8th April 2021

The Irrawaddy spoke to Scot Marciel, who served as US ambassador to Myanmar from 2016-20, about the unfolding crisis in the country and how the international community and regional powers can help stop the regime’s violence against the Myanmar people. 


It seems Myanmar is now sliding into chaos and civil war; the resistance to the military coup is very strong. The attempted coup has not succeeded yet. We have seen a lot of people die; young people, young children are dying, kids are being killed, shot through the head. You left Myanmar in 2020. How do you see the situation in the country now?

Scot Marciel


It’s tragic and it’s horrible. First, the coup itself occurred in the aftermath of an election that produced a clear winner in the form of the [National League for Democracy (NLD)], which was a legitimately elected government. So the coup itself was a terrible step, and had no justification as far as I can see. Second, even worse, since the coup the military’s incredible brutality and willingness to murder its own people, including women and children on the streets, is just so appalling. And it is quite clear that you have two sides. The Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] together with the police on one side, and on the other side you have the overwhelming proportion or percentage of Myanmar people who refuse to accept this coup. We have seen tremendous bloodshed; I fear we are going to see more.


Where do you think this is going to go? People inside the country have been hoping for some form of intervention. Last month, protesters and demonstrators were holding signs calling for ‘R2P’—the principle of the international community’s ‘Responsibility to Protect’—and for some form of intervention. But as the days go by, you can see the people are growing frustrated, taking up homemade weapons and fighting against the military. We are seeing reports of clashes taking place in the countryside. What can the international community do?


I understand the frustration of the people of Myanmar. I think there are a couple of things that the international community should be doing. One, trying to put maximum pressure on the Tatmadaw to reverse course, including by not doing anything to legitimize the coup or the junta that has taken over in Naypyitaw. Two, going after the sources of finances, to put pressure on it.

It is very hard for the international community, especially the UN. The UN is made of member states. For example, at the Security Council meeting on [March 31], most of the members of the UNSC were quite united and were pushing for very tough language going forward. But you know China and Russia opposed that, so it’s very hard to get that [language] when you have opposition from countries like China and Russia. It is very difficult for the UNSC to do very much.

And I would say that ASEAN is somewhat in a similar situation. It is a group that operates by consensus. Some of the members—Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines—have been quite strong in their condemnation of the violence and looking for a diplomatic way to try to end the violence and calm things down, and move the country back towards democracy. But it’s hard without unity within ASEAN. And remember, Myanmar is a member of ASEAN. Myanmar’s representative is in these meetings, and so far in these meetings the representatives are from the junta. And that is just the way ASEAN operates.

It is really important that ASEAN has been talking about an emergency summit. I think that would be useful, and it is important that at the summit they not just talk, but come up with specific ideas to reduce the military’s violence against its own people. And if the representative of the junta is sitting in the Myanmar seat, I hope that other members do not allow them to veto any kind of ASEAN action. I think it is also important to make it clear that, while ASEAN is keeping channels of communication open to the SAC [the State Administration Council, the junta’s ruling body], that does not mean that they are conferring legitimacy on it. These are very important steps.


Among ASEAN members there are like-minded authoritarian governments, and some members are dragging their feet, simply observing the situation. Indonesia and Singapore are using tougher language, but other members are keeping quiet. That is not very helpful.


I think it is not only important for these ASEAN members but for all nations in the neighborhood not to see this just as a fight for democracy and human rights, although it is. But it is also a question of the stability of the country and of the region. Myanmar has headed down a very dangerous path because of the Tatmadaw. I want to be very clear: It is because of the Tatmadaw’s behavior that Myanmar is headed down this path.

Even for governments that may not place a priority on democracy and human rights, they should be concerned about the risks of greater conflict, of a large [number] of refugees fleeing, of increased production and sales of narcotics, and of Myanmar—one of the 10 ASEAN members—becoming, if not a failed state, a source of great instability and of huge problems for the entire region. So even if you are thinking in strategic terms or just about peace and stability, there is a need for more than just observing.


Russia was invited to attend the Tatmadaw’s Armed Forces Day parade. This is quite chilling because coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing seems to be drawing one of the major powers into the conflict. China and Russia have always provided much-needed support for past regimes, including diplomatic cover at the UN, and continue to do so for the current regime. What is your view on this? It seems the middle powers and the international system are failing Myanmar, quibbling among themselves. 


I would [make a distinction between] Russia and China—with a caveat that I am not an expert on China or Russia. But my sense is that Russia does not have huge interest in Myanmar, so it is not affected if there is great instability or conflict in Myanmar. But it is an opportunity to sell weapons and to show up and show itself to be a friend of the generals.

China—and then again, I can’t speak for the Chinese government—but my sense is that China is in a difficult position. I can’t believe they are happy with the current situation, as it would not be in China’s interest to see this level of violence and instability. The trouble is their ambassador to the UN in his statement on Wednesday talked about how pressure and the threat of sanctions could add to tensions or further complicate the situation. I think we are way past that point. We already have not only tension, but terrible violence. So I think it is important that all of the countries in the world and certainly in the region, look at the situation as what it is: an illegitimate military junta basically trying to terrorize its population into submission. And the population is refusing to accept this. And as a result the conflict is taking the country down a dangerous path, as I mentioned before, obviously foremost for the people of Myanmar and also for the entire region.

Source the Irrawaddy 8th April 2021

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