Ambassador of the United States to Myanmar Mr Scot Marciel is upbeat on the positive changes in Myanmar as the new government continues the process to full democratization.
In an exclusive interview with Mizzima Editor In-Chief Soe Myint, coinciding with a move by Washington to put the declaration of dropping sanctions into action, Ambassador Marciel discusses a range of issues from investment to military-to-military contacts.
How do you view the visit of Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi to the United States last month and what was achieved in terms of bi-lateral relations?
Well it was a really important visit from our perspective. President Obama has paid a lot of attention to Myanmar. He has tried to make sure the United States has performed an important role in supporting the reform process going back now several years. And this visit was important because it was the first visit of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in her new role as elected leader. So it was an opportunity to look back at what has happened but also talk about how the United States can work going forward to continue the support for reform, the democratic process, the peace process, all of these things. And what the two leaders really highlighted was first they announced a new US-Myanmar partnership, which reflects that our relationship is really normalized, that we are now working together in a lot of areas, both to support Myanmar’s own agenda, and to see where we can work together in the region and globally on the issues. So that was important.
Of course the President Obama announced that we would be offering GSP benefits for Myanmar, that’s a way to help promote the economy, to help create jobs here, and he announced after careful consultation that we would be lifting the economic sanctions and that was a decision that was made because he decided that the best way to help the democratic transition of further reform was to lift the sanctions which were having a negative impact on the whole economy. So we thought lifting the sanctions was the best way going forward to help the reform process continue.
Can you tell us a little more in detail about the timeframe for the sanctions, for example those currently on the sanctions list, are they going to be dropped. What are the names, details and timeframe?
Sure. So the president’s decision is to lift or end the Burma sanctions programme, which really was targeted sanctions, as you mentioned, against some individuals and some companies that had been subject to targeted sanctions in recent years, the so-called Specially Designated Nationals List. There are a little bit over a hundred names on that list, both individuals and companies. So the White House will soon issue an Executive Order that will end that programme. It should happen in a matter of days or a week or two. And that will mean those people and those companies are no longer facing US sanctions, there will be no US economic sanctions against any company or individuals in Myanmar.
You mention the Myanmar economy. How will the dropping of US sanctions affect Myanmar?
What we saw, particularly after we eased sanctions this past May was that even though are sanctions were supposed to be very targeted, and they were technically very targeted, the impact they had was much broader and much more negative than what we wanted. What I mean by that is a lot of good international companies, not only US companies but other Western companies, they would look and they would see there are still US sanctions against Myanmar. And even though the sanctions might have been very narrowly focused, for a lot of companies, it raised the risk of doing business here. It just wasn’t worth it for them to do business here because they didn’t want to get caught up in any sanctions. And so what we saw was that sanctions were actually discouraging both good investment but also the financial transactions that are so essential for the health of this economy. And at the same time for this new government to succeed it needs to be able to show that they can deliver the jobs and increased prosperity for people.
So we didn’t want out sanctions to be making it harder for the new government to succeed, and that is what the lifting of sanctions is all about.
Is it also a big signal for American companies to invest in Myanmar?
Well, certainly that’s one of the impacts we hope to see. We would like to see more US companies invest here. We think there are good opportunities. And we think that American companies coming in and investing with high standards, good corporate governance, hiring and training local people, following all the laws of the country can contribute quite a bit to Myanmar’s economic development and to the government’s efforts to make sure there is good broad-based growth that protects the environment, protects workers’ rights, and creates jobs and prosperity.
I would like to touch on the relationship of military to military between the two countries. What is the current stage of the military to military relationship, especially with the Myanmar Armed Forces?
We have some limited engagement between our two militaries. In fact we had the Deputy Commander of the South Pacific Command was here earlier this week and he met the Deputy Commander in Chief General Soe Win earlier this week.
Basically, there are a lot of things we are still not doing between the two militaries. There are certainly no arms sales. There are no joint exercises happening or any kind of traditional military training. But we are doing some engagement, some education work with the Tamadaw as again as a way to try to highlight the US model and we hope encourage continued reform within the Myanmar military.
But overall, I would say it is the one part of the relationship that is still quite limited.
But there will be no arm sales?
No arms sales.
Is it the same programme that I heard a few days ago about US support for civic-military relationship in Myanmar?
Yes. As your know our military, which we are quite proud of, is a professional military that is under full civilian control, that reports to civilian leadership. Of course, the people of Myanmar have to decide their own future but we think talking to the military and others about how civilian control of the military works, about you can develop a very professional, respected military that is under civilian control, is something that is useful for us to do. So General Hutchfield, the deputy Pacific commander, met with General Soe Win, as I mentioned. He also spoke with officers at the National Defence College. He also met with ethnic groups and civil society, because we want to be very transparent about what our military-to-military relationship is, make sure everybody knows what we are doing, but also what we are not doing.
I would like to reconfirm US position on Myanmar when it comes to the military’s role in the politics in the country. Whatever you are doing, for example are you going have second thoughts on the 2008 Constitution, on the issue of military parliamentarians?
Well, our position is that in a democracy the people of Myanmar should be able to decide these issues. It is not for the United States to say do this or do that. But the people of Myanmar and democracy should be able to decide these things, what kind of constitution they want, if they want to make changes to the constitution and the appropriate role for the military.
But generally, as President Obama has said in the past during his visits, we think there are parts of the constitution that don’t reflect a full democracy. I think many other people have said that. Again, we want to leave it to the people of Myanmar to decide how they want to proceed but we would like to see Myanmar continue to move towards a full democracy in which there is civilian control of the military.
I would like to go back to the investment issue. In your opinion, what does the Myanmar side need to do make it easier for foreign investors and companies to invest in Myanmar?
I think these days in the world, whether it is the Myanmar economy or the US economy, foreign investment is critical. I don’t think any country these days can prosper without being part of the international economy, and that means being open to trade and investment. So that is very important.
First, I would say that the government, parliament, has just passed the Myanmar Investment Law, which was a very important step that will hopefully encourage more investors. There is other work to do that the government has recognized, improving the infrastructure, including making sure there is adequate electricity, power. Continuing to work on the rule of law.Streamlining the bureaucratic procedures to make it easier to invest. But I think also working with the public and foreign investors to show the people of Myanmar that foreign investors can really contribute. Because I know there are people in this country who are understandably concerned about foreign investors. They want to make that those foreign investments are going to really help, and that is fair. I am very confident that American investors coming in will be fine in following the laws and hiring local people, and training them, and becoming part of the local community and contributing to Myanmar. So I think there is a lot of work to do to win that broad support from the public for foreign investment.
Overall, how do you see the US-Myanmar relationship changing under the National League of Democracy-led government in Myanmar?
Well the relationship has improved greatly over the last five years in response to the reforms that have taken place here. With the elections last November and the transition to the new elected government in Myanmar, that has made it easier for us to grow even closer. So the relationship is very good, it’s expanding, we are working together in more areas, including how to work together to promote education and health. How do we deal with the narcotics problem, is there more we can do on law enforcement. But also on regional and international issues, whether it is climate change or transnational crime threats, things that threaten the region in both of our countries. I think there are huge opportunities out there and that is really what the partnership that the President and State Counselor announced is supposed to address. It creates a mechanism for us to work together on all these elements. So short answer, the relations are very, very good and will improve.
Is North Korea still a thorny issue in bilateral relations, as it used to be?
What I would say is that North Korea’s actions are raising a lot of concern around the world, in the region, and in the United States. I wouldn’t describe it as a thorny issue between our two countries. It is an area where we talk and try to figure out how we can work together to address a country that is very concerning for all of us.
What do you think of Myanmar’s democratization process, especially after the November 2015 elections?
Well I think it has come a long way. There is no question. I started visiting your country in 2005. When I look at the situation now compared with then, there is no comparison. Dramatic progress. Obviously, you had elections. You now have an elected government, an elected parliament, at least 75 percent of the seats are elected parliamentarians, you have much greater freedom of press of course and movement on rule of law, the release of political prisoners. So there have been great accomplishments. I think everyone recognises there is more work to do. As a country that been a democracy for more than two hundred years we realise you never stop we also have to work to strengthen our democracy. So I think, I know, that the government is trying to improve rule of law is still to address some old laws that may not be appropriate for a democratic society.
There is still work to do, obviously, on the peace process. I think part of building this democracy is building a federal democracy in which all of the people in the country feel their rights are protected that they enjoy the same rights and the government is obviously trying to do this. It is not easy task. So you can look and see there is still plenty of work to do, but that doesn’t change the fact there’s been really remarkable progress here. And I think the people of Myanmar should be proud of that.
We have a peace process going on for about ten years and there is fighting in the north these days. What do you think of that?
I think we have always supported the peace process. No country can be successful amid tensions. So we strongly support the peace process. We’ve told the government and the ethnic armed groups that if there is anything we can do to help we will certainly try to be helpful. I think the recent conference, the 21st Century Panglong conference, was an important step but much more work needs to be done.
We are very concerned about the fighting in Kayin State, in Kachin State, in Shan State. I was in Kachin State about a week ago. There seems to be increased fighting there. People are very concerned, there are a lot of internally displaced people. More than 80,000 is the figure that I have been told and restrictions on humanitarian access them which is troubling. So it is not for us to point any fingers but clearly this increased fighting is making it harder to achieve peace and of course it is affecting people, citizens of this country, in a very problematic way. So we have expressed hope, and issued a statement expressing hope, that those involved in the fighting will work hard to step back from the fighting, to reduce the fighting, and to work hard and to ensure there is humanitarian access to any displaced people so the peace process can continue.
Besides the fighting, in your opinion, what are the main challenges with Myanmar’s democratic transition?
Well the peace process going forward not only to reach a ceasefire but to have a political dialogue to work out the type of federal union that you want to have. That is going to take time. That is hugely important. I think dealing with the communal conflict in the country is also an issue. It has been particularly noticed of course in Rakhine State but there have been some challenges in other places. So think continued work on that. I think building institutions, strengthening parliament, including regional and state parliaments, and rebuilding the education and health sectors. These things will take time but they are all very important. And I think obviously fundamental development, creating more jobs, trying to build an economy that is very inclusive that create a lot of opportunities for people throughout the country. Again all of these things are going to take time but they are very necessary. I think the government is recognising this and is working very hard as is civil society and the others. So plenty of challenges, but I think a lot of positive momentum. And I see a lot of people in the government and outside the government who see a lot of opportunities and are working very hard to try to build a stronger country.
People in Myanmar are quite closely watching the elections in your country. Do you think there will be a change in policy on Myanmar if there is a change of government in the United States?
Well one way or another we will certainly have a new president and a new administration. What I would say is it is difficult to predict with certainty all of the details on foreign policy of any incoming president. But what I would say, and I was just in Washington a few weeks ago during the State Counselor’s visit, and I had a chance to talk to many members of Congress from both parties. What I would say is there is strong support in both parties for doing all we can to continue to be a partner and good friend to the people of Myanmar. That means strong support for continuing to do all we can to support Myanmar’s reform and democratic transition. I would like to predict all the details but I am quite confident there will be strong support for what the people of Myanmar are trying to do.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would just say as an American, not even as the Ambassador, we really admire what the people of this country have accomplished. It is very easy for some people to get discouraged because there are so many challenges. But when we look around the world we see this place as a place that has achieved a lot and has the opportunity to continue to make great progress and we are going to be a good friend and do everything we can to support that.