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November 17, 2016

Former Ambassador to Myanmar Describes Country’s Transition to Democracy

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Former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, Derek J. Mitchell, shared his role in aiding Myanmar’s political transition to democracy over the last five years at a lecture Thursday.

Myanmar was under military rule for nearly 55 years before fair elections were allowed to take place in Oct. 2015, when the civilian party overwhelmingly won and the military peacefully handed over its power.

However, Mitchell emphasized the impact of “50 years of systematic degradation of every institution except the military” on the nation’s progress.

“Myanmar is an example of how politics can undermine the achievements and the potential of a country,” he said.

Although some of these problems are being alleviated as the country transitions to a democracy, “the challenges are still severe,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell described the problems Myanmar will face: keeping the peace, creating jobs and unifying the country. Most of these problems stem from the country’s geography, and its proximity to India and China, according to Mitchell.

“This is a country of about 51 and a half million people surrounded by about three billion,” he said. “As a result, their identity is one dominated by insecurity and vulnerability to outsiders that has led to sensitivity on issues of sovereignty and at times hyper-nationalism.”

According to Mitchell, newly elected State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has the solution to this identity crisis.

“This is, frankly, where Aung San Suu Kyi is uniquely positioned,” he said, “There’s nobody else who I think has the credibility to offer a vision of the founding principles of a ‘new Myanmar,’ or what unites the highly diverse population and what they strive to be and achieve.”

Mitchell also said the United States will play a key role in the country’s successful transition, serving as a model of democracy.

“Many in [Myanmar] are very pro-American,” he said. “Many see the United States as a model, as sort of a gold standard, even if they recognize our faults.”

As envoy and then ambassador to Myanmar from 2012 to 2016, Mitchell said he played a major part in ensuring free elections in the country.

“The initial goal I had was to get more insight into the realities of the country and who’s who,” he said. “On my first visit in Sept. 2011, the people I met with in the government said ‘we are interested in reform, we are interested in democratic change and we need help.’”

Mitchell said he was a skeptic and needed proof to ensure that the military government was genuinely interested in change.

“I told them, ‘those are good words but we would need to see words translated into action, tangible process, and as we see these things, we’ll take action in response to open our relations,’” he said. “This became what became known as the ‘action-for-action’ approach as we sought to overcome longstanding mistrust.”

Mitchell simplified work as an ambassador down to one key skill: understanding.

“In all diplomacy, the key is to listen to the other side, show you understand them, that you can put yourself in their shoes, that you get it,” he said. “If you can demonstrate that, the walls come down a bit. Then you can have a discussion.”

This lecture was co-sponsored by the Southeast Asian Program and the International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.