As U.S. ambassador to Myanmar from July 2012 to March 2016, Derek Mitchell had a front-row seat to riveting developments that shook the Southeast Asian nation during a time of ethnic upheaval and political change. He was there when communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state left more than 200 people dead and displaced tens of thousands of Rohingya who eventually ended up in internal camps. He was also there when current leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won landslide elections in November 2015, becoming the first government not tied to the Myanmar military in more than 50 years. Mitchell, who now serves as senior advisor at the Albright Stonebridge Group, was in Myanmar in March to promote the development of a “smart-power” renewable-energy electricity-generation facility and to engage with the ethnic armed groups that have signed the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA). RFA’s Roseanne Gerin asked Mitchell about the country’s peace process, ongoing fighting between ethnic militias and the Myanmar army, guarantees for the safety of Rohingya refugees who will be repatriated, and the trial of two Reuters reporters who were framed by police. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.
RFA: When you met with the ethnic militias that have signed the NCA, was there any discussion about the next round of the Panglong Conference, Aung San Suu Kyi’s initiative to bring armed groups and the Myanmar military to the negotiating table?
Mitchell: There’s no concrete sense of when it will be. There was a bit of frustration among the groups that I met with about lack of progress on having a national dialogue among the different ethnic nationalities. The Shan were not able to get together and have their national dialogue, and the Rakhine were not able to get together to have theirs. So this was viewed as an obstacle to getting to the next round of discussion and then a Union-level political dialogue, which is a full dialogue. They have a sense of deadlock, but they feel they can overcome it over time.
RFA: Why were the Shan, Rakhine, and other ethnic groups unable to hold discussions among themselves?
Mitchell: It was not necessarily because of the ongoing fighting with the army, but more because of the army’s concern about all these different groups congregating together. There were questions about where they could meet. The Shan wanted to meet in one place, but the army would only allow them to meet in another place and then they restricted who they could meet. It was more the process of having the dialogue and the regulation of that dialogue that was viewed as unhelpful and in bad faith by the ethnics.
RFA: What should the government be doing to speed up the peace process?
Mitchell: The government from the start could have handled some things a little better in terms of reaching out to some of the ethnics to have quiet informal conversations to establish and build good faith and transparency about what the government’s intentions are. The lack of informal dialogues between official dialogues, which had occurred during the previous administration, has lessened the trust of some of the ethnic groups towards the government. As has the sense that the government can’t control the uptick in fighting. With the government’s parroting of the military’s defense of the fighting, some of these groups are seeing the government as being more on the side of the military and speaking for the military rather than speaking for their rights. This is a disappointment because many of these groups voted for the NLD to speak for them. So all this has led to the slowdown of the process, a reduction in trust, a sense that the military is firmly in control, and severe obstacles to peace.
RFA: Do you see that changing anytime soon?
Mitchell: I do think the process can move forward, but the regaining of trust will come back slower. There are still many obstacles among and even within the ethnic groups that create a problem for peace. This is an extraordinarily complicated peace process, which is why it has been 70 years and counting where the country has not had peace essentially since independence. It takes extraordinary sensitivity, nuance, and care to move it forward. The people are tired of fighting. But peace is not simply the absence of war. The real challenge is finding a common destiny, building trust among these communities, building trust between these groups and the Bamar majority and the central government — all these will lead to the real stability and peace that has been lacking. There is still a long way to go, and things have regressed on that front in recent years
RFA: To what extent is the Myanmar military to blame for ongoing skirmishes in Shan and Kachin states and in other regions?
Mitchell: It’s not unnatural that there be skirmishes during moments like this when there is a peace process, but they need to be minimized. It reflects a very severe lack of trust and a lack of a structure for dealing with skirmishes when they occur. When they come into contact there needs to be some kind of ability to separate the forces and to have an independent eye on what’s going on. That doesn’t exist.
RFA: How effective has the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee been in this regard?
Mitchell: Overall, it’s not as effective as it needs to be. It’s hardly active now, though it had been in the past, but it’s not functioning as it should, and the military is not engaging as it should. This is creating more and more frustration. If the military truly wants peace, it should be going the extra mile to promote mechanisms that reassure people that there is a dividend to peace, and that there are real results from signing the NCA. The military may be frustrated by some of the things the ethnic groups do, but it should be taking the high road and put the matter before a monitoring mechanism or an objective third party and have it adjudicated. That will help bring about peace. The military sees this as a question of its sovereignty, but I don’t think that is a violation of that sovereignty, because they can be in full control of its organization, or at least have oversight of that mechanism. It would be the military’s sovereign decision to invite others in to help it achieve what it has been unable to achieve for 70 years — true lasting peace.
RFA: What does the Myanmar government need to do to ensure the safety of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who are repatriated to Myanmar?
Mitchell: First of all, the government needs to have a conversation with them. It has just started to do this when Social Welfare Minister Win Myat Aye went to Bangladesh earlier this month and met with some Rohingya representatives to listen to them about what their concerns are about security conditions. Second, there needs to be a very strong commitment not only by the government, but also by the military, police, and security forces, to demonstrate that they will strictly enforce the rule of law — a just, equitable application of law that rejects any violence against anyone in their territory, including people they may not feel are citizens. The refugees must be convinced that the military, the security services, and the Rakhine ethnics accept them back in the country and that they will be safe once back in their homes and villages of origin, will have access to livelihoods and the ability to move around, and will have equal protection as others in the country. The government must do everything possible through its actions and words to convince them that when they return, they will be protected and be equal to other citizens so that they don’t feel as though they are vulnerable to the same kind of violence that they faced in August, September, and October. I don’t how you get there at this point, because there is so much trauma. If the Rohingya feel that they will return to pens like 140,000 of them have been in since 2012 in places like Sittwe and Pauktaw, then they will just feel that they will be in open-air concentration camps. There will be no reason for them to believe that the pens are just way stations, but rather will be their permanent homes.
RFA: To what extent is the government acting in good faith when it says that the repatriation of Rohingya refugees is a priority, especially given the delays with the process?
Mitchell: It is difficult to say. There is a transitional environment in Naypyidaw, and this is not a fully functioning government. There are a lot of areas where the NLD government has not demonstrated an efficient government capacity, so one can make a credible argument that this is just another example of a failure to govern effectively and efficiently. Now I understand how people can come up with theories as to why it doesn’t want to move quickly and why this is part of a plan. That could certainly be the case, too. But my sense from talking to people who have spoken with the social welfare minister is that he is very sincere and that he really does want to get the refugees back. Aung San Suu Kyi herself may be sincere about getting them back. She reportedly talks internally about “building back better” which is fascinating because that’s a development mantra. The government seems to believe that economic development will raise all boats and will mitigate the Rohingya problem. I happen to think that’s wrong — that that’s not going to be enough. But that’s what the government believes, and it may be sincere in that belief. Is it acting competently? Is it doing things smartly the way they should be done? The process for returns is cumbersome and hardly done with urgency. The government should have talked to the Rohingya much earlier to discuss conditions for their return, like their security concerns, before they built pens to bring them back to. You can make the case that’s a result of their lack of awareness about how to do this and their lack of competence about how to do it right, rather than a bad faith effort to try to hoodwink the Rohingya and hoodwink the international community. Or you can credibly argue otherwise. It’s no secret the political winds at home do not favor repatriation. In the end, it will be up to the government to build trust with both the Rohingya and international community alike about their credible efforts on this score.
RFA: Where do you see the trial against the two Reuters reporters accused of possessing state secrets headed?
Mitchell: They will likely be convicted, so the hope is that there will be a commutation of the sentence by the government — maybe time served — and then they be released. That’s the ideal scenario. It happened in a previous case during the administration of former President Thein Sein when two journalists from the Union Daily newspaper were arrested on questionable national security grounds. The government said it had to follow the judicial process through, but once the process was complete, then it had the power to pardon. They’ve already been in prison for many months, so it would be enough if they get a fine of some nominal sum and then are released. Anything worse than that would be a real tragedy for the future of media freedom and for freedom in Myanmar. Obviously, dropping the charges entirely would be ideal, but I frankly doubt that will happen given the judicial system in Myanmar right now.
RFA: Do you think this issue along with similar prosecutions during the last two years are an indication that Myanmar is backpedaling on press freedom and other types of freedoms?
Mitchell: It’s stagnant. There’s a lot of self-censorship and worry among the media that they need to be careful and that they don’t have the protection from the government that they had hoped to have under the NLD. In that sense, there is some stagnation or rollback, but there is still space to report what’s going on in the country, particularly compared to the situation in neighboring countries.