The Future of Burma: An Interview with Dr. Michael Green

GJIA recently sat down with Georgetown Professor and former National Security Council Director, Dr. Michael Green, to discuss recent developments in Burma. 

GJIA: Burma has recently undertaken a series of political and economic reforms.  You recently visited Burma and co-authored a report on the country for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).  What is your opinion on the progress of the reforms that have been undertaken thus far and the challenges that remain for instituting further reforms?

MG: The first point I would make is Burma is important country that has been a source of insecurity for the world for several decades.  A nation of 55 million people at the crossroads of India, ASEAN, and China that for more than a decade was producing drugs, trafficking persons, proliferating weapons through its arms trade with North Korea, and was as a source strategic competition among India, China, Japan, the U.S., and others.  It matters strategically that we may be now turning a corner with that country, that it could become a net supporter of security by removing sources of rivalry, transnational threats, and proliferation across that region of the world.  It should be a high foreign policy priority and I would give enormous credit to Secretary of State Clinton and the White House for keeping it as a high priority.

There is positive change, almost historic in nature.  President Thein Sein has embarked on a series of political reforms that include releasing political prisoners, reducing the restrictions on freedom of press and freedom of assembly, and allowing the democratic opposition to contest parliamentary seats which led to the entry of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi into the Parliament.  He has attempted to restart ceasefire negotiations in the 11 conflict zones in Burma and to move those ceasefire agreements to more lasting political settlements.  He has agreed to sign the so-called IAEA Additional Protocols that should allow spot inspections so that the U.S. and international community can be certain the Burmese are not involved in proliferation activities with North Korea.  He’s agreed to sign transparency agreements for investments in natural resources and he has worked sincerely with Aung San Suu Kyi to achieve political reconciliation.

I met Thein Sein with our small delegation from the Center of Strategic International Studies (CSIS) in August and I came away with a very strong impression that he was sincere, that he was not doing these reforms to counter China’s influence, which is the usual explanation, but rather to strengthen his country’s capacity to deal with problems and help his people.  He’s a  former general, but he’s famous in the Burmese military for not being corrupt which is very rare in that military.

Aung San Suu Kyi for her part has made a judgment that Thein Sein is for real and that the speaker of the Parliament Shwe Mann, although he is Thein Seinh’s’ rival, also is moving in the reform direction.  I think she has calculated that to bring greater democracy to Burma, she needs to work with them.  But she’s in a difficult balancing act because on the one hand she needs to continue working with them to encourage continued reform but on the other hand, she recognizes that under Burma’s Constitution, she cannot win power for the democratic forces.  It’s mathematically impossible because the army has reserved 25 percent of the Parliament and the rest of the seats are controlled by former military officials and the Constitution that was passed does not allow her to run as Prime Minister.  To change that Constitution requires 75 percent majority but the military gets automatic 25 percent of the seats so mathematically it is impossible for her through the democratic process to prevail in a contested or controversial way.  So, she’s chosen to work with them because her best hope is to bring greater democracy to Burma,

I’m mostly optimistic but I think this is not irreversible and there are big challenges that remain.  Number one, Thein Sein does not have complete control of the military.  The government sits under the watchful eye of a security commission where Thein Sein only has about a half the votes which has the authority to declare martial law and close parliament  at any time.  The second example is cease-fire agreements.  Cease-fire agreements in the Kachin State or the Karen State or the other ethnic minority areas mean the forces have been separated and they’re not shooting at each other.  But in some cases those are very uneasy ceasefires and the underlying source of dissatisfaction continues.  Everyone I talked to in Burma from the government side, military officers, said they are in favor of moving towards democracy and removing the military from politics over time if the security of the nation can be guaranteed.  Well, it can’t be guaranteed because there are so many powerful interests tied to parts of the military that have an interest in maintaining the current situation where they do not have to share any of the diamonds, the oil, the timber with the ethnic minorities of Kachin that live there.  Then there’s the Rakhine state – the problem with what the Burmese call the East Bengalis, the Rohingya people- which has been quite violent and is not getting better.  And then the final challenge that they face is that they do not have capacity.  They don’t have economic managers, they don’t have statistics, they haven’t had a real economy for so long.  That one is hard but it’s also the easiest to fix.  There’s a willingness among the government and the democratic opposition to be trained and to become professional and a lot of countries and NGOs want to help.  But the first two, does Thein Sein have control over the military, which I don’t think he does, and secondly how does he assert full control over them and how does he get these robber barons, these cronies out of the way to get peace agreements in these ethnic areas, those are very hard problems.

GJIA: Since Burma began its reforms the U.S. has pursued a policy of engagement, including President Obama's visit to the country last month.  Given the challenges you outlined, what recommendations would you have for U.S. policymakers on the next steps they should take in terms of Burma policy?

MG: I think overall the strategy of engaging Burma and trying to encourage this reform has been successful.  But I think there have been three mistakes. One is, rhetorically, the administration has sometimes done a little too much chest-thumping and that undermines bipartisan support on the Hill, where there is strong support for Aung San Suu Kyi.  The second is that they have in the past allowed this to be seen as part of a counterweight strategy used against China when in fact, what I heard from just about everybody in the Burma, is that they are not doing this because of China.  They are doing this to get a stronger state.  This has deepened suspicions with China and we said in our report from CSIS that maybe we ought to look at Burma narrative with China and work together to help their development because it’s been framed and viewed in Beijing as an effort by the U.S. to steal a client state from China and then turn it against Beijing.  It’s just not that simple and it’s not in fact what we’re about.  So, they have allowed the symbolism to look like containment too much.  The third mistake they made is that they unilaterally lifted the ban on investment in Burma last summer.  They did so with no conditions and they got nothing back.  The only conditions they put were on American firms.  American firms had to report on what they were doing but they got a vague promise that Burma would sign this Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which they still have not done.  They got no political prisoners out and by lifting the investment ban, which I should say is not the problem, the problem is they lifted the investment ban to include the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which is the cash cow for the junta.  So, I think they made these few mistakes.  There was a little too much chest thumping which hurt bipartisan support for their effort, they let it become symbolically about containing China, and I thought it was a mistake to lift the investment ban on MOGE which only opened the way for more money to flow through an entity that is nontransparent and sends all the resources to the wrong places.

However, I feel the president’s trip to Burma corrected all those.  He made it very clear that it was not about China, he pressed for and got more political prisoners released, got an agreement to sign the IAEA additional protocol, and in announcing that there would be an easing of the import ban on goods, it appears he did not do end the ban, but eased it.  This suggests that there will be some conditionality, that there will be some effort to keep the Burmese government on the hook to deliver before we give that carrot away.  A blanket opening of imports from the U.S. is not a good idea and so the President saying we would ease the band suggests to me that we are going to carefully do this.

Bottom line though is that the President’s trip did a good job re-balancing U.S. policy on Burma and made a stronger case for going forward.

Dr. Michael Green is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Georgetown University and Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS.  He previously served as special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council (NSC) from 2004-2005 and  NSC Director for Asian Affairs from 2001-2004.

This interview was conducted by Matt Sullivan a second year student in the Masters of Science of Foreign Service program at Georgetown University and an editor of the GJIA's online content.