U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel discusses continuity and concerns as Myanmar transitions to democracy

17 September 2018
U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel discusses continuity and concerns as Myanmar transitions to democracy
Photo: Mizzima

There is little doubt that these are difficult times for Myanmar when it comes to international relations. US Ambassador Scot Marciel sat down with Mizzima TV’s Myo Thant on September 11 to discuss the long-standing engagement the United States has had with Myanmar and more recently with Aung San Suu Kyi, and looks at relations in light of the Rakhine crisis and the pressures the media are under in the country.

As we mark International Democracy Day, how do you view Myanmar's transition to democracy? Is it encouraging or do you see failure in the process? 

As you know we for a long time have strongly supported the Myanmar people’s desire for democracy and we are pleased with the progress that has been made in recent years, but  I think what I hear from Myanmar friends is that Myanmar is going through a very difficult time, a really challenging time. And it is also a very important time -- and what happens in the coming months and year I think will go a long way to determine how successful Myanmar’s democratic transition is.

How do you view the Myanmar government's challenges and why this transition is troubled, is it in part because of the Military-written 2008 Constitution that continues to keep the Military in a strong position over the civilian government?

Well, I think democratic transitions are never easy. They always take time. I think it is fair to say this government came in facing a lot of challenges because of history after fifty years of military rule and a lot of isolation and a government – a party -- that didn’t have previous experience ruling. So it is not surprising that it is difficult. But then we see some unexpected developments, certainly the crisis in Rakhine State, and lots of violence and widespread allegations of serious human rights abuses. We see challenges regarding the military because we are still dealing with a constitution that frankly isn’t really consistent with full democracy. So you have that challenge.

And then we are seeing over the last year, as you would know, some concerning things happening in terms of media freedom, freedom of assembly, peaceful assembly, these sorts of things that my Myanmar friends tell me they are very concerned about.

There are concerns about the 2008 Constitution. Can you tell us about this?

Sure, the constitution was drafted and approved in 2008 in that referendum just after Cyclone Nargis. And I think most people here, as well as around the world, recognized quickly that the Constitution was not really consistent with democracy in the sense of the military and security forces not being accountable to civilian authorities and the military having the right to 25 per cent of the seats in parliament.
Now it is up to the Myanmar people, of course, to decide on the constitution they want, but I think what we saw in the 2015 election was that people voted overwhelmingly for more democracy.

What is your reading of the drive to change the constitution?

I think it is a challenge, because the State Counsellor and others have made clear their views, that they want to support and promote constitutional reform, but of course, they can’t do that without support from the military MPs--and so far that support has not been forthcoming. So I don’t blame the NLD for that, I think is just a reality, and one that is critical I think for the whole country going forward.

How do you view the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi's position during her tenure and during this transition to democracy? She is the de facto leader of Myanmar but how much power does she really have?

You know, we have always had a great appreciation for the important role she has played, particularly since 1988, and continues to play. I think it is also important to not put all the responsibility and burdens on the person, even someone as well known and intelligent as Aung San Suu Kyi.

But I think certainly the civilian authority has some power, they have a majority in parliament, so they have the ability to change laws, and I think that is important. But another is the oversight of security forces and they clearly lack power and that is a problem for Myanmar’s democracy.

We get the impression that Myanmar's relationship with the United States is strained at the moment due to the Rakhine crisis. How do you view this?

What I would say is this. I have been working on Myanmar-US relations for a long time and really since 1988 -- even before -- our position has always been we want to support the Myanmar people and organizations that are trying to promote democracy, human rights, rule of law, peace, and prosperity. We have been very consistent and that is exactly what we are doing now.

Sometimes throughout these 30 years, when we have seen things that we thought were really troubling, we have said so: whether it was the 1988 uprising and what happened after that, the Saffron Revolution in 2007, and now we see some really troubling developments in Rakhine State, as well as in Kachin and northern Shan, and vis-à-vis media freedom.

So this is very consistent with what we have always said. We want to continue to promote those people in Myanmar who were promoting democracy and the rule of law, and sometimes that leads us to speak up as a friend, and as a supporter of democracy, in a way that isn’t always popular. And that does sometimes create strains. But I feel like we have got to be a good friend to all the people of Myanmar. And we feel like we are doing that, sometimes being a good friend requires us, calls for us to have some difficult conversations.

And how does Washington view Myanmar’s handling of the Rakhine crisis?

I think a couple of things are important here. I noticed a tendency here amongst some people to say the world or the United States have somehow turned against Myanmar over this crisis. That is absolutely not the case. We are very committed to Myanmar’s future. But two things I would highlight. One, ARSA carried out those attacks, first in October 2016 and again in August 2017. We condemned them, and condemn them absolutely. We have no sympathy for ARSA. 

But then in response to those attacks, the security forces went far beyond an appropriate response. And there is increasing evidence that in doing so they inflicted widespread human rights abuses, really significant and horrific abuses. 

So, internationally, the world will always be deeply concerned about something like that happening, whether it is in Myanmar or any other place. So, that is just a reality.
But the second thing, is we think that for Myanmar to have success in building democracy and rule of law, it is really important that Myanmar tackle this issue very openly and transparently and address it.
And it is not – I want to stress – this is not about who has citizenship, or are they citizens, or residents, or illegal immigrants. That’s an important issue but it is a different issue.
What we are talking about is human beings who were living in Myanmar, who suffered terribly because of these abuses and I believe that it is in Myanmar’s interest to try to address this, what happened, as honestly and forthrightly as possible.

It is clear from early on when the National League for Democracy came to power that Myanmar's relationship with China was closer, compared with the relationship under former President Thein Sein. How do you view this?

I think it is not for me to assess the relationship between Myanmar and China. I think that is for the Myanmar and Chinese governments. What I would say is that for us this isn’t about China, this is about Myanmar. We want Myanmar to be successful, peaceful, and prosperous. To do that we expect Myanmar will want to have good relations with a lot of countries, and certainly with important neighbors like China. So I want to stress this isn’t about China. This is about doing all we can to support Myanmar.

Former President Barack Obama is very -- was very, had a very good relationship with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. What about now with the relationship with President Donald Trump?
Well, President Trump and Aung San Suu Kyi haven’t had as much opportunity to talk as perhaps former president Obama did with Aung San Suu Kyi. But I think what’s important, again, it’s not just about the personalities. It is about the US government and the Myanmar government. 

I think the relationship remains good. There are some strains, as you said, that’s just a reality, but we are very committed to working through those and continuing to do all we can to support Myanmar’s democratic transition, and to try to help Myanmar deal with these current challenges that it faces.  

A great deal of attention from around the world has been focused on Rakhine and the case of the two Reuters journalists charged under an old Official Secrets law. How do you view this case?

Yes, two points on that. First, I think we should look at the Reuters case also in the context of the general environment for the media here. And as you know, there have been a number of journalists who have been arrested and charged and prosecuted for doing things that in other democratic countries would be legal and fully consistent with the work of journalism. That certainly includes the Reuters journalists. So the impact on media freedom is significant. And for all the viewers here (on Mizzima TV), you can’t build a democracy without a strong independent media.

Secondly, it is not for me to comment on the court proceedings per se in your country. But a lot of Myanmar colleagues have followed the trial – and it was good that it was open – and have expressed a lot of concern about whether it really resulted in justice. So from a justice, rule of law perspective, and also from a media and democracy perspective, the case is very troubling.

Not just in Myanmar but in several ASEAN countries, democracy, freedom of the press and freedom of speech seems to be under attack. How do you view the situation in Southeast Asia?

Well, I think everywhere where you are building democracy or trying to build democracy, it’s always a challenge. You always have to push hard for your freedoms, including media freedom. 

As an ambassador to Myanmar I don’t really want to comment about other countries in the region, other than to say it is really important for people to recognize the importance of the freedom of the press. Not because it is some abstract value that the Americans or the westerners support but because -- how do you have democracy where you hold your leaders and elected officials and everyone else accountable, whether it is on corruption or abuse of power, if the media can’t report freely?  And so I think it is really important to continue the struggle for freedom of the media.

Last question: what are your hopes for Myanmar's democratic transition? 

My hope is the same as it has always been. We want to see as strong a democracy as possible here, where everybody in the country enjoys their rights. We want peace, and we want economic prosperity. We want Myanmar to be successful. That’s why we're here. Americans have a special feeling towards the Myanmar people.  We admire how much you have struggled, and how many people here have sacrificed, for so many years. And you've made progress, and we don't want it to stop now.  We want you to continue to make more progress.