Interview with Bilahari Kausikan about Myanmar:“The Tatmadaw is a central reality that must be part of any solution“

Interview with Bilahari Kausikan about Myanmar:“The Tatmadaw is a central reality that must be part of any solution“

Global Review had the honor to have an interview with Bilahari Kausikan about Myanmar and Asia. Bilahari Kausikan is currently Chairman of the Middle East Institute, an autonomous institute of the National University of Singapore. He has spent his entire career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During his 37 years in the Ministry, he served in a variety of appointments at home and abroad, including as Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, and as the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry. Raffles Institution, the University of Singapore and Columbia University in New York all attempted to educate him.

Global Review: Mr. Kausikan, you claim that the West approached Myanmar through a misplaced sense of moral superiority, rather than through strategic calculation ad that an accurate appreciation of the strategic context must be the basis of policy goals. What do you think are the strategic interests of the West, if there is one West? Is the Sino-American conflict the strategic context alone?

Bilahari Kausikan: US-China relations are the core issue in contemporary international relations and no issue is more important.By ‘West” I mean the US and its Asian allies and partners – Japan, Australia, South Korea, India and some ASEAN member states and some European states, primarily France and the UK.  Germany is inching in that direction too but is not yet there.

The EU as EU is too strategically incoherent to play any meaningful role in Asia or Myanmar. I think what you are hinting at is that standing up for values is also a strategic interest. I don’t entirely disagree, but any strategy must be informed by a sense of priority and that sense of prioritization is missing from the EU. If the EU stresses values, it is because it is incapable of agreeing on anything else as far as Asia is concerned – on Myanmar the EU only wants to feel good and look good because it is incapable of doing any good.

By the way,  why do you insist on using ‘Burma’ to refer to Myanmar?  That is a perfect illustration of the European attitude. The United Nations recognises the official name of the country as The Republic of the Union of Myanmar. To pretend otherwise, is only to give yourself a warm feeling of being virtuous without achieving anything. It impresses no one but yourself.

Global Review: You think that the goal should be restoration of some form or semblance of civilian and constitutional rule which  is not the same thing as the restoration of ‘democracy’.However, the Burmese opposition rejects the 2008 constitution, demands the return of Aung San Suu Kyi to power and democracy, while the Burmese military doesn´t want that or even the status quo ante. How could such a civilian or constitutional rule look like? Are the Burmese militaries thinking about the Thai option, that a general becomes a civilian president?

Bilahari Kausikan: The Burmese opposition better grow up and accept the bitter reality that bravery is not enough; Idealism is not enough.

 The Tatmadaw is a central reality that must be part of any solution. I think after the Tatmadaw is absolutely certain that they have politically neutered Aung San Suu Kyi, they will have some form of elections under the constitution they drafted, perhaps with additional safeguards for its own position – something like the Thai option but not identical to it – the Tatmadaw’s role will be clearer than the military’s role is in Thailand. It is not a subtle institution.

The sooner the opposition and everybody else recognises that there is no solution that goes against the Tatmadaw’s interests the better. It is cruelly irresponsible to give the opposition false hope by allowing them to believe that anyone is going to intervene in Myanmar on their behalf to fight the Tatmadaw and put Aung San Suu Kyi back into power. That is only going to prolong the killings.

And the long-term damage to the economy will be disastrous. The economy has already reached a state of near collapse. The Tatmadaw has no understanding of how to run the economy. The protestors have no understanding of the damage they are doing for a futile cause either.  Its truly a tragic situation.  Between the two of them, the Myanmar economy is going to take many years – perhaps decades — to recover and while demonstrators being shot down in the streets is horrific, the long-term impact in terms of malnutrition, increased infant mortality, disease and all the consequences of economic collapse, may well be worse. This is yet another reason to try to stabilize the situation as quickly as possible, even at the cost of accepting a less than idealand morally ambiguous accommodation with the Tatmadaw.

Global Review: Parts of the opposition call for a revolution, even for  a people´s army and armed struggle. Do you think this realistic? Is the Burmese military such a monolithic bloc or do you think it could disintegrate? However, you think that such a scenario could lead to the disintegration of Myanmar, even a new Syria and failed state in South East Asia. How big is the danger that things will develop like that? Would China or other foreign powers intervene to restore stability or fight a proxy war?

Bilahari Kausikan: I think those parts of the opposition that think so should be disabused of that delusion as soon as possible.  The Tatmadaw is incompetent at governance but it is a formidable fighting force and if the opposition takes up arms against it, they will be massacred. All an armed struggle will achieve is to prolong instability and make it more difficult to reach any sort of resolution.

I don’t think it is very probable that the Tatmadaw will split, fortunately so because but if it splits, the danger of Myanmar fragmenting as the armed ethnic groups try to take advantage of the situation. There will be a bloody and confused internal conflict.

I don’t think China or any of Myanmar’s neighbours will intervene. Intervention cannot be surgical or limited in time. If you intervene, you’ll have to stay engaged, probably for decades, to try and stabilize the situation. After the examples of Iraq, Syria and Libya who is daft enough to do that? It is more likely that China and other neighbouring countries will just try to seal their borders. They won’t succeed, or at least not entirely, but that is a less bad option than intervention.

It is possible, but again not very probable, that Senior General Min Aung Hliang could be eased out by other generals. But that will not materially change the situation as the Tatmadaw will still be in charge.

Global Review: You claim that the Tatmadaw is not just the problem, but an irreplaceable part of any solution.However, how do you think you could influence the Burmese generals?

Bilahari Kausikan: The Tatmadaw has to be reassured that their institutional interests will not be ignored and individual officers and soldiers will not be prosecuted.

Global Review: You think that Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) is not without responsibility for the current imbroglio and that ASSK and the Tatmadaw are too much alike in fundamental ways to make working together comfortable for either side. Should new leaders on both sides replace them, e.g Man Win Khaing Than, acting vice president and try to find a compromise while both get an amnesty?

Bilahari Kausikan: I don’t think any amnesty that leaves Aung San Suu Kyi with a political role will be accepted by any set of Tatmadaw leaders. We – the opposition and outside powers – should focus on securing her personal safety.

Mind you I don’t think it is very likely that they will physically harm her because of who her father  was as Aung San is widely respected in the Tatmadaw. Besides they did not physically harm her during all the years she was under house arrest. But no harm seeking assurances for her personal safety. That gives the Tatmadaw something that they can agree to.

It may he marginally easier to reach some sort of accommodation if there are new leaders on both sides, but any realistic accommodation will not materially change the situation as the Tatmadaw will still be in charge.

By the way the CRPH (Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) the parallel civilian government some parliamentarians who either escaped Myanmar before they were arrested or were too insignificant to be arrested, lacks credibility and is making extreme demands. I doubt the Tatmadaw under any leadership will deal with it.

Global Review: The Burmese opposition is teaming up with the armed struggle of the ethnic minorities and also declared that they won´t return to the 2008 constitution, but want not a mainly Bamer nationalistic state, but a federal multicultural state. Hoqw could a further escalation be prevented?

Bilahari Kausikan: The armed ethnic minorities have their own agenda and are taking advantage of international sympathy for the opposition and the Tatmadaw’s distraction to advance their own agenda. Some of these ethnic groups have issued vaguely worded statements that some people have interpreted as support for the opposition. But I see it as more motherhood statements of sympathy.

Recently the spokesman of the Karen National Union, one of the armed ethnic groups, said “the NLD only looked to get along with the military. It did not just ignore ethnic armed organizations  but adopted policies to supress them” The spokesman went on to say, “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi might now understand that she was wrong to think she could change the military and that her national reconciliation efforts have failed.” This does not suggest great trust or confidence in the opposition.

Global Review: Will the Burmese military accept such a federalism or does it perceive it as the beginning of the end of Myanmar as it could strengthen separatist forces? Are there still ethnic minorities who still demand a separate state?

Bilahari Kausikan: They may accept it tactically or as a temporary expedient but probably not as the end-state for Myanmar.

Global Review: You wrote: “Neither the US nor China really want to do more than they have already done on Myanmar. Both have other priorities, and are acutely aware of the strategic context of their rivalry. Neither wishes to do anything that could inadvertently give the other an advantage. Still, both could be pressed by domestic pressures into actions that they know to be strategically imprudent: the US because of the Tatmadaw’s growing human rights abuses; China because the demonstrations have taken an anti-Chinese turn.” How could such an escalation be prevented? Can the ASEAN or India act as a mediator pr is the situation already out of control?

Bilahari Kausikan: Well, stop directly or indirectly encouraging the protestors to sacrifice their lives in vain. To me, minimizing further loss of life should be the immediate priority. That requires restraint on both sides.

ASEAN must keep contact with the junta. It is a very delicate balancing act for ASEAN – it has to be tough enough to maintain international credibility but yet not alienate the Tatmadaw.  At some point the Tatmadaw will feel secure enough to seek a solution and ASEAN has to retain their confidence so that it can help.

I don’t know when that point will come. I know for your own domestic reasons you cannot say or do nothing. That’s understandable.  But outside powers –not just the US and China but Europe too which is always tempted to strike virtuous postures and has seldom resisted that temptation – should do nothing that will increase the Tatmadaw’s insecurity or complicate ASEAN diplomacy. Primum non nocere – first, do no harm – should be the guiding principle.

 Global Review: Is  a solution without Aung San Suu Kyi in power thinkable? Wouldn´t the opposition be decapiatetd and loose a heroic icon and integration figure if she retreated? Or has the opposition in the mid and long term emanicipate itself from her leader and find an appropriate new  charimsatic leader? But is this possible as Aung San Suu Kyi has her authoirty also to the lineage to her father who was a national hero. How would the ASEAN react if the Burmese general kill her or imprison her for life time?

Bilahari Kausikan: If you think that a solution without Aung San Suu Kyi is unthinkable, then give up hope of any sort of solution.

As I said in my reply to a previous question, I think it is very unlikely that the Tatmadaw will physically harm Aung San Suu Kyi. But we should nevertheless make our goal securing assurances of her physical safety our priority.

What can anyone do if she is imprisoned or put under house arrest for life? Are you going to shun Myanmar forever if that happens? What will that achieve except to make yourself feel virtuous? If she is imprisoned for life, it is all the more important to engage the Tatmadaw to try and make sure she is treated minimally well – receives medical treatment and so on..

Global Review: The Burmese military fears that Myanmar could become a semicolony of China, but on the other side it could be forced to rely on China. How does the Burmese military perceive the New Silkroad and the RCEP? You also said that China was supporting some ethnic minorities? Whom and for what purpose, if China want to have good relations with the central government?

Bilahari Kausikan: First of all the RCEP is an ASEAN initiative not a Chinese initiative. Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are members of the RCEP and that makes it unlikely that it will be captured by China. There is no reason why Myanmar should not participate in Belt & Road (BRI) projects and as a matter of fact the Chinese have not found the Myanmar pushovers. Several BRI projects in Myanmar have made minimal progress, to Chinese frustration – the Kyaukphyu Deepsea Port and Special Economic Zone, the China-Myanmar Border Cooperation Zones, the New Yangon City Project, and of course the Myitsone Dam was cancelled by the previous military regime and not reinstated by Aung Suu Kyi’s civilian government despite strong Chinese pressures. Myanmar will only be forced to rely on China if the West gives it no other option.

Global Review: How does the ASEAN perceive the new Biden administration? And the new US foreign policy in the Sino-American conflict? Is there hope that there could be a new TPP? Biden spoke also of a Transatlantic New Silkroad for Eurasia to counter China´s BRI. However, it is not sure who will be next US president 2024, some even fear that Trump might return. Do the ASEAN and most Asians think that the USA is still a reliable power?

Bilahari Kausikan: The US has never been a reliable power – every four years you have to educate a new administration even if the same party remains in power. But the US has always been an indispensable power. There can be no strategic balance in our region, or for that matter in Europe, without the US, and so we have pragmatically worked with the US over many different kinds of administration: We worked with Obama, we worked with Trump and we will work with Biden and who ever comes after. We don’t angst too much – as Europe did with Trump – about convergence of values; we work on the basis of convergence of interests.

I don’t see the Biden administration as fundamentally changing the Trump administration’s policies towards China or fundamentally shifting the trajectory of US-China relations. What I already do see under the Biden administration is policy being decided,. Implemented and communicated in a more orderly and predictable manner and that’s all to the good. I don’t think American domestic politics is conducive to the Biden administration returning to the TPP – its a pity, but that’s just the reality. It does not make the US any less indispensable. But I hope the US under Biden will be less hostile to plurilateral trade agreements.

By the way, its a very good thing that the Biden administration is engaging more and wants to work more with allies and partners. But the corollary to that is that allies and partners will be expected to do more to help the US. Its a less crude form of transactionalism than Trump’s but the expectation is there. America’s Asian allies and partners have always understood this better than Europe who has never pulled its weight commensurate to Europe’s wealth. Unless you do so, sooner or later you will frustrate the Biden administration as you have frustrated many American administrations and not just Trump.


An expert on Burma commented the interview:

“Smart interview. Good questions. Answers that can certainly be questioned. There would never have been a French revolution if all opposition activists had thought like Bilahari Kausikan, the USA would still throw tea bags today and even Father Russia would still be ruled by the tsar with the cross in hand. Leaving aside what it all really brought about. He speaks of if there are new leaders on both sides, … but who does he mean? And what if the opposition in other Asian countries unites? Sure, an idealistic vision at the moment, but human history has changed direction completely. What BK unfortunately cannot answer, is how it could go on, apart from the usual tactical logic – China, USA, EU etc … He also sees the role of the ethnic armies too vaguely. What if the USA secretly sends weapons to them in the old secret service way? Alone to bind China a little there. Because as the demonstrators said: If they blow up the Chinese pipelines in Myanmar, it would be a purely internal matter for the Burmese. The USA could already recruit a few employees. Of course, the CIA is not responsible for anything after that. His assessment of the role of the EU is correct. Their pretty moralisms have contributed to the ‚degradation‘ of Aung San Suu Kyi’s position. If you had helped her to keep the economy flourishing, the generals would also have earned properly. But these, too, are analytical speculations and nobody knows what will happen next. The Burmese are brave and don’t give up easily. Maybe there will be an underground movement like in Nazi Germany.”

Comment by Global Review:

It seems a bit like the Congress of Vienna and the Restoration. I think the Asians think very Metternich like and in terms of stability, but asls have seen the catastrophic results of US regime change policy in the Greater Midle East which was not as peaceful as the regime change 1989 in Europe and the Sovjet Union.. I don’t know what the USA and the CIA will do. Robert Helvey was the last US representative sent by the Americans , but he saw no more promising option in an armed struggle in the end and relied on Aung. I have no idea whether the USA would repeat that. I find it interesting that Kauskani didn´t address my question whether a proxy war could develop in Burma which would be a disastrous and never-ending story. But perhaps the US will come to terms with the generals not to push them on the side of China. And what happens if the generals send ASSK into exile in the US? Or are they afraid and think that they would have better control of her by means of house arrest? But she is being charged with high treason and whether she will stay under house arrest or not, is another question.

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