Can Burma Buy Happiness in Washington?

By Aung Zaw 21 April 2015

Burmese activists were outraged to learn late last week that the government had entered into a year-long public relations contract with a Washington-based lobbying firm worth US$840,000. Some took their disgust to social media, begging such legitimate questions as: “If reform is genuine and sincere, why would they need to hire a PR firm?”

The contract between the Burmese government and the Podesta Group, a powerful lobbying and public affairs firm closely aligned with the Democratic Party, began in March and will last for one year, during which Burma will dish out $210,000 each quarter plus expenses that extend to business-class travel and luxury accommodation. A disclosure required by the US government revealed some details of the agreement, signed by Podesta CEO Kimberly Fritts and Burma’s Ambassador to the United States Kyaw Myo Htut.

The group will “provide strategic counsel [to the government of Burma] on strengthening the principal’s ties to the United States government and institutions. Registrant will also assist in communication priority issues in the United States-Myanmar bilateral relationship to relevant US audiences, including the US Congress, executive branch, media and policy community,” the disclosure said.

In Burma and among policy monitors, the move was surprising at first but ultimately understandable; amid mounting claims that the so-called reformist government is backsliding on key freedoms, the need for an image makeover is crystal clear. Landmark elections are set to be held later this year, and the country is still grappling with decades-old tensions exposed to more public attention since the reforms began.

Moreover, the Obama administration and the Democratic Party have deepened their ties to the country in recent years. The United States restored diplomatic relations in 2012 under US President Barack Obama. In November of that year, Obama became the first sitting US president to visit the country, after then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an historic visit one year prior. The Podesta Group, it should be mentioned, was cofounded by John Podesta, who is now the chairman of Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.

Further evidence of the Democrats’ affinity with the former pariah state can be seen in the sheer volume of exchanges and diplomatic delegations that have come to Burma over the past three years. Obama even ventured back for a second visit in November 2014, during which he affirmed his belief that “the democratic process in Myanmar is real” while cautioning that “change is hard.” The comment spoke to a concern held widely among Burma’s citizens that rapid change has come with severe consequences, and that what at first looked like political change is now often viewed as a deceptive power shift to the benefit of a select few.

Indeed, during Obama’s last visit, he met with a group of young aspiring leaders from across the region for a town hall style meeting at Rangoon University, where he was greeted with banners reading “Reform is fake” held aloft by daring young students and activists. The simple act of protest struck a chord with several generations of activists and opposition politicians, and reflected a broad concern that the United States, the European Union and other western actors may have provided undeserved legitimacy to the Burmese government by embracing it prematurely.

Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly shared her opinion that the current quasi-civilian government is a “hardline regime” with an insincere leader. Speaking to Reuters only a few weeks ago, Suu Kyi questioned the United States over its tactic of praising the Burmese government in hopes of encouraging further reform.

“I would ask whether it actually encourages them to do more or it simply makes them more complacent,” she told Reuters, adding that the United States and the West were “too optimistic and a bit of healthy skepticism would help everybody a great deal.”

In recent months alone, the Burmese government has provided plenty of fodder for its critics. Prisons are now filled to the brim with young activists on trumped up charges, while journalists and activists have faced a barrage of attacks by authorities, both physical and judicial.

The country’s protracted peace process—which is geared toward ending decades of crippling civil war between the government and armed ethnic minorities—has often been denounced as farcical in the wake of continued attacks on rebel armies, particularly in the country’s north and northeastern territories. Furthermore, the international media has kept up its harsh criticism of Burma’s Constitution, which reserves the military’s stronghold over the national legislature and prevents Suu Kyi from becoming president.

It is easy to see why the government wants a high-profile firm to engineer its image at this time, especially one so cozy with a party that has championed its leadership and reforms, and especially as that party prepares to keep its hold on the White House next year. An image of success and legitimacy would certainly be a win-win.

Priscilla Clapp, who served as Chief of Mission to the US Embassy in Burma from 1999 to 2002, speculated on the government’s motivations when the Podesta contract was first reported by US-based policy newspaper The Hill.

“The breadth of the transition that’s going on in the country is so wide and so deep that it’s having a lot of unintended consequences in the country and in the society,” she told The Hill. “I suspect that this is some of the reason the embassy would want to have a very highly reputable, politically savvy firm representing them here… because they don’t have the capacity to maneuver the political system here in the US, they want to make sure that the policy community in Washington understands them better.”

In the 1990s, when the Clinton administration placed sanctions on the country in the wake of a brutal crackdown on the 1988 popular uprising, the then-ruling junta reached out to several PR firms to deal with its worsening image. Over the years, those firms have included Bain and Associates (founded by former television reporter Jackson Bain and his wife), Jefferson Waterman International and DCI Associates, a Republican-leaning lobbying firm now known as DCI Group.

In the past, bills for PR services were covered largely by Khin Shwe, a powerful businessman then in charge of the Zay Ka Bar construction company, who now serves in Parliament. At the time, news reports often speculated that the PR push was motivated by big oil and gas interests eager to have sanctions lifted.

But circumstances have changed. Sanctions have already been eased and business is already booming. Keeping the pace will require at least a veneer of successful reform, as the Burmese government has already made promises to its Western partners. This isn’t the first time the government has hired foreign firms to clean up its image in the United States, but it may well be the most crucial. Creating a pleasing image of the country and its leaders, however, could prove to be a tremendous challenge.