This interview with Scot Marciel was originally published by The Irrawaddy. Marciel, who served as U.S. ambassador to Myanmar from March 2016 through May 2020, is a visiting practitioner fellow on Southeast Asia at APARC. His forthcoming book, Imperfect Partners: The United States and Southeast Asia, which interprets the region and its relations with the United States historically and at present, will be published by APARC later this year.
Since it seized power in February 2021, Myanmar’s military regime has ignored international calls to end its use of violence, release political prisoners and negotiate with its opponents. Some Western nations have applied sanctions, while powerful neighbors India and China have largely sought to protect their own interests. Regional bloc ASEAN has been split, with some members seeking to engage the junta and others calling for contact with the shadow National Unity Government. The Irrawaddy spoke to Scot Marciel, former United States ambassador to Myanmar (2016-20) and currently a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University’s Walter Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, about the current state of regional and international efforts to tackle the Myanmar crisis.
The Irrawaddy: There have been many tragic stories in Myanmar since the coup. It is not enough to just pressure the regime to change its behavior or to make concessions. Can you talk about how the international community and regional groupings such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should assist the Myanmar people?
Marciel: I would offer two thoughts. First, I don’t think you can expect ASEAN to solve this problem, certainly not by itself. The ASEAN Five-Point Consensus, while it’s done with very good intentions, not only are the points not being implemented, they are actually not appropriate for the situation in Myanmar in my view. So it is a mistake to dwell on the Five-Point Consensus. I don’t really blame ASEAN too much for that because the junta is refusing to be reasonable at all and make any kind of concessions. Second, as Malaysia’s foreign minister has suggested publicly, more engagement with the National Unity Government (NUG) and other figures opposed to the junta is really important. I am pleased to see that [US] Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with Zin Mar Aung [the NUG foreign minister, on Aug. 12] in Washington. I think there needs to be more engagement with the NUG and other actors, recognizing that trying to convince the generals to hold talks with those who oppose them is not really a very useful way of going about things.
The Irrawaddy: Do you think the NUG is the best option, aside from Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) and other stakeholders, in terms of whom the US and ASEAN should be engaging with?
Marciel: I know some people have not been fully satisfied with the NUG. I understand that, but it’s certainly one important factor that has a lot more legitimacy than the junta for sure. I think it is useful to engage with the NUG, but also with actors who are seeking to return the country to a democratic and peaceful path.
The Irrawaddy: When we talk about ASEAN there are some criticisms because so far the Five-Point Consensus as you said is going nowhere, but people keep talking about it. We, ourselves, have become the hostages of the consensus. Beyond ASEAN, there has also been some criticism that the US and other Western countries are outsourcing the Myanmar crisis to ASEAN. We know that ASEAN is toothless and powerless, and so far has achieved little on Myanmar. Why has the West outsourced the problem to ASEAN?
Marciel: To be fair, at least for the United States, I don’t think the United States is necessarily expecting ASEAN by itself to solve the problem. The truth is I don’t know any outside player that can solve the problem. ASEAN can help. This goes back to, among other things, the Five-Point Consensus. It’s not just that the points aren’t being implemented, they really aren’t appropriate for the situation. A ceasefire… OK If the military stops all violence and allows peaceful protests, that would be useful. But does anyone really think that is going to happen? Second, dialogue, my sense is, again I can’t speak for the Myanmar people, but it seems people aren’t interested in negotiating and compromising with the military junta. They want them out of power. And I think the international community should be supporting those efforts, rather than proposing and calling for some kind of dialogue that is completely unrealistic, at least at this time.
The Irrawaddy: In the past, the US has played a major role in promoting democracy, freedom and federal union in Myanmar. You know in 2008-09, we had Kurt Campbell, one of the key architects of the pivot to Asia and of course specific Myanmar policies of principled engagement, and the carrot-and-stick approach, where sanctions were imposed but also with the incentive that if reforms took place, the sanctions would be eased. There was very consistent and intense communication with the-then regime and the opposition in Myanmar. Do you think that, in coordination with ASEAN, the US can work on Myanmar issues with the same vigor and energy as it did in the late 2000s?
Marciel: It’s a good question. It’s very clear that the US and the Biden administration remain very supportive of efforts to help the country go back to democracy and peace and federal union. But my sense is that it’s hard to figure out what they can actually do to make that happen. There’s not a lot of easy choices, whether it’s the United States or ASEAN, because the generals do not seem interested in doing anything positive, they are just holding onto power. We’ve seen what they are willing to do to their own people for the sake of holding power. And it narrows the space for diplomacy, certainly. I would have a very hard time if I were still in the government saying we should engage with the junta and try to create incentives for them because I think there is no chance, absent them feeling much more pressure, that they are willing to seriously consider changing their approach.
The Irrawaddy: Do you think there should be more sanctions, more pressure, including maybe an arms embargo? What about ASEAN and other countries like China, Thailand, and India?
Marciel: There is no great option right now. I don’t believe there is, at this point at least, any opportunity for dialogue that will return the country to a democratic path or democratic federalism. I don’t think the military can restore stability and govern the country effectively. So the best possible scenario is for the military to face so much pressure, that they then begin to look for a way out. So yes, I think maximum pressure, both internally and externally, on the military whether it’s by sanctions or other means is the best chance of achieving progress, though it won’t be easy.
The Irrawaddy: We have a powerful neighbor, China, which shares a long border with Myanmar. We also have our neighbor Thailand, which is absorbing refugees, migrant workers, and asylum seekers. Because of the crisis, they are also sharing the burden. Obviously, China is always supportive of those in power, whether it is the regime or a democratic government. If China and Thailand don’t make any moves, don’t apply any external pressure, it is hard to see any policy of maximizing pressure on the regime working. Do you agree?
Marciel: I agree that there are limits in terms of external pressure. That’s why there is no easy answer. It seems that China is willing to support the junta even though nearly the entire population of Myanmar opposes that. I don’t think that is likely to change. On Thailand, I hope that the Thai authorities will see that the longer the military is in power, the more problems there are going to be across the border, including refugees and instability. And the Thais, I think, will have an interest in pressing in their own way, pressing the military to look for a way out, because otherwise this crisis is going to continue and Thailand’s going to suffer from some of these cross-border challenges, including very serious humanitarian issues.
The Irrawaddy: We have heard that the regime is not happy with the idea of—the wording is quite sensitive—a humanitarian corridor. But Thailand will have to play a key role if cross-border assistance and humanitarian assistance are to reach a large number of Myanmar people. What are your thoughts on that, as the US has made at least four high-ranking official visits to Thailand since the coup? Should the Biden administration engage and cooperate with the Thai government to provide assistance?
Marciel: There is a lot of discussion between the US and Thai officials on this. I don’t know the substance of those discussions. I am not sure what exactly has been said. But to me the United States and Thailand, even if we may have somewhat different views on the coup and the junta, we should try to find a way to work together at a minimum to address the serious humanitarian need right along the Thai border and just across the border. You know it is not easy for Thailand as a neighbor of Myanmar having to deal with the junta. But I think there are ways that this could be done carefully and I assume that these discussions are happening between the United States and Thailand. I hope that they lead to greater and more successful efforts to get humanitarian assistance to the border and across the border on behalf of Myanmar people.
The Irrawaddy: Not only Thailand but, since 1988, the US has also been one of the more generous countries in taking Myanmar refugees and asylum seekers from the Thailand-Myanmar border. This time, again, we see the educated people, the middle class, technicians, professionals, artists, media, and IT people leaving Myanmar. It is a brain drain for Myanmar, but a brain gain for the countries they go to. Do you agree that those people are hugely beneficial to those societies?
Marciel: Yes, I agree. I think, the US processing of…I hate to sound bureaucratic, but you know working to welcome refugees is not a fast process, because there are so many refugees around the world who are seeking asylum in the United States and other places. The US does, as you said, have a long record of accepting and welcoming refugees from Burma/Myanmar. I expect that will continue. I mean, it serves one aspect. A lot of people want to go back to the country and contribute, but right now the conditions aren’t right. For those who definitely want to leave, I think the United States will continue to welcome them. But there is a process because there are so many refugees around the world now.
The Irrawaddy: In Myanmar, as in any country, the people need a professional military, but not the one we have right now. That’s why people have taken up arms against it and the regime. You wrote an article about the Myanmar military last year. Can you talk about reform in the military and security sector?
Marciel: It is too bad that the situation has reached the point that people feel like they have no choice but to take up arms. I don’t judge them for that. It is unfortunate. But the military took away the peaceful option for people to protest or express their views against the junta. It is understandable why a number of people have taken up arms. I wrote the article because I was hearing from some people in the region and around the world saying well, the Myanmar military is an essential institution and one of the country’s few unifying institutions. I disagree. In theory, it should be a unifying institution, but it hasn’t been one. It’s been one that has been a source of so much division and so much conflict. I am sure that there are individuals in the military who would like to work in a professional military but, at least at the leadership level, the culture of brutality and impunity is so deeply ingrained that I don’t think you can reason with these generals. I think Myanmar does need a military, but a dramatically reformed military that will be answerable to the civilian government and that, over many years, will adopt a very different culture and will respect human rights instead of waging war on the people.