The Two Hands of Washington’s Myanmar Policy


By Tony Waters 28 September 2022

One day a civilian government will assume power in Myanmar and the United States will come back promising security, democracy, human rights and free trade.

The return is likely to happen much as it did after 2011, when as described in Erin Murphy’s new book Burmese Haze, a triumphal US State Department arrived in Naypyitaw with planeloads of people and gifts, claiming credit for “midwifing” the transition to democracy.

It will then dangle a visit by a US president as a critical marker on that western-designed road to peace and democracy. Lectures about the nobility of US-style democracy and capitalism will be delivered, while Myanmar’s explanations about its own history brushed aside as well, boring.

Bilateral relations from the perspective of the Department of State are well-described by Murphy, the occupant of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Burma desk from 2007-12. As she relates this, US policy is about democracy, humanitarianism and free-market values that both nations share. And citizens pass on information in exchange for cash and vague promises of a US visa should things become difficult.

But there are two important things left out of Murphy’s book: that the US largely views Myanmar as a pawn in the chess game with China or any acknowledgment of Myanmar’s views of the bilateral relationship.

Murphy was a front-seat observer of Myanmar’s peace and democratic reform process between 2007 (just before Cyclone Nargis) and the coup in 2021. Her views are well-informed, at least regarding the US perspective, because of her top-secret clearance and high-level access.

She conducted interviews for the book with former secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and even State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, maintaining access to the highest levels of the US government, even after quitting the CIA. Academics and journalists can only dream of such access.

Covert action

Burmese Haze by Erin Murphy.

Burmese Haze avoids serious discussion of US reliance on the CIA and other intelligence work in Myanmar.

The “listening post” that is the sprawling embassy on Yangon’s Inle Lake, completed under the Than Shwe regime, is passed off as basically a reading room with US magazines, computer terminals and a place to learn English.

But the embassy includes 10 buildings built since 2007, including a four-story chancery, as Google Earth shows.

In other words, Myanmar’s junta long cooperated with the US to establish facilities which presumably collect electronic data from southeast Asia and China and cultivate human intelligence in Myanmar.

Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine reported that National Security Agency eavesdropping equipment was in the embassy.

The problem for any future civilian government will be that different US hands will offer contrasting opportunities and risks.

But the only hand described in Burmese Haze is the open hand of the generous US promoting democracy and human rights and opposing the junta.

That hand can be a bit brash and overconfident but generously supports programs of democracy, human rights and development.

The other hand is ignored in Burmese Haze. The secretive security-conscious US wants to block Chinese goals for Myanmar and has routinely used Myanmar’s military to further its aims. A civilian government will need to deal with both pressures.

Cyclone Nargis: where the two US policies came together

US assistance to Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis in 2008 opens Burmese Haze. Murphy describes an ever forward-thinking US Navy conducting Cobra Gold exercises in Thai waters just before the cyclone. After consulting satellite images, but without asking permission from the Than Shwe regime, the US Navy immediately repositioned itself off Myanmar’s coast for a major relief operation.

In response, the regime ignored the typhoon and focused on the threat of a potential US invasion.

Than Shwe repositioned the armed forces in preparation for an invasion. The junta denied visas to relief workers and restricted travel to afflicted areas by US Embassy staff. According to Murphy, the denials were accompanied by boring lectures from military officers, presumably about the CIA’s history of supplying insurgencies, funding the Nationalist Chinese armies in the north of the country from the 1950s to the 1980s, support for ethnic armed organizations and that spy center in Yangon.

As Murphy writes, the regime finally relented and permitted the US Navy to deliver relief. Murphy brags about how embassy staff managed the relief operation and naval planes, helicopters and relief deliveries assisted millions of victims in the Irrawaddy delta. Murphy writes that embassy staff took over management of Yangon Airport and became air-traffic controllers, managing flights that the incompetent junta could not.

By describing the airport takeover, Murphy finally describes clandestine operations and how US democratic values were compromised, while the State Department cozied up to the generals to build the huge US Embassy in 2007.

How was it that air-traffic controllers appeared from the massive embassy? Air-traffic controllers are typically not found among embassy staff. The embassy is a US intelligence hub with staff presumably focused on monitoring Chinese capabilities.

Needed to do this, it seems, are air-traffic controllers able to take over Yangon Airport at short notice.

Democracy, human rights and US jets in Naypyitaw

US visitors appeared more regularly following Myanmar’s 2010 general election. The release from house arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi encouraged visits from those who believed Myanmar was on a path to democracy and human rights. Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama sought to deliver a new round of assistance for democracy, human rights and peace-building.

As Murphy tells it, Clinton planned a personal visit to Myanmar. Her staff rolled out her Air Force jet for the visit. But after some consternation, the air-traffic controllers at the embassy apparently warned that Naypyitaw Airport was too small to handle her plane. They asked if it could use the capital’s broad boulevards instead.

Murphy says the plane had five books for the visiting diplomats: David Steinberg’s Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know; Thant Myint-U’s The River of Lost Footsteps; Pascal Khoo Thwe’s From the Land of Green Ghosts, Emma Larkin’s No Bad News for the King and George Orwell’s Burmese Days. It had movies, including “Beyond Rangoon” about a US citizen who participated in the 1988 demonstrations. Somehow though they forgot 2008’s Rambo IV about a renegade US soldier rescuing an American missionary family from the military.

Strangely they forgot Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Freedom from Fear. And then halfway across the Pacific, they realized that both Clinton and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were dog lovers. A hapless foreign service officer was sent from the plane in Korea to find a dog toy for Clinton to give as a gift.

Clinton’s brief time in Myanmar was full of pomp. Much television time was spent with Daw Aung Suu Kyi, recognizing her Nobel Peace Prize. And of course, Myanmar was lectured publicly about human rights, democratic elections, peace, health, and China. And then the money spigot for supporting the police and armed forces in drug intervention programs was opened and the capacity of the military enhanced.

Quieter lectures were likely delivered pointing out that aid to the military was contingent on stopping Chinese dam construction at Myitsone, slowing China’s Belt and Road Initiative and perhaps limiting Chinese investment in factories and retail. But unlike the surfeit of detail about dog toys, such requests are left out of Burmese Haze.

How would a civilian government deal with the two faces of US policy?

If this regime eventually falls and a civilian government emerges, the US will return. The problem is that despite the failure of US policies described in Burmese Haze, the approaches are likely to be the same.

There will be an emphasis on democracy, capitalism and human rights, even while clandestine cooperation for “security” supports the armed forces and police.

This will be done in a quiet exchange for access to the huge US Embassy as Washington’s geopolitical concerns about China will remain.

The clandestine arrangements funding policy on Myanmar are always secondary to concerns about China. Issues regarding CIA activity, past and present, will remain off-the-table too, dismissed as boring history speeches. Complaints about ongoing clandestine involvement will be ignored and concerns about a US military presence in the region brushed aside.

But a civilian government should not brush aside the CIA’s involvement in the fight against drugs and Chinese Communists, dating back to the Second World War.

A new government must insist that bilateral relations run two ways. They need to make clear that the United States is deeply distrusted by generations who ask questions like, “What are those naval ships offshore doing?”, “What about the threats of armed intervention during the Rohingya crisis in 2017?”, “Why are so many visa applications rejected?” “What about that ‘war on drugs’?” and “What about the past support for the military and police?”

And, “What about the construction and maintenance of the large ‘listening facility’ at the embassy under the Than Shwe regime, despite sanctions, and US claims to be apostles of democracy and human rights?”

Such questions should be addressed in a book about US relations with Myanmar between 2010 and 2021. Burmese Haze does not do this. I guess such a book awaits a future author, although probably not one who is from the CIA.

Tony Waters is a guest professor at Leuphana University in Germany and was a professor of sociology at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He has been writing about Myanmar since 2017.



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