New US Ambassador Flags Many Old Problems for Burma

By Andrew D. Kaspar 10 May 2016

RANGOON — Recognition of the daunting challenges still facing a democratically emboldened Burma was a focal point of the first public remarks on Tuesday by new US Ambassador Scot Marciel, whose country counts the Southeast Asian nation’s political transition among its foreign policy successes.

Ongoing conflict between the Burma Army and ethnic rebel groups, simmering religious tensions and a Constitution that entrenches the military’s role in politics were among the concerns that Washington would continue to expect progress on in the years ahead, said Marciel, speaking to media and civil society groups in Rangoon.

“A lot has changed,” he said, referring to this year’s historic transfer of power from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

“But our goal, the United States’ goal, remains the same: We want to see a peaceful, prosperous, democratic Myanmar. One whose people live in harmony and enjoy full rights.”

On those fronts, Washington feels there is room for improvement over the NLD’s expectations-laden term, which began last month, though the American ambassador made a point to stress that it was not for the United States to determine “internal” matters such as how best to end decades of civil war in Burma’s frontier regions.

Marciel, who took up his post last month, commended early NLD efforts to release political prisoners and rescind legislation used by the former USDP government and military regime that preceded it to imprison peaceful protestors and dissidents.

“They get it, they’re doing it,” he said of his confidence in a shared commitment by the United States and NLD government to improve Burma’s human rights situation.

For decades at odds over Burma’s abysmal human rights record under the former military regime, Washington and Naypyidaw began a thawing of their icy bilateral relationship in 2011, after then President Thein Sein embarked on a series of liberalizing political reforms. The following year saw Marciel’s predecessor, Derek Mitchell, installed as the first American ambassador to Burma since 1990.

Economic sanctions against Burma were also eased in 2012 and by 2014, the US Commerce Department was actively encouraging American companies to invest in the frontier market of 51 million people.

Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Burma in November 2012, and he returned two years later to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit hosted by Burma.

Successive, bipartisan iterations of US political leadership for years held up Suu Kyi as a cause célèbre, the face of Burma’s pro-democracy movement over more than a decade under house arrest. In 2008 she was awarded the US Congressional Gold Medal while locked up in her lakeside home in Rangoon, and four years later was finally presented with the American legislature’s highest civilian honor during a trip to Washington.

Despite the change of government to a Suu Kyi-led administration, relations between the two countries are still not fully normalized.

More than 100 Burmese nationals and corporate entities remain on a Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) blacklist that prevents US companies from doing business with them. The list was created to target members of the former military regime and so-called cronies accused of close ties to the junta. A US ban on gems imports from Burma remains in place, as does one on American sales of military hardware to the former pariah state.

On Tuesday, Marciel said the United States would again review remaining sanctions, but added that he did not know what the outcome of that review might be. Competing pressures over what to do about the punitive measures has pitted US business interests against some human rights defenders, with two members of the latter issuing a call on Tuesday for a renewal of sanctions by Obama, who must make a decision on the matter by May 20.

While US-Burma ties look likely to deepen over the NLD’s five-year term, last month there were also signs that the long-estranged nations are not destined to forever and always see eye to eye.

Hundreds of Buddhist nationalist protestors assembled outside the US Embassy in Rangoon on April 28, indignant over a statement from the American mission less than a week earlier that used the word “Rohingya” to describe victims of a deadly boat capsizing in Arakan State. The term is highly contentious in Burma, where many do not recognize the right of the persecuted Muslim minority to self-identify and instead label them “Bengalis,” implying that they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headed by Suu Kyi, later asked the US Embassy to refrain from using the term, a move criticized in a New York Times editorial on Tuesday as “cowardly.”

The stateless Rohingya are not among 135 ethnic groups recognized by law as officially indigenous to Burma.

Marciel did not use the word on Tuesday, instead speaking of a need to address existing restrictions on “some communities,” presumably referring to curbs on travel, education and other basic rights faced by most Rohingya in Arakan State.

However, “They get to choose what they want to be called,” he said when asked about the embassy’s position in the aftermath of the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s request. “That’s a fundamental international practice and we respect that. That’s been our approach and it will continue to be our approach.”

There were hints, though, that the US Embassy may be less publically vocal in expressing concerns it has with how things are trending in Burma under the new government.

“The question we really ask ourselves is, ‘What can we do that’s useful?’ And if public statements are useful, great. And if private conversations are useful in a particular situation, that’s the better approach,” he said, noting the “great respect” he had for the pedigree of many NLD members as long-standing human rights advocates.

“I think we can have a different kind of conversation in some ways with those people, and continue to raise issues and concerns where we have them. But exactly how we do that will vary depending on the circumstances.”

Marciel was previously the deputy assistant secretary to the US State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and prior to that served as the American ambassador to Indonesia.