In an interview at the US Embassy in Rangoon in February, The Irrawaddy’s English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe talked to the US Ambassador to Burma Scot Marciel about the country’s troubles and achievements over the past year.
Please give us your brief assessment of the current political situation in Burma.
There were 50 years of military rule, and there are a lot of big issues that have to be addressed—the relationship between civilians and the military, the constitution, the peace process, communal conflict, economic development. It was always going to take time to address these things and was never going to be easy.
The last few months have really highlighted those challenges. But when we step back, we can also see that there is a need for persistence. All the institutions in Myanmar need to step back and think how can they contribute.
At the end of January, the prominent lawyer and NLD legal adviser U Ko Ni was assassinated at Yangon International Airport. What was your response?
I was shocked. I had the good fortune of knowing U Ko Ni. It is a terrible loss for his family but also for the country because of his great contribution here. I’m struck by how everybody is calling for justice. One of the key challenges for Myanmar is building what the State Counselor always talks about—the rule of law, and part of the rule of law is justice, which means in this case, completing a credible and transparent investigation to make the people of the country feel that justice has been done.
Many people see this as a political assassination because U Ko Ni was a strong advocate for amending the Constitution, or even writing a new Constitution. What is your analysis?
It is not appropriate for me to speculate on who did this or the motivation. Firstly, I am a foreigner, a government official, and should not in any way interfere with the ongoing investigation. Secondly, I don’t have access to all the information.
Some local people, especially those who are openly critical about the Constitution, are frightened after the killing. Are you also frightened?
I lot of people told me they are frightened. Someone who is involved in moving the country forward is gunned down, and the motivation is still not clear. It is a natural reaction. This is why it’s so important for justice to be done.
Let’s talk about the peace process. What is the main obstacle for our country to achieve peace?
The main obstacle to both is a lack of trust based on too many years of conflict. People on different sides do not have faith that the other side is committed to peace or will fulfill their commitments.
We urge all parties right now to end the fighting. There is a lot of suffering and ongoing fighting in Kachin and northern Shan states. Long-term, it shouldn’t been in the interest of anyone or any institution in the country.
It is going to take a long time, a lot of dialogue, people on different sides reaching out, taking risk to try to build up the trust. It is easy to say, but harder to do. We are very careful not to tell different groups ‘you should sign the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) or not’ but everybody should be trying to take an extra step to peace, particularly right now.
What role can the international community, especially the United States, play to help halt the ongoing clashes and build peace?
We are always very careful not to interfere. But not interfering doesn’t mean we can’t play a helpful role.
As a friend, our interest is only in peace. We don’t have a separate agenda other than promoting peace. We talk to the different groups: the military; civilian authorities; ethnic armed groups; civil society participants—and urge them to keep walking toward peace.
Sometimes we offer suggestions about ways to build trust. The other role we play is a bit on the technical side because over time a lengthy dialogue on a federal Union is going to be required. We are doing some seminars and programs to help people understand better what federalism means and some of the issues that need to be addressed. It’s not to say you should follow this system or that, but here are some of the things that would be helpful to understand as you continue the dialogue.
Our biggest neighbor, China, has been influential in Burma for generations. What are the conflicting policies and ideas between the United States and China regarding the peace process?
We don’t view the peace process as a US-China issue in any way. My colleague the Chinese ambassador and I have agreed on the importance of working for peace. I don’t want to speak for his government, but we have regular conversations supporting the peace process.
There are still restrictions in providing humanitarian aid to refugees, especially in Kachin State. Who is blocking it?
I don’t know for sure, but it is a big concern. There are tens of thousands of internally displaced people and significant restrictions on humanitarian access to them. There needs to be greater access to the people both in government-controlled areas and in KIA-controlled areas. I have raised this with the military, civilian authorities and others multiple times.
Let’s talk about another area of conflict, Arakan State. You have a team there and have visited the area. What were your findings?
We are not doing any kind of investigation to come out with an independent finding—that’s not our role.
The security operations have resulted in many human rights allegations. The UN has issued a very strong report. We are not in a position to confirm whether this or that specific case happened.
It is very concerning to have these widespread and severe human rights allegations. It should be concerning for everybody and highlights the importance of a serious, credible investigation that gets to the bottom of this.
It also highlights the need to address the underlying problem. We all know how complicated and incredibly sensitive it is. Only the Myanmar people and government can figure this out.
But there is a way forward for human rights, following the rule of law, promoting dialogue and gradually building trust between these communities as well as addressing the legal status of the Muslim population. The fair way to do this is according to Myanmar law.
As you mentioned, the UN has issued a very strong report, citing massacres or indiscriminate killings after the security operation launched. The military and the government keep denying such crimes occurred. What do you know about the situation?
Without sustained access to the region it is hard to know all the facts. We are not in a position to verify or rebut specific cases of allegations, but the number of allegations, interviews and reports are very concerning.
The allegations need to be investigated thoroughly and there should be as much factual information provided as possible. The government’s response to the UN report was that they took the allegations very seriously—a good response. But only a thorough investigation can determine the facts.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been under fire because of ongoing wars in the ethnic areas and conflict in Arakan State. Do you think she is taking the right path on these issues?
Her government is facing incredibly difficult, challenging issues. It is also demonstrating a very strong commitment to achieving peace, and implementing the rule of law. One of the great things about freedom of press is people can question, and even criticize, which is healthy. This doesn’t necessarily mean I always agree with the criticism, but it is healthy to have that debate. The key is her clear commitment, and to turn that commitment into reality on the ground.
Do you think the military is fully collaborating with the current government and the ruling party to achieve the country’s goals—peace and a federal Union?
It’s still very much a work in progress. I’m not privy to detailed information on their communications and how closely they are working together.
The people of this country clearly have voted for a move to democracy. The military is going to play an important role. We’ve encouraged the military to continue to support reforms including whatever constitutional changes the people of this country want, leading presumably to civilian control over the military, and to focus on supporting the peace process. We have made this very clear to the military.
You are a seasoned diplomat in the region, with your experience including Indonesia. The military still plays a very important role in Indonesian politics. Do you have any comparisons between Burma and Indonesia?
There are certainly some surface similarities but very different histories and very different circumstances so I wouldn’t want to take the comparison too far. Indonesia is a very good example of the countries that successfully made the transition to democracy in which the military is out of politics, but is a very respected institution, domestically and internationally. The transition allows us to greatly increase our relationship with the Indonesian military.
You have a new administration under President Trump. Have you seen any changes in terms of diplomacy to Myanmar?
No. I can’t say there won’t be some adjustments; normally the new administration would have some changes. In the United States, there is a long history of both Republicans and Democrats supporting the democratic transition here, wanting to be a good friend of Myanmar people. Every indication I’m getting from Washington is that this will continue. Some details might change, but I’m very confident the core principle of trying to be a good friend and supporter of Myanmar will continue.
With the lifting of economic sanctions, the United States has encouraged US businesses to come into the country, but we haven’t seen many. What problems are stopping US businesses from coming here?
Some are coming in to take a look and some are investing. US companies will tend to be a little bit cautious coming into new markets. Now there is an investment law, people are waiting for the by-laws to come out and for a bit more clarity on the policy. Other issues are if there will be enough electricity.
Finally, you have been here for almost a year. I’m sure that you have mixed feelings about the situation. What are they?
I have served in seven countries around the world and in each of those I have at times felt encouraged, at times discouraged, and at times frustrated. People here are understandably focused on the immense challenges this country faces and so are we. It is time to redouble the efforts to try and help the people who are trying to achieve progress.
There is huge opportunity for peace, which is what people want. There is also tremendous opportunity economically. No question the challenges are there and can sometimes be discouraging, but overall, I’m quite optimistic because there is a lot of energy and a lot of people working very hard in this country to make progress.
The Irrawaddy has edited this interview for clarity and brevity.