American foreign policy towards Myanmar part 1: ‘Blinded by the light’ of Wilsonian idealism

In the first of two articles analysing US foreign policy on Myanmar, Emeritus Professor Craig Klafter looks at the roots of recent attitudes to building Myanmar’s fragile democracy.

Myanmar is once again a pariah state. In January 2020, the International Court of Justice found that Myanmar had engaged in ethnic cleansing and genocide and ordered it to take measures to protect members of its “Rohingya” and other minority ethnic communities. On April 29, 2020, Yanghee Lee (U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar) condemned Myanmar for disregarding the International Court of Justice’s ruling. In November 2020, Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) disenfranchised more than 2.5 million voters, prevented another party from running, charged an opposition candidate with sedition for criticizing her and her government, and reduced the number of parliamentary seats needed to form the government to ensure re-election. And, on 1 February, 2021, the Tatmadaw once again took control of the government in a coup d’état. American foreign policy towards Myanmar was designed to help Aung San Su Kyi establish in Myanmar a liberal democracy in which human rights would be valued and protected. That foreign policy failed from the start because it was driven by idealism and wishful thinking rather than realism.

America’s most recent foreign policy towards Myanmar can be traced back to 2007, when Michael Green and Derek Mitchell published a plan in Foreign Affairs for future United States (US) engagement with Myanmar. The plan was highly influential with the Obama Administration as it developed a new policy for the country. Green and Mitchell acknowledged that “neither sanctions nor constructive engagement ha[d] worked” and contended that Myanmar had become “a serious threat to the security of its neighbours,” had engaged in “brutal and dangerous rule,” was responsible for the spread of narcotics, human trafficking, and HIV/AIDS through Southeast Asia, may have been “developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons,” had “initiated conventional weapons trade with North Korea” in violation of UN sanctions, and had “signed an agreement with Russia to develop what it [said would] be peaceful nuclear capabilities.”

The solution Green and Mitchell proposed was “a new multilateral initiative …  encouraging reform, reconciliation, and ultimately the return of democracy.” The members of the initiative were to be the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, India and Japan – all led by the US The initiative reflected the idealist doctrine of Wilsonianism. The US security was inextricably linked to democratization and it was naïvely assumed that collective security interests would even push China to help restore democracy in Myanmar. The initiative was generally adopted by the US.State Department in September 2009. In this way, idealism became the philosophical basis for the Obama Administration’s policy towards Myanmar.

The Obama administration correctly concluded, early in its tenure, that the hard-line policy toward Myanmar had failed. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton wrote, “By 2009, it was hard to argue that our policy of isolation and sanctions was working ….” She began the new multilateral approach to deal with Myanmar by engaging the individual member countries of ASEAN “to fortify the whole by solidifying ties with its parts.” However, in spite of her efforts, ASEAN took little action concerning Myanmar only issuing a “weak statement” about the “Rohingya” in 2018 and calling for “dialogue between Rohingya refugees and the Myanmar government” in 2019. It never even took action against Myanmar after it enacted protectionist regulations in violation of ASEAN treaties. ASEAN’s long-standing non-interference policy thwarted attempts to have it pressure Myanmar.

Secretary Clinton visited Myanmar on 1 December 2011 to encourage reform and to persuade Myanmar to sever ties with North Korea. Myanmar had purchased arms from North Korea and was suspected of providing it with Uranium. Clinton met independently with Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein. Soon after meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, she told a BBC reporter that “It was like seeing a friend you hadn’t seen for a very long time even though it was our first meeting.” Secretary Clinton saw in Aung San Suu Kyi a kindred spirit, and allowed her hope for Aung San Suu Kyi’s success to override pragmatic considerations (i.e., whether Aung San Suu Kyi had a realistic chance of winning election, whether she could and how she would govern Myanmar, and what would happen if she failed?).

When Secretary Clinton met with President Thein Sein, he requested assistance transitioning Myanmar to civilian rule. Thein Sein had led Myanmar’s reform efforts, which included taking steps to ensure a free press, allowing the NLD to operate and compete in elections, opening the country to foreign companies, and freeing many political prisoners. In spite of this, Secretary Clinton rebuffed his request opting instead to focus exclusively on supporting Aung San Suu Kyi.

After the meeting, Secretary Clinton revealed her desire to secure China’s cooperation noting “we welcome positive, constructive relations between China and her neighbors…So from our perspective, we are not viewing this in light of any competition with China.” From China’s perspective, however, US attempts to gain influence in Myanmar and shape it into a liberal democracy were regarded as a threat. Not only did China not cooperate, it eventually succeeded in countering US policy and in persuading Aung San Suu Kyi to have Myanmar become a partner in its Belt and Road Initiative.

Earlier that year, President Obama appointed Derek Mitchell to be the first US Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma. Mitchell had co-authored the 2007 article that led to the Obama Administration Myanmar policy. In 2012, President Obama appointed Mitchell the American Ambassador to Burma. The choice of Mitchell is revealing for he had no diplomatic experience prior to moving to Myanmar but had considerable election experience. In 1988, he was Personnel Director for Field Operations in California managing more than 500 grass-roots organizers for the Dukakis/Bentsen presidential campaign. In 1992, he was Logistics and Operations Manager of the United Democratic Campaign in California supporting Clinton/Gore, Boxer, and Feinstein. Mitchell’s background suggests that President Obama wanted an ambassador who could help Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD win the Myanmar general election in 2015.

On 19 November 2012, President Obama accompanied by Secretary Clinton visited Yangon. It was an historic first visit by a US president to the country. President Obama and Secretary Clinton met with President Thein Sein, who repeated his request for assistance in transitioning Myanmar to a civilian government. That request was once again rejected in favour of exclusively helping Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD gain power. President Obama met with Aung San Suu Kyi at her home, and gave a speech at the University of Yangon in which he advocated for a liberal democracy and the right of free expression, and offered training to the Tatmadaw. America’s new foreign policy towards Myanmar was confirmed. Born out of idealism, its goal was to shape Myanmar into a liberal democracy by supporting Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, securing the assistance of other countries, continuing to isolate the Tatmadaw and its political wing the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and training the Tatmadaw to behave as a model armed service.

Betting on Aung San Suu Kyi was risky and required wishful thinking. Her education and work experience did not instil confidence that she could rule a country. Aung San Suu Kyi earned a Bachelor of Arts in Politics from the University of Delhi and a Bachelor of Arts in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics with third-class honours from Oxford University. A third-class degree was a surprisingly poor result considering her prior education. She subsequently pursued a Master of Arts in International Relations at New York University but withdrew after just a few weeks. After returning to England, she pursued a Master of Philosophy in Burmese Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies but never finished her degree. Her work experience was even weaker for she was employed for just three years in an entry-level staff position at the United Nations Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, and had been serving as a Member of the Myanmar Parliament’s lower house for only a few months.

Ambassador Mitchell was effective in assisting Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. Under his direction, the Embassy’s American Center offered seminars and talks about the then upcoming general election including on why to vote, how to vote, and how to engage in field organising. Students studying English at the Center were required or incentivised to attend, and were cognisant of the Embassy’s and Center’s support for the NLD. Many of those students became organisers for the NLD. However, Ambassador Mitchell’s background and the involvement of American Center graduates in the NLD campaign made it appear that the US was interfering in the 2015 general election in support of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. It would have been better for the US government only to help ensure fair elections, as the European Union and Carter Center had done, rather than be perceived as putting its thumb on the scale in support of the NLD. The US would thus be  in a better position today to develop relations with other political parties.

The American bet looked in trouble soon after the NLD took power. Aung San Suu Kyi almost immediately displayed naivety. She had herself appointed State Counsellor of Myanmar, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of the President’s Office, Minister of Education, and Minister of Electricity and Energy. With all the ministerial titles, she took for herself responsibility for approximately 25% of the non-military government. She quickly realized that she could not handle all the responsibilities she assumed, and five days later resigned as Minister of Education and Minister of Electricity and Energy. This still left her unprecedentedly in charge of three ministerial posts.

Much of Aung San Suu Kyi’s attention during her first 100 days focused on organizing peace talks with the various insurgent groups – peoples that Bamar subjugated when they conquered what is today Myanmar between the early 9th and 18th centuries. Although peace is a noble effort, it is curious that this became her top priority. Insurgent groups have been active for more than a millennium and few of them have an incentive to pursue peace. For that matter, the Tatmadaw has also lacked such an incentive for fighting the insurgents has been its raison d’être and argument for commanding significant appropriations of state funds and maintaining the eleventh largest army in the world. Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts have not yet been successful.

With regard to other priorities, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD accomplished little to improve the economy, education, health care, transportation, and infrastructure. A key reason is that Aung San Suu Kyi has revealed hostility to private enterprise and instead relied exclusively on an inept public sector. At a meeting with women business leaders in Yangon in 2015, Win Tint (CEO of City Mart Holdings) asked Aung San Suu Kyi what the NLD planned to do to make it easier for businesses to operate. Aung San Suu Kyi berated her exclaiming that she should be more concerned about helping the people of Myanmar than running a business. City Mart Holdings is Myanmar’s largest retailer, and it has a reputation for social responsibility and paying and treating its employees, most of whom are women, well. The Myanmar government is staffed mostly by people appointed during military rule, and has been described as a “lethargic,” “inefficient,” and “corrupt” bureaucracy. Having relied on the public sector to implement reforms, the NLD finally acknowledged in 2019 that its efforts were not successful.

With the NLD’s assumption of power, Derek Mitchell was replaced by Scot Marciel (a career diplomat) as the American Ambassador to the Republic of the Union of Burma. Marciel took up his post on 25 March 2016. In less than a month, he found himself at odds with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar government, and most Bamar. On 20 April 2016, he issued a public statement expressing sorrow over the loss of “Rohingya” life in a ferry sinking off the coast of Rakhine State. The term Rohingya is incendiary among the Bamar who regard it as a term made up by illegal aliens in Rakhine State to claim false entitlement to Myanmar citizenship. Ambassador Marciel’s use of the term was confrontational and stood no chance of getting Bamar to change their attitude towards the Rohingya. He could have instead described them as “Muslims from Rakhine State” or just lamented the loss of life in the ferry sinking. Eight days later, hundreds convened outside the American Embassy to protest the Ambassador’s use of the term.

Ambassador Marciel asked protesters to focus on the intent of his letter (to express sorrow for the loss of life) rather than his use of “the term.” Aung San Suu Kyi requested that he refrain from using the term again, but Ambassador Marciel refused, claiming “communities have the right to self-identify.” However, this was a weak justification. The right he referenced is not enshrined in international law nor has it been ascribed to by the US government. Several Indian tribes self-identify by names other than the ones imposed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (e.g., Meskwaki, Schitsu’umsh, Niimíipuu, etc.). Ambassador Marciel’s continued use of the term Rohingya has ever since hindered his effectiveness.

Consistent with US policy, Ambassador Marciel also maintained no diplomatic contact with the leadership of the USDP. I met with the USDP leadership in late 2017, and duly reported my meeting to Ambassador Marciel. He commented that it was probably the first time the USDP leadership met with an American. I learned later from the Embassy’s Political Officer that no American Embassy official had ever engaged them. This should not have been the case. Diplomatic representatives of the US routinely meet with opposition party leadership around the world. This is particularly important in countries in transition for, as history has proven, there is a need for caution in alienating prior regimes. Both Mongolia and Thailand, for example, have returned prior regimes to power. By failing to meet with the USDP leadership, unfounded claims of American intentions and actions were left unchecked and permitted to take root. Moreover, the US has surrendered a channel of communication with the Tatmadaw about its treatment of the Rohingya.

Illiberalism and democratic illusions in Myanmar

မြန်မာနိုင်ငံရှိ တင်းမာသောအမြင်သဘောထားနှင့် ဒီမိုကရေစီလှည့်စားမှုများ - ဖွဲ့စည်းပုံအခြေခံဥပဒေပြင်ဆင်ခြင်းအား နိုင်ငံရေးစွမ်းဆောင်မှုအဖြစ် အသုံးချခြင်း

On 17 May 2016, the US Treasury announced that some sanctions on Myanmar would be removed to encourage its democratic and economic development. Sanctions were lifted from Myanmar ministries under civilian control and relaxed against American companies and individuals wishing to invest in Myanmar. A few days later, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Myanmar to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. At a joint press conference after the meeting, he lauded Myanmar’s progress and remarked that the transition to democracy was a “remarkable statement to people all over the world” and the new Government “has already accomplished extraordinary things.” What extraordinary things he was referring to were and remain a mystery, and appear to have been grounded in wishful thinking rather than reality.

In fact, the NLD government had faltered. Critical stories filled local newspapers and magazines about the NLD’s lack of progress. Aung San Suu Kyi remained near-exclusively focused on achieving peace with insurgent groups. The Myanmar Parliament debated issues excessively and produced very little. The Government had yet to put forth an economic plan and most of Myanmar’s businessmen and businesswomen (used to being directed by Myanmar’s socialist governments of the past) hesitated to risk capital to expand, diversify, or start new businesses. The economy slowed, and real estate prices dropped. A significant number of new hotels had been built in anticipation of an economic boom and substantial increase in tourism that did not materialize. On 2 December 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi was interviewed by Singapore’s Channel News Asia. She was asked what she was most pleased with in the nine months since her administration took over. There was a long pause and then she replied, “the fact that the ministers are not corrupt.” This was a remarkable statement. After nine months in office, this was the only thing to which she could point.

The idealism behind the 2009 shift in American foreign policy towards Myanmar was quickly stymied because it focused exclusively on supporting Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. The multilateral strategy did not work, and the belief that China could be recruited to help restore democracy to Myanmar was naïve. Ambassador Scot Marciel unnecessarily compromised his own effectiveness and failed to engage with the leadership of the USDP. The US’s new foreign policy towards Myanmar was off to a rough start.

More on Myanmar

New Books on Southeast Asia: Melissa Crouch on the Myanmar Constitution

On the unusual context for the drafting of the Constitution of Myanmar, and its impact on present-day politics.

China won’t end Myanmar’s conflict with the United Wa State Army

China will continue supporting Ethnic Armed Organisations with cultural and economic ties to China.

What lurks beyond the Belt and Road in Myanmar?

A reflection on China-Myanmar relations ahead of Xi Jinping’s visit on 17 January 2020.

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