A year after the military coup, Myanmar’s diverse opposition is working together on an alternative to military rule. USIP’s Priscilla Clapp says while “it will take years to bring a consensus about for this new government, it’s a very good start … we have hope that there can be unity there if they work on it.”

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.

Transcript

Julie Mason 
Priscilla Clapp is currently a senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Asia Society. She's a retired minister counselor in the U.S. Foreign Service. Today is the oneyear anniversary of the coup in Myanmar. The United States Institute of Peace is releasing a report today. Priscilla, thank you so much for joining me to talk about this.

Priscilla Clapp 
Thank you, Julie. It's my pleasure.

Julie Mason 
I really feel like Myanmar does not get enough attention.

Priscilla Clapp 
Yes, it doesn't get enough attention. But I think it's about to get a lot more attention because Congress passed an amendment, the National Defense Authorization Act, in December that required the administration to come up with a new strategy for dealing with Myanmar. So the administration is working on that right now. And they have to report it to Congress probably around the end of February or early March. There's a lot of work right now on a major strategy and that's a very hopeful sign.

Julie Mason 
I mean, it's just been a terrible year there all around, top to bottom.

Priscilla Clapp 
Well, it's an unmitigated disaster. The coup that was staged a year ago today was a real mistake because the generals were so removed from the population that they misjudged the mood of the population. And the majority are against them, they do not want to return to military government. So they started demonstrating against the coup. And the military became violent. Really, so criminally violent — shooting people in the head and the chest, specifically to kill them, young people — that the population began taking up arms against the military, and now it has spread across the country into a large, locally organized civil war. And I would actually call it a revolution. Because what the people are fighting for is a totally different kind of government, that has under strict civilian control and it is federally organized, so that the individual states have much more autonomy than they do now. And even as they're fighting for their freedom, the opposition is sitting down and trying to plan this new government. It will take years to bring a consensus about for this new government, but it's a very good start. And our report has a series of recommendations that include supporting this opposition.

Julie Mason 
Is that opposition united though, Priscilla? I mean, so many times we've seen, I'm thinking of Syria, you know, they start fighting each other. Okay, tell us about that.

Priscilla Clapp 
It's not united. There are lots of different groups, but they are talking to each other. They've never actually agreed, but that's one of the problems for the country. They've never had a sense of national identity because there's so many different ethnicities, and they call themselves nations ... and the military has tried to unite them under the control of the dominant ethnic group, by force, and they've resisted that for seventy years. So there's been a war going on there of one sort or another for seventy years. Now, the ethnic groups–not all of them, but most of them–the major ones have joined in together and they're fighting together for the first time in history. So we have hope that there can be unity there, if they work on it. Now, the country is very large, Myanmar is the size of Texas, and it's got a population of about 52 million people. And so, the war is spread out over this large territory. And they're called peoples defense forces, they're organized locally, and they don't necessarily communicate with each other around the country, but they're beginning to. At the center of the opposition are several important groups. One is the National Unity Government that consists of people who are elected to the parliament that the military has overthrown. Then there is the National Unity Consultative Committee that consists of lots of different actors, including civil society, political parties, even some of the ethnic armies have representatives there. And, they are the ones that are designing a new charter and a new government for the country. So they're arguing through their differences right now. They're seeking unity. And that's a very hopeful sign.

Julie Mason 
Priscilla, can you tell us about the outside influence of Russia and China in efforts to get this country back together?

Priscilla Clapp 
Well, China is a large neighbor, they share a border of about fifteen hundred miles long. And you know, you can't get away from the geography, they are always going to be there. And China has great economic interests in Myanmar, because Myanmar is a very resource rich country, and China sees its mining jade and gold and copper and rare earths and things like that. And also, the food production in Myanmar is still relatively unpolluted compared to China. So food that is grown in Myanmar is very popular in China. And there's a very, very large amount of border trade. But China would like to build a route through Burma, Myanmar, to the Indian Ocean. That's not possible now, because it's so unstable, it's not really going to happen right away. It was underway during the NLD. Government with Aung San Suu Kyi as leader. And they had good relations with that government. This one is a bit rocky. But the Chinese, I'm not sure that they have officially recognized the government, but they are definitely working with it. They're talking to the military head of the government. But they're also still reaching out to the political parties in the country. So they're keeping their options open. The Russians, on the other hand, are really just sort of spoilers. They will move into any contested situation to try and make it even more contested. So they're in there selling arms. They don't give things away, they sell them. And they've sold the military, some very sophisticated weapons: jet fighters, helicopters, drones, heavy weapons that the military is using against their own people. The Chinese have been the traditional suppliers of military equipment, but the military isn't crazy about the Chinese equipment. It's sort of hand me downs. That's not as good as what they're getting from the Russians.

Julie Mason 
I'm sorry, we just have about a minute left, and I wonder if you could give us a brief look at some of the recommendations.

Priscilla Clapp 
Yes. First of all, we think the U.S. should lead international efforts to address the immediate need of humanitarian assistance. We've got to find ways of getting the assistance into the country, into the hands of the opposition. Right now, it's difficult, but it can get in. We can get it in through NGOs and through local organizations. The other urgent need is for protection for the opposition, both inside and outside the country. And we have a number of recommendations for how the United States can address that. But mainly we need to work with all of our allies and partners in the region to organize an effective means of isolating this regime and assisting the opposition and helping them move from where they are now to a much better future.

Julie Mason 
Priscilla Clapp is currently senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Asia Society. She is a retired minister counselor in the U.S. Foreign Service, including years spent in Burma. Priscilla, thank you so much.

Priscilla Clapp 
Thank you.

Julie Mason 
Really appreciate it. Have a great day.

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