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Talking Policy: Priscilla Clapp on Myanmar

Last month, Myanmar’s first civilian president in over 50 years, Htin Kyaw of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, was sworn into office. World Policy Journal spoke with Priscilla Clapp, former chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Burma, about the shift from military to civilian rule in Myanmar and the role of the international community in the country’s political transition. After 30 years with the U.S. government, Clapp now serves as an advisor at the Asia Society, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and other organizations. Her recent report published by the Council on Foreign Relations is titled “Securing a Democratic Future for Myanmar.”

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Aung San Suu Kyi pledged earlier this week to amend the constitution, which was created in 2008 by the military regime. Given the still prominent influence of military leaders in the country, is significant constitutional reform likely to occur?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: It's not likely to occur in the very near future. The military leadership has said that they will be prepared to modify the constitution when they have achieved peace with the armed ethnic groups. And not only peace, but also the demobilization of armed forces. That could take a very long time. I think the soonest we would see it is anywhere from three to five years. But there are many other problems with the constitution—practical problems—so they may actually start the amendment process sooner. There may be some things the military wants to change in the constitution.

WPJ: The Myanmar government has become more responsive to citizen concerns over the past several years, but to what extent does the current constitution and government structure ensure citizen participation? 

PC: Citizen participation starts with voting, and as we've seen from the November elections, the voting is pretty free now. The people seem to have gotten their way. Once they've elected their members of parliament, then you assume that the members of parliament are representing the citizens.

WPJ: Will more reforms be necessary to solidify this political change that has already occurred?

PC: Well, more reforms will be necessary for Myanmar to become a democracy. It's not there yet. In fact, it still has a very long way to go. So I don't think there's an end point to all of this. What you want to achieve is a stable democracy where they have regular elections and there's no question about whether there are going to be elections and whether there's going to be a smooth transfer of power. This could actually take quite a long time, because with a country that has really no democratic tradition—no tradition of operating a democracy—it takes a long time to build the institutions and the patterns that it takes to make a democracy stable. But that doesn't mean that the reforms won't continue. They will continue, and I expect to see this coming five-year term that has just started to be a very critical period in the reform process, because the NLD with its majority vote in the parliament has a lot of power to pass new laws, change the structure of the executive branch, and change how the executive branch does business—more than people even realize.

People have tended to focus on the military restrictions in the constitution, and haven't really focused yet on the latitude the constitution allows the elected parliamentarians. Reporting on Myanmar hasn't focused on that—they've tended to focus on the restrictive side, the military, the things they don't like in the constitution. They haven't focused on the more positive aspects of the constitution that give a lot of leeway for making reforms. And I think Aung San Suu Kyi has already demonstrated that in the first week that the NLD took power in the beginning of April. She made a couple of very, very dramatic moves in the direction of taking control of the government in a way that people haven't anticipated. So I think we're going to see a lot more of this in the coming years.

WPJ: What impact has over five decades of military rule had on Myanmar’s social and economic systems?

PC: It's pretty hard to make a brief statement about how disastrous 50 to 55 years of military rule has been. It's practically destroyed the country and the society. The country's been in one of the longest running civil wars since the 1940s.

WPJ: What is needed to start to address these problems?

PC: What's happening, what's going on now is the beginning. They've moved to elected government. They've put civilians in charge. And they're beginning to formulate policies that will begin to correct all of the problems that the military created. But they still have to work in partnership with the military, and the military is still very strong. So it's going to be a long, gradual process. But these things never happen fast. We sit back here and think that we can somehow turn a page and overnight the country transforms into something like the United States. It's not going to happen!

WPJ: What’s being done to address minority issues, the continuing violence, and the economic problems that Myanmar faces?

PC: The peace process they've been negotiating with the armed ethnic groups for five years now—almost five years—will continue. Aung San Suu Kyi has already made it a priority of her government. They're all on vacation right now, but when they come back, I think we're going to begin to see a lot more movement in this direction.

WPJ: What impact will increased openness to neighboring countries have on Myanmar's domestic politics?

PC: Well, it's already happening because their membership in ASEAN was a big factor in making this transition happen in the first place. When they joined ASEAN the military leaders began visiting the neighboring countries and realizing how far behind they were, and eventually they decided that they hadn't being doing a very good job, and that they needed to change. Furthermore, ASEAN itself was pressuring them to change. It encouraged them to step back from the Presidency [of ASEAN] until they had changed their government. I think ASEAN has had a tremendous impact on the political situation in Myanmar already.

WPJ: What role should foreign governments play in encouraging political change in Myanmar?

PC: I think we should continue what we're doing, and do even more of it. Foreign governments, foreign countries, foreign entities will have a major impact on economic development, investment, and social and political development in the country. The Western countries in particular and some of the Asian countries like Japan have been providing humanitarian assistance for many, many years and this will be a continuing need for Myanmar. We can do an awful lot to build the institutions they need for sustainable democracy, and to help them increase their capacity for governance. The United States has put particular focus on the development of civil society and civilian institutions in the country during the last five years. The international community can do a lot to support the peace process, and the implementation of agreements that are coming out of it.

WPJ: And how can the international community do that?

PC: By helping to build structures to monitor ceasefires, helping to develop some of the ethnic minority areas in the country, and helping them develop the capacity to negotiate some of the tricky political issues of sharing power and resources which they face in the peace negotiations.

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For more World Policy interviews, visit the Talking Policy archive page!

[Photo courtesy of C.GEORGE]

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