Kyaw Myo Htut makes no secret of it: He’s far more comfortable in a uniform than in a suit and tie. If it were up to him, Myanmar’s 54-year-old ambassador to the United States would still be in the military, issuing commands from his army headquarters instead of sitting at a desk on Embassy Row.
Yet whether he likes it or not, this former soldier is now the official face of Myanmar in Washington — representing a nation of 55 million that until recently was one of the most isolated and shunned countries on Earth (one that’s still known to many by its former name of Burma).
In early March, Kyaw sat down with The Washington Diplomat for his first interview with any American media outlet since taking office nearly half a year ago. The awkwardness was palpable.
“I’m not a career diplomat. I came from a military background, so for me, this job is not in my nature. It’s quite hard, changing careers like this,” he told us, occasionally turning to his translator for help. “A military man only has to give and obey orders. But as a diplomat, you have to be very cautious when speaking about the policies of your country.”
Cautious is an understatement. In July 2011, Kyaw Win, the embassy’s deputy chief of mission, infuriated the military regime in Myanmar by defecting as a way of protesting its abysmal human rights record. Nine days later, the embassy’s fourth-ranking diplomat, first secretary Soe Aung, also quit and applied for political asylum (also see “Burma’s Kyaw Win Talks About Defecting, Starting Fresh in U.S.” in the September 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
But all that seems like ancient history now, given the dramatic developments that have taken place in Myanmar over the past three years (also see “Myanmar’s Envoy Seizes Historic Opening with U.S.” in the July 2013 issue of The Diplomat).
A military dictatorship since 1962, the country held general elections in 2010 — the first in 20 years. A quasi-civilian government led by President Thein Sein, a former general, took power in March 2011 and helped to usher in one of the most stunning turnarounds in recent history. His administration released hundreds of political prisoners and instituted a raft of reforms, including greater freedom of the press, wider labor rights and ceasefire agreements with 12 of the country’s 13 major ethnic armed groups. Banking restrictions were eased, sectors were opened to foreign investment, and inflation and government spending were reined in.
Notably, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a landslide victory in the multiparty election of 1990 but was never allowed to govern, was released from house arrest — after having spent the better part of two decades confined to her lakeside home. Although the Nobel Peace Prize winner wasn’t able to participate in the 2010 vote, she did run in the parliamentary by-elections of April 2012, when her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won 43 of the 44 seats up for grabs, gaining roughly 11 percent representation in Myanmar’s Parliament.
Thein Sein’s political and economic reforms were rewarded with a groundbreaking visit in December 2011 by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who met both the president and Suu Kyi. The following year, President Obama nominated veteran Southeast Asia expert Derek Mitchell as U.S. ambassador to Myanmar — becoming the first diplomat to hold that rank since 1990.
In November 2012, Obama himself visited Myanmar for 24 hours, as part of a whirlwind tour that also included Thailand and Cambodia (Thein Sein in turn made a landmark visit to the White House in May 2013). Kurt Campbell, then U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, remembers Obama’s trip to Myanmar well.
“We all flew into Yangon [Rangoon] together on Air Force One,” the former diplomat recalled at a recent dinner hosted by the US-ASEAN Business Council. “As I’m running to my car, two Secret Service guys were running after me. They told me the president wanted me to ride with him in his limousine. You can’t imagine the sense of excitement. It was thrilling and wonderful to be driving down the main boulevard leading into Yangon with hundreds of thousands of people in the streets.”
That excitement has endured, with Ambassador Kyaw describing his country’s ties with the United States today as “friendly and cordial.” He added that relations are “based on constructive engagement and the building of mutual trust and understanding.”
It’s also about building business ties with one of the world’s last largely untapped consumer markets. Now that sanctions have been eased, corporate America’s fascination with Myanmar should surprise no one. Besides being home to some of the world’s cheapest labor, this Texas-size nation also offers enormous energy potential. Its natural resources — including an estimated 50 million barrels of proven oil reserves and 10 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves — have attracted scores of oil companies. Total, Chevron, Shell and Woodside Energy recently won bids to explore for oil and gas off the country’s western and southern coasts. Myanmar, a densely forested country, is also the world’s largest exporter of teak and a major source of jade, pearls, rubies and sapphires.
Anthony Nelson is director for Myanmar affairs at the US-ASEAN Business Council, an advocacy group that speaks for companies looking to invest in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which Myanmar joined in 1997. Shortly before Obama’s stopover in Yangon, the council’s president, Alexander Feldman — along with reps from Chevron and Caterpillar — led a 70-member delegation of senior executives from Fortune 500 companies to Myanmar that included Coca-Cola, General Electric and Procter & Gamble.
“In many ways, this is Myanmar’s moment,” Nelson said in an email. “Myanmar is reconnecting with the global economy and the global diplomatic community. It is taking on key responsibilities like hosting ASEAN, and as a result, Myanmar has needed to expand the number and capability of its diplomats in Washington. Ambassador U Than Swe got the process going, and Ambassador U Kyaw Myo Htut has been an extremely visible presence in his time here. He has engaged fully with the business community and makes himself a part of the conversation around key issues.”
Despite GDP growth of 6.8 percent last year, Myanmar’s annual per-capita income stands at $1,700, according to the CIA; roads, electricity and clean water are scarce; and its economy is still hobbled by rampant cronyism and corruption. Kyaw told us that he knows his nation needs outside financial help.
“We need investors to develop our country. We have resources but Myanmar is one of the least-developed countries in the world,” he said. Nevertheless, its GDP is expected to grow 8 percent this year. The management firm McKinsey & Company says that if current trends continue, Myanmar’s GDP could quadruple to $200 billion by 2030.
Last year, Myanmar received $3.2 billion in foreign direct investment, double the influx of FDI in 2012. In accordance with Myanmar’s newly revised foreign investment law, 655 projects from 33 countries worth a combined $45.3 billion have been approved in a dozen sectors, led by electricity, oil and gas, and manufacturing.
In addition, the government has established three “special economic zones” offering incentives to potential investors with the idea of creating thousands of jobs. Tourism is also booming, with more than 2 million foreigners visiting Myanmar last year to see the country’s wealth of Buddhist temples and unspoiled tropical beaches. Kyaw says his embassy is issuing around 300 visas per day — up from 100 a day in 2012 — requiring him to hire new employees. Eleven diplomats now work at Myanmar’s mission on S Street, just off Dupont Circle.
Meanwhile, what to call the country remains a bone of contention.
Until recently, U.S. news outlets generally referred to the former pariah state as Burma, even though its rulers changed the name to Myanmar in 1989. Most newspapers (including this one) have since switched to Myanmar. However, the State Department still calls the country Burma on its website — a policy that doesn’t sit well with Kyaw.
“Burma was named by the British colonialists because they couldn’t pronounce Myanmar,” he explained. “We have eight nationalities in Myanmar, the main one being Burman. So if you call it Burma, this only represents one nationality. That’s why we prefer Myanmar, which is our ancient name.”
Kyaw spoke to us in a reception room adorned with a beautiful, handmade tapestry made of sequins and depicting a moat surrounding Mandalay Palace. There’s also a gold-framed letter from Burma’s King Mindon to President James Buchanan dating from February 1857 — near another gold-framed document listing the 28 ambassadors who have represented his country in Washington since 1947.
In fact, resource-rich Myanmar was a regional hub of learning and culture following its independence in 1948 — until the military junta took over in 1962 and the economy tanked. Despite that takeover, Burma’s relationship with the United States was generally good until Aug. 8, 1988 — a date commonly known as 8-8-88 — when police fired on Burmese university students, monks and other civilians taking part in a massive yet peaceful anti-government demonstration. Thousands were killed in the ensuing violence.
Soon after that, Washington withdrew its envoy from Yangon and downgraded relations. Burma’s generals reached out to China, which became their main supplier of weapons. Bertil Lintner, in the article “The Ex-Pariah,” wrote that it was frustration with being overly reliant on China that ultimately drove Myanmar’s military to turn to the West.
“As Chinese-made goods began to flood Myanmar markets, China imported timber, minerals and precious stones from the country while launching a number of hydroelectric power projects, which became hugely unpopular because of their devastating impact on the environment,” Lintner, a journalist living in Thailand who has authored seven books on Myanmar, wrote in the March/April 2014 issue of Politico Magazine.
“China was taking over Myanmar economically and exploiting the country’s rich natural resources — creating a ‘national emergency’ that threatens the country’s independence, as one Burmese lieutenant colonel wrote,” he said. “This — more than any high-minded ideological epiphany — appears to be what led Myanmar to reach out to the West, and, especially, China’s main critic in the international community, the United States.”
Whether China was the driving force or not, the strategy quickly paid off. In July 2012, the Obama administration permitted new U.S. investment in the country for the first time in 15 years, and in 2013, it allowed the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act — which had banned the import of Burmese-origin goods into the United States — to expire.
“I have to be optimistic,” said Kyaw, whose previous postings include London, where he was ambassador to Great Britain, and Geneva, where he served as Myanmar’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations. “We’ve been isolated for 50 years and now we’re opening up. Our country is going toward the process of democratization, which our president is leading. We are on the right track now.”
Not everyone agrees, however. Observers say corruption remains rampant, with many of Myanmar’s key industries still controlled by the military — which remains a dominant force in Parliament as well. Allegations that the army is involved in large-scale heroin trafficking persist, and the fact is that a vast majority of Myanmar’s people continues to live in poverty.
Making matters worse, a long-simmering ethnic feud between Buddhists, who comprise nearly 90 percent of the population, and a minority Muslim ethnic group known as the Rohingya has periodically erupted into violence, including a January attack in which about 50 Rohingya villagers were reportedly slaughtered in the western state of Rakhine, near Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh.
According to Human Rights Watch, more than a million Rohingya live in Myanmar, including 180,000 in squalid internal displacement camps, where they are subject to brutality and discrimination at the hands of mobs promulgating an extreme form of Buddhism and unchecked by local police. The United Nations has called the stateless Rohingya one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
“This state-sponsored oppression must end,” the Los Angeles Times demanded in a March 9 op-ed. “Myanmar needs to lift restrictions against the Rohingya and revamp its citizenship requirements. Security forces under government control should be deployed to Rakhine to supplant or oversee local police, who are often too prejudiced against the Rohingya to do their jobs properly. The government should also allow humanitarian groups back into Rakhine to provide aid and monitor how the Rohingya are treated.”
But Kyaw’s response to such accusations is that they’re all lies and that the Rohingya refugees are in fact illegal immigrants from nearby Bangladesh.
“Allegations of state-sponsored persecution are nonsense and groundless,” says an embassy “fact sheet” denying every one of the charges made by human rights groups. The ambassador said the word Rohingya itself is offensive — and instead calls them Bengalis (they speak a dialect of Bengali).
“The people of Myanmar will never recognize this term, which has been maliciously used by a group of people with ulterior motives,” according to the fact sheet. “It is the sovereign right of a country to formulate the criteria to preserve and promote its national interests and values. It is therefore crucial for the Bengali community to cooperate with the current population verification process since it is a starting point for resettlement, access to livelihoods, freedom of movement and citizenship.”
Kyaw denied reports that his government prohibits Rohingya Muslims from becoming citizens unless they can trace their lineage back well over a century ago — a near impossibility.
“We’re trying to clarify who was really born in Myanmar and who came from neighboring countries. If they were really born in Myanmar, they must know who their mothers and fathers are,” he insisted, adding that the Rohingya are discouraged — but not officially restricted, as human rights groups say they are — from having more than two children.
“In Myanmar, we call them illegal migrants. They live in their own villages. It’s not like refugee camps, surrounded by barbed-wire fences. They have rights, but most of them don’t have registration cards because they are illegal.”
Being a military man, perhaps it’s no surprise that Myanmar’s ambassador is pretty matter-of-fact about the country’s history of jailing political dissidents, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds.
“The way we see it, they broke some laws,” he said. “This was a military government, not a democracy, so we had restrictions. Look at Singapore. Even now, you’re not allowed to express yourself there, and you cannot assemble more than five people at a time. It’s still like that in Singapore. So as a military government, we had to have these kinds of restrictions to keep law and order.”
In the same vein, Kyaw said the regime confined Suu Kyi to her lakeside home all those years “for the sake of the country’s security, to maintain peace because we didn’t want to go back to the situation of 1988. That’s why we kept her under house arrest.”
But Suu Kyi hasn’t escaped criticism either. The Los Angeles Times says it’s “unconscionable” that the country’s most famous defender of human rights has not wielded her “considerable moral authority” to talk about abuses against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority.
The ambassador says he’s never met the Nobel laureate and “has no feeling one way or another” about her. Indeed, one gets the distinct impression he doesn’t care for the famous democracy icon very much. “She’s just an ordinary person. I don’t see her as an activist or whatever,” Kyaw told us. “She’s nothing special, at least not to me.”
Suu Kyi wants to run for president in the 2015 elections but cannot under Article 59 of the 2008 constitution, which forbids anyone with foreign family members from assuming the presidency (she was married to a British citizen and her two sons have British passports).
Yet amending the constitution to remove that stipulation would need the support of more than 75 percent of Parliament members — a mathematical challenge because under that same constitution, 25 percent of all seats are reserved for the military. The only way it could happen is if at least one member of the military supports such an amendment.
The issue is viewed as a litmus test of whether Myanmar will continue on the path to democracy.
“The year 2015 stands to be a pivotal one for Myanmar’s transition that will likely usher in a new generation of leaders,” according to the report “Sustaining Myanmar’s Transition: Ten Critical Challenges” by the Asia Society. “Although the outcome of the 2015 election is difficult to predict at this point, one can anticipate that the process will be dramatically different from the heavily manipulated elections of 2010. Having demonstrated the ability to run largely free and fair by-elections in 2012, the government will be expected to repeat this performance in 2015.”
It’s not clear if Thein Sein will seek a second term. And what does Kyaw think about the possible election of a President Suu Kyi come September 2015 if she’s allowed to run?
“It depends on the constitution,” he said. “If that happens, I don’t know if I’d be ambassador here or not. The president appoints ambassadors, and maybe she’d appoint someone else.”
For Kyaw, that might not be such a bad thing after all.
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.