Tillerson Shows a Deft Touch in First Visit to Myanmar

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 18 November 2017

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson deserves credit for a job well done during his first visit to Myanmar.

On Wednesday evening, Tillerson flew out of the country having earned praise from observers for recognizing the complexity of Myanmar’s political situation and for his balanced and constructive handling of the Rakhine conflict.

Right after Tillerson’s briefing at a Nov. 15 joint press conference with Myanmar’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, the nation’s capital, the State Counselor said, “Well, just let me briefly thank Secretary Tillerson for his understanding of the situation.”

“We have discussed the matter in some detail, and we agree that it is most important that we should bring peace and stability to this country, and that can only be done on the basis of the rule of law,” she said.

Tillerson underscored that point in his briefing, saying, “The United States has stood with the people of Myanmar for many years in their struggle against oppression and their pursuit of a freer, more peaceful, more prosperous, and more democratic society. I’m here today in Naypyitaw to reaffirm our commitment to a successful democratic transition in Myanmar, and that commitment remains strong.

“We continue to support the elected government as it strives to make progress on urgently needed reforms, to solidify the democratic gains of recent years, and to bring peace and reconciliation, prosperity, and greater respect for human rights,” Tillerson said, emphasizing those most important points before turning to address the Rakhine issue.

Many people here – from the de facto leader to politicians to ordinary people – are quite worried that the Rakhine conflict will kill the country’s democratic transition, which remains fragile due to the highly unusual political situation in the country, in which power is constitutionally shared by the incumbent government and the military.

Lower House International Relations Committee member Daw Pyone Kaythi Naing described Tillerson’s message as “constructive and acceptable.” The NLD lawmaker added that Tillerson’s statement reflected the real situation in the country.

But the Secretary of State didn’t miss the opportunity to condemn those who deserve condemnation, or to offer condolences where warranted.

“We’re deeply concerned by credible reports of widespread atrocities committed by Myanmar’s security forces and by vigilantes who are unrestrained by the security forces during the recent violence in Rakhine State. We’re also distressed by the fact that hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children have been forced to flee to Bangladesh,” he said.

“We do condemn the August 25 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on Myanmar’s security forces that initiated this violence and reiterate that there is zero tolerance for such attacks. We express our condolences at the loss of life among the Myanmar security forces resulting from this unprovoked attack.”

Prominent politician U Ko Ko Gyi, whose political career dates back to the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, observed that Tillerson’s statement recognized the complexity of the country’s politics.

“His briefing shows that the US has carefully crafted its diplomacy so that it is on an appropriate track,” he said. “I would say it’s the positive outcome of a thorough analysis by the US and its diplomats on the ground. They talked extensively to important non-state actors to hear their perspectives. Effective diplomacy depends not only on relations between governments, but also with other non-state actors.”

U Ko Ko Gyi urged foreign countries like the US and the UK not to let their diplomatic efforts be overly affected by internal politics in their respective countries. He said foreign policies should take into account the political realities in the countries with which they have relations. “Otherwise, their diplomacy will be inappropriate for that country.”

With more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees having fled the country, Myanmar’s military leadership is likely to be targeted by US and EU sanctions for its internationally alleged “disproportionate military operation” against the Rohingya.

On that subject, Tillerson rejected the idea of broad economic sanctions against the entire country, expressing his preference for sanctions targeting individuals who were responsible for atrocities in Rakhine. However he said, “In terms of targeted individuals, I think, again, all of that has to be evidence based.”

U Thwin Lin Aung, the director of the civil society group Genuine People’s Servants, sees the Rakhine conflict as a crisis in which human rights violations took place. Regarding sanctions, he said it would be inconsistent to impose them for isolated violations in northern Rakhine alone, because there have been human rights violations in the east, north and south of the country as well. If sanctions are to be imposed in one case, they should be imposed in all cases, he said.

“However,” he concluded, “any solutions imposed to solve that crisis should not be allowed to obstruct the country’s unfinished democratic transition, which is most important for the entire nation.”

The military leadership may not be so appreciative of the stand Daw Aung San Suu Kyi took at the press conference, however. She didn’t defend them at all. Moreover, she seemed okay with Tillerson’s condemnation of the military and with his holding them accountable.

To most foreign observers and media, this will likely mean very little. But in the context of the political reality in Myanmar, where the military’s role in politics is a fact of life, such a gesture has grave implications for the relationship between her government and the powerful military.

Tillerson is aware of how important the civilian-military relationship is in Myanmar. In his briefing, he raised his meeting with military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, acknowledging that military support for Myanmar’s ongoing transition to a federal, democratic state is crucial.

“As part of that process, the military and government must work together to address the grievances of civilians throughout Myanmar and build strong, credible institutions. It cannot do so without acknowledging, addressing, and bringing to an end the tactics and practices that led to abuse and suffering,” Tillerson said.

At this stage, US diplomacy toward Myanmar is taking the right approach with respect to its handling of the two key, and distinct, stakeholders — the government and the military. At the same time, the US has demonstrated that it cannot afford to lose Myanmar as a potential ally in the Southeast Asia region, one that is poised to take off economically and democratically if the country can navigate this fragile political transition.