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Miemie Winn Byrd on Myanmar’s progress toward democracy: beyond media coverage

Photograph of Miemie Winn ByrdDr. Miemie Winn Byrd is a Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.A. She holds a Doctorate in Education from University of Southern California. She researches, publishes, and teaches in the areas of U.S.-Myanmar relations; the role of education, the role of private-public partnerships, and role of women in economic development; the linkage between economic development and security in the Asia-Pacific region; transformative adult learning/executive education; and organizational change and innovation. Dr. Byrd has served as the Deputy Economic Advisor at U.S. Pacific Command in her capacity as an Army Reserves officer. Dr. Byrd is a member of Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles and an adjunct fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu. She is currently serving on the advisory boards of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College in California and the Socio-Lite Microfinance Foundation in Myanmar. On November 3, 2016, she spoke with Chuyi Sheng CMC '17.

 
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government.
 
How extensive is the rise of Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar? Do these movements threaten the political transition and Myanmar’s stability?
 
Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment are two different concepts. Buddhist Nationalism is a fringe group. A monk called Ashin Wirathu is the only leading figure of the marginalized Buddhist nationalism movement. It is unfortunate that the Western media focuses on his campaign and ignores people who are countering the monk’s extreme rhetoric. A lot of monks criticize Wirathu’s idea and say that it is not the role of a monk to talk about hate and manipulate people’s fear. Wirathu and his followers are a really small group, but the anti-Muslim group is larger. The sentiment actually embodies the rising Islamophobia across the world. The level of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar is comparable to that of the United States. However, Myanmar does not have strong political institutions and the country is in a transitional mode. The problem of anti-Islamism is more serious and poses a lot of challenges to the country’s political transition and stability. The strong sentiment in Myanmar is more related to identities than specific religions. Nobody is saying Islam is better or worse than Buddhism. The issue is about nativeness and indigenousness. The example of Rohingya people in Rakhine State demonstrates the complexity of the problem. As there are native groups who are not recognized as the legally native group by the United States government, the Burmese government does not treat the Rohingya as a native group and labels them as foreigners originating from Bangladesh. 
 
When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi asked the United Nations not to use the term Rohingya to describe the persecuted Muslim minority in the country, Western governments and human rights activists were shocked and dismayed. Why is Daw Suu silent on the plight of the Rohingya people?
 
It is a complex issue. Most people see this through the perspective of international media, which is overly simplistic and does not understand the core of the issue. The Rohingya want to be recognized as a native, indigenous people. There are specific legal ramifications of their recognition. Once they become native and indigenous, they have the right to own land. When East Pakistan (later known as Bangladesh) and West Pakistan split in the 1970s, the Rohingya conducted Jihadist campaigns against the local Rakhine people and wanted to establish a separate Islamic state. Though independence is no longer on the agenda, the Rohingya still want to be recognized as a native group of Myanmar. The fact that they are asking for the native or indigenous status feeds the continuous conflict between the Rohingya and the local Rakhine people. The Rakhine fear that they may lose their farmland to the Rohingya.
 
Given the history, the word Rohingya has become highly emotional. When people from the two sides encounter the word, they stop discussing the fundamental problem and get stuck on the bitter history associated with the name. Daw Suu’s opinion is that if people use the name, they will get caught up in the name. To solve the issue, it is necessary to stay neutral and focus on the underlying conditions. The Rohingya problem is actually not a Burman problem. In the state where most Rohingya people live, the Rakhine ethnic group is the majority. Myanmar’s government, which is primarily composed of Burman, gets caught in the middle between the two groups.
 
Some media focus on the positive side of Myanmar, whereas others focus on the negative. The media must understand that both good and bad things happen in the country. When they report on Myanmar, they need to first understand the complexity of the environment. The country has 135 ethnic groups and never successfully formed a single national identity. The state-building process is difficult. For example, there were 18 ethnic armed groups in conflict, among which 8 groups have signed the ceasefire agreement. The remaining 10 groups are not homogenous and they each have a different request. The central government is dealing with a burdensome political problem. Understanding the political environment can help the international readers truly grasp the struggles and challenges faced by the country. Providing more background information is better than sensational headlines that bring unnecessary criticism. 
 
Myanmar's ethnic minorities comprise about one third of the population and usually live in border areas with abundant natural resources. The recurring violent ethnic conflicts over resources constantly destabilize the country. How might the current government resolve such challenges?
 
While ethnic groups are more prone to conflicts over resources, about 70% of Myanmar’s population lives in peace. However, if you look at the breakdown of media reports, there is always more negative news. It is going to take a long time for the current government to persuade all minority groups to sign the peace agreement. In the meanwhile, the focus should be building infrastructure for the country, like health care and education; 70% of the country needs the basic support for the growth and development of the nation. Ethnic conflict is important, but it is not the only thing that the government needs to take care of. The conflicts usually occur in border areas and geopolitics matter a lot in these regions. The government cannot solve the problem in the next five years and it takes effort to find a long-term solution. At the same time, the government cannot simply ignore the well-being of the rest of the population. The Burman and ethnic groups who integrate peacefully into society need investment to improve the national infrastructure.
 
Although the National League for Democracy (NLD) has become the governing party, the military still tightly controls the bureaucracy. The most difficult task of the new government is to manage its relationship with the military while pursuing political liberalization. What challenges does the military pose to the Myanmar’s political development? 
 
I wouldn’t say that the military still tightly controls the bureaucracy. The military remains important, but it no longer retains the same amount of power it used to have. The NLD controls the majority of the parliament and the military only commands about 25% of the seats. In the executive branch, heads of ministries are replaced by the new government personnel. The military still leads three agencies: home affairs, border affairs, and defense. Other agencies like finance, transportation, social welfare and economic development are under the command of the new civilian government. The new government needs to develop a healthy civil–military relationship. People from the government and the military are at odds with each other because some members of the new administration were jailed and persecuted by the old generals. Two sides have to overcome their distrust and work together. 
 
Following the landslide victory in the election, the NLD has a mandate to govern for five years. With a strong military power in the parliament and growing ethnic conflict, how stable is the party’s future hold on power?
 
The ethnic conflict is actually lessening. Before the government came to power, there were 18 armed conflicts and 8 groups signed the ceasefire agreement. Although the Western media shows growing number of conflicts, there is actually less fighting in Myanmar. 
 
In the parliament, more than 50% of the representatives come from the NLD and the military only controls 25%. In the 2015 General Election, the NLD won a landslide victory and now dominates the parliament. While still important, the military’s dominance and power have receded significantly. 
 
The party’s future hold on power is going to depend on its ability to solve problems and deliver service to the people. People have high hopes for this current government, although the government faces a significant number of problems. The health care system is meager and the education system is under-developed. The country has a human resource crisis because people are sick and poorly educated. These people are incapable of effectively running the government. The logic is simple. When people are sick, they will not study in school. When the schooling system is outdated, the future labor force does not learn enough skills and knowledge. Under these conditions, a country, whether run by a civilian or military government, has a shortage of qualified bureaucrats to lead the nation. The human resource limitations will hinder the long-term progress of Myanmar. As I have mentioned before, the current government needs to pay more attention to building the basic infrastructure for the future of the country. 
 
Once the U.S. lifts its remaining sanctions on Myanmar, Daw Suu and her administration will have more foreign investment and resources to stimulate the economy. What other ways can the new government work to alleviate poverty and develop the economy?
 
The government has designed great policies, but as always, it is difficult to carry out these policies in reality. Having limited human resources and weak infrastructure is going to obstruct the progress. For example, many places in Myanmar have no access to electricity; even when people have electricity, it is not reliable and they face constant power outages. A lot of businesses from the developed world will not choose to invest in Myanmar because the country does not have ports for exports, roads for transportation, or a reliable power grid to distribute electricity. In short, the government has a great vision, but it also faces a lot of constraints. 
 
In her roles as State Counselor and Foreign Minister of Myanmar, Daw Suu visited Beijing in August, providing some reassurance to Beijing. She later visited Washington and received a warm welcome from the Obama Administration. What are your thoughts about Myanmar’s seemingly non-aligned foreign policy? Will this approach continue and does Myanmar have much flexibility in terms of an alliance strategy?
 
Daw Suu visited Beijing as soon as she became the foreign minister because China is next door. Myanmar tries to develop a more diversified development strategy and not simply rely on one or two countries. If you imagine Myanmar as an investor trading in a volatile political market, the country is trying to have a diversified portfolio to spread risk and prevent loss from over-reliance on a single political partner. The non-aligned strategy definitely gives Myanmar more flexibility. More than anything else, the country needs the United States, not in terms of actual help, but in terms of symbolic support. When the U.S. lifts the sanctions, other countries will be willing to invest in Myanmar. With the sanctions in place, potential investors will avoid projects in Myanmar due to fear of political backlash. Lifting sanctions shows the world the symbolic opening of the country. 
 
A spokesman for Daw Suu's office said that "China is our neighbor" and "we cannot choose our own neighbor.” What will be the future relationship between China and the new Myanmar government?
 
In the past, Myanmar was completely dependent upon China because of the international sanctions. Although the country now wants to open up to the whole world, it does not want to kick China out. Since the Chinese have many investments in the country, the government wants to maintain a good relationship with Beijing. However, China can no longer have any structural dominance over Myanmar. It has to develop a new strategy to work with the new administration. 
 
There are also some conflicts over Chinese projects, like the suspension of the Myitsone Dam specifically, in which China miscalculated. The dam was built on the Ayeyawady River, which was the Nile of Myanmar. The river not only provides water, food, transportation, and economic livelihood for the country, it is at the heart of Myanmar's identity formation. All empires, literature, music and art were created along the banks of Ayeyawady and it is the mother river of the nation. When China planned to build the Myitsone dam, the project was going to change the landscape and flow of the river. Myanmar people felt that the dam project was directly attacking their identity. The Chinese did not understand this subtlety. Even under military control, the government realized that the infrastructure would bring much instability because angry people would rise up if the project continued. 
Author: 
Chuyi Sheng