In Person

Progress in Myanmar Will Require Patience: Outgoing US Ambassador Marciel

By The Irrawaddy 19 May 2020

Outgoing US Ambassador Scot Marciel recently discussed a wide range of issues that have marked his tenure in Myanmar, and ways in which the country can achieve peace and make progress on its democratic transition, with The Irrawaddy editor-in-chief Aung Zaw and associate editor Nyein Nyein.

The Irrawaddy: People have come to appreciate the US-Myanmar relationship since the normalization of ties. Many would undoubtedly like to hear from you about your experience, as well as how you would describe your term over the past four years. 

Ambassador Marciel: I was as delighted as anybody to see the reforms that began several years ago. What I’ve seen here in my four years is that, on the one hand, your country has more than its share of really difficult challenges—ones that date back to independence or even before that; for a lot of years, those challenges weren’t really tackled.

What I feel, after four years here, is a recognition that you want to make progress every day as much as possible. That’s true everywhere. But it takes time to overcome all these challenges. So, it’s the sort of place where you can look at the challenges and feel a bit overwhelmed or even discouraged. But then I look at the progress that has been made.

Even more important is how many people here are really committed and dedicated to making progress—either nationwide or in their communities—on a range of different issues, whether it’s education, health, democracy or the economy. I met so many impressive, dedicated people here.

You have the overwhelming challenges matched up against all these people and organizations doing great work with a lot of commitment. To me, it’s a matter of continuing that effort and recognizing that a certain amount of patience is required to get where you want to go.

For us, we want you to get there. We want you to succeed in terms of peace, prosperity and stronger democracy. The role we can play is to be a good partner: to try to support all those people and all those organizations that are doing this work.

What support is the US providing to Myanmar as both countries fight the global COVID-19 pandemic?

We’ve had a health team here since 2012—USAID and, more recently, the Centers for Disease Control [CDC]—doing work on malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and broader capacity building. Right now, everybody is focused on the pandemic.

We have committed US$9.5 million [13.34 billion kyats] of emergency assistance to Myanmar specifically for that. And that money is being used to do things like help strengthen the capacity of the laboratories to do the testing. We’ve done a lot of work with partners here to help make available more information in many different languages to the public about this virus, what it is, and how to protect yourself.  We have also continued to help people get access to basic supplies, such as soap and clean water, to keep themselves safe.

Our CDC team has been working with the Ministry of Health and Sports on the scientific and biological aspects. It’s good cooperation and something that we are really pleased to be able to do.

During your time here, what are the biggest opportunities the Myanmar government has missed to advance the country politically and economically, and in terms of the peace process? 

I want to be a little bit humble about pointing out areas where I think more could have been done.

To me, one, the peace process obviously has not gone the way we had hoped. In my view, your peace process is probably the most complicated one in the world because so many different groups are involved.

I do hope in the future that there can be more effort to really understand what the fundamental grievances are of some of these communities, because I think the more that they can be addressed and that all the communities feel that their history and culture and language and so on is valued, I think that can help.

Two, I have to say that I would have liked to have seen more progress on some of the fundamental freedoms and rights, including, certainly, press freedom. I think there was an expectation that the progress that had been made would continue. Sorry to say, that hasn’t happened. I think that’s harmful to the development of democracy here.

Three, the situation in Rakhine over the last few years has been a serious problem and a serious setback, both in very human terms, you know, in terms of a lot of suffering. But I think it’s also just hurt the country. But I think trying to figure out how to overcome these very strong views and bring people together is a huge challenge. But it certainly has been a major setback and with the ongoing violence and civilian suffering right now, it remains a serious problem.

To continue with Rakhine, the government has designated the Arakan Army [AA] and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army [ARSA] as terrorist groups. No government negotiates with terrorists, as we so often hear. So has the Myanmar peace process stalled completely? How do you view the current situation? 

Well, my own view is that there is a need for a political settlement to Rakhine. It’s not for me to comment on the designation of AA as a terrorist group. But I think, in my experience, having visited there many times, there are some fundamental political issues in Rakhine.

It’s really important, in my view, to try to find a way to have a political dialogue and to find a creative way, given the terrorist designation, to have serious dialogue, to try to come up with political answers to this problem so that the fighting dies down and ends.

We have seen some foreign investment stall in Rakhine, but also Chinese projects proceeding in Rakhine and other states. There are great concerns among the local communities with regard to the environment and possible problems that could emerge in the future. What’s likely to come of this? 

The purpose of foreign investment should be to bring benefits. Obviously, the investing companies want benefits. But it should bring benefits to the host community and the host nation.

So, to me, what matters so much is not where the investment is coming from, but what kind of investment it is. What are the benefits that it is bringing? And what are the costs that it is bringing? Then, it’s up to the national government—hopefully in consultation with local communities—to say if the benefits outweigh the costs.

It’s not for me as a foreigner to make that determination. But I think careful analysis and consultation with locals is important. Some of the projects, certainly the one I’ll mention, Shwe Kokko [in Karen State], it seems to be bringing a lot of social ills. I’ve heard a lot of concerns about it. The question—for the local community writ large, not just a few people—is do the benefits outweigh the costs? I’m not sure they do. I know the government officials who are looking at these investments. I know they also want [them] to bring benefits to Myanmar.

It is fundamental to make sure that these projects bring these benefits with reduced costs and that if they go off and end up bringing more costs that they be looked at again and it’s legitimate for people to ask questions about them.

In Rakhine State, the Chinese are pushing for influence through the Kyaukphyu deep seaport and other Belt and Road Initiative [BRI] projects.  How much is the US worried about security in the Indian Ocean, especially in terms of maritime security and others? 

Broadly, in the region, it’s no secret that we have some concerns about some of what China is doing. Its behavior in the South China Sea, where it’s trying to use force to assert sovereignty over areas that are disputed, is very concerning. On Kyaukphyu specifically, this is a matter for Myanmar authorities to decide whether the port and associated projects are in the country’s interest.

If Myanmar authorities say it’s in the country’s interest, that’s their decision, not for us to quarrel with. And I know a lot of work is being done to try to make sure that the project, if it goes forward, is done in a way that brings benefits to Myanmar and is in Myanmar’s interest.

There have been mixed reactions to this government internationally, as well as to the transition period, and to the joint administration between the Myanmar government and military, which holds 25 percent of seats in the Union and regional parliaments. The military keeps claiming it wants to build a standard army. The people of Myanmar want to see a professional army. What are your thoughts? 

We strongly supported the effort to build a full and true democracy, as evidenced by our support for the 2015 elections, and our support for the elections later this year. We would like to see a fully democratic country. That would mean that the military doesn’t automatically get a bunch of seats in Parliament. That makes it not fully democratic.

That’s our hope. Then, people can elect a government, and if they are not happy with it, they can elect a different government the next time. The truth is that the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] continues to operate in a way that involves significant human rights violations quite often. It’s not just a matter that we in the international community complain about. Fundamentally, it’s affecting the people here. It’s not okay. No military is perfect, but the human rights violations are a serious problem here, as is the lack of accountability. And we certainly hope that that changes. It’s important. It’s important for Myanmar. It’s also important for the Tatmadaw to become that professional army. And I certainly hope that happens.

You have witnessed aspects of the transition in Myanmar, in particular the effort at constitutional amendment, the holding of by-elections and other developments, such as the peace process. How would you evaluate that whole process over the course of your stay in Myanmar?

It seems to me quite clear that the majority of people want some changes in the Constitution. That wasn’t possible this last go-around, partly because of the way that Parliament is structured. We don’t want to say there should be this amendment or that amendment. But in the end, democracy should be about the will of the people. And if the people overall favor some changes, we certainly hope that can be possible.

We’ve been talking and writing a lot about a rebalancing of Myanmar in relation to the international community, including Western countries, which used to impose sanctions on this country. With China in the picture, we look at the conflict in Rakhine State and also in northern Myanmar, and we see that ethnic rebels are being supported by certain governments and outside elements. People see Myanmar as being locked into a political game. Some people say Myanmar should engage more with the US, while others say it should be friendlier with China, or should strike a better balance. How would you describe the situation based on your experience in Myanmar? 

I think that, first, it’s up to Myanmar to decide how it wants to have its different relationships. We have never asked, nor would we ask, Myanmar or any other country to pick us or pick China. What we care about fundamentally is we want to be a good partner and work with the people of Myanmar.

What we care about is that Myanmar gets to make its own decisions, and is not forced to do things because of coercion or pressure that limit its sovereignty. If Myanmar wants to have good relations with any number of countries, we welcome that, it’s perfectly normal and healthy.

Where it becomes unhealthy is when a country feels like it doesn’t have choices. And we are all about making sure that Myanmar has as many choices as possible.

The US has been the most outspoken advocate for democracy, human rights and press freedom in Myanmar for the past three decades. What is your parting message to the Myanmar people, your friends and your colleagues, who have been working so hard to get where we are today? 

Our message is that we have a long-term commitment here, not just from the government or a particular administration, but from the American people, who have long admired the struggles and sacrifices of so many people in this country to achieve peace and greater democracy and prosperity. We remain very committed to that. We are going to remain very engaged in as many aspects as possible and try to build partnerships, and as I said earlier, support all those people and organizations here who are trying to build a brighter future.

This interview has been edited for length.

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