US Ambassador stresses close ties with Myanmar despite tension over the Rakhine crisis

30 January 2020
US Ambassador stresses close ties with Myanmar despite tension over the Rakhine crisis
Photo: U.S. Embassy Rangoon

In a wide-ranging public discussion in Yangon, U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel stressed that contrary to perceptions, Washington is continuing its strong engagement with Myanmar, despite the fallout over the Rakhine crisis, and the imposition of targeted sanctions against military personnel.

Ambassador Marciel was speaking in a public discussion on U.S.-Myanmar relations with the United States at the American Center Yangon, moderated by Nyantha Maw Lin, Managing Partner of The Burgundy Hills Company.  

The conversation was an opportunity to reflect on the U.S.-Myanmar relationship as the world begins a new decade.  The discussion included an open question and answer session with the audience. 

Mr Marciel stressed the importance of his country’s engagement on a number of levels, political, economic and social, including their extensive agricultural training and partnerships, and acknowledged the changing geopolitical scene, including the perceptions of the political troubles taking place in Washington, though without spelling out that US President Donald Trump faces impeachment proceedings.

The United States investment in Myanmar reached more than 1.5 billion US$, said the U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar during the policy discussion.  

However, the official investment number of United States for Myanmar was low. As of December 2019, US was the 13th largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Myanmar with US$ 531.136 million while Singapore top the list with more than 22 billion US dollars and followed by China and Thailand, according to the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration.

Marciel explained that “It is because a lot of US investment in the region not only in Myanmar comes from the regional headquarters often based in Singapore or Bangkok or Hong Kong. So the US companies technically it comes in Singapore, in Thai or in Hong Kong investment.”

“So what we did was we worked with US companies just to count four or five largest investments asked how much they have invested.”

“And just four or five largest are already 1.5 billion. There is more that we haven’t counted smaller investments,” he added. 

Meanwhile, Myanmar has permitted over 1.83 billion US dollars of investment capital in the first quarter of the current fiscal year 2019-2020, according to the DICA.

As he noted, the United States has provided over $1.5 billion in investment and over $1.5 billion in assistance since 2012. “That assistance is all grants, it is not loans that have to be paid back, that is the way we do our assistance,” he said.

The Ambassador said he was optimistic for Myanmar when it came to developments in the agricultural sector, noting that his government was working very much with the government and banks to increase micro-financing, directly with farmers, particularly with projects concerning such crops as coffee, melons and sesame in several areas including Shan State, Magway and recent expansion into Kachin State.

“We work directly with partners, we ask them – what do you need – production but also to get access to markets. Your farmers have been really successful in coffee, a process significantly higher than what they were getting before. This is directly improving the lives of farmers and that is really what we are after,” he told the audience.
The Ambassador voiced his interest and concern over Myanmar’s ongoing peace process.

“First I can tell you, we share the goal identified by Myanmar of achieving peace through a political agreement that brings about a federal democratic system. You will have to decide what type of federalism, that is up to you. Our federal system, we can share the experience but you will have to come up with something for Myanmar, but we strongly support that, one that isn’t just about ceasefires but makes all the people, particularly the ethnic minority communities in many of the states that feel like – whether you agree with them or not – many of them feel like they haven’t been treated equally. And it is really important to address that. We have our own challenges in the United States with minority groups feeling like they are not treated equally and it is really important to address that,” he noted.

“The formal peace process, as everybody knows, has not been moving very well. I don’t say that to be critical, it is a very complicated situation because you have so many different groups and they don’t all have exactly the same views. But we are always encouraging people to sit down and talk, and to try to understand the grievances of the other side because I think that is really important. We are sharing ideas about how federalism can work but in the end, it will take the political will,” the Ambassador said.

One aspect that he is concerned with is who is involved in the peace process.

“Right now the people who are negotiating this are the men with guns. The people who are suffering, for the most part, are the innocent farmers, villagers or whoever. They are the ones who don’t have much of a voice, sadly, not only in Myanmar but in other places with conflict. So I hope over time the people without guns will get more of a voice,” the Ambassador said.

“Sorry, that’s me, pushing my values on you, so forgive me for that but I do think it is important that the people who don’t have guns have more of a voice and more opportunity to push this peace process forward, including importantly, women,” he noted.

“In the meantime, what we are trying to do is encourage dialogue but also at the local community level, through development programmes that we hope to create opportunity but also wherever possibly bring communities together, bring more harmony among different communities to try to create a better environment for peace long term,” the Ambassador said.

One issue that is problematic is the U.S. government’s relationship with the Myanmar military.

“We continue to talk to the military – we don’t have a particularly close relationship between our militaries for reasons that are obvious but we continue to have dialogue – it doesn’t get better if you don’t talk – sit down together and try to find compromises,” he said.

In terms of Myanmar’s position in the region and the world and foreign policy, including relations with neighbours India and China, he put the stress on Washington’s focus on the ASEAN region and the desire for each country to remain fully independent, making their own decisions, enjoying a strong ASEAN relationship which the United States feel s is very beneficial, and having good relations with its neighbours, India and China. It is essential, so what Washington wants is to be a good partner with Myanmar as well.

In reply to a question as to whether Myanmar will see a stable U.S. foreign policy, given the turmoil back in Washington, he noted: “We always have domestic politics, that is one of the joys of being a democracy, I guess what I would say, I can’t predict the future, but what I would say is during the 15 years I have been working with Myanmar, starting with the George W Bush administration, President Obama’s administration and now President Trump’s administration, the policy has been very consistent, it’s been very consistent, and generally each administration likes to highlight what is different from its predecessor. As a career diplomat, who is not political, I see mostly consistency when it comes to US policy towards Myanmar and I would expect that to continue.”

In response to a question posed by Mizzima concerning the Myanmar elections near the end of the year and the U.S. relationship with the Tatmadaw, he said: “First, we very much value elections, we look forward to watching them, we are providing technical assistance to try to help the Union Election Commission and other groups, try to make sure the elections are as open and transparent and technically as good as possible, meaning as many people  as possible are able to vote, and these sorts of things.”

But it is not up to Washington to take sides.

“As far as who should win and who should lose, that is up to you, we have enough trouble with who should win and who should lose in our country, so we will leave that part up to you, but of course we hope and expect a free and fair and competitive election and we think it is wonderful that you have a lot of political parties, and I hope there will be an active campaign and debate, whoever you decide should win, that is up to you,” the Ambassador said.

“On the second issue, the relationship with the military, I guess my answer is it depends, as I said, we try to maintain communications with the Tatmadaw, sometimes it has been a little bit difficult. It depends, to the extent that the Tatmadaw is able to shift towards an approach that is showing more respect for human rights, not only in Rakhine but across the board, that will make it much easier for us to start to build a relationship with the Tatmadaw, more of a relationship, that would be our hope and I don’t know in terms of the ICJ, if the State Counsellor has talked about in the Hague, the aftermath of the Independent Commission of Enquiry report, hoping there will be legal action taken by the military with regards to human rights, we would welcome that, it would be a positive step,” he said.

“But I don’t know, so it would really depend and again we, around the world, and in this region, the more that militaries strive to protect human rights, the more we would be able and interested in working with them. And progress is what we are looking for. We don’t expect perfection anywhere, but progress is what we are looking for,” the Ambassador said.

He stressed the United States was not about punishing countries when it comes to sanctions.

“Imposing sanctions is to encourage different behaviour – only on military units that are responsible for serious human rights violations – not economic sanctions that might hurt citizens – we have been very, very careful to avoid sanctions that would bring harm to normal citizens,” he said.

“I guess what I would say is that we have certainly urged the government to address human rights violations and the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine,” the Ambassador said.

“If Myanmar wants to have a closer relationship with China, that is a decision for Myanmar to make. We are focused on having a strong relationship ourselves with Myanmar and Myanmar will choose to have better or worse relations with other countries, that is up to Myanmar,” Mr Marciel said.