New British Ambassador discusses Myanmar’s democratic progress, press freedom and the Rakhine crisis

19 October 2018
New British Ambassador discusses Myanmar’s democratic progress, press freedom and the Rakhine crisis
British Ambassador Daniel Chugg. Photo: Thet Ko for Mizzima

Mizzima TV Editor Myo Thant recently sat down with the new British Ambassador Mr Daniel Chugg to discuss his country’s relations with Myanmar and the challenges the country faces today.

Britain has long been a friend of Myanmar, cherishing its relations even during the hard times of the former military regimes, and supported Aung San Suu Kyi. How do you view that relationship today?

Well, thank you very much for inviting me here today I am delighted to be here. You are right the UK has been a very strong supporter of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for a very long time and her struggle to bring more democracy to Myanmar. And of course, we were absolutely delighted when she won the elections and she became state counsellor and we continue to support her and support her government. And we think there is a lot of reform happening, there is a lot of good work happening, there is a lot of thinking happening and the UK likes to consider itself a friend of Myanmar and we do what we can to support the government with a lot of those reforms. 

So, for example last year we spent 200 million US dollars in Myanmar. We are the second largest bilateral donor after Japan and a lot of that money went to help the state counsellor’s government with health, education and nutrition and really trying to help push those policies through to make a change in Myanmar.

Britain welcomed the democratic decision of the Burmese people to vote in a government led by the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi. How do you view the progress of this administration?

So, of course, they won overwhelmingly in the elections and formed a government and I think the world had unrealistic expectations really about what could happen in the time frame that it could happen and so I think people put a lot of pressure on the Myanmar government to change everything overnight. 

Now, of course we know that's not possible and so it is important to look clearly at the progress that has been made here and I have heard from a lot of people since I became ambassador that things are improving on an everyday basis. So, there are more roads, there are more children going to schools in rural places, there are more women entering the workforce, the economy is growing at a healthy rate. There's no fear in the communities in the way that there was before and also in some of the regions and the states there is more accountability which is coming through the local Hluttaw and there is more transparency, particularly around budgets. So, I think all of those things have come about as a result of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and I think they are all things to be celebrated.

It is clear that there is a problem with Myanmar's transition to democracy so how do you view the challenges?

So, I think people that live here understand the constraints which are on the government from the 2008 Constitution. Obviously the military still hold a block in the parliament, they still control certain parts of the government and they still have an enormous budget for the military itself and that makes it very difficult in terms of the progress to democracy because it is not entirely clear how that constitution is going to change and I think that is also very closely related to the peace process and the desire for greater unity across the country. 

So, I think people recognize that it's a challenge and that it’s difficult. I think the key thing will be do people keep remembering what it is that people have been fighting for, for so long here and it's about democracy and that's also about the rule of law and it's about human rights and I think if people keep pushing for those things and challenging the people who are not supporting those things then that will help.

An obvious problem is the government's handling of the Rakhine crisis. How do you view this?

Well, it's not for me to tell the Myanmar government what to do and I would certainly not want to do that but I think the experience of other conflicts shows that dialogue and communication are vital. We had our own peace process in the UK and you needed the formal talks between the different parties but also informal talks were really important. Finding ways for people to sit quietly in a restaurant or a bar together or go on a trip together or have an argument together and get it out of their system. All of those things away from the main negotiating table are really important, so I think those kinds of aspects, particularly on the peace process, are very important. 

And I think another aspect as well is that it's really important to know that the international community really supports Myanmar and really supports Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and really wants there to be a success. So, in the UK, for example, people for many, many years were shouting free Aung San Suu Kyi and they were protesting outside of the Burmese Embassy. And they really want her to succeed and so, and I think it is easy sometimes when you are under pressure and it's difficult running a country to forget that people out there are your friends and so I suppose my message would be to encourage them to remember that they have got lots of friends in the international community and they should reach out to those of friends and reach out to those people and seek their conversations, seek their counsel, seek their advice, their support, guidance and their money and use their friends as much as they can.

How much is the 2008 Constitution a hurdle?

Well, there is no doubt that the 2008 Constitution makes it difficult. You know the fact is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi couldn't become president because of the constitution. She had to become State Counsellor. It means that it's difficult to change the constitution because of the constitution and so there is no doubt that this is difficult. But I think you know what could be done and maybe this is what the government is thinking about, is you know looking at little areas how can they reform that area a little bit, how can they reform that area a bit, how can they reform that area a bit using the ordinary legislative process and seeing that if gradually, over time, they can create more and more space for the civilian government, which enables them to show what they are doing and to perhaps make it more difficult for the military to block them.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has asked for action over the Rakhine crisis. What is Mr Hunt hoping to achieve?

So, our foreign secretary was here last week and he was quite clear that he doesn't hold the government responsible for what happened in Rakhine. It wasn't the government that launched the initial attacks and it wasn't the government who used a disproportionate amount of force to respond to those attacks. It was the military and I think that it’s important for the international community to recognise that there is a difference between what the military is doing on the ground in some of the parts of the country and what the government is in control of and trying to achieve. 

And so the recent fact-finding mission from the UN made it very clear that not just in Rakhine but also in Kachin and Shan, you know, the military is behaving in a way that is outside international norms and outside of international law. And so, the first thing is to be clear that this is not the government, this is the military, but the second thing is the government also, of course, has to respond and again this is a very difficult position for the government, not created by them, particularly in Rakhine where you have had decades of tension between different communities and changes in law which have made it more difficult for some groups than others. 

And so it's a really complicated, challenging situation for the government and I think that one thing they could do is just be more open publicly, both with people in Myanmar and people in the international community. Firstly, that this is a challenge and difficult, secondly, that mistakes have been made and thirdly, that they want to, that they recognize the gravity of the situation but they want to do what they possibly can to hold the perpetrators to account and to get to the truth of what happened. 

Now some of those things they are doing. They have set up a commission of inquiry, but I think what would be very helpful is if the government was more outspoken explaining what was happening, explaining what they wanted to see happen, explaining what they thought the final position would be, just to give a little bit more confidence to the international community that they really understand how serious the situation is and that they are going to try and do their best to solve it. And as I said earlier the international community is there to help. They want to support and people have been offering lots of support in terms of money, in terms of advice, in terms of expertise because people know this is a really difficult problem and we want to help the Myanmar Government.

Many critics have attacked Aung San Suu Kyi over her handling of the Rakhine crisis. How do you view this criticism? Is this valid?

Well, I think I will answer that question with a little story. So, not so long ago I went to visit Rangoon General Hospital, Yangon General Hospital, and I saw that there is a big plan there to repair the hospital, regenerate the hospital, rejuvenate the hospital and they were explaining to me that this is going to take about 25 years because while they're repairing it they’re still using it as a hospital. Now it would be much easier for them if they just moved everybody out, then they could repair it in three or four years and then they could move everybody back in again. But of course that's not possible they have to keep using it as a hospital and I feel in a way that could be a metaphor for Myanmar which is that you know,  the hospital was built in colonial times and some of the infrastructure here was built in colonial times. It's no longer fit for purpose it needs to be repaired, rejuvenated and yet the country has to keep on going while that process is happening, which makes it very difficult and it means it's going to take quite a long time. 

So, I think people have to be patient and recognize that this is difficult, the country has had sanctions for years, it's had a military dictatorship for years, it has been cut off and isolated from the international community for years, these things can’t just all be fixed overnight. It's going to take a while, so I think that would be my message to the people of Myanmar that they need to be patient. 

Let me ask on the Rakhine crisis question. So, for instance, the UN secretary-general has asked for assistance. So, what is it that Mr Hunt is hoping to do? 

So, I think the key point is that firstly, a crime has been committed in Rakhine. Everybody knows that there’s argument about who committed those crimes and what happened but it's very clear following the fact-finding mission reports that the original attacks took place by ARSA and they killed some people. But then there was a military reaction which was quite disproportionate and brutal that has led to 700,000 people leaving the country with many, many reports of people having being killed or raped or tortured. 

And so clearly terrible things have happened in Rakhine and so the first thing is that the people who are guilty of terrible things need to be brought to justice because that's only fair on the victims and it's the only way we will stop it happening again. And that's a difficult process because the military cannot be tried in civilian courts, the constitution prevents various things from happening and so part of it is that the military themselves need to put in place accountability mechanisms to make sure that those people who were responsible for crimes can be found guilty and punished. But alongside that, the civilian government also needs to make clear to everybody what it is that they're trying to do to solve this problem. Some of those issues are about accountability and they've set up a commission of inquiry to help with that, but that commission of inquiry needs to be really independent, it needs to be really credible so that people trust it and it needs to lead to some sort of accountability. 

But aside from accountability people want the refugees to come back and that means fixing some of the longer-term problems in Rakhine State which is about community cohesion, it's about freedom of movement, it's about citizenship laws, it's about moving people out of IDP camps and into their villages, it's making sure people have got education and health and enough to eat and so there's a lot of difficult, difficult problems that need to be dealt with. 

So, I think what the government could usefully do is just explain what they are doing and explain how it's going to work and explain how they are going to solve these problems and where they're difficult say, these are really difficult things, and actually if anybody's got any good suggestions, we'd be open to them. I think that would be very helpful. 

How do you view Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s position regarding the Rakhine crisis?

So, I think the position that she's in is an extremely difficult one. This is, in any event, a very challenging job that she has. It must be one of the most difficult jobs in the world and the Rakhine crisis has made it even more difficult and I am sure she would not want the Rakhine crisis to be the major event through the time that she is State Counsellor. So, that's the first thing to say is that it's very difficult. The second thing to say is that you know, I live here, I talk to government officials and ministers all the time and I know that there is a lot of work happening behind the scenes and that they're working tirelessly to try and deal with some of these problems and so I'm not going to sit here and criticize the government because I know how hard they're working. 

The only thing that I would say is that the State Counsellor is so well known around the world, you know she has so much gravitas, she has so much moral authority people listen when she speaks you know and I sometimes wonder if perhaps she could just speak a little bit more and use that moral authority just to, you know, to give credibility to the government's actions and to convince the world that the Myanmar Government is gripping this very difficult problem.

Another concern in Myanmar is the freedom of the press. As you know, two Reuters journalists were recently jailed. How do you view this situation in Myanmar?

So, I think that in any democracy freedom of the press is extremely important. In the UK the government often complains about the media. Governments always complain about the media because it's the media’s job to try and uncover the truth and ask difficult questions and they sometimes write things that we in government don't like, but we just have to tolerate that because it's so important that there are people asking those questions and there are people making governments feel uncomfortable. 

So, I really believe and the British government really believes in freedom of the press, freedom of the media, freedom of expression is really fundamental in a sort of check and balance in a democratic society.

And so from a point of principle of freedom, you know, this is really a very important freedom. 

And then another aspect of a democratic society is the rule of law and the idea of the rule of law is that, you know, everybody is treated equally under the law, you know, whether you are the richest person or the poorest person the most successful or the least successful everybody gets the same chance and that's really important as well, because that's about fairness and people need to know that they going to be treated the same, whether they are rich or poor and they're going to get access to justice. 

And I think the trouble with the case of the Reuters journalists is that it's raised lots of questions about freedom of expression, it's raised lots of questions about the rule of law because people that have followed the trial very closely, including people in the British Embassy and we went along to several of the hearings and have seen the case progress. You know, we’ve seen that there was no case to answer, we have seen that these journalists haven't done anything which is against the laws of Myanmar and so the fact that they are now in prison for seven years … shows that there has been a problem with the process, that somewhere along the way due process has not been followed and that's … that's an unhappy situation because it makes people question the rule of law and it also makes people question the commitment to freedom of the media. 

So, that's why people have been outspoken about it, because you know the worry is that other journalists now will be worried and they will say, actually I am not going to ask those difficult questions or even worse I'm going to stop being a journalist because it’s too dangerous and then that's a big problem for society when journalists start saying that. So, my hope is that … using the laws that are available to the government, using the processes that are available to the government that they will be able to find a way that shows they are committed to upholding rule of law and freedom of the media.

There are concerns that journalists will be worried about their life when they report something or when they talk about something. So, what is your message to journalists?

So, my message would be … keep standing up for democracy and keep standing up for your rights and keep asking the difficult questions and keep doing your investigations and your investigative journalism because you are serving a really important purpose for society.

On a different subject, Britain has been attempting to provide training for the military in Myanmar. How is this programme progressing? 

Yes, so we were increasing our cooperation with the Myanmar military a few years ago because we knew that they were wanting to, if you like, normalise and become an ordinary military that … is in barracks rather than running the country and we thought that they were committed to this and we were keen to help with this modernization process. But, then after what transpired in Rakhine State and some of the things that we heard about and we saw of what the military was doing, we felt that it wasn't the case that they were committed to modernization and committed to respecting human rights and at that point we didn't feel that we could be part of that process of training them. So, we ceased our cooperation, we ceased our training of the Tatmadaw at that point.

How are the trade and investment links with British companies here in Myanmar and how is trade? 

Well, it's pretty good, but I hope it will get better in the time that I am ambassador. I say to everybody that I am very committed to promoting Myanmar as a place for British companies to do business and a place for foreign companies to invest. I think that it's really important that Myanmar's economy grows and anything that we can do to help Myanmar's economy grow is good for Myanmar, but it is also, of course, good for British business that they are doing business here. So, it's one of those areas which is win-win for our bilateral relations. So, it's something that I'm pushing for and I'm talking to British business about. 

The UK, I think, we are the fifth largest investor ever in Myanmar, our total stock of investment here is more than 4 billion dollars and our trade last year was about five hundred million dollars, which was up 20 per cent from the year before.  So, it's growing but it's still relatively small in global terms and so I hope those figures will improve while I am here.

How has the Rakhine crisis affected this drive?

Well, there is no doubt that the Rakhine crisis has been bad for the economy because people around the world, if they were thinking of investing in Myanmar before, this will have made them think again and I know of at least one big international company that has paused its projects when it was about to invest a lot of money here and that’s as a direct result of the Rakhine crisis and the worry that it will impact on their reputation. 

People are also worried about their security coming here and people are worried about things like the rule of law and will the rule of law hold if they have a contractual dispute. So, I think there’s no doubt that … events over the last year have been bad for the economy and bad for foreign investments and so I just hope that the country will be able to turn a corner and investor confidence will come back and the confidence to do business here will come back.

What needs to be done to improve the situation?

So, I think so much of this is about confidence. And I have talked about confidence before and I think that …Myanmar and the Myanmar Government they need to give confidence to the international community that they're in charge, that they're in control, that they're dealing with these big problems that they've got. They need to convince the international community, yes they're difficult but this is what we're going to do and I think people are wanting to be convinced. 

But, if the international community gets a sense that, that sort of sweeping problems under the carpet or burying the head in the sand, then that doesn't give people confidence and then they'll be more likely to go to Thailand or Vietnam or somewhere else when they're thinking about doing business and when they’re thinking about going on holiday.

Let me ask another question, in 2011 and 2015 elections there were campaigns by NLD members or NLD party telling people it is time for a change. Do you see this change happening in the country?

So, I think there has been a change. I wasn't here before 2015, so I haven't seen it first-hand but when I've been around the country quite a lot since I arrived. I've been to lots of different states and cities and towns and villages and I've heard from people that things have improved in many ways that livelihoods have improved. Roads have been a big issue, where roads have been built in some places and so people can go to market more easily or they can get to areas for health and education more easily. And so I think also in some of the regional Hluttaws things are changing, so I spoke to some Hluttaw members of the regional parliaments in both Mon State and Kayin State and they told me that in both of their parliaments there was an ability now for people to be able to make complaints. There was somebody they could write to and say I'm not happy about what's happening in my village and there would be somebody who would respond to their complaints and do something about it. And so this is a type of accountability that people haven’t had before and a kind of direct relationship with the government. And they also said that on budgets, previously they had no idea really what the states were spending their money on whereas now the Hluttaws have an opportunity to interrogate the spending and challenge the spending and so again that's a sign that there is more democracy than there was before, because it's giving power to the people and it's a sign that there is more accountability than there was before. 

So, I think things have changed since 2015 but as I've said before I think there are probably very high expectations that a lot more things would change a lot more quickly and it's been shown to be much more difficult to do that than perhaps people thought. 

On a more positive note, what is happening in terms of UK aid to Myanmar?

So, the UK is the second largest bilateral donor to Myanmar after Japan. Last year we spent around 200 million U.S. dollars here and we will be spending a similar amount this year. That money goes on livelihoods, nutrition and health and education. We do support for the government and for the parliament and it's mainly about helping the poorest and the most vulnerable people. And so for example LIFT, which is a big programme that helps improve nutrition and food for people around the country, the UK funds more than 50 per cent of that. 3 MDG which is about health and helping to tackle some of the worst health crises around the country, the UK funds more than 50 per cent of that. And these are projects that work with the Myanmar government, so they are not just the UK coming in and saying we going to spend money on this and this, this is really working hard with the Myanmar government to help support their policies and their plans and actually fund them to be able to do those things. And we think that as a result of this we’ve helped lift thousands and thousands of people out of poverty, we've given clean water and sanitation to hundreds of thousands of people, we've given food and nutrition to hundreds of thousands of people and that's actually making a real positive difference to Myanmar people.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would just like to say thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to talk today and just to remind you and your viewers that the UK is really committed to helping Myanmar. We're here for the long run. We're going to be continuing to invest here, to do business here, to have aid and development and humanitarian programmes here. We really, really want Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to succeed in all her priority areas of peace and democracy and we very much hope that she will be able to do so.