What to Expect in Myanmar

What to Expect in Myanmar

Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
from Academic and Higher Education Webinars

More on:


Elections and Voting


Priscilla A. Clapp, senior advisor to the United States Institute for Peace, discusses Myanmar’s newly elected government and offers recommendations for how the United States and other international actors can support its democratic transition, as part of CFR's Academic Conference Call series.

Learn more about CFR's resources for the classroom at CFR Education.


Priscilla A. Clapp

Senior Advisor, United States Institute of Peace


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program and Outreach

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, if you would like to share it with your colleagues or classmates.

We’re delighted to have Priscilla Clapp with us to talk about Myanmar. Ms. Clapp is currently a senior advisor to the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Asia Society. She is also a retired minister-counselor in the U.S. Foreign Service. Ms. Clapp held many positions during her thirty-year distinguished career with the U.S. government, including chief of mission and permanent chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar, deputy chief of mission in the U.S. Embassy in South Africa, and principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Refugee Programs, as well as serving in Moscow and in Japan. Prior to government service, Ms. Clapp spent ten years in foreign policy and arms control research with the MIT Center for International Studies, and at the Brookings Institute was a research associate. Ms. Clapp recently authored the CFR special report “Securing a Democratic Future for Myanmar,” which we distributed as background reading in advance of today’s discussion.

Priscilla, thanks very much for being with us today. I thought it would be great if you could begin giving us an overview of Myanmar’s new leading party, the National League for Democracy, and what this transition means for the future of the country.

CLAPP: Irina, thank you very much. I’m delighted to be here today. And I look forward to our conversation.

I would like to start with just an overview of what the new NLD government is beginning to look like in Myanmar. Many of the press reports suggest that the military is still in power, but in fact the majority that the NLD won in the parliamentary elections of November 2015 gives them an enormous amount of power. And I think that the significance of civilian power in the new government is not fully appreciated outside of the country, or even inside the country. So let me just give you a flavor of that. First of all, the NLD has appointed—well, appointed and elected—a leadership for both the parliament and the executive branch that is quite diverse. It represents more ethnic minority diversity and political diversity than the previous government did.

The previous government was under the control of the USDP, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which was a party created by the previous military government in order to represent the military in the transitional period. As you may know, they took a real beating in the elections. They didn’t win much of anything. So the USDP is not really much of a political force anymore. However, the NLD has put some USDP people in both parliamentary leadership positions, and ministerial positions in the executive branch. So they are represented in the leadership of this new government. And many of the speakers, deputy speakers, and ministers that the NLD has appointed are ethnic minorities.

The NLD itself has a lot of ethnic minority representation in it, which is another fact that is misrepresented often in the international press. Many sort of portray the NLD as representing the Bamar ethnic majority in Burma, or Myanmar, but in fact most of the people that they ran in the minority areas are minorities themselves. But they happen to be members of the NLD. So the minorities are much better represented in this government than they were in the previous one. The NLD has also named all of the chief ministers. Now, the chief ministers, there are seven states—ethnic states and seven divisions which represent more or less the majority Bamar.

But anyway, the NLD, because of its wins, was able—the president is allowed to name all of the chief ministers. And so they have named NLD chief ministers around the country. And this is changing the whole nature of state-level governance, because before it was all the chief ministers were military. They are now civilians. They are a mixture of men and women, ethnic minorities. And it’s really quite representative of the civilian population. So people in Myanmar are very, very pleased with this new government. They are so relieved to have such distinguished civilian representatives leading their government.

The president himself—the new president, who is a very close ally and friend—long-time friend of Aung San Suu Kyi, dating back to school days, is a wonderful man. I know him very well. His name is U Htin Kyaw, but I know him as Kobo (ph), his nickname. He is very well-educated. He has studied in England. He has really quite a distinguished background. And I think that people are extremely happy to have him as their president. His wife is also a member of parliament. She was appointed to head the International Relations Committee in the parliament, but she has stepped down from that because she’s now first lady, and she has to give a lot of time to that position, as well as her parliamentary position.

Aung San Suu Kyi herself at the initial announcement of the ministerial positions took four of them. One was the minister for foreign affairs. One was minister in the president’s office, which is a very powerful position. One was minister of electric power and energy. And the other one was minister of education. Since then, she has shed two of those ministerial positions—education and the electric power position. And other people, who are actually civil servants and technocrats, have been assigned to those positions. So that’s actually very good. She has kept the foreign minister position and she has kept the chief minister position, but the—she has also assumed a new position called state counselor.

This was something that was legislated by the new parliament as one of its first legislative initiatives. The minister was not happy. It is a new position. It is not foreseen in the constitution, but there’s nothing in the constitution that prevents it from happening. And it is specific for Aung San Suu Kyi. Now, as state counselor, she has the ability now to work between and across the lines between the executive and the legislative branches. So she will be able to coordinate policy on both sides of the government, which was not possible in the last government and led to a lot of fighting and misunderstanding. So I think it’s a very good move.

The military is not happy about it. They may try to challenge it in the constitutional tribunal, which is the same as our Supreme Court. But the members of this constitutional tribunal are appointed by the new government. So the NLD actually has control over the constitutional tribunal. So I don’t think a challenge would go very far there. As her first act as state counselor, she has announced today in Myanmar, which is quite a few hours ahead of us, that she’s planning to, through legislative means, free all the political prisoners in the next week or so, which is the annual Burmese new year. The government goes out on vacation for about 10 or 12 days on the 10th. So this is a really dramatic event. And I think it will make people quite happy.

The president is in place. The executive is in place. And it looks like the ministers are very competent, compared to the last batch of ministers we had. The last batch were almost all generals or former generals. The other thing that the NLD is doing is citing an example of good governance. Aung San Suu Kyi has ordered that all NLD parliamentarians, ministers, and members of the government must abide by certain very austere rules. They cannot accept gifts more than, like, $25. And you have to understand that the existing system there that was set up under the military is extremely corrupt. And the military leaders themselves in past governments were even profligate—not only corrupt, but they were spendthrifts, and they spent on ridiculous things.

So she is trying to pull all of that in in the new government. They have already eliminated many of the ministries. There was something like 39 ministers in the last government. There are now, like, 21. And that’s going to be a big savings, because these ministers were collecting high salaries. They had lots of fancy housing and cars and staff, and all that sort of stuff, which was all eliminated. The new ministers will not have all of those perks. They’ll have maybe one car. And they do have housing, but the outgoing government stripped everything out of the housing, so they’re going to have to find a way to furnish it.

So she’s setting rules for all—for the government people, so that they will get credit from the population for running an austere government and saving taxpayer money. And that way, I think they will be able to start developing a good taxation system, which they don’t have right now, for government income.

And finally, the arrival of the NLD government has already had a very positive effect on promoting a whole sense of civil freedom in the country. NGOs and civil society organizations are proliferating now, and they’re beginning to register to come out of the closet, make themselves known, and connect with the government. There’s been a great gulf of distrust between the civilian population and the government for many, many years now, and I think the NLD is trying to overcome—trying to bridge that gulf.

The press is—you can already see that there’s much more freedom in the press. It’s a very active press. They’ve had a lot of practice for the last five years. And the system is so much more transparent and open now that you can get a lot of information just from the press.

And finally, I think we’re going to see renewed approaches to the peace process. This is very important. It is going to be key to how far forward they can move to make the constitution more democratic.

There’s going to be a very rough time with the NLD negotiating with the military during this five-year period. We’ve already seen the first—the first example of this in the NLD’s determination to push through the state counselor position in the—in the parliament. The military was very unhappy about it, and I don’t think we’ve heard the last of that.

Anyway, that’s a brief overview for you, and I’m ready to take questions.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you very much, Priscilla, for that overview.

Let’s open it up to the students for questions, please.

OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am. At this time, we’ll open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question comes from Westfield Academy.

Q: Hello. So my question is whether or not, with the military losing a large amount of power very quickly, whether or not there’s a chance of, like, a military coup and the military trying to retake a large amount of power from the government.

CLAPP: That is the $64,000 question. (Laughs.) Everybody’s worried about that.

The constitution—the current constitution provides a legal channel for restoring martial law, either in small parts of the country, in statewide areas, or in the whole country itself. And it has go to through a process in the government whereby the commander in chief brings a finding to the president and to the National Defense and Security Council that the country cannot be governed according to the constitution. They have already done that during the last five years for some small areas of the country where there’s been a lot of fighting and, in fact, it couldn’t be governed according to the constitution. And so, in those areas, military security—and security forces took over the constitutional powers.

To do it on a national scale would be quite difficult at this point because the country is operating properly under the constitution. So they would have to—they would have to mount an extraconstitutional coup in order to overcome the NLD government, to abolish the NLD government, and that, I think, would be extremely costly. The military does not really want to run the country anymore because they know they didn’t do a good job before. They also want—one of the major attractions of this transition for them was bringing in foreign investment and getting the economy moving so that the country can catch up with its neighbors. That would all go down the drain if they—if they staged a coup. And furthermore, people have had a taste of freedom for the last five years that they hadn’t experienced in more than half a century, and I think there would be an enormous political backlash if the military were to try to stage a coup at this point. There would have to be a lot of disorder in the country for that to be credible.

I hope that answers your question.

Q: It did. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question is from Daniel Morgan Academy.

Q: Yes, thank you for speaking with us, ma’am. A quick question. As U.S. relations with Myanmar continue to normalize, should the United States leave some sanctions in place until persecution of Muslims on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border stops? Or should we support the new regime fully, and hope that that continued support and that foundation of support will eventually lead to that persecution ceasing? Thank you.

CLAPP: Thank you very much for that question. I’ve thought a lot about that in the last few years.

First of all, I don’t think that it’s really possible to remove all of the sanctions, because many of them are legislated by the Congress. The Congress has an enormous amount of power over both sanctions and restrictions on U.S. ability to interact or to engage in Myanmar. And right now, if you’ve seen my report, the sanctions and restrictions are extensive—among the most extensive in the world.

I don’t think we could remove them all very easily. In fact, I don’t think it’s—I don’t think it’s wise to try to do that at this point. I do believe that we should—we should ease them considerably, and that we—I do believe that we need to take a very hard look at those sanctions—the legislative basis for them, the legal basis for them—because they’re all mixed up, and they act more as a—as a hindrance, as a—as a brake on U.S. engagement in the country, and they tie our hands more than they do punish anybody there. I think we should retain some form of this SDN list, the specially designated nationals, so that—so that we still have certain people that are on our blacklist, because there are some very bad actors in the country and we really don’t want to be giving them free license to deal with the U.S. yet.

I think that we need to maintain some ability to exercise pressure on both the government and some nongovernmental groups in the country if they are egregiously harming human rights, if they are—well, you mentioned the Rohingya. Now I don’t—I don’t think that sanctions are really the answer to the Rohingya problem because the government does want to do something. It’s a deeply seated problem within the society itself, and it’s going to take a long—a long period of education and mediation to begin to overcome those really deep-seated prejudices. If you look back at the—at the United States during the immediate period after the Civil War, and actually for decades and decades after that when segregation and racial tensions in the country were very, very deeply engrained, it’s taken us generations and generations to deal with that problem. And that’s—it’s similar to that.

But you also have, within the Buddhist clergy, a very radical nationalist core group. This is not new. It has existed throughout Burma’s history. It’s just that we see it now because, with the free press, these things are so much more transparent. It was always there, and the persecution against the Rohingya was there. When I was in the country 15 years ago it was—it was very bad. There have always been some tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in the country, and a lot of it comes out of the preaching of this radical group within the Buddhist clergy.

And it’s something that we need to work with. I don’t think we can just turn our backs on them and fix it by punishing them. We would be the only ones doing it, and I don’t think it would be a very effective method. I think it’s more effective to interact with them and try to change their attitudes. And that is possible. That is possible. They need to be brought out of this hermetic existence they have had for the last half a century.

So I believe that we should be definitely easing a lot of the restrictions, particularly the ones we have on USAID, and I think we should be releasing some of the restrictions we have on U.S. business. They should be free to invest in the country more than they can now, because I think U.S. business could have a very beneficial impact on the whole business ethic in that country, because they have to operate according to U.S. law. And they—anyone they partner with—and you cannot invest there without partnering with a local company, so any company they partner with would also have to operate basically according to U.S. law. And that would be a good thing.

I hope that answers your question.

Q: Oh, it does. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Again, if you would like to ask a question, we are now holding.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

FASKIANOS: Priscilla, China had a strong relationship with the previous military government. What do you expect the relationship between China and Myanmar to look like going forward?

CLAPP: Well, it’s very interesting that Aung San Suu Kyi’s first act as foreign minister was to receive the Chinese foreign minister, her Chinese counterpart. I’ve heard that that was actually done at her invitation, which makes it even more interesting. I think it was a—if this is true, then it was a signal from her that she wants to start out on the right foot with China. It may mean that there are going to be some very hard decisions coming, like on the Myitsone Dam and on other big infrastructure projects that China wants very much to undertake in that country. Most of them are highly, highly unpopular, and the government’s going to have to be really careful about how they move ahead with this. There will have to be very good environmental impact studies and social impact studies so that—so that whatever infrastructure projects are done do not dislodge the population itself. People would rather live at the level they’re living at now without these big infrastructure projects than have, you know, even more electricity and roads if it means moving them out of the kind of life that they have now.

At any rate, I think that China—that this government will try to develop a kind of evenhanded approach to all the great powers, so that their foreign relations are balanced. This is a tradition in Burma. They are the original non-aligned government. They were a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, and they left the Non-Aligned Movement years later when they thought it had become too aligned with the communist camp. So they are—even during the military years have been adamant about keeping evenhanded relations with the great powers.

Now, it got—was terribly skewed during the final 20 years of military governance because the military had made so many enemies in the West that they relied on China for political cover in the U.N., and for support for their military, and for economic assistance—or economic investment, I would say. So they were uncomfortable—very uncomfortable about that, and I think the NLD is going to be trying to correct that imbalance. So it’s interesting that she would reach out to China just to signal that they’re going to remain friends even as they correct the imbalance of the last 20 years.

Now, the previous government—the Thein Sein government—had already started that correction and their relations with China were somewhat frayed, particularly because of the fighting on the border. So I think she’s trying, in a way, to overcome some of that animosity, but also keep sort of an even balance between China and Western Europe and U.S., Japan, and Russia. Those are the great power alignments. So we will see her gradually reaching out to all of them.

She’s already meet with the Japanese, not at the foreign minister level but with government representatives, and asked for significant Japanese investment and assistance. And the Japanese are willing to do that. So already you have a sense of balance there. And she’s—of course has a running conversation with the United States and Europe. But with the Chinese, the kind of gesture that she made by meeting with the foreign minister is something that means a lot to them. It’s all about appearance. (Chuckles.) You don’t even have to discuss anything substantively significant as long as the appearance is in their favor.

FASKIANOS: Great. Next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from the Congressional Quarterly.

Q: Hi, Priscilla. Thanks for doing this call.

Two things. Could you talk a little bit about maybe some of the dangers of having—I think is how it’s perceived by some people in the U.S.—so much of the cultural reform resting on the shoulders of Aung San Suu Kyi? And what happens if she’s removed from power or taken out of a position of authority? Can development move forward with her—without here? And then, related to that, what are some of the risks and benefits for Congress if they as you say and ease restrictions on USAID investment and private business investment?

CLAPP: You’re right that right now everything—you could say everything depends upon Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership. The country is still very much a top-down kind of political system. And individual leadership, personality, is still very, very important. And it’s going to be for some time, until you develop a real sort of democratic political class with a much deeper array of leadership coming along.

And I think that that will happen over time, because the NLD people that are in the parliament now and that are going into the government are all future leaders in training. We have to realize that civilians have not had any opportunity for this kind of experience for a half a century. So we can’t expect that there would be experienced civilian leadership in the country yet. And Aung San Suu Kyi really needs to be a bit dictatorial, authoritarian in order to keep discipline and to keep things moving forward.

So a lot depends on her. And it would be a disaster if something happened to her. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage, that we should hold back and keep sanctions in place, because I think the sanctions are now—because we’re the only ones in the world that have sanctions on the country—the sanctions are more a lever against us than they are against anybody there, because Myanmar and the government and the society can find this kind of assistance elsewhere. They don’t depend on the U.S. for it. It’s in our interest to be assisting them because we have been promoting the development of democracy in the country for such a long time now.

We’ve put a lot of effort into it. That’s what the sanctions were originally designed for. Now is the time to start engaging more and helping move this process forward. And if we keep all these sanctions on our businesses, all these sanctions on USAID, we’re not in a position to do that. And I think it really requires both the executive and the legislative branches in this country to sit down and take a hard look at what the sanctions—how the sanctions are operating today.

In the study that I produced, I’ve added an annex that lists all of the sanctions and restrictions we have on ourselves, because I don’t believe that most people understand this, even inside the government. They think, oh, there’s just a few sanctions left because the Obama administration has already eased those sanctions on trade, et cetera, et cetera. But in fact, some of them are getting worse simply because staff—congressional staff keep adding little things into the AID legislation. And I just don’t think that people are paying attention to this. And I think it needs some adult supervision.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Sarah Lawrence College.

Q: Hi. Thank you for your time. As you mentioned earlier, Myanmar still has a very limited taxation apparatus. I was wondering if this tax structure may prove problematic in the future for revenue-collecting purposes, due to its potential reliance on foreign aid.

CLAPP: Yes, taxes—you’re absolutely right—taxes are essential to effective government operation. And people don’t understand that yet. They’re very resistant to further taxes, because they’ve been ripped off for so long by the corruption in the system. So if the NLD succeeds in eliminating or greatly reducing the corruption that exists inside the government system now, so that people aren’t being charged for every little approval that they need to get from government for this move or that move or the next move, it will create a much more efficient system for doing business. And then taxation can be tied directly to the benefits that the government is producing for people. And they will learn gradually that the taxpayers’ money does create a system that improves living conditions in the country.

But there’s going to need—there will need to be, for example, a lot of infrastructure improvement in the huge city of Yangon, where more than one-tenth of the country’s population lives. The infrastructure, the sewer system, the roads—a lot of it dates back to the British colonial period, more than a hundred years ago. And it’s really quite intolerable. And I think that people are beginning to understand that when you begin to get popular government and you can connect with an elected member of the government—both at the state level and at the national level—you can talk to your parliamentarian, they’ll feel much better about paying taxes. And gradually you can develop a healthy revenue stream for the government. It’s already started. It did start during the last five years, but it has a long way to go. And it’s absolutely essential to creating good governance in the country, you’re right.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from Westfield Academy.

Q: Hi. So what is the significance of the figurehead of the government being a woman?

CLAPP: (Laughs.) I think it’s got tremendous significance, because women have been in many ways second-class citizens in the country, even though they do tend to have, when in a family, a very important function both financially and socially. I mean, the women are the keepers of the future generation in a family, and they also tend to be the keepers of the money. And many of the women are shopkeepers. They earn an income. Most families depend upon two incomes—at least two incomes, if not more. So in that sense, women have been valued in the society, but they haven’t been given—often given a leadership role, particularly in the political system. The political system has been very male-dominated. The military was not only male dominated, but chauvinistic. The monkhood is very chauvinistic.

So you have a lot of sort of misogynistic prejudices built into the society. And I think that’s one of the problems that the military has had with Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership for all of these years, the fact that she is a woman. So I think that her—the significance of her leadership now is going to raise the profile of women generally in a leadership position in the society. We’re already beginning to see women going into the parliament. There are some women chief ministers who’ve been appointed. People are critical—particularly Westerners are critical that there aren’t enough women represented yet in the leadership, but I think that the NLD is taking this slowly because they fully appreciate the depth of the prejudices in their society. And I think they don’t want to push it too far too fast and create a negative reaction. But it’s going to be very significant, you’re right.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Georgetown University.

Q: Hi. Thank you so much. This is Celia Garay.

And I was hoping—I was wondering if you could possibly speak about Myanmar’s tourism sector as an avenue for governance improvements.

CLAPP: That’s wonderful. I love that question, because the new minister of hotels and tourism happens to be one of my closest friend there. (Laughs.) And he’s a wonderful man. He is Shan. He’s an ethnic minority from the Inle Lake area. He’s a very, very accomplished entrepreneur. He has established two—well, many, many very successful businesses. And he runs them according to Western models. He also is an environmentalist. And his ambition is to use this ministerial appointment that he has right now to make hotels and tourism more environmentally sustainable.

Right now, Inle Lake is a perfect example of how out-of-control tourism can destroy the environment. The lake is actually dying because hotels have been built without concern for their impact on the environment and the society. And a lot of the people living around the lake have been very careless in the way that they’ve used slash-and-burn tactics for agriculture, and so forth. And so I think he’s going to use this position to enforce—or to bring attention to the environmental impact of the development of tourism and to find ways of making it more sustainable—environmentally sustainable. So that’s a very good question.

Also there is a ministry of environmental conservation and forestry. And that has now been merged with the ministry of mining, which is a very interesting merger because mining is one of the industries in that country that has had a very negative impact on environments. So now anything that’s done with mining is going to have to be very careful about adhering to the new environmental regulations that the last government has passed. They haven’t really been put into place yet, but I think that now that the two are merged in the same ministry we’re going to see a lot more movement forward on that. So I’d say on the environmental front, both with tourism and the extractive industry, we’re going to see a lot more environmental consciousness.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Sarah Lawrence College.

Q: Hi. Building on the question on tourism, do you think that the opening of the market means that Myanmar might be in danger of further becoming an extractive economy of natural resources for wealthier nations?

CLAPP: Well, it’s already in danger. And the Chinese have been particularly careless in that sense. They have been trying to basically rob the country of its vast store of natural resources. And all of that has kind of halted during the previous administration. It’s much more difficult now for China to get these big projects going. Other countries have not been as aggressive as China in that regard, but the military itself is a big culprit. The military has been grabbing land. And the military had huge industries. The military still controls large parts of the economy. And they are very, very deeply engaged in the extractive industry. So this is going to be a point of friction between the NLD government and the military, how far they can pull back on the extractive industries, because it’s a huge source of revenue for the military. And I think that we’re going to see this play out over the next five years, in sometimes contentious ways.

There’s a great deal of popular desire to control the extractive industries. And the last government in Myanmar, the outgoing Thein Sein government, did join the EITI, which is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative—it’s an international organization—that makes them disclose all the information about their extractive industries. They haven’t reached the level of disclosure yet that they need to, but they are a member of it. The pressure is on them. And I think we’re going to see more movement in this direction under the NLD government. But the extractive industries are going to be a point of contention going forward, not only with foreign investors but with the military itself.

Q: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from Westfield Academy.

Q: Hi. So my question is similar to the last one, but I’m talking more about the kind of sweatshop labor culture in the surrounding countries. And I’m wondering whether or not Myanmar has strong labor laws, such as, like, minimum wage and children not being allowed to work, that will stop this exploitive culture from, like, Western nations and companies. Thank you.

CLAPP: Yes. These kinds of laws have actually been passed during the previous government. They didn’t exist during the military—the pure military government. But in the last—the Thein Sein government, they did adopt sort of international standard labor laws. The ILO has been working with them on this. And the ILO is really quite happy with the responsiveness they’ve got from that government. There is a minimum wage law. A lot of the industries are complaining about it because they say it makes them unprofitable, but it does—it was put in place. There are labor unions. There have been large strikes. Some of them well-informed, others not so. People have a lot to learn about the manufacturing culture, because there hasn’t been a lot of manufacturing in the country.

And so it’s going to be a gradual process of developing a sort of labor standard in the country. But I wouldn’t say that it’s Western countries that are culprits in this. It’s more likely Asian countries. The big investors in manufacturing right now are Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Singaporean. Western companies, like garment companies, may buy from these manufacturers, but they’re not necessarily running the factories there. They do go in and try to enforce standards—Western standards in the factors. And there are people there. There’s an organization for—that tries to protect women working in the garment industry. That is a local organization. In fact, it’s run by a woman who—a woman entrepreneur who’s in the garment industry, whom I know quite well.

So there are a lot of very hopeful developments. Much more needs to be done to protect them. But they are one of the last sources of cheaper labor in Asia. And so we’re going to see a lot of outsourcing from China and from other Asian countries, who have been producing for the American market and for the European market for many years now. But the Western companies will sort of ride herd on the conditions, even though they’re not running the factories. They will watch over the manufacturing process and try to bring it up to the world standards.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Daniel Morgan Academy.

Q: Thank you, again. My question this time is surrounding the recent announcement by Aung San Suu Kyi that you mentioned, to free all the political prisoners in Myanmar. And that has, I guess, the obvious primary effect of making a stand for political freedom and the new democratic environment. But do you think a tangible secondary effect is—I mean, and clever, in a way—is to insert back into the population very, you know, prominent opponents of military government. And what do you think the effect would be as far as—

CLAPP: Well, that’s already happened. That’s already happened, because the Thein Sein government released thousands of political prisoners—well, many hundreds. And there aren’t that many now. Most of the people that they’re talking about as political prisoners are not long-term political prisoners. They are very recently arrested people, students, younger people. So the impact of former political prisoners on the political system is already happening. Many of the NLD members of parliament, many of the ministers that have been—some of the minister who have been appointed are former political prisoners.

I mean, the president himself was in prison for a while. Aung San Suu Kyi was in detention for a long, long time, imprisoned for a while. My friend who’s the minister of hotels and tourism was a political prisoner. He was elected to the parliament in 1990 and they put him in prison for that. And you have all of the 88 group. Many of them are now members of parliament or—for example, the chief minister in Yangon, Phyo Min Thein, was a long-term political prisoner.

So I would say that the incoming NLD government has already incorporated a lot of the freedom fighting. These people have been studying politics for a long time, and they know what they want. The younger people coming out will follow along in that, but I don’t think—I think the impact is already being felt. Also, a lot of the civil society organizations that have grown up—for example, the Yangon School of Political Science which is a private school for master’s level study of political science, which did not exist and still really doesn’t exist in the state universities—in the government university system. For all these years, they didn’t allow people to study political science.

At any rate, that school was founded by former political prisoners. Two of the members of the five-member board are now members of parliament under NLD. But the three left—all of the five members of the board were long-term political prisoners. And so the people coming out of that milieu, the political prisoner milieu, are already making huge contributions to the promotion of democracy, human rights, everything that we would like to see in that country.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Florida University.

Q: Hi. There’s been reports that the drug trade in Myanmar is the second-largest drug trade in the world, and that there’s also large problems with methamphetamine consumption in the northern part of the country. Do you think the political transition and normalization of international relations will put any pressure on the government to address this drug problem?

CLAPP: I think the government is acutely aware of the nature—of the extent of this problem. When you say second-largest in the world, what you’re really talking about is the production of opium and heroin. They are second to Afghanistan, but they’re a far, far, far second. They don’t produce nearly—you know, what they produce is a drop in the bucket compared to what comes out of Afghanistan, or even Latin America. And most of it stays in the region. And a lot of that production is supported by Chinese Triads coming out of China, bringing in money and encouraging farmers to grow opium—or to grow poppies for opium.

But that’s a small part of the whole drug problem in the country. The real problem is methamphetamines. It’s manufactured drugs, which are very easy to manufacture. We’ve got that problem in this country too. So I wouldn’t say that it’s the largest problem in the world, because that country’s small compared to, you know, big drug country. Our country has a huge drug problem. And it far outweighs whatever’s happening in Burma. And it’s a combination of opioids, methamphetamines, and, you know, all of the heroin and cocaine and stuff that comes into this country.

But what’s happening in Myanmar is that it’s fueling a lot of the conflict. The military, the government military, the ethnic armed groups, the many—there are hundreds and hundreds of small paramilitary groups throughout the country. All of them support themselves with the drug trade. And they encourage people to use drugs. So people don’t understand the debilitating effect of drugs. And the younger generation is being destroyed by it. In most of the townships of the country, as much as 30 percent of the younger generation are now hooked on drugs in one form or another. And methamphetamines really destroy you physically, even more than heroin does.

So there’s a great deal of concern in the society about what’s happening with drugs. But they don’t know what to do about it. And as long as the fighting continues, and you have—you know, you cannot get at it. It’s one of the issue that will have to be dealt with in the peace process. And the military itself is going to have to start taking responsibility for their role in promoting the production and use of drugs. And I think that this will eventually be something that the NLD government tries to deal with. But it’s going to take, I think, a lot of pressure from outside. Not just pressure, but attention from the international community and offers of help and assistance with this, because you need to undertake a very wide-ranging program, not only to stop the production of drugs, but also to treat the addiction itself and to prevent further addiction. It’s going to be a huge, huge challenge.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from St. Edward’s University.

Q: Hi. Considering that China has been putting a lot of pressure on infrastructure and deals with trade, do you think the country would ever consider cutting ties with China?

CLAPP: I’m not sure I understand the question.

Q: Considering that China has been putting a lot of pressure on pushing for infrastructure that Myanmar is not exactly excited for, and is involved in the drug trade in the country, do you think the country would ever consider cutting ties with China?

CLAPP: No, no. I don’t think they can. They share a very, very long border. It’s like we wouldn’t cut ties with Canada. They’ve got a 1,500-mile border—actually, probably a little less than—1,500 kilometers border with China. And it’s a very porous border. It would be difficult to manage that. And they don’t have an interest in cutting ties with China. They can manage Chinese activity in Myanmar itself by enforcing regulations and by managing the relationship with China. They don’t need to cut ties because of that. It’s not that bad. I mean, they have ways of managing it.

It’s already being brought under control because it started, as I said, during the last five years when all of the contracts that had been concluded between military companies and the Chinese were suspended. So a lot of Chinese plans for big dams and other important infrastructure projects have been put on hold. And they now have to be reviewed and reorganized, and maybe they won’t even go forward, because there’s a lot of popular resistance to it. And then with an elected government, they have to listen to the people. The military governments didn’t listen to the people. They just moved them out of the way by force.

But that can’t happen so easily anymore. Actually, the Chinese know this, and they’re trying to deal with it, because they don’t want to spoil their relationship with Myanmar. It’s a neighboring country and they do not like to have hostile neighbors on their borders.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I think we have time for one last question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our last question will come from Bard College.

Q: Hi there. So, Aung San Suu Kyi was in an interview with BBC, and as regards to the Rohingya struggle going on. And she said something on the lines of: Oh, I didn’t know I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim. And it seems like—it seems like there’s been a lot of hope that for just political reasons that Aung San Suu Kyi hasn’t been able to do a lot about the Rohingya problem, but how do you—how do you just see other countries—what can be done to alleviate the crisis going on there with the Rohingya problem, but still with maintaining the NLD as a stable—and not causing too much internal conflicts with the country in the process towards democratization and all of those sorts of things?

CLAPP: Well, first of all, we don’t know that she actually said that after the BBC interview. That’s a rumor. It’s been reported in the press. And many things that come out in the press are taken as the god’s honest truth, when in fact they may not be. So I would give her the benefit of the doubt there. She may or may not have made that comment. At any rate, they have to resolve this problem themselves because it is internal to their society. And they need to overcome it. They realize that it is antidemocratic, that it is anti-human rights. But you don’t just impose a—or superimpose that on a society that is still living in kind of feudal conditions.

The area that—the state—the Rakhine State where the Rohingya live was the—which is another minority group in the country—is very, very poor. It’s one of the poorest areas in the country. And a lot of the animosity there between the Rohingya and the Rakhine has to do with resources, and a sense of demographic pressure. Burma, Myanmar, sits between the two—the world’s two most densely populated countries. The largest populations in the world are India—well, and you can include Bangladesh in that—India and China. And they’re squeezed between these two huge intensely populated countries. And they feel the pressure of constant immigration from China and immigration from the India side.

And so they look at Muslims as foreigners. They look at Chinese as foreigners, even if they’ve been in the country for a long time. And it’s one of the issues that the population is going to have to begin to deal with. And part of the answer is legal. It’s rule of law. They don’t have a good legal system now to resolve some of these problems. There are ways for the Rohingya to become citizens in the country. And many of them are becoming citizens. But the court system and the government legal system needs some revamping. And I think that the NLD will approach it as a rule of law matter in the first instance. In the second instance, it’s a social problem, that people have to begin dealing with through mediation and education. And a lot of that is already going on. The international community is involved with local organizations in the Rakhine State, dealing with both the Rakhine and the Rohingya populations there to try and bridge some of these misunderstandings.

Thirdly, it’s not as widespread as has been portrayed in the international press. It’s really a fairly limited area of the Rakhine State where the tinderbox exists. And so the focus of activity right now is on those areas. There are some areas of the Rakhine State where the Rohingya and the other Muslim populations live peacefully with the Buddhist Rakhine, and have for generations. But in certain areas, around Sittwe and in the sort of northwestern corner of the state, there’s more tension. And that’s where the violence tended to break out. But there hasn’t been any for at least two years now, and that’s a good sign. So something is being—something right is being done on the ground.

And I know that the U.S. government and other Western governments are deeply concerned about this and have been working with local organizations, and with the government quietly, to try and find workable solutions to the problem. One thing that is not a good solution is yelling and screaming about it, and over—I mean, exaggerating the extent of the problem. That just gets people all fired up, particularly the radical monks. And it plays right into their agenda. It is not—when the international community does that, it’s not helping at all.

FASKIANOS: Priscilla, unfortunately we have run out of time. But we appreciate your taking—giving us this hour to discuss Myanmar, where things lie going forward, and some of the findings from your report, “Securing a Democratic Future for Myanmar.” And if you all haven’t read it yet, you should take a look at it. It is terrific. So thank you very much for doing this.

CLAPP: Well, thank you. It’s been my pleasure.

FASKIANOS: Our next call, and the last one of the semester, will be on Wednesday April 20, from 12:00 to 1:00, Esther Brimmer, adjunct senior fellow for international institutions at CFR will talk about the role of the United Nations. In the meantime, I hope that you will follow CFR’s Academic Outreach Initiative on Twitter, at @CFR_Academic, for information on new CFR resources and upcoming events. Thank you, again, for joining us today, and we look forward to your continued participation in these calls, and hope that you will go regularly to CFR.org for further information on pressing issues on foreign policy.