanmar junta internationally and his outlook for the crisis-torn country for 2023, among other topics.

AUNG ZAW: 2023 is going to be a tough year for Myanmar and the Myanmar people. The regime is facing a very resilient and growing resistance on different fronts. We had some surprising news last week. The 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was passed by the US Congress; it authorizes support for civil society and political prisoners in Myanmar and significantly it mentions the names of the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), the civilian National Unity Government (NUG) and its armed wing, the People’s Defense Force (PDF). It provides nonlethal assistance to support the resistance and political groups in Myanmar. So how do you see that bill and how is it going to work in the Myanmar landscape?

SCOT MARCIEL: It’s important to remember that a lot of what the bill does is to authorize things, like funding, for example, which is great, but it doesn’t actually appropriate any money. So it’s mostly sending a strong message from Congress both to the people of Myanmar but also to the Biden administration that they want a bolder approach, a more active approach. My sense is that the Biden administration is moving that way anyway, so this bill will encourage the administration to go down the path it has been going but maybe faster.

On the ground resistance groups and opposition groups are very excited. Their spirit has been strengthened somehow. They welcome the bill. Myanmar people generally and opposition and democratic forces are always in favor of the US doing more. The regime responded quite strongly. They said it was a violation of sovereignty and interference in internal affairs. So how do you see this “nonlethal assistance”?

I don’t think we know yet exactly what’s going to happen. As I said the bill authorizes funding, but it’s a separate question of whether money will be appropriated for it and if so how the Biden administration would use it. But certainly there could be money for education, health care—again, not to the junta, but to pro-democracy forces, whether to the NUG or possibly through ethnic armed groups. I mean, we’ve [earlier] provided assistance for example to the Karen health department, even when I was there [as ambassador], so there’s more that could be done, even possibly for efforts at governance. We’ll have to see what the Biden administration decides to do.

The legislation mentions the NUG, PDFs, and EAOs.

Right. Again, we’ll have to see what the Biden administration decides to do with that authorization. But certainly it sends the message that Congress believes that the administration should be providing funding to those organizations. One important factor would be that for anywhere in the world the US has pretty high standards of accountability for the money. I don’t mean accountability in the sense of human rights. Any organization that the US government provides assistance to would need to show that it’s spending the money the way it says it is, and that the money’s not going to other places.

Last week there was interesting news about the UN Security Council resolution on Myanmar. For the first time in decades they’re calling for the release of all political prisoners, including State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint, and to cease hostilities immediately and aggression towards the population. So it expressed deep concern, but what is next? What are the actions that should follow?

I was surprised, actually, to see the resolution. Whenever you try to get a Security Council resolution you have to make compromises to avoid the vetoes. So I’m sure that some wanted even stronger language but in the negotiations they had to soften it. Still, I think the Resolution is a very strong symbolic message of support for democracy and the resistance. And a very strong message—frankly, endorsed by Russia and China—to the junta that it’s not gaining support and may even be losing support. I would keep my expectations low about what to expect as a follow-up, just because, again, with the Security Council everything has to be negotiated. And if Russia or China or anyone else disagrees they can stop it. Particularly Russia and China because they have veto power.

It’s interesting to see that China and Russia did not support the regime this time. India also. As we’re speaking, a newly appointed Chinese special envoy is reportedly flying in to Myanmar to meet with the regime. China has a lot at stake in Myanmar’s stability, with investments, its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure projects. China has been condemned for its support of the regime and the military. Whatever the US is doing China will be very cautious about, if not oppose. What do you think about what China is doing? And Russia has been the key country since the coup in terms of supporting the Myanmar military with hardware. The regime’s Air Force uses Russian jet fighters and helicopters to bomb the population and to go after resistance forces. So there are two major countries that keep supporting the regime.   

My sense is that China is ultimately being quite pragmatic. It was happy to work with the old military regime as you recall, but then also perfectly happy to work with the NLD [National League for Democracy] government, with which it had good relations. And I assume it is working with the junta because the junta at least ostensibly has power. But I don’t think there’s any deep attachment or loyalty there. I think if the various forces aligned against the military were able to push the military out of power, China would be happy to work with those forces in government. And it’s important that we make it very clear that this is not a US-China issue. [This] is an internal Myanmar issue and we don’t want to turn it into a US-China matter. That’s part of the reason maybe for some caution on the US side. It is a fear that doing too much might provoke China into backing the junta even more strongly and then it becomes a US-China issue, which it should not be and which it is not.

Russia has fewer interests in Myanmar than China. I think [Russian President Vladimir] Putin likes to make mischief anywhere he can and gain influence anywhere he can. And in this case sell weapons and make some money. But I don’t think again there’s any deep, long-term attachment there. It’s just a target of opportunity for Russia. But of course Russia has its own problems. And if you flip it, from the junta’s point of view, working closely with Russia allows them to avoid excessive reliance on China, which they certainly want to do. But again, I don’t think Russia has very significant long-term interests [in Myanmar]. It’s just an opportunity for them.

As you said, China is very pragmatic. China can also be flexible. Whatever changes take place in Myanmar, its position is not fixed. It’s based on a foundation of pragmatism. Whether it’s the opposition forces or the EAOs, or democratic forces, or the junta, it can swing to the other side. It makes friends with everyone.

And this is why it makes sense for the NUG and the EAOs in whatever conversations they have with the Chinese to make it clear they’re not hostile to China. Because any government that emerges has to have at least a reasonable relationship with China.

The Chinese government probably has a sense that this regime may not last long, that it doesn’t have a future, and that it’s better for Beijing to deal with a more stable government that has support, right?

I think that’s true. It’s been clear for some time that the junta might be able to stay in power for some time just through pure brutality, but there’s no evidence at all that the junta will be able to stabilize or effectively govern the country or gain any kind of popular support. The Chinese know that. The challenge in many ways for the forces of resistance is that even as they’re trying to defeat the junta they also have to show on the political side that they present a stable alternative that will be able to overcome the historic mistrust among different ethnic groups. [That’s] not easy to do, and not something that can happen overnight. But I think the more that that happens and the more outside governments can see that at least there’s agreement on a path, on a roadmap—even if all the details need to be worked out over time—it becomes easier for other governments to see that there is an alternative to the junta that offers more stability.

This is a concern for the opposition and for the Myanmar people because unity is quite rare. But with the resistance going strong—if facing some ups and downs over the past two years—it seems they must come to an understanding that there must be some kind of common ground, if not a united front. If not, no kind of assistance, including that authorized by the NDAA, will arrive, because the resistance forces lack a common understanding or unity. 

This is really challenging. You hear Myanmar people say “We’ve overcome a lot of the differences and now we’re working together.” Which is true, certainly there’s been a lot of change. There is a unity of purpose, at least among many, to push the military out of power. But then there’s the next stage of “What then?” I think it’s unrealistic to expect a detailed blueprint of exactly what a future federal democracy might look like. That might take years, possibly. But the more there can at least be agreement on the basic principles, such as what were outlined in the Federal Democracy Charter, and on the path forward — “Here’s what our plan will be for the next two years” — then that helps a lot both for the foreign governments but also for the Myanmar people. It also then gives other governments an alternative to the junta’s proposed—I hate to even call them “elections”, but what they’re calling “elections”. We all know that those will be a complete sham, and they won’t solve any of the problems, but to the extent that the opposition, the resistance can show, “Hey, here’s our path forward,” then that makes it easier for governments to say “Yes, we’re going to stay away from supporting these elections, or accepting these elections.”

The regime seems to be going ahead with its elections. Some governments may support them, because they feel that this is the only way to stabilize the country. For the regime it’s about extending its power and legitimizing its rule. In this regard, what can we expect from ASEAN? You were the US ambassador to Indonesia [2010-13]. Indonesia is going to hold the ASEAN chair for the next year. Do you think Indonesia will be different from Cambodia? It’s a sleeping giant, a huge country, politically strong, and thanks to the reforms there it’s one of the most promising countries in the region. On Myanmar, so far Indonesia has taken quite a strong stance. It’s quite surprising, isn’t it?

A little bit surprising, but not that much if you remember that Indonesia has come a long way internally. They care about democracy, but also about proper governance. I mean in Myanmar I don’t think it’s right to say it’s just about democracy. I’m not a Myanmar person but my sense is people are resisting not only because they want democracy but also because they want some hope for their future. And I think [Indonesia] doesn’t want to see a Myanmar that’s falling apart and is in a humanitarian crisis over many years. So I would expect [Indonesia] including Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi will be quite active. Certainly more sympathetic to the forces of democracy and open to change. I think ASEAN as a whole though is probably going to remain divided. I don’t know what this recent meeting in Bangkok [organized by Thailand and attended by the junta’s foreign minister and his Thai, Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian counterparts] was all about. It didn’t look good, but I can’t say for sure. There will be a temptation for some ASEAN countries to accept the results of elections just because they don’t see another way out of the crisis. And so the challenge for Myanmar people is to explain to those governments why these elections are not a path out of the crisis. Because they won’t solve the fundamental problem… First, they’ll be a joke in many ways, with very limited participation and possibly significant violence, but also, because so many political leaders and activists are in prison. They won’t serve as a path out of the crisis. And that’s the key message that governments in ASEAN and elsewhere that are searching for a way out of the current situation need to hear.

Especially for neighboring countries including Thailand. Thailand is a country that has absorbed refugees, asylum seekers, fleeing activists and politicians. From a humanitarian standpoint, Thailand has been kind to those who have arrived here. But Thailand is also very worried about the house burning next to them. It is on fire now. Last year we were talking about a humanitarian corridor and US assistance and refugee camps along the border areas. And also the security challenges of the refugee situation. If the US wants to do more, it will have to talk more with Thailand, which is a key country if there is to be change.

I agree Thailand is critical. The Thais know what is happening inside Myanmar. They have to know that the junta doesn’t represent a source of stability going forward. They have relations with the military so they don’t want to upend those. I’m not involved, but I would imagine that  US officials are talking to Thai officials about this regularly, both the politics but also the humanitarian side. Knowing Thailand a little bit, we shouldn’t expect or ask the Thais to make some grand announcement. But rather, just pragmatically on the ground to do as much as possible to help both the people seeking asylum, but also to facilitate aid getting in to Myanmar, because the more aid that gets in to help people, then the more those people won’t feel the need to come to Thailand. So it’s in their interest. But the Thais would have to do that rather quietly for a lot of political reasons.

To go back to the earlier question about what the Myanmar people are expecting, it’s not about democracy alone. It’s about a government being transparent. Even if it’s an authoritarian model, we still want the government to be transparent. They don’t want the country to be ruled by thugs and criminals. Today Myanmar is obviously ruled by thugs and criminals.

We as Americans always prefer democracy. We like to see democracy and individual rights protected. No governments including our own are perfect democracies. We all have our faults. But there are governments that are more on the authoritarian side but still provide a lot of services and benefits to their populations. And which don’t bomb them and torture them to death on a daily basis, like the junta does. So as I’ve said before the junta is the worst regime in Southeast Asia since the Khmer Rouge. There is nothing positive that they are doing for the country or for the world. It’s all negative. It’s always dangerous to say “anything would be better.” But in this case almost anything would be better. That said, I don’t think the Myanmar people have to settle for a lousy government that’s just a little bit better than the junta. I think people can and do expect more than that. Ideally that’s democracy in a federal system. At a bare minimum a government that doesn’t butcher its people, provides some services, some transparency, and returns the sense of hope that a lot of people felt during the previous decade.

Over the last two years, everything the country hoped for and built over the previous 10 years has all gone. Many of the younger generation, who have a lot of good skills, have left the country. Seeing them I’m more hopeful because they are better equipped in terms of language, technology and skills. They have more exposure to the outside world, they’re more hopeful, they know how to negotiate, they know how to work, so I think this gives a sense of hope for the country. But it really leaves us feeling hopeless to see how the regime is behaving.

Yeah. There’s no hope for the country as long as that regime is in power. Even if some people might have this or that concern about the NUG or other forces of resistance, the NUG, some of the EROs, and other groups struggling against the junta offer a lot of hope and the potential for real progress. The junta offers none of that. We all know what’s going to happen if they stay in power.

Going back to the NDAA, what do you expect in terms of broader sanctions against the regime and its cronies? What do you say to Myanmar people who want to see the regime punished seriously, and an end to the flow of funds and other assistance it needs to survive, including the proceeds from gas and oil sales? What do you foresee in this area?

I haven’t been talking to people in Washington so I don’t know specifically what they have in mind. I know they’re looking regularly at what sanctions might actually have an impact, particularly on the flow of finances to the junta and to people supporting the junta, so I would expect that you will see additional sanctions, but I don’t know specifically which ones. As to whether the US administration will impose sanctions on MOGE [Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise], I don’t know. I know it’s something they’ve looked at. I think there have been concerns about that possibly resulting in a cut in power both in Yangon but also in Thailand, which makes it—I know a lot of people like to think that’s an easy answer; it’s not easy. If it was easy it would have been done. It is complicated but I assume the administration is continuing to look at that and study that.

Tell us about the Russia connection. The regime continues to receive jet fighters from both China and Russia and use them to attack parts of the country where the resistance is strong. It’s heartbreaking to see near-daily bombings and air raids against innocent people, whose lives are being lost. What can the US and other partners and actors, at the UN level or other international levels, do to stop the flow of military hardware and assistance?

It’s very hard to stop the flow of fighter planes and weapons from Russia. We’re sanctioning Russia, too—for different reasons, related to Ukraine. So we’re already doing everything we can vis-à-vis Russia. I have seen various individuals and groups mention that there should be greater efforts to sanction aviation fuel. I don’t know the details of how that supply chain works but certainly I would hope and expect that the US together with like-minded governments is looking at whether there’s a way of cutting off that flow or at least making it much harder to get aviation fuel, because without that fuel of course the jets can’t fly.

How do you see Myanmar’s political landscape in 2023?

I think you’re going to see a continuation of what we’ve been seeing, which is a slow and steady generational shift within the resistance movement, younger people playing a bigger and bigger role, I think that will continue. I hope we’ll see continued progress in building up the relationship among all the different communities who share similar goals. I think that’s likely but it takes a lot of hard work and it requires overcoming some old thinking. I don’t see the junta gaining strength; it probably will continue to lose strength but it’s very hard to predict exactly what will happen. I wish I could say we’re going to see a miracle and everything’s going to be solved in six months. I think more likely, sadly, we will see more of the same on the ground with the junta gradually weakening and the forces aligned against it, the Myanmar people, gaining strength and hopefully being able to actually carry out governance at local levels in more parts of the country, including education and all these things that are so crucial for the future. So rather than the headlines at the top I would look more at the ground level. Because—you know this and people inside the country know this—young people have missed a lot of education. And getting  more non-junta schools up and running and better quality local governance in more parts of the country is a huge area for 2023.