Lorne W. Craner is President of the International Republican Institute. Previously, he was Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor for former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The official name of Burma given by the government of Burma is Myanmar. And they changed the name about six-seven years ago, because they said they wanted to refer to all of the people of Burma. Burma, some people say, only refers only to the Barman ethnic group within the country whereas we now know there are many ethnic groups within the country. Those who are more in favor of Burma’s democracy still refer to it as Burma. So we will see in the next few years what the next name ends up as.
Historically, in 1962, give us what takes place then with the junta and Myanmar.
Just before, or during WWII, Burma was invaded by Japan had been a British colony. The British moved back in after WWII. The Burmese has had other people in the region looked and said “You’re not so mighty, the Japanese beat you.” And so they began a war of independence. The man who led the war of independence was a man named Aung San, General Aung Sun. It may sound familiar because its Aung Sun Suu Kyi father. Now had it become parliamentary democracy, in 1958 it started to become much more repressive. And then in 1962, there was a military coup within Burma and that military junta has ruled ever since 1962. In the mid 70s and then again in 87 and 88, there were student riots within Burma and that’s when the really hard crackdown began. Aung Sun Suu Kyi had returned to Burma. In 1988, she had been outside of Oxford. She had gotten married to a British gentleman Michael Aris. And she came back to see her ailing mother. And it happened to be the summer of 1988. And so those who were conducting the protest asked her, as the representative of the family, to come and talk to the student protesters and she was an instant hit, and people said, “You must get involved for the sake of our country and for your heritage in the struggle we’re undertaken,” and she’s been there ever since.
What was the response of the government to her presence and her popularity?
Well, I think they really feared her because she had this heritage – number one. She was, it was hard to vilify her because she was the daughter of the national hero Aung San. It’s hard to have a comparison here, but perhaps the George Washington want to refer to him as the George Washington of Burma. So she is the daughter of the national hero, so it’s hard to vilify her. In addition, she’s very intelligent, she has a very appealing manner about her, and she’s a great speaker. And so I think they really feared her as somebody around whom – the democratic movement could rally and that’s essentially what has happened.
Could you go a little bit more into the 1988 uprising and what took place?
Again in ’75, ’76, ’87, and ’88, there were uprisings of students, which in Asia is not an uncommon occurrence. It’s happened everywhere from South Korea all the way down to Indonesia. But in Asia, that is a sign for the rulers its time to start changing things. And as the leaders have done in China with their student movement in 1989, the leaders of Burma decided to put this down, and they went at it hammer and tongue. And there were estimates that up to 5,000 people were killed that summer in the uprisings against the regime.
Today we have a new president of Burma. He’s done a number of things – some may be surprised it. Could you talk about what he has done and what it is doing for Myanmar?
The new president has essentially decided to begin liberalizing, both economically but more importantly for the more outside world, politically. There is a lot of speculation about his motivation. Some people, the chairman the AESEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] group was coming up their Chairman of the AESEAN group, they had been turned down before. There was a lot of speculation that that was the motivation. But I learned when I was there in December that there were two things that were much more important to him. Number one was the very, very tight embrace of China. Essentially China had become Burma’s only friend on the earth, but they were asking a lot of Burma and the Burmese government was getting tired of that. The second thing was something that began to occur to the Burmese rulers that had not occurred to their predecessors. Many of them had traveled overseas and they had begun to see how far behind Burma had fallen – that the hole of the region, this region that in the 60s when they first came to power and been full of military dictatorships, and very backwards economic systems had really progressed. And that places like Indonesia, Thailand to a degree; many of these countries were becoming democracies. And I think the President looked and said, “I think we’re falling behind and I think its time to being to open up the system in Burma.” I think that he’s in a very tenuous positions as was described to me that a third of the government has decided to move forward, a third of the government want so stay where it is, and a third of the government is still waiting to see which side is winning and therefore which side to join. So I think he is a very delicate position as he takes these steps. But as the months go on, you see a consistent pattern of steps moving forward. There are still many, many things to be done. A lot of people have not been let out of prison. There are still a lot of people who are not allowed to visit the country. There’s still a lot of fighting with the ethnic groups. There’s a rule of law to be implemented, etc. But given where he started, he has begun to move forward.
To continue on that, what specifics has the new President put in place?
He has begun to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi, which essentially the government on a high level wasn’t doing before. He allowed her party to be legalized, which was the first time in well over a decade that had happened. He has released her from house arrest; so she is not only free to travel around the country, she’s free to leave the country, which she was not free to do for many years.
She was told when her husband was dying in England that “if you leave the country, you will not be coming back” and she very courageously decided to stay. So she is now free to do that, as you know she will be coming to the United States this fall. He has also begun to change people within his government, and you saw a recent government reshuffle where many people who were regarded as hard-line within the government were dismissed; and those who were regarded as more moderate, more interested in opening up, have begun to move into higher positions.
Just to give one example, the information minister announced just a week or two ago that newspapers would be free to publish in Burma, that has not happened in decades. Now, I’m sure many of the newspaper editors in Burma will be looking and saying, “Are we going to be crossing a line, if we publish that?” But that is progress, as I said there’s a huge amount to be done; but compared to where we were a year or eighteen months ago this is dramatic change.
And the military that has played such a powerful role in the government all these many years, are they still in power or not?
The military in Burma, their position, whether they are still on top, is still in question among the analysts. The military is still prosecuting the war to some extent against the ethnic groups, even as the government negotiates ceasefires with them. There is a question about how much control the president exercises over the military. So that is kind of the next big question given that it was a military hunt and a military coup in 1962.
And now that we have a new government there, what is the reaction of the international countries looking at Myanmar; as well as the U.S.?
It’s not a new government in the sense; you know I see a lot of joy about has happened with Suu Kyi. The fact is that this past spring there were elections – very fractioned of the seats in the assembly. So they now, it is true, she is now free to travel around Burma, outside. Her party won all but one of the forty some seats that were up for election. But she is now just part of a parliament, she has moved into a power structure and that was her decision; a power structure of the military and of the previous government.
The question, I think, that is fair is: what to expect before 2015, which is the next elections. What power will the legislature have? What power will her party have within the legislature, what power will she have as a committee chairwoman, which she was named a week or two ago? And those are all things to watch.
Also things to watch are: are they able to reach settlement with the ethnic groups around the periphery of Burma? Are all the political prisoners released? Do they begin to implement a real rule of law? And as we get closer to 2015, what do the preparations for elections look like? So those are all things to watch for. I think the reaction of the international community has been elation, perhaps not warranted. She has visited, Aung San Suu Kyi, has visited a number of European countries she’s coming here. The struggle in Burma is not yet over. Burma is by no means a democracy. There’s an opening for democratic change, but I don’t think we should be elated or think that the struggle is over and that Burma has changed greatly. These next two or three years are going to be very, very important to see how things end up in Burma.
You had briefly mentioned ethnic groups, how do the ethnic groups fit into all this?
They’re wondering that exact same issue. When I met with them in December in Burma; they were wondering, “Where do we fit in this process?” Because especially at that time, their attitude was: things have changed at the top, we’re very happy that Aung San Suu Kyi is able to talk to the government; but in our village in northwestern Burma, nothing has changed. We’re still fighting with the military, we’re being given no more rights; essentially nothing has changed. So they are wondering where do we fit into this change in Burma?
They’re a little bit afraid they’re going to be left behind, because traditionally the ethnic groups within Burma, all the way back, decades, have not been really of the government class that dominant Burmans within the country have been. And so they’re pleased with what is happening, they see potential in what is happening; but they also worry that historically we have been left behind, is that going to happen again? So they’re placing a great deal of faith in her abilities and she certainly seems determined to do that.
China has had a special relationship with Burma. How does China look at the changes in Burma and how does that impact the relations between China, Burma and the U.S.?
The Chinese when you talk to them, and I have been talking to Chinese diplomats, and I have been talking to the Chinese about Burma say, “This is what we asked the Chinese to do for years. You, the U.S., wanted the system to open up and we have been pressing them to do that.” So they take some credit for it. I think China has always historically been very interested in having very tight relations with nations on its border.
And I think they must be wondering at this point where is Burma going? What is going to happen with Burma? Because some of the ethnic groups on Burma’s border have ethnic cousins across the border in China. So I think they have a great deal of interest in what is going on. I think they look a little warily at how close the U.S. is going to get to Burma, because again they like to have very good relations with nations on their border.
I think they will be watching very, very closely in the months and years ahead how close the relations get between the U.S. and Burma. At the same time, I think the rulers of Burma, whether they be the military and Aung San Suun Kyi recognize Burma’s geography, that they have no choice but to have good relations with China and they will be thinking about that as well as time goes on.
What are the tools, if any, that the U.S. can call upon to help their interests in Myanmar?
I think the first thing, we all need to remember, we in America tend to forget this, is that people have a high regard for the United States. We are still regarded as a model for many other countries despite all the problems that we have here. I’ve talked to many, many people around the world who say, “I just wish we had those problems- we have much bigger problems.” The second thing is, we are a cultural draw for people. People they may not like our policies but they certainly like America, and the culture it represents, so we always need to keep that in mind. That we still are in many ways attractive for other countries.
I think the policies, then, that we need to think about are the policies to build on that base. And I think in the case of Burma, I think there was a certain desire – there’s a certain desire in most countries- for legitimacy on the world stage and the U.S. and Europe and to some degree AESEAN had begun to say, “Burma, this isn’t the way to handle it anymore.” This is a different world than it was in the 1950s and 60s and you used to have 40 democracies in the 1960s and now you have up to 120. Democracy is not just a Western thing or an American thing or a European thing when you have countries throughout Asia from Mongolia to Indonesia that are democratic. You need to be thinking about whether you’re being left behind. The United States also exercised economic sanctions against Burma which the E.U. did as well to indicate our disapproval and to say to the Burmese government, “If you want access to our markets, you need to begin to change your policies.” And as I said before I think that was one of the two or three things that the Burmese government finally looked at and said, “We really do need to begin to become part of a globalized world and not get left behind.” So I think you can make the argument that over time that was effective.
As I said before, the changes I think there’s a lot of elation around the world about Aung Aan San Suu Kyi and a lot of people do think that much of the job is done in Burma, it’s not. And so we need to think about, as well as giving rewards to the government, about providing incentives for the government to continue to change.
Is there a little bit of a balancing that the United States needs to do or should do with the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi?
Well, I think actually European leaders and our leaders have been very deft about that. President Obama has given a visa, which had not been done for many, many years to the leader or Burma, so he can come here, he can be received by our government. He can be accorded some legitimacy. And I will also say that I think this is something Aung San Suu Kyi has been very clever and very understanding about. She has said to leaders around the world, he is the leader of my country and at this point he’s liberalizing measures haven been taken in part to be encourage further measures, you should be talking to him and offering him a degree of empathy and legitimacy.
What is your take on Egypt?
Egypt had essentially outgrown Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak was trying to keep the political system very, very closed. And especially after Tunisia, I had many, many Egyptians say to me, “You know, we are the center of the Middle East. We are the center of culture and civilization in this area. And there’s no way that the Tunisians are going to throw of their dictator and we’re not going to do the same.
And so I think a frustration that had been growing, that we had we seen for many, many years within Egypt essentially boiled over after Tunisia got rid of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. For many years before that the Muslim Brother hood had become stronger and stronger as the main opponent of Hosni Mubarak. If you didn’t like Hosni Mubarak and you wanted to oppose him and change things essentially, you joined the Brotherhood. The more liberal – I don’t want to call them secular- but the more liberal political movements in the middle were very heavily suppressed by Hosni Mubarak and as a result he was able to say to people, “It’s either me or it’s the Brotherhood.”
And so I think there were many people in the United States who were looking and saying, “He was right- all those years, it was either him or the Brotherhood.” And now they’re very, very worried about what is the Brotherhood going to do. I tell people this is a process of change that is going to take ten to twenty years in Egypt. We the United States need to remain engaged in that process of change. We need to remain engaged with the government. If we do not wish to do that, there are others, plenty of others, like the Saudis, like the Iranians who are more than happy to take our place.
And so what I would say to policymakers is: Stay involved with the government. This is not Hosni Mubarak. They’re not going to do almost anything we ask. They do feel a need to break the mold…somewhat internally, but mainly on foreign policy. And I think they look for inspiration to the Turkish government, which as we all know for many year was a military government and very close to the United States and they have become much more independent in their foreign policy. We still have good relations with the government of Turkey. So I think as long as they operate within certain parameters, we need to have good relations with the government of Egypt. I think we all need to say to them, however, there was a reason this revolution happened. The Egyptian people want more openness in the political system; they want to be able to say what they want. They want to be able to read the newspapers they want. They are now expecting elections. The women of Egypt have certain expectations in terms of their rights. The Christians in Egypt have certain expectations. And all of that needs to be respected.
And it should be the case the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt should have to face the electorate after a certain amount in time. That will be determined in their constitution. But I think there are people in the United States who fear that that was one election, one time. And that’s something we need to have good relationships and talk to the government of Egypt about.
Where does Egypt sit now or is seen by fellow countries? Are they a power to be reckoned with both politically and economically?
They’ve always been a power to be reckoned with in part because they are regarded, interestingly, along with Baghdad, as the center of civilization and culture in the Middle East. It has been spectacular to see change in places like Egypt and Tunisia and now, hopefully Syria. But very few Arabs would look and say, “Well, if Libya’s changes we want to go to do that too.” If things change in Egypt, as they have, or as they have to a degree in Iraq, people in the Middle East look and say, “Well if they can do it in Iraq and they can do it in Egypt, then maybe we can do it here.”
So they will remain, regardless of how big their economy is or how powerful their military is, as a cultural icon. They will continue to have influence in the region.
Historically the U.S. has used intervention whether it’s in the Cold War, from Africa to Vietnam, etc., is intervention a viable means for getting our diplomacy out there?
Well, military intervention should be exercised when our interests are directly threatened and I think you saw that after 9/11, in Afghanistan. I think you can have the argument in retrospect about whether that was the case in Iraq. At the time we believed our interests were threatened. You can now have a debate about whether that was true or not at the time. There are many measures short of military intervention to get our point across from economic relations, death diplomacy. If you want to see something change in a country you need to make it an important part of your diplomacy with the country. They need to understand that the United States feels very strongly about something and that often makes them think about it. Again, you can have better economic relations; you can have better trade relations. You can have cultural relations, people-to-people relations, to try to influence where a country is gong. So you know, I often hear people say after many years of war, and I’ve lived long enough to see America exhausted twice by war, if not three times after the Cold War – it’s not a binary choice between we can be isolationist or we can send our military to a country. There are many, many ways to remain engaged around the world without sending our military to intervene.
How do we do the balancing and distinguishing as to when to intervene, how to intervene, and are humanitarian issues weighing in our decisions?
As I said, I think there should be a standard of when are our interests directly threatened. There is a new school of thinking that is not yet resolved called responsibility to protect. And that is in a very interconnected and globalized world that countries that are at peace have an obligation to help a people that are withstanding genocide within their country and that is the standard that I most often hear. So you saw a bit of this in Somalia in ’92 with President Bush’s intervention. President Clinton says the biggest mistake he ever made during his presidency was not intervening with others in Rwanda. You saw this in the very late 90s in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And I, you know, these issues continue about whether we should stand by and watch a people slaughtered. I think after the Iraq war in particular it is much more difficult for people to make that argument. But it’s not an argument that is limited to the United States. There are people in, many people in government in Europe that say that this is a very valid question, and there are other countries more and more countries around the world and governments that say we need to look at this question of whether we should let a people be slaughtered in a country and just overt our eyes.
Is there anything you would like to touch base on?
No, the one thing that I told a former policymaker recently, who was saying, “What do you think I should emphasize, when I go out and talk?” is as I said, I have lived longed enough to remember two or three times when the American people was very tired of our work overseas and wars overseas in Vietnam, the Cold War, and I think now after Iraq. And I think 9/11 I hope brought home to most people in this country, that our oceans are no longer long enough to protect us; that we cannot be isolated in the world, and not pay attention. Be engaged with other countries on this earth. That it’s important for us to do so and if we don’t, then the consequences may deserve upon us, was not possible a century or half a century ago. So it’s important for Americans to remain engaged in the world.