The U.S. is formulating its next steps in Myanmar, including  gradual re-engagement with the country's military, with the aim of broadening  cooperation after several years of a multi-agency push to support a sensitive transition toward democracy. Current and former U.S. officials examined recent  efforts and outlined plans going forward during a panel discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace this week.

A Shan State Army - South rebel soldier walks through Bang Laem Village, Shan State, Myanmar, an area where poppy farming has flourished, Dec. 7, 2014. Growing opium poppies is illegal in Myanmar, but small-scale farmers see it is a relatively low-risk cash crop.
A rebel soldier walking through a village in Myanmar in 2014 in an area where illegal poppy farming has flourished. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)

The U.S., which imposed stiff sanctions on the generals who ruled Myanmar for 60 years, plans to reengage with the country’s military in a “limited and calibrated way,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy said at the May 9 event aimed in part at assessing the recent U.S. role in the country. While the Defense Department won’t establish conventional bi-lateral relations with Myanmar’s armed forces, the U.S. does need to open a relationship, he said.

“We want to incentivize and promote full civilian control. That’s going to take a lot of work.” – U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy

“Burma’s military has been a key institution—like it or not—since independence,” Murphy said at the event, using the official U.S. name for the country. “We want to incentivize and promote full civilian control. That’s going to take a lot of work.”

The U.S. also plans to press on with a range of programs aimed at strengthening the increasingly democratic state, Murphy said. The Treasury Department remains engaged in providing technical assistance on economic crime, counter-terrorism and revenue collection; the Labor Department has a two-year-old initiative to boost labor standards, working with unions, business, civil society and government; and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will maintain its support for a stable transition that includes a peace process to reduce communal violence and address decades of conflict between the government and ethnic minority groups.

Murphy called the situation of the 100,000 internally displaced Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in the majority Buddhist country, “problematic.” The U.S. has provided $85 million in assistance to vulnerable populations, he said, in part for resettlement. The new government is being encouraged to see the group as “an asset,” he said.

“This is going to be very bumpy,” Murphy said. “When you look at what’s been shoved under the carpet for a half century, the day of reckoning is here. It’s a lot to ask of a new government.”

Mobilized to Advance Change

The democratic reforms leading to that government’s election were encouraged and supported by a U.S. presence mobilized to advance change in Burma, particularly leading up to the 2015 elections, according to former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell and former USAID Mission Director Chris Milligan. Mitchell in 2012 became the first U.S. ambassador to the country since diplomatic relations were downgraded in 1990, and Milligan served with him as the first USAID mission director in 24 years. Mitchell is now a senior advisor at USIP.

Myanmar was Mitchell’s first diplomatic posting after a career in think tanks and the executive branch. While he said he didn’t know how an embassy was supposed to work, he did understand Burma and its delicate political moment as the formerly ruling generals relinquished control. By taking a holistic view of the country’s culture and politics, and organizing U.S. efforts in Myanmar behind a single strategic plan, the American embassy was able to play a significant role in the democratic transition, he said.

From the defense attaché to the economic officer to Drug Enforcement Agency personnel, every element of the U.S. presence in Burma contributed its knowledge and analysis to internal embassy working groups established to deal with issues that included the peace process, conflict-wracked Rakhine state and interfaith harmony. USAID’s job was to convince the Burmese people that democracy could deliver results that improved their lives, he said.

Clearly, it wasn’t up to any arm of the U.S. government to author change in a country where even political prisoners bristle at perceived high-handed interference by foreign powers, Mitchell said. The risk of making things worse by saying “the wrong thing at the wrong time” hovered over efforts to promote reform, as the nation threw off more than a half-century of dictatorship and coped with insurgencies by multiple ethnic armed groups, he said.

“It was a very, very delicate moment of rebuilding trust that had been lost between our peoples and governments,” he said. “We had to deal with government, military, civil society folks, the opposition, and they all came at issues in their different ways.”

'Mantras'

Mitchell said two “mantras,” posted on embassy walls, promoted his view of what the mission required. The first, “Facts without context is not truth,” spoke to his experience as a one-time scholar of Burma. For example, he said, Buddhist nationalism must be seen as stemming, in part, from Myanmar, which is wedged between China and India and also borders Bangladesh, with its 162 million Muslims. It’s no surprise Myanmar’s 53 million people feel vulnerable and insecure, he said.

Only by listening and understanding their point of view could constructive conversations take place—including discussion of the human rights of the Rohingya. The second mantra, “We will be partners in reform,” spoke both internally and to the Burmese; U.S. elements would work together with no “lecturing” to the country’s people.

The big goals for Myanmar were simple, Mitchell said: to help institute human rights, democracy and openness in the country’s political life.

The strategy for getting there with limited resources broke down to a five-point plan setting priorities for the embassy’s leadership. “In a country that needs everything, you can go all over the place,” Mitchell said.

National reconciliation: Working to hold the country together by political means rather than force in the face of little social trust and a military that has argued it’s essential to stability. “We measured AID and everything we did against whether we were contributing to national reconciliation.”

Democracy and Human Rights: Ensuring people had a voice, encouraging civil society and democracy ahead of the elections, and, in dealings with the military, promoting civilian control and democratic values.

Democracy Benefits: Showing democracy is able to deliver benefits in daily life through economic development and business opportunities.

Resilient Communities: Helping communities, with AID assistance, build resilience in health and education to deal with man-made and natural disasters.

International Citizenship: Ensuring that Burma was a good international citizen with regard to non-proliferation, drug trafficking and borders.

Milligan said that, in line with the strategic plan, he used development as a tool to further reform rather than seeing his mission as fostering development itself. For example, AID initiated a health survey that was tailored to the local environment and that, for the first time, got ethnic organizations to work with the central government, contributing to the strategic goal of national reconciliation.

To replicate the embassy’s campaign in other countries would require the flexible resources he had, the “right people” and structured coordination that breaks down bureaucratic walls, Milligan said.

“We set up thematic teams that were co-led to avoid turf fights and put out papers for discussion and agreement,” he said. “That kind of coordination doesn’t just happen. The U.S. managed to get the diplomacy right and this is an opportunity to think about why.”

USIP President Nancy Lindborg, who moderated the discussion, said such a systems approach is more important than ever.

For 18 months before the November 2015 elections, an embassy working group laid the groundwork for a democratic result, Mitchell said, coordinating with partners including the U.N., the U.K. and Denmark. The big challenges included dealing with 100 languages, 90 political parties and the worst floods in 50 years shortly before the vote, said Jonathan Stivers, USAID’s assistant administrator of the bureau for Asia.

But no matter was too small.

“We were constantly running to the elections commission on issues such as voter lists, registration, observers and poll watchers,” Mitchell said.

After former dissident Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition party, the National League for Democracy, won control of the parliament, which now includes 110 former political prisoners, the temptation is to say “mission accomplished,” Murphy said.

But the U.S. remains concerned about the power retained by the military under the 2008 constitution and is waiting to see whether the new government will embark on an “inclusive” peace process, he said. The situation of the Rohingya remains an unresolved international concern, he added.

“Transitions are hard,” he said. “Really hard.”

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