Interview

This Is Not ‘Just Another Coup’: Ex-US Ambassador to Myanmar

By The Irrawaddy 8 April 2021

The Irrawaddy spoke to Scot Marciel, who served as US ambassador to Myanmar from 2016-20, about the unfolding crisis in the country and how the international community and regional powers can help stop the regime’s violence against the Myanmar people. 

THE IRRAWADDY: It seems Myanmar is now sliding into chaos and civil war; the resistance to the military coup is very strong. The attempted coup has not succeeded yet. We have seen a lot of people die; young people, young children are dying, kids are being killed, shot through the head. You left Myanmar in 2020. How do you see the situation in the country now?

SCOT MARCIEL: It’s tragic and it’s horrible. First, the coup itself occurred in the aftermath of an election that produced a clear winner in the form of the [National League for Democracy (NLD)], which was a legitimately elected government. So the coup itself was a terrible step, and had no justification as far as I can see. Second, even worse, since the coup the military’s incredible brutality and willingness to murder its own people, including women and children on the streets, is just so appalling. And it is quite clear that you have two sides. The Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] together with the police on one side, and on the other side you have the overwhelming proportion or percentage of Myanmar people who refuse to accept this coup. We have seen tremendous bloodshed; I fear we are going to see more.

Where do you think this is going to go? People inside the country have been hoping for some form of intervention. Last month, protesters and demonstrators were holding signs calling for ‘R2P’—the principle of the international community’s ‘Responsibility to Protect’—and for some form of intervention. But as the days go by, you can see the people are growing frustrated, taking up homemade weapons and fighting against the military. We are seeing reports of clashes taking place in the countryside. What can the international community do?

I understand the frustration of the people of Myanmar. I think there are a couple of things that the international community should be doing. One, trying to put maximum pressure on the Tatmadaw to reverse course, including by not doing anything to legitimize the coup or the junta that has taken over in Naypyitaw. Two, going after the sources of finances, to put pressure on it. It is very hard for the international community, especially the UN. The UN is made of member states. For example, at the Security Council meeting on [March 31], most of the members of the UNSC were quite united and were pushing for very tough language going forward. But you know China and Russia opposed that, so it’s very hard to get that [language] when you have opposition from countries like China and Russia. It is very difficult for the UNSC to do very much.

And I would say that ASEAN is somewhat in a similar situation. It is a group that operates by consensus. Some of the members—Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines—have been quite strong in their condemnation of the violence and looking for a diplomatic way to try to end the violence and calm things down, and move the country back towards democracy. But it’s hard without unity within ASEAN. And remember, Myanmar is a member of ASEAN. Myanmar’s representative is in these meetings, and so far in these meetings the representatives are from the junta. And that is just the way ASEAN operates. It is really important that ASEAN has been talking about an emergency summit. I think that would be useful, and it is important that at the summit they not just talk, but come up with specific ideas to reduce the military’s violence against its own people. And if the representative of the junta is sitting in the Myanmar seat, I hope that other members do not allow them to veto any kind of ASEAN action. I think it is also important to make it clear that, while ASEAN is keeping channels of communication open to the SAC [the State Administration Council, the junta’s ruling body], that does not mean that they are conferring legitimacy on it. These are very important steps.

Among ASEAN members there are like-minded authoritarian governments, and some members are dragging their feet, simply observing the situation. Indonesia and Singapore are using tougher language, but other members are keeping quiet. That is not very helpful.

I think it is not only important for these ASEAN members but for all nations in the neighborhood not to see this just as a fight for democracy and human rights, although it is. But it is also a question of the stability of the country and of the region. Myanmar has headed down a very dangerous path because of the Tatmadaw. I want to be very clear: It is because of the Tatmadaw’s behavior that Myanmar is headed down this path. Even for governments that may not place a priority on democracy and human rights, they should be concerned about the risks of greater conflict, of a large [number] of refugees fleeing, of increased production and sales of narcotics, and of Myanmar—one of the 10 ASEAN members—becoming, if not a failed state, a source of great instability and of huge problems for the entire region. So even if you are thinking in strategic terms or just about peace and stability, there is a need for more than just observing.

Russia was invited to attend the Tatmadaw’s Armed Forces Day parade. This is quite chilling because coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing seems to be drawing one of the major powers into the conflict. China and Russia have always provided much-needed support for past regimes, including diplomatic cover at the UN, and continue to do so for the current regime. What is your view on this? It seems the middle powers and the international system are failing Myanmar, quibbling among themselves. 

I would [make a distinction between] Russia and China—with a caveat that I am not an expert on China or Russia. But my sense is that Russia does not have huge interest in Myanmar, so it is not affected if there is great instability or conflict in Myanmar. But it is an opportunity to sell weapons and to show up and show itself to be a friend of the generals. China—and then again, I can’t speak for the Chinese government—but my sense is that China is in a difficult position. I can’t believe they are happy with the current situation, as it would not be in China’s interest to see this level of violence and instability. The trouble is their ambassador to the UN in his statement on Wednesday talked about how pressure and the threat of sanctions could add to tensions or further complicate the situation. I think we are way past that point. We already have not only tension, but terrible violence. So I think it is important that all of the countries in the world and certainly in the region, look at the situation as what it is: an illegitimate military junta basically trying to terrorize its population into submission. And the population is refusing to accept this. And as a result the conflict is taking the country down a dangerous path, as I mentioned before, obviously foremost for the people of Myanmar and also for the entire region.

Intellectuals are leaving, civil servants are being arrested, politicians are being detained, and activists are fleeing the country. Not only that, businesspeople are concerned about the future. How can ASEAN members, or China, Japan, Singapore or anyone else, hope to do business in the country?

I think it’s very hard trying to do any kind of legitimate long-term business. Myanmar has to look extremely unattractive right now just from a pure business point of view. So there may be money flowing in, but there is a lot of money flowing out of the country. And again, this contributes to the country’s downward spiral; obviously it’s creating great suffering in the country. But [it also creates] great risk for the entire region. And that is why this can’t be just looked at by the international community as business as usual: “Oh, too bad, there was a coup.” This is much more than a coup, this is a takeover by a military that has no support, no legitimacy and a history of terrible governance. And it is opposed by virtually the entire country. It is important for the policy makers in the country and around the world not to see this as just “Oh this is just another coup.” It is much more than that.

In addition to Myanmar, you served as ambassador to Indonesia. How can Western powers including the US and other powers in the region put pressure on ASEAN, which is not doing anything?

It’s not about putting pressure on ASEAN. I am a big supporter of ASEAN. I think it has played a very important role for many years even though, in a situation like this, it has not been able to do much. I think ASEAN can play a role in two ways. One—already seen in the effort by the Indonesian foreign minister and others—is trying to establish channels of communication and push for an end to the violence and some kind of dialog that could lead to a way out of this. I think what ASEAN has in its so-called “ASEAN Centrality” is the ability to convene and lead in that sense. It doesn’t have to always lead by dominating or coming up with ideas. But at ASEAN’s upcoming summit, if they want to take the lead, I think certainly the US and many other countries are more than willing and interested in working with and trying to support an initiative to try and improve the situation in Myanmar. But it is really important that it has to be an initiative that takes into account the fact that the overwhelming percentage of Myanmar people will not accept this coup or the military role.

Let’s talk about ASEAN and the US. You cannot speak for the Biden administration, but what can the US do to work with ASEAN? Previously, you tweeted about “not dealing with the Tatmadaw”. Can you elaborate on that? How can the US work with regional partners?

There is an important distinction here. Some of my friends in Southeast Asia/ASEAN have talked about the need to keep open channels of communication, including to the Tatmadaw. That’s reasonable. It is always useful to have channels of communication. I think it is a different thing to deal with them as a legitimate government or to give them legitimacy by dealing with them as an accepted government. So there are ways this can be done, that allow communication without conferring legitimacy. I believe there are a lot of conversations between people at the State Department and elsewhere in Washington and Southeast Asia about this situation. There is ongoing dialog. And I think it is really important not to see this as a US vs. China issue. I do not think it is. We are not looking at it as, “Oh what about China?” We are looking at it as, “How can we help the people of Myanmar?” So I do not think it has to be part of this big power rivalry. There is an opportunity for different parties to try to work together in support of the people of Myanmar. And I hope ASEAN can play an important role, just as it did in helping the international community and Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis. ASEAN can create entry points for the international community to try to work together in support of—again, I have to stress “in support of”—the Myanmar people. This is not about coming up with some deal behind the backs of Myanmar people, which would be totally unacceptable.

You have mentioned that this is not US vs. China and not about the US-China rivalry. But we saw a lot of anti-China protests inside the country, making threats against Chinese businesses and the Chinese natural gas pipeline. At the same time, do you think China can work with the US on Myanmar or for the people of Myanmar?

I do not know, I just don’t know. But I think we should have conversations. As I said, I can’t be sure and I can’t speak for the Chinese government, but I can’t imagine that they are happy with the current situation. There may not be a lot of overlapping interests, but there may be some if we all try to work in support of Myanmar people. Not only because we care about them and democracy, but because this is the best way to get to long term peace and stability. I will just add that I do not want to see anti-Chinese sentiments in Myanmar. There are a lot of ethnic-Chinese people in Myanmar, I do not want to see divisions in the country. Hopefully the people will stay focused on the responsible party for the issue and that is the Tatmadaw. I think it is important not to lose focus on that.

We shouldn’t forget Japan, which is a key player in Myanmar, as one of the largest donors and investors, and generally well received inside the country. When you were ambassador you saw a lot of Japanese investment coming in and observed Tokyo’s influence both with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government as well as with the military.

Japan is a very important player and I think it has been a very constructive player. It’s taken a pretty firm position since the coup. Again, I may be too optimistic but I think a lot of countries in the region and the US all have an interest in Myanmar getting out of this terrible situation, ending the military violence against its own people, and finding some way to support a process that allows the people to choose their own government. I don’t think there are too many governments who are happy with the current situation. If governments recognize that the continuation of the junta is going to lead to more violence and more instability, that should allow many of us to find ways to work together. At least I hope so. Certainly Japan has a very important role and I think it can be a very positive role.

Should Japan stop aid and investment in Myanmar?

I can’t tell you what Japan should do. My view in general is that, if governments are able to provide assistance in helping people and communities but not the Tatmadaw/junta, then I would say that should not be stopped. Investment, that’s a really difficult situation. Again investments … that benefit the junta—absolutely not. But private companies that are giving people jobs? It is a really difficult situation to be honest. The bottom line is you are not going to get too much investment right now as long as this continues.

Let’s discuss the Quad members, in particular Australia. Australian adviser to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Sean Turnell is now in detention. Australia has been accused of being too soft, of acting like a ‘Norway of the southern hemisphere’, or like India. It has been skittish and people are saying it’s not to be trusted. But to be fair on both countries what are your thoughts on what can they do?

Well I think it is not helpful for various countries to be complaining about other countries. The trouble is, the truth is, that this is a very difficult situation. If there was an easy answer we would have already solved the problem. And I think each country is trying to make the best decision they can. Certainly I know Australians are in a very difficult situation. There is quite active debate in India right now about how to proceed. But again, I would just say that what’s important is to look at the best prospects for Myanmar returning to peace and stability and a legitimate government that the people of the country accept. And I think it’s clear that rule by the Tatmadaw is not the answer. And as times goes on, as more and more governments see this, I hope they will be compelled to act.

Let’s talk about Thailand, Indonesia and India, and even Bangladesh, because refugees are fleeing, activists are fleeing. There have been airstrikes targeting the Karen civilian population and insurgents along the Thai-Myanmar border. From a humanitarian point of view, how should these neighboring countries react and what can the US do to collaborate with them?

Well particularly with Thailand, it has a long history of accepting refugees fleeing conflict in the region. And we have a long history of working with Thailand as well as the UN and others to help Thailand meet the burden of hosting, hopefully temporarily, refugee populations. Recently Bangladesh has taken a lot of refugees.  We have been working with them and the UN and others too, to help share the burden of that. I  think the US has been quite generous and think we will continue to be generous in trying to support what is a huge burden for any country, to take a lot of refugees. But I think, also, these countries have taken a lot of refugees in the past; they don’t love it. But they do it because it’s their responsibility and I expect they will going forward. And I think the international community, including the US, will do what it can to support them financially and otherwise as they deal with this.

The US is implementing more targeted sanctions. Do you think this will work? What more can the US do?

There was this whole debate before 2010 and after 2010: Did sanctions work? Did engagement work? I think you need multiple things by multiple countries, each country doing what it can. Sanctions that reduce the flow of money to the junta, I think can be helpful. The Biden administration for example freezing US$1 billion of reserves at the New York Federal Bank, that’s money the junta can’t use to suppress its people and maintain its hold. I don’t think sanctions alone solve the problem. It’s an international effort not to accept or give legitimacy to the military junta that’s really important. It’s psychological but it is really important [to the junta] that they feel accepted. Because clearly their hope is that over time more and more governments will just accept them. There needs to be continued diplomatic efforts to work together to create a strong pressure on the Tatmadaw to recognize that it’s not going to win and to look for a way out. And that needs to be as many countries as possible, including the US. It’s also important that there be continuing dialog as much as possible with the Myanmar public, whether it is with elected parliamentarians or people whom the international community is able to talk with to make sure that whatever we are doing reflects as much as possible what the people of Myanmar are asking for. I think that is critical.

Before 2010 Myanmar was opening up under President U Thein Sein. The US, whether under Democrats or Republicans, was playing a leading role in Myanmar. Some critics kept saying Myanmar was a ‘boutique issue’ in Washington, but in the region and inside the country the role of the US was held in high regard. Do you think the US is doing enough or does it have too much on its plate?

I think it’s getting a lot of attention. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken about it multiple times. President Biden spoke about it. People are working constantly to look at what else we can do. You have seen a series of actions. But you also see on social media, people saying why don’t you do this and that. Honestly, the people may be well intentioned, but then you look at the suggestions and you realize that sometimes they are not easy to do, or it may not be very helpful. It takes a lot of work to make sure that whatever we do is helpful. I know the US will continue to be active diplomatically working with ASEAN colleagues, Japan, India, Australia, others—whoever is interested in contributing to the solution — and at the UN. The US sees [that] this may not be resolved for some time, but it is very much on the side of the people of Myanmar. And their clear message is that they don’t want to go back to military rule. So we are going to do everything we can to support that effort, even if it takes a lot of time.

In 2016 there was controversy over the US decision to lift sanctions on Myanmar. Some people regretted the lifting of sanctions on certain individuals. Some people argued that sanctions should remain until genuine change occurred. 

I supported the lifting of sanctions and I still think based on what we knew then it was the right decision. It is important to remember that the sanctions that had been put in place until Myanmar allowed fair elections. Obviously the [2015] elections were not perfect—the military still controlled 25 percent of parliament—but the pro-democracy movement (very much) obviously participated and supported those elections and took charge of the government. The second thing was, at that point, our sanctions were hindering the kind of investments that we thought the country needed [in order] to have the economic progress that would reinforce the democratic reforms we had hoped for. You can’t say, “We need you to keep on making reforms, but we are going to make it harder for you by squeezing your economy.” The other point I would make is there is a tendency sometimes to exaggerate the influence of sanctions. We had sanctions in the early 2000s when the Tatmadaw was brutalizing the population in Karen and Shan states. It did not stop them. I have a hard time believing that maintaining sanctions would have stopped the Tatmadaw from either its actions in Rakhine or its coup. You can’t prove it. But there is just no evidence to support that, so I think it was the right decision at that time, and I think people tend to exaggerate how much leverage sanctions give you.

When you were ambassador, you worked with government officials including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and also with some top military leaders. Did you have any sense at the end of your term, any sort of signal or message or indicator, that Myanmar was returning to dark times? What was your feeling then?

Overall we certainly had some concerns about the Rakhine State situation, we had concerns about the lack of progress on peace, and we had concerns about things like freedom of press and assembly that were not at the level that we certainly had expected. And we certainly had concerns about the military’s behavior, which was bad even then. I didn’t anticipate a coup, no I didn’t. And so, I remained, when I left, optimistic, but optimistic in the longer term, because I saw a whole new generation of people rising, better educated, more access to information, more open minded and I thought that was the great hope for Myanmar, and I still think that’s the great hope. And you see these young people now very active and even talking among themselves about the need to change the relationship between the different ethnic groups and these sorts of things. I think that’s still great reason for optimism in the long run. But no, in short, I did not anticipate the coup and I am really sad to see this crisis.

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