Frances Zwenig

Frances Zwenig is the Counselor at the United States Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Business Council. She is the founder the Burma-Myanmar Forum, a project of the International Center.


How did the junta gain power in 1962?

Well, it was a coup. I want you and the audience to put this in perspective. The country has been dominated by the military – some form of military – since the 11th century. This is not anything new to its history. What’s going on now is new to its history, and that’s what’s very exciting.

Were there other attempts to bring democracy to Burma up until now and how did the government respond?

You know, during the late ‘40s and ‘50s, Burma was considered one of the great stories of Southeast Asia after the colonial times were over, after it was declared free from British colonial rule. Some very outstanding civil servants were part of the UN. One of the first Secretary Generals of the UN was U Thant from Burma. There’s a history of democracy there but there’s also a history of ethnic tension in the country. The country itself is a construct of British colonial empire. It was never really a full country itself. There are several sizeable ethnic groups and the British didn’t do much about assimilation or cooperation when they were the colonials. So they were starting from scratch really, but it was a burgeoning attempt at democracy. In the 1960s the military took over. Then there were student uprisings in the ‘70s and another student uprising in the late ‘80s. That’s when Aung San Suu Kyi came to world notice. Then there were other uprisings in the 2000s, 2007 is the one people remember. They’ve been struggling with the questions of democracy for a long time.

That uprising in the late ‘80s, in ‘88 I think it was, was there anything else that was different about it beyond Aung San Suu Kyi?

Well first of all, the uprising was brought about by students primarily. Students are braver, have less to lose, and are also willing to run up against authority figures; but it was also a reaction to a very stupid decision, a very bad decision, by the leadership to change the currency so that the value of people’s money went to zero overnight. So people were in economic strait. So there was a pushback against the bad times. There were a culmination of factors – the economy. In America we talk about: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Well, the economy is a big issue everywhere and it was a particular issue in late ‘88.

 And how did Aung San Suu Kyi merge on the political scene? Who was she?

Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of the founder of the country, General Aung San, who came to prominence during World War II. And it’s interesting, her face and her father’s face are the same. I’ve seen pictures of her and her father – I’ve met her several times – and she’s the spitting image of her father. Just her physical presence evokes her father, who unfortunately was assassinated when she was two years old. He was trying to bring the country together, all the ethnic groups together, and trying to manage the move of the country from being a colony to a country and he was tragically assassinated. But he– his face, her face — evokes that better time. Her mother was the ambassador to India during the ‘60s and ‘70s. She herself went abroad and was living out of the country for a long period of time. She married a British man, Michael Aris, a very famous Oxford scholar who specialized in Tibetan scholarship. He was advisor to the king of Bhutan. In the late ‘80s, she came to Rangoon because her mother was quite ill. She just happened to be there at the time when the uprising came. People went to her and she rose to the occasion.

How did the junta react to her victory?

Well first of all, the period I’m talking about when she rose to the occasion was during the demonstrations. She became the face of the demonstrators and the people rallied around her. Then she was put under house arrest. The government decided then to hold an election – not in ’88, but two years later in 1990 — to sort of ratify their hold on power because they were against the demonstrations. Interestingly enough, they did polling but people lied to the military pollsters. People went around in military uniforms and the pollsters said, “Who are you going to vote for?” And the people said, “The military.” Well, that’s what they said, but then when it came to the polls Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League of Democracy, won I think ninety percent of the vote. She herself didn’t run but her party ran and her party won. The government refused to recognize the results of that poll.

How did the international community respond in general?

Well, the international community to begin with in 1988 was appalled. Not only appalled, but helpless. They did nothing to push back against the military. This is a very sad part of the history, because a lot of the student demonstrators really believed the U.S. fleet was going to come in and save them. I don’t know where that belief came from but obviously it wasn’t based on reality. All the U.S. government could do is the State Department could write the cables reporting on what would happen and I think they gave some asylum. At least 3,000 — that’s the number everyone agrees on but it’s probably higher than that – 3,000 people were killed in those uprisings in 1988. Many people escaped the country and over the years and went to Thailand, Singapore, the United States, and Australia. The U.S. opened up its doors to help these people survive. These people are true Burmans; they love their country and they want their country to develop. In fact, the interesting thing that’s going on now, is the present government is reaching to what they call the ‘88ers, both the ones in prison who they released in the last six months and ones in the United States, Thailand, and Australia, asking them to come back and they’re in active communication with those former students. I myself have met with the leaders of the ‘88ers in the United States – in this very room we met with them two to three weeks ago – and they got visas to go back and as we speak they’re in Myanmar meeting with the government.

What was the response to both Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest and her eventual release from China?

Interestingly, the Chinese understand who she is, the role she plays, and the face of Myanmar that she represents. China all along seems to have wanted some sort of reconciliation. I can’t speak from China, I am just observing that. But I know, I’ve heard, and I’ve read that the Chinese over years have made overtures to her. The Chinese ambassador has met with her in Rangoon. China does not want instability. China wants a stable Myanmar. So whatever can be done internally among the different factions, among different groups to achieve that, is in China’s interest it seems.

What is China’s interest in Myanmar?

Well, it’s multiple. First of all, the ethnic groups I spoke of earlier are in China, they’re on the border and they’re in China. Some of those ethnic groups are armed and so China doesn’t want any unrest among those ethnic groups in China or in Myanmar. Secondly, Myanmar is a very rich country, very resource rich. China wants to avail itself of many of those resources: minerals, oil, and gas. Third, Myanmar has a very strategic location and presently China is building two pipelines that go through the western part of Myanmar. One pipeline will bring crude oil from the Middle East to the South Western part of China, therefore allowing the Chinese ships to avoid the Malacca Straits which are time consuming to go through but also there are pirates there. It just is an oil security issue. Secondly, there’s a natural gas pipeline which allows the Chinese to directly import natural gas from the Gulf to south Myanmar. But China is energy hungry, so there’s the energy piece. Third, Myanmar is sixty million people. It’s an economy and they’re consumers. China would like to be able to sell its good there. China counts on Myanmar as an ally in any dispute at the UN or internationally with ASEAN countries, the ten southeast Asian countries that are banded together, and China wants to count on Myanmar as an ally, not as part of the anti-China block.

Does China put reform pre-conditions on its investments? Should the U.S.?

Well, that’s two different questions. The impression I get, and its not just in respect to Myanmar, it’s in respect to a lot of these southeast Asian countries, China does not impose conditions and therefore it seems like free money to these countries at first blush. But there are costs with getting money from China. If there’s an infrastructure project, say to build a dam, the Chinese bring in Chinese workers — they do not use workers from Myanmar — and they import their own food. It’s not anything for capacity building or anything like that for Myanmar. The power plants that are built, the power does not go to Myanmar which is highly in need of energy and power, the power goes to China. So there are definite costs to getting Chinese so called free aid.

The U.S. does put conditions on, and is still in the process of, figuring out exactly what those conditions are going to be. The idea is to have transparency and accountability in all the undertakings and to not repeat the abuses of the past with forced labor or raping the environment. It’s our impression at the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council that is in keeping with the reform agenda of the present government and we’re working in the hopes that that’s true. Our companies, wherever they go, want transparency, accountability, and adherence to the highest environmental standards and the U.S. companies are the gold standard.

Who is a bigger investor in Myanmar: China or the U.S.?

Oh, by far, China. Thailand is a big investor too, neighbor-to-neighbor. Right now it’s not anything more than natural resource exploitation as far as the Chinese go. But the other countries besides just the Chinese, and U.S. — Japan is very interested in developing a better economic relationship, South Korea is very interested in developing a bigger economic relationship, and Australia — all these are allies of ours and we’re working closely with them to up the ante as far as standards of transparency and accountability. The European Union is as well.

Why has the regime suddenly opened up and freed political prisoners, what precipitated this?

Well let me say that a year and a half ago if you had told me what’s going on is going on, I’d think you were dreaming. I never in my lifetime thought we’d see what we’re seeing. I worked for it all these years, but I really wasn’t convinced it was going to happen in my lifetime. I don’t think there’s any one factor. I think there are many factors. Part of it is the aging of past leadership. They think about their legacy. They don’t want to see what happened to Mubarak and the leader that preceded the leader in Myanmar who was put under house arrest and his children were thrown in jail. They don’t want that to happen. Secondly, in 2007 there was the Saffron Revolution where they actually shot and killed monks, which is so against the Buddhist culture of that country. Shortly thereafter the same year there was a cyclone that killed two hundred thousand plus people in the delta region and devastated the economy. I think those two things could be linked in people’s minds about payback in a weird sort of way. Then I think their exposure to the rest of the world through their membership in ASEAN and traveling around and seeing that their neighbors are living better than they’re living. “What’s wrong with this picture?” they’re thinking to themselves. The internet and how that’s opened the world up to people. I think all of those cumulatively have made a difference.

Can you tell us about the ethnic strife going on in Myanmar?

Well you know, as I mentioned earlier, there are about sixty million people in the country. Sixty percent of those sixty million are ethnic Burman, but there are six other major ethnic groups which range from one to one and a half million. Those are large groups. During World War II and the before period some of those groups were promised autonomy, they could have their own countries, and they really believed it. And some of them, some of those peoples are not Buddhists; they’re Christians so there is a religious difference element to this as well. The government has never really had as its agenda assimilation, partly their own fault partly the fault of these ethnic groups. For example one group, the Karen, which numbers over a million people; the Karen have been in open rebellion against the central government since 1947. That was before the military takeover that was right after World War II. So that has nothing to do with military democracy or non military. They just haven’t had the strength of leadership to figure out how to solve all of that. Aung San Suu Kyi’s father really did try to get at that and look what happened to him. He was assassinated.

In your travels, did you feel the ordinary Burmese feel that Aung San Suu Kyi can deliver democracy?

I definitely believe that they believe in Aung San Suu Kyi. She would be a unifying element. Her challenge is to convince the military that she’s not a threat to them and the fact that she’s a daughter of a military man – she believes the military has a role and she can comfort them that she believes that. That would go a long way to working out the unification and reconciliation that’s necessary for the country. No question that Aung San Suu Kyi is popular, revered by the people, and admired.

 Is there a danger that too quick of an opening up, too much money going in too quickly, could potentially create a Kleptocracy, where the ruling class takes all that wealth?

Well we actually have a Kleptocracy, oligarchy, crony led economy at the moment. There’s absolutely no question about that. And I do think there is a capacity issue. How much change can the country take on? I’ve likened it to a man dying of thirst standing in front of a fire hydrant that’s blasting away. He’s thirsty but he can’t take on everything that’s coming at him and yet they have no choice. This is a 21st century world and everything is going to come at them. To their credit they are trying and I do believe there are real reformers at work there, not a huge number, but they’re really trying. For the moment, they have the moment. My own view is you can be cynical, you can be skeptical, but you shouldn’t put obstacles in the path of the reformers. Just get out of their way or help them.

What tools does the U.S. have to incentivize change and democratization?

Well, we have tools on many levels. On the business side, I know for a fact that the business people would rather do business with the American companies. We have the gold standard products, we have the gold standard of the way we do business, and we treat our workers best. So how do we make that happen? From the U.S. side, there are many rules that our companies have to adhere to. There’s the Foreign Practices Act and all kinds of liabilities where people are personally liable if they disobey the law. You have to account to your stockholders that you are doing things in a legal way and right now it’s not so easy to do that. The first few years there’s going to be lots of due diligences required and checking out what kind of return there could be in a transparent, accountable way. There’s interest on both sides, no doubt about that. In the meantime, both the companies and the U.S. government can do capacity building; so that we can help the parliament write the right laws to protect our business people and their business people, and in fact they want that kind of help. I was meeting this past week with a group of parliamentarians and one said, “We have to write a budget, we don’t know how to write a budget. Can you ask your congress people to help us write a budget?” that’s an opening that I hope we can take advantage of.

Are there U.S. business community concerns of their investments being nationalized or repatriated?

Actually, I haven’t heard that concern so much. It’s more the question of is there not nationalization, its corruption; protection against corruption and making sure the contracts entered into will be adhered to.

Is there anything else the American people should understand about Burma or the Burmese?

Well, there is a great desire to have a better relationship with America. They want Americans to come and visit and in fact the encouragement of tourism would be one really key way individual Americans could help the Burmese because it brings new points of view, it brings in money, and it works with the small business people, all of which they need. This country’s going to need help for a long period of time. It’s not going to turn into Washington D.C., or Arlington, Virginia, or New York City anytime soon and they need help. The interesting is that they are open and willing and want to move forward on the path to democracy, I firmly believe.