Pro-Military Names Dominate US-Burma Discussion Panel

By The Irrawaddy 12 September 2016

RANGOON — The majority of participants in a conference on the future of US-Burma relations being held in Washington on the eve of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrival in the United States are supporters of Burma’s previous quasi-civilian government and military cooperation with the States. They are lobbying for the lifting of US sanctions on Burma.

The discussion, taking place on Tuesday organized by Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), is titled “The United States and Myanmar: Next Steps” and will focus on Burma’s economic growth. Of the ten participants, only one, U Bo Bo Nge, represents the current National League for Democracy (NLD) government; he is a member of the NLD’s economic committee.

Topics tabled to be discussed include: The impact of remaining US sanctions, the future of US-Burma economic cooperation, Burma’s political and military transition, civilian and military relations, the country’s peace process, and Buddhist-Muslim relations in Arakan State.

The keynote speech will be delivered by Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications within President Obama’s administration. Amy Searight, a Senior Adviser and Director at CSIS, will deliver the introductory speech.

Neither speaker is a stranger to Burma. Ben Rhodes was working in the country in Aug. 2013 when the United States announced plans to work with the Burma Army to transform it into a professional national security force overseen by a civilian government.

Amy Searight met with senior Burmese military officials when she accompanied Deputy Commander of US Pacific Command Lt-Gen Anthony G. Crutchfield and Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Malinowski as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense on a trip to Naypyidaw in 2014.

A session on economic growth and development will be attended by both U Bo Bo Nge and Serge Pun (aka U Thein Wai), the chairman of Serge Pun & Associates and a well-known business tycoon who found success under Burma’s military rule, as well as during President Thein Sein’s military-backed administration. They will be joined by Erin Murphy, founder of the Inle Advisory Group—a Washington consultancy firm that advises on doing business in Burma, and a lobbyist for the lifting of US sanctions on the country.

U Kyaw Yin Hlaing, a Burmese participant in a panel on “Myanmar’s Political Transition: Looking Ahead,” is the Director of Myanmar Egress, a pro-Thein Sein NGO. He used to be a senior member of the now-defunct Myanmar Peace Center, a peace negotiation team formed with Thein Sein’s blessing.

For the discussion, he will be joining US Ambassador to Burma under Thein Sein’s government Derek Mitchell and chief editor of Nikkei Asian Review Gwen Robinson. She covered Burma as a Financial Times correspondent when Thein Sein was in power and was one of the few for­eign correspondents to reportedly have unlimited access to Thein Sein, traveling with him on trips.

Also joining the session is Murray Hiebert, a Senior Adviser and Deputy Director of CSIS’s Southeast Asia Program, who has been known to encourage the US government to work alongside Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to find practical ways to unwind remaining US economic sanctions against Burma and military reengagement.

Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist and longtime expert on Burma, told The Irrawaddy that a look at the names on the panel was enough to convince him of how one-sided the discussion is likely to be.

“Not a single independent voice. Only old, pro-Thein Sein people which, by extension, means people who are more likely to be critical of the NLD than of the military,” he said.