Ambassador Scot Marciel’s Special Lecture at the University of Yangon

Ambassador Scot Marciel’s Special Lecture at the University of Yangon

January 8, 2020
[Remarks as prepared]

AMBASSADOR MARCIEL:  Good morning.  Thank you all for taking time to come today.  As Professor Chaw Chaw Sein mentioned, I thought this would be a good opportunity and the professor specifically asked me to speak about U.S.-Myanmar relations.  The timing is actually great because we just finished a very important decade and we are just beginning both a new year and a new decade, the 2020s.  It’s a good time to look back at what we’ve done over the last 10 years and what we hope to do in the coming 10 years in this relationship.

I started working on Myanmar issues back in 2005 when I was in Washington at the State Department, and I visited many times between 2005 and 2010.  I had some idea of what the situation here was before the reforms began.  For me, when I look back at the last decade, what’s striking is how much change there has been in your country, most of it quite positive in my view.  Of course, there are still challenges as there are everywhere but really a lot of change.

But 10 years ago, before Myanmar had begun to reform and to open up more to the world, our bilateral relationship was, as we say in diplomacy, rather cool.  And in English, as you know, “cool” can mean cool, like, really great or it can mean not very warm.  In this case, it was not very warm.  And it’s because we knew that people here wanted more.  We knew that they didn’t want to live in a dictatorship.  They wanted more freedom, and they wanted more opportunity, and that’s what we wanted for you.

Our relationship was quite cool because we thought that the government at that time should do a lot more to create reform and to create opportunities and more freedom for you.  Our effort at that time was to support what we understood the aspirations of you and the rest of the people of this country.  As a result, we had a quite cool relationship.

But obviously beginning in 2011, we saw and welcomed the very significant reforms that were introduced by the Thein Sein government.  I won’t go through the history because you know it very well.  But we saw movement to multiparty system, competitive elections, the end of censorship, establishment of a much freer press, the development of civil society, important economic reforms that have helped reduce poverty by more than 40 percent in your country – it’s remarkable – greater freedom, including freedom to travel and, of course, freedom to gather and speak and express your views, improvements in healthcare and, of course, in 2015, the landmark elections that brought the NLD government to power.

We welcomed these reforms.  And as the reforms moved forward, we responded by stepping up our engagement with Myanmar, with the government, by greatly expanding our assistance programs, by ending, in 2016, our sanctions, offering the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), trade benefits, and really expanding cooperation in a wide range of areas.  Since then, we have delivered about $1.5 billion of assistance.  That’s all grants, not loans.

And there has been about $1.5 billion worth of U.S. private investment as well to try to create jobs.  We have established a Peace Corps program.  We are working together with the government on everything from countering narcotics and human trafficking to improving healthcare, education and promoting broader economic reform that brings more benefits to people throughout the country.

We have had a couple of presidential visits.  We have had multiple visits by cabinet secretaries and other senior officials and a huge increase in private sector interaction, both government but also just tourism, students, etc.  The relationship has really taken off in response to the significant reforms that took place here.  And what’s driven our policy all this time is that we want Myanmar to be able to move in a way that the people of Myanmar have said they want, again, more freedom, democracy, greater openness, opportunity, economic reforms that bring prosperity.

As that’s happened, we have moved to try to do all we can to support it.  Now, obviously, the last two years have been more difficult.  Some have asked and continue to ask, you know, “Has the United States turned away from Myanmar because of the Rakhine crisis?”  The answer is no.  We haven’t.  But that doesn’t mean that what’s happened in Rakhine is not a significant issue. 

The Rakhine crisis in 2017 has been a disaster, both for the hundreds of thousands of people directly affected but, also for the country, for Myanmar.  I won’t go into all the details of the history which you know very well.  But, in brief, our view is that ARSA carried out attacks against the security forces in 2016 and 2017.  We have condemned those attacks.  We did at the time and we have many times since.

And the security forces responded with excessive force.  The result was a huge amount of violence and destruction, untold numbers of people killed and more than 700,000 people fleeing the country.  This has been a human tragedy for a lot of people.  But it’s also had a very negative impact, as you know, on this country as the international community has strongly criticized the human rights abuses.  And a lot of tourists and quality international companies have decided they shouldn’t come here, in part, because of that crisis.  It’s not the only issue facing the country by any means.  But it’s certainly holding Myanmar back.

We want Myanmar to get out of this crisis.  We are not happy about Myanmar being troubled by this problem or by being held back by this crisis.  We want Myanmar to be able to get out of this crisis and to be able to move forward, as you all want, I’m sure.  We also want accountability and justice, not just for the victims but also because it will help strengthen the country’s democracy and reduce the chances of future human rights abuses, not only in Rakhine but elsewhere in the country.

It might not seem like it now, but my view is that Myanmar right now actually does have an opportunity to move forward out of this crisis.  Let me explain.  In my view, the first step is for the government to lay out as accurately and comprehensively as possible what really happened in Northern Rakhine in 2017.  As you all know, there is a view, a narrative, if you will, in Myanmar about what happened and a very different view in much of the international community.

It’s important for all of us to know as much as possible.  What are the facts?  Not what our emotions tell us, but what do we think really happened?  Now, the State Counsellor made an important statement at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) hearing at The Hague. 

She said, and I quote, “it cannot be ruled out that disproportionate force was used by members of the Defense Services in some cases in disregard of international humanitarian law or that they did not distinguish clearly enough between ARSA fighters and civilians.  There may also have been failures to prevent civilians from looting or destroying property after fighting or in abandoned villages.”

In my view, the next important step for the country is for the Independent Commission of Inquiry (ICOE), for its final report, which is expected very soon, to be made public.  I don’t know what’s going to be in the report.  But our hope is that this report which, of course, is being done by a commission established by the Myanmar government, will provide more information about what happened, including in villages where human rights abuses and even massacres are reported to have occurred.

And our hope is also that the government will acknowledge and recognize this report and will follow up by proceeding with steps to bring accountability for those human rights abuses that did take place, as the state counsellor committed to do at The Hague.  It will also be very important for the government, at the same time, to continue efforts to implement the recommendations made by the so-called Kofi Annan Commission, which, as you know, those recommendations were addressed – are an effort to address the underlying source of problems in Rakhine State, which we all know are extremely complex.

So that, to me, is the way out of this crisis.  Both the accountability side and addressing the underlying problems will benefit the people who have been affected but, frankly, will also allow Myanmar to move forward, which is what we really want to see.  It won’t be easy, but I think it can be done.  And we certainly will do all we can to support it.

Now, I have talked about Rakhine because we all know it’s been really important.  But as this Rakhine crisis has occurred over the last few years, we have continued to engage with the government and the people of the country across the board on a wide range of issues, again trying to support your goal of stronger democracy, greater prosperity, peace, more justice, more education opportunities, better healthcare.  We are continuing to do all of these things. 

We can work on Rakhine and still do a lot of other things.  We don’t have to choose between those two.  For example, we are continuing to engage at very senior levels with the government.  And in doing so, we always reaffirm our long-term commitment to the people of Myanmar.  Most recently, President Trump invited the State Counsellor, along with all the other ASEAN leaders to the United States for a special U.S. ASEAN summit later this year.

We continue at the same time to provide significant amounts of assistance to support the Myanmar people, your democracy, health, education, and the economy.  Just last month, the President signed a new budget which actually significantly increases our bilateral assistance to Myanmar.  We now provide more assistance to Myanmar than to any other country in East and Southeast Asia.

The new assistance funds includes continuing programs we have been doing but also expands into education.  We recently launched a new program, the Lincoln Scholarship Program, that will send 100 Myanmar students to the United States for master’s degrees, 100 people fully-funded scholarships. 

This month, we’ll welcome another group of 40 or 45 Peace Corps volunteers to come and work here teaching English.  We have 75 Volunteers now in the country in Magway, in Bago, in Mon State and in Yangon, so we have another group coming.  This is something that benefits both countries and it’s a wonderful program. 

We are continuing to encourage U.S. companies to invest responsibly in Myanmar.  We always talk about responsible investment because traveling around this country, I have heard from so many people, “We don’t want investment if it’s going to be done the way it used to be done.  We don’t want investment that comes and just takes our resources and doesn’t bring us any benefits and leaves the environment damaged.  We want investment that involves hiring Myanmar local people, training them, treating them well, respects the environment, brings benefits to our local communities and is really a long-term commitment.” 

And that’s why I’m so proud that U.S. companies are really committed to this.  That’s what Myanmar people want.  But that’s what their shareholders in the U.S. also insist on, responsible investment that really brings benefits to the people of this country.  That’s what we’re pushing.

We are committed to this country long-term.  We will continue to do all we can to help you achieve the goals that you set, not our goals but the goals that you set.  I’d like to think our support is helpful.  But I’m also aware that, like, in every country, what’s going to really determine the future of your country is not what we do but what you do.  It’s really up to the people of this country to chart their own course where you want to go.

And you, as well-educated leaders of the future, will have an important role to play in all of this.  I think, having done diplomacy for a long time, it’s very easy as a diplomat to say, you know, let’s go get this country to do X and Y.  And what’s really more important is to help the people in the country who are trying to make positive change.  That’s really our role.  It’s not to tell you what to do.  It’s to support the people here who are doing so much good work to bring positive change in the country, whether it’s in business or government or education or any other field.  That’s what a good friend, I think, really should try to do.

And the other thing I think that’s very important to know in a democracy – and this is true in the United States and it’s true in Myanmar – is that we can’t just wait for our national leaders.  Our national leaders are very important, but we can’t just wait for Washington D.C. or Nay Pyi Taw to fix everything or come up with the solutions for everything.  We need to do what we can in our own communities.  That’s how you really create change in a democracy, is everybody get involved.  It’s really the meaning of being a citizen.  I encourage you as all very smart, well-educated people to think about, you know, your role in this.

University students in Myanmar as well as in the United States have a long tradition of generating ideas of pushing change and of helping to build a brighter future.  It’s an interesting time as your country is moving forward to ask yourselves a lot of questions.  What kind of country do we want to be?  How do we take this tremendous diversity which both of our countries have?  It’s a challenge, but it’s also a great strength.  How do we take that and help to make it stronger, help use that diversity to make our countries stronger and better?

What works in the United States may not work in Myanmar.  You will have to find your own way of doing that.  How do you want to deal with constitutional reform?  What should be the role of the military?  I mean, at least these days, you can ask that question.  Ten years ago, you really couldn’t.  Those are questions for the people of this country.  Everybody is talking about federalism.  But what kind of federalism makes sense for Myanmar?  Is it federalism like in the U.S. or like India or Switzerland or something very different?  I can’t say what the answer to that is. 

How much freedom do we want?  You know, you see journalists being arrested for saying things or writing things that, in a lot of democratic countries, people might not like but they wouldn’t be arrested for it.  So how do you feel?  How do you strike the balance?  That’s up to you, not up to us.  But these are really important questions as your country is building this democracy for the first time.  These are really important questions for your country. 

And again, what we want to do is support people like you as you are thinking these things through and trying to determine what’s the best answer for our country.  And, of course, for students of international relations, what is Myanmar’s role?  How does Myanmar fit into the broader region and the world? 

Do we see ourselves as focused on being a part of ASEAN and ASEAN as the centerpiece of our foreign policy?  Or is it more that, between India and China, the two most populous countries in the world, should we focus on those two relations?  Should we try to have just great diversity so that we have good relations with everybody?  Again, those are decisions that you and others in this country will have to make.  But it’s important to think about it because other countries are thinking about it.  Other countries are trying to determine that they want Myanmar to be a certain way.

You will have to figure that out.  Do we have a close alliance with one particular country, or do we try to maintain good relations but not be overly dependent on any country?  So there are lots of questions for you, and lots of questions for your country. 

I am optimistic about this country.  You have got your share of challenges and problems.  But I have served in a lot of countries.  And in every country, including my own country, has lots of challenges.  You never solve all the problems.  You solve one, and then another one emerges.  It’s true for us.  It’s true for you. 

But the reason I’m optimistic about this country is because, speaking very honestly, I meet, everywhere in the country, so many young people like you who are really committed to not only improving themselves but to contributing to a better country.  And that’s really what’s going to determine your future.  That’s what makes me most hopeful.  With that, I’ll stop and be happy to take any questions you might have.  Thank you.