Shaken by Myanmar's retreat from democracy, US aid leaders ponder next steps

An aerial view of Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by: Eugene Phoen / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — On Nov. 9, 2015, the day after Myanmar’s historic election that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party secure a sweeping victory, Mark Green was sitting in the lobby of his hotel with dozens of journalists and other international observers watching the results come in.

“Almost nobody believed they would actually be allowed to be tabulated. Everybody was convinced that the military junta would rear its ugly head and at the last moment and pull it back,” said Green, now the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, and then president of the International Republican Institute.

“We've all got our iPads and our laptops, and the internet went down. And everybody's eyes, we all connected, and we thought, OK, here it goes,” Green said. He and the other observers assumed they were witnessing the beginning of a government crackdown, aimed at annulling the country’s first democratic elections since 1960.

“Fifteen seconds later the internet came back on,” Green said.

In late May of this year, Green returned to Myanmar on behalf of President Donald Trump’s administration and at the helm of the world’s largest bilateral aid agency. He described his visit to camps for internally-displaced Rohingya in northern Rakhine state as “one of the most disturbing things that I have seen.”

“What was most disturbing was the despair in the eyes of the families ... They can't go anywhere. They need government approval to visit the next village. They have no livelihoods. They pointed out that they live off what we give them. Their kids can't go to school, because there are no teachers. Even if there were, they only get to go to school through fourth grade. You look at the young parents, and they're saying, ‘what are we supposed to do?’”

Green said that what they had feared might happen in 2015, when the internet blinked out and everyone looked at each other with apprehension, was what he witnessed on his return trip this year, three years after he sat in that hotel lobby wondering if the government would allow the election results to stand,

“The internet has gone down,” he told one of his travel companions.

“This will of the people rising has been pulled back by military leaders who are very obviously not interested, at this moment, in citizen-responsive, citizen-centered governance, and that's what we must go after,” Green said.

The USAID administrator told Devex in June that he would be working to craft a longer term response to the Rohingya crisis — USAID has given roughly $300 million in humanitarian assistance — “when Secretary [of State] Pompeo has more than a few minutes.”

“What has been a remarkable democratic story of progression is very much at risk. This is a young democracy, a fragile democracy, and this is a failure of democracy.”

— Mark Green, USAID administrator

Persecution of Myanmar’s Muslim-minority population, which has forced nearly 1 million people to flee their homes, has forced many of the leaders who were hopeful for a new, democratic dawn in the country in 2015 to take stock of what went wrong. Earlier this month, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres visited refugee camps in Bangladesh and reported “unimaginable accounts of killing and rape from Rohingya refugees who recently fled Myanmar.”

For U.S. officials who have worked to support an open, democratic Myanmar, the country’s descent into division stands as a frustrating — if not altogether unforeseeable — example of the fickle nature of democratic transitions, and the critical need to ensure that democratic participation is a long-term project undertaken by entire populations, not just a select few.

“What has been a remarkable democratic story of progression is very much at risk. This is a young democracy, a fragile democracy, and this is a failure of democracy,” Green said.

In 2013, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright returned to Myanmar for the first time since 1995. Albright had made previous attempts to travel to the country, but was repeatedly denied a visa. She eventually learned that she had been blacklisted by the government because of her role in crafting U.S. sanctions against the military dictatorship, which the Obama administration partially lifted as it sought to normalize relations with the isolated, pariah state.

Albright, who now chairs the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes democracy and governance, described Myanmar’s recent backslide as “one of the most challenging” issues that the U.S. government has to deal with and Aung San Suu Kyi as “an iconic figure … operating under very complicated circumstances.”

“The worst part would be if we were not engaged in some way,” Albright said.

“The U.S. government does need to make clear where we stand on human rights. As a matter of fact, I believe we should do that everywhere. That is the responsibility of the United States, to speak out about human rights violations,” she said.

Albright said that she values NDI’s “optimistic approach,” which begins with an understanding “that people everywhere around the world are the same and people want to be able to govern themselves.”

“I’ve never kind of liked the business of saying, ‘x group of people are not ready for democracy or are not interested in democracy.’ I do think it is important to have the goal of delivering the nuts and bolts,” she said.

Albright also takes issue with the “endless arguments” about what comes first — economic or political development. “They clearly go together,” she said, while cautioning that, “democracy has to deliver.”

In June, NDI announced its next president, former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell, who served in the country from 2012-2016 — just as Myanmar’s reforms were unfolding and America was shifting its diplomatic stance.

“I never judged what happened in 2015 as an American success … It was Burma's success — the election itself and the smooth transition to a government. But it was always a work in progress. I never had any illusions that that election was the end of anything,” Mitchell said.

“This is a work in progress. Democracy is a process. It is never done.”

— Derek Mitchell, former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar

The “worst thing that was said” about Mitchell’s tenure in Myanmar was actually intended as a compliment, related to an exit interview he gave to a magazine before he left, Mitchell added. When the interview published, the cover of the magazine declared, “Mission Accomplished.”

“Now, as an American, we all know that's the last thing you want posted there,” Mitchell said, hinting at the now-infamous “mission accomplished” banner that hung prematurely behind former President George W. Bush in a 2003 speech about the Iraq war.

“I didn't like it for about five different reasons, but one being that it wasn't my mission accomplished ... It wasn't an American mission to succeed. Nothing was accomplished. This is a work in progress. Democracy is a process. It is never done,” Mitchell said.

“We get sort of manic depressive about countries generally, or about Burma specifically, and I never got caught up in the euphoria of what was going on there,” he said.

Mitchell said there is a tendency to define Myanmar’s challenge by the identities of its best-known actors — “the lady,” as Aung San Suu Kyi is known, and the military junta. The issues of citizenship, division, and rights that currently challenge Myanmar’s progress run deeper than an election, or one person’s freedom from years of oppression, and it is more than a “democracy issue,” Mitchell said.

“When you go there, you realize that's an essential component for a solution of a country so divided, but it is much more complex in reality. Their problems are immense, and those problems are going to have to be addressed over generations,” he said.

About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.