Webinar on “The United States and the Myanmar Crisis: Perceptions, Expectations, Options”

In this webinar, Ms Erin Murphy, Ambassador Scot Marciel and Dr Kyaw Moe Tun discussed US policy past and present on Myanmar, commenting on policy stances adopted towards different political stakeholders in the country. The discussions also shared their views and perspectives on the factors impinging on an effective US policy, available options to assist the Myanmar people, and expectations of the Myanmar stakeholders and communities.

Myanmar Studies Programme Webinar

On Friday, 4 Nov 2022, the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme convened a webinar under Chatham House Rule inviting Ms Erin Murphy, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Mr Scot Marciel, Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow at Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center, and Mr Kyaw Moe Tun, president of Parami University. The webinar was moderated by Ms Moe Thuzar, acting coordinator of the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme, and attracted the interest of 92 attendees. The discussion reviewed past US policy on Myanmar, and explored the current US approach on the ongoing crisis in Myanmar and the US’s efforts in engaging allies and partners in ASEAN and Asia to address the crisis.

Clockwise from top left: Ms Moe Thuzar (moderator), Ms Erin Murphy, Dr Kyaw Moe Tun and Ambassador Scot Marciel. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

US Policy 2010 – 2015

  • Though the US considered Myanmar’s 2010 elections organised by the then military regime of the State Peace and Development Council as highly orchestrated, there was also a consideration that a political opening might be possible from these polls as a few pro-democracy activists had chosen to contest for seats.
  • Nevertheless, the US and its allies, including some ASEAN member states, Japan and members of the Group of Seven (G7), had maintained the need to recognise the 1990 election results. Recognising the 1990 election results, freeing political prisoners including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and recognising/protecting human rights were consistent points raised on discussion agendas with and on Myanmar.  The present situation today seems to rhyme somewhat with the past. The US position emphasises recognition of the 2020 election results, freeing political prisoners including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and senior NLD government leaders, and respecting human rights.  
  • After coming to power via the 2010 elections, President Thein Sein started lifting restrictions on freedom of assembly, freedom of organisation, freedom of the press. He also started engaging with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and released well-known political prisoners from the ‘88 student generation and those protesting the 2007 Saffron Revolution.
  • These moves sparked interest in the US to consider some high-level engagement, though with some scepticism of the results of such engagement. This scepticism was also shared to a certain extent by some ASEAN member states, and other countries including Japan, Korea, China, Australia, Canada, and EU members.
  • Prior to 2011, engagement with military leaders or entities backed by the military would have been seen as handing a diplomatic gift to the military regime. Post-2011, however, Thein Sein’s moves led the US policymakers to consider a principled engagement towards change in Myanmar. The US appointed Ambassador Derek Mitchell as its special envoy and policy coordinator to lead engagement efforts. Amb. Mitchell also became the first US ambassador appointed to Myanmar in two decades.
  • The aim of the US moves to meet “action for action” was to encourage the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) administration to keep moving forward with reforms. The US moves included gradually rolling back executive orders related to sanctions. Following the US’ moves, the EU also lifted sanctions. Myanmar-US relations became more ‘normalised’ when the National League for Democracy (NLD) took office in 2016 after its landslide win in the 2015 elections. The US lifted all executive branch sanctions in 2016.

US Policy 2016 – 2021

  • US policies, objectives and strategies towards Myanmar have been consistent since the late 1980s, particularly post-1988. The focus has been on supporting reform-minded entities and efforts to build a viable, peaceful and democratic state that allows ethnic communities a stake in governance as well as respect for their rights and cultures.
  • When the NLD took office in 2016, the US had hoped to help the NLD administration steer the course towards economic growth which would in turn strengthen the reform momentum. The US also offered a wide range of capacity-building assistance sectors including microfinance for farmers, governance and education. The US supported the continuation of the nationwide peace process, even though talks stalled in 2016 –2017.
  • The Rohingya crisis in 2017 caused a souring of relations with the NLD administration. Even though the NLD was not responsible for the military operations against the Rohingya, senior government officials were denying or deflecting allegations of human rights violations.
  • The stalled peace process and the NLD’s stance on/response to the Rohingya crisis were profoundly disappointing. The US and its partners perceived the political reforms to have stalled even though economic reforms were continuing. The NLD government was also displeased with the US, perceiving the US to be overly critical of the Rohingya issue.
  • However, there was still a sense of hope for many Myanmar people that life could get better. These hopes were dashed by the February 2021 coup.

Humanitarian support and education

  • The US’ interest and efforts to assist Myanmar’s future, and assist capacity-building for reforms in future, will now need to focus on longer-term investment in human capital. 
  • In the decade of Myanmar’s political and economic opening from 2010 to 2020, aid organisations tended to focus on short-term, high-turnover projects in the education and human development sectors. Capacity-training workshops had a narrow focus on building the capacity of specific workforces.
  • There have been lengthy discussions on the importance of education in building democracy in Myanmar. These discussions were not sufficiently translated into action.
  • Prioritising education nurtures the growth of democracy and expands the democratic space. But, because education is viewed as a long-term investment which bears some result only over a decade or so of time and effort, donors and external partners particularly foreign aid organisations, focused on short-term, high visibility gains for their grant projects.
  • However, several aid organisations including USAID had stepped up support for improving the quality of education in Myanmar, especially higher education. Such initiatives have greatly helped students in rural areas with fewer means to access quality education.
  • External partners interested in helping generations of young Myanmar people prepare for future generations must consider flexible and innovative ways of supporting multi-year projects that support private and community-based educational initiatives. Such programmes are critical for the development of both educators and students.
  • Education and capacity-building are also important investments in preparing for post-conflict reconstruction and the rebuilding of political, social, and economic institutions. Partnerships between international universities with local community organisations and education initiatives will be critical.
  • Another form of support is to establish necessary on-ground provisions of humanitarian support structures to help students in need. Facilitating access to basic necessities such as electricity, internet, and other equipment to learning communities and hubs in Myanmar, especially in rural and ethnic areas, is crucial.
  • Equally important is the need for direct support to and investment in local humanitarian organisations which can deliver more immediate and effective on-ground results. Grant-makers and funders also need to consider the capacity of grassroots humanitarian organisations to conduct monitoring and evaluation on the use of funds disbursed.

Factors affecting an effective response

  • The US has supported, upheld, and also complemented with its individual actions, ASEAN’s decisions on addressing the Myanmar crisis. Complementary moves from ASEAN Dialogue Partners such as the US are necessary, as ASEAN’s mode of reaching decisions by consensus presents a challenge to the grouping as a whole to do more on the Myanmar crisis.  
  • Though Western democracies have largely been supportive of the resistance against the military, that support has not gone beyond rhetoric, targeted sanctions and efforts for humanitarian assistance.
  • Many also fail to understand or appreciate the extent of what is happening on the ground in Myanmar, even in ASEAN member states that are viewed as taking a principled stand on the military coup and its consequences. There have been faulty analyses that tend to describe the Myanmar crisis as a conflict between two legitimate and opposing political forces, while what is happening in Myanmar is more akin to a nationwide protest against the military, crossing ethnic divides.
  • The Ukraine crisis and tensions in the Taiwan Strait have also distracted the US’ attention from Myanmar. In Washington, there is less time and space for policy-makers to engage and think about the Myanmar crisis, as well as a lack of expertise on Myanmar.
  • The lack of an effective response is related to this unfamiliarity with the complex interrelations and interactions of the different factions opposing the military junta. The resistance movement, though unified in its overall aim to end military rule, is also facing the challenge of building trust among the different stakeholders involved in the resistance. This reality may cause policymakers may be wary about pushing for stronger moves to support the resistance movement in Myanmar.
  • Another challenge may lie in communication. In Ukraine, international journalists can operate in and report from the country, providing a visible communication link with the world. President Zelensky has also been an extremely effective spokesperson for Ukraine.
  • Geopolitics constitutes an important consideration for Myanmar’s crisis. The US needs to consider Myanmar’s long borders with China and Thailand, and these countries’ economic interests in Myanmar, in any policy action regarding the Myanmar crisis. Current US-China tensions and the US’s treaty ally status with Thailand may curb what the US can do.
  • The greatest challenge for any response by the US, ASEAN, or the wider international community is the SAC junta’s intransigence.

Questions for the panellists sought further insights on ASEAN’s humanitarian approaches and the US’ plan to deliver humanitarian assistance to communities in Myanmar, the US’ relationship with specific ASEAN member states and US support to ASEAN on the Myanmar crisis, the progress on the BURMA bill in the US Congress, the leadership capacity of Myanmar’s resistance movement, US-China talks on Myanmar, scholarship opportunities for Myanmar students, and potential reactions from the international community on the SAC’s projected elections in 2023.