NPR’s Ailsa Chang talks with Zachary Abuza, Southeast Asia expert and National War College professor, about the White House’s options following Myanmar’s release of American journalist Danny Fenster.


Today brought a plot twist in Myanmar. The American journalist Danny Fenster has been released from prison and is on his way back to the U.S. Just on Friday, a Myanmar military court had sentenced him to 11 years in prison for allegedly spreading false information, among other charges. Fenster was detained following a military coup which overthrew the civilian government earlier this year. And to talk more about him, we’re going to bring in Zachary Abuza. He is a Southeast Asia security expert at the National War College. Welcome.

ZACHARY ABUZA: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So what do you think Danny Fenster’s release says about where Myanmar’s military leaders are 10 months now after the coup?

ABUZA: I think they’re feeling very isolated diplomatically. They had a terrible rebuke a couple of weeks ago at the ASEAN Summit – ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – where the leader of the coup was disinvited. I think the Chinese government is expressing a little frustration over the state of the economy and their lack of control over the security situation. So I think they’re really grasping right now and looking for, you know, things that will buy them some time.

CHANG: Well, let’s talk about the relationship between the U.S. and Myanmar. I mean, former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson had helped negotiate Fenster’s release. What do you think his involvement in particular might mean for U.S.-Myanmar relations going forward?

ABUZA: Well, I have some concerns about it. First of all, U.S. policy should never be about a single individual. We cannot lose sight of the fact that the junta has been ruling this country with utter brutality. They’ve arrested over 10,000 people, and over 1,200 innocent civilians have been killed since they took over. So Richardson’s intervention was very important for Danny Fenster and his family. But right now, there is still so much more that needs to be done.

CHANG: Let’s talk about that. How would you characterize the way the Biden administration is approaching Myanmar?

ABUZA: The Biden administration very quickly went to the sanctions toolkit. The Treasury Department and the central bank quickly froze over $1 billion in the junta’s assets, and they sanctioned members of the junta and key military corporations. But since then, they’ve largely wanted ASEAN and some other countries to take the lead in pressuring the junta, and we really haven’t done very much else.

CHANG: What ultimately does this administration seem to want?

ABUZA: They say they want the return to civilian rule, but I think they’ve largely not been specific enough. You know, we cannot go back to where Myanmar was before the coup. That constitution gave the military far too much power, including 25% of seats in the parliament. It gave them a veto over any sorts of constitutional amendments.

And we want Myanmar to be a democracy, but they’ve really got to get to a position where they are federal democracy. This is a country that’s been at war with itself since its founding in 1948. The ethnic Burmese population comprise about 60% of the population, but there are a host of different ethnolinguistic organizations that have been fighting for either greater autonomy or secession since 1948.

CHANG: You’ve mentioned ASEAN in this conversation. What is the role, in your mind, of other countries? Can they do more, especially those countries in Southeast Asia?

ABUZA: Oh, ASEAN could do so much more. They are very divided on this. The country that could do the most, of course, is Singapore. This is a country that is the largest investor in Myanmar. A lot of the Myanmar military’s front companies operate out of Singapore. It’s where they do so much of their banking. So this is a country that really could step up pressure.

CHANG: Zachary Abuza is a political scientist at the National War College. Thank you very much for joining us today.

ABUZA: Thank you for having me.

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