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    Southeast Asia
     Jun 26, 2012

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US-Myanmar eye military links
By Kim Jolliffe

CHIANG MAI - When United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta signaled at a recent regional defense confab in Singapore that political reforms underway in Myanmar could pave the way for bilateral military-to-military engagement, it represented a possible strategic turning point for the long-isolated, historically military-run nation.

While the prospect of Washington engaging a rights-abusing military is not unprecedented, any such move will be highly scrutinized and closely watched given that until 2011, hard-line soldiers had governed the country with an iron-fist for nearly five consecutive decades. Many of the previous ruling junta's top soldiers are in positions of power in reformist President Thein


Sein's quasi-civilian administration.

Military-to-military ties between the US and Myanmar were first downgraded in 1988, in response to soldiers killing thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators. Relations were completely severed by the mid-1990s and further obstructed by sanctions imposed by both the Bill Clinton and George W Bush administrations in punitive response to the regime's persistently poor rights record.

The script has flipped since Thein Sein began to implement an ambitious political reform program, highlighted by the release of hundreds of political prisoners, an easing of press censorship, and allowances for pro-democracy icon and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to take seats in the country's partially elected new parliament.

The US has responded by rolling back restrictions, including a long-held ban against American companies from investing in the country. While various other economic and financial sanctions remain in place, including an embargo on arms sales, Panetta said on June 2 that the US would consider opening the way to strategic engagement if Myanmar stays its current reform course.
Panetta's broad overture comes at a time of transition for both militaries. While the US has announced a new global defense strategy, the so-called "pivot", emphasizing closer strategic ties with allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region, Myanmar's military has signaled it is striving to develop a more professional role after being stripped of many of its past political functions.

Myanmar Defense Minister Lieutenant General Hla Min said at the same defense conference where Panetta spoke that the military would gradually "surrender" its allocated seats in parliament, which currently consists of 25% of both legislatures. He said that the army, also known as the Tatmadaw, is "100% in support" of Thein Sein's reform agenda.

That would necessarily entail a complicated constitutional reform process, which the military has the power to block through its parliamentary numbers. However, Soe Win, the military's second-highest ranking officer, suggested the military may be amenable to amending certain clauses of the charter after signing a ceasefire with the rebel Shan State Army-South on May 19.

Observers say there are other tentative signs that soldiers, especially among the lower ranks, are already shifting away from governance roles and towards more straightforward security and defense functions.

"Hla Min's support for reforms and his suggestion that the military could reduce its political role over time may have opened the door a crack to begin contacts with the US military," wrote Murray Hiebert, senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Myanmar's armed forces, which have long depended on China for most of their training and weaponry, are reportedly looking to the United States and other Western powers as well as Asian powers to help promote their evolution toward a more professional force under civilian control. Washington should carefully test that hypothesis."

According to Nyo Ohn Myint, a representative of the National League for Democracy Liberated Area who has recently worked closely with Thein Sein's government to aid negotiations with armed rebel groups, the US could play a key role in this evolution.
"The US government should look at how to improve [Myanmar] army leaders' mentality. Greater engagement and opening of its military institutions will bring benefits to all," he told Asia Times Online.

Influential US lobbyists, including those who have steadily campaigned against economic sanctions, have recently echoed those calls. Stanley Weiss, founder of the Washington-based Business Executives for National Security, a business lobby group, believes recently ramped up engagement between the US and Myanmar should include security matters.

"We should improve our defense relationship with Myanmar in every way possible," he said, claiming that decades of diplomatic isolation has distanced the US from a whole generation of military officers. He believes that re-engagement would give them "a taste of what civilized society looks like".

Until now, Myanmar's benighted military rulers have had little incentive to cooperate in Western-led multilateral initiatives, including on matters related to human rights.

"The Tatmadaw has always had its own concepts, and has stood on its own two feet," explained Nyo Ohn Myint. "The more it has been isolated, the more difficult it has become to deal with… Tatmadaw leaders have had no alternative but to deal with China, India, and Pakistan. Distrust with Western countries has created more problems domestically."

While the causes cannot be blamed simply on isolation from the West, there is little doubt that the Tatmadaw's archaic approaches, not just to governance but also to counter-insurgency (COIN) warfare, have been the most damaging "domestic problems" in Myanmar's recent history.

Certain ethnic rebel groups have fought against the government for decades, alternately for independence and greater degrees of autonomy. The ongoing conflict with Kachin rebels in the country's northern region has been attended by new accounts of Tatmadaw rights abuses targeting civilian populations, according to reports by Human Rights Watch, a US-based rights lobby.

Significantly, there have been instances during the ongoing hostilities where commanding officers have ignored Thein Sein's commands to stop offensive operations. As COIN strategies against a variety of insurgent groups have focused on the devastation of entire communities thought to be supporting rebels, millions of civilians have been displaced both along the country's borders, entrenching divisions along geographical and ethnic lines.

Meanwhile, a system where senior generals reward loyal commanding officers with economic concessions in those areas has meant that resource extraction and development has persistently suited the interests of the Tatmadaw and neglected civilians of basic necessities such as electricity and running water.

Dysfunction pervades Myanmar's armed forces from top to bottom, and given its rigid obedience to hierarchies based on seniority, change will likely only come from the top-down. Whether the US would be able to influence such change through training and other joint exercises is an open question.

CSIS suggests engagement could begin through joint cooperation to search for several hundred US pilots shot down during World War II over northern Myanmar. The influential Washington think tank also suggested that Myanmar could be invited as an observer at the annual US-led Cobra Gold multilateral exercises, the largest in Asia, held every year in neighboring Thailand, as well as the US Navy's Pacific Partnership program or the Air Force's Pacific Angels operations, annual assistance exercises aimed at building ties with host countries.

"The United States could also send a military attache to Myanmar with the task of regularly engaging the country's military, mapping opportunities to target training efforts to key leaders, and in general figuring out who is who," wrote CSIS's Hiebert. "Among other things, the officer could put together an alumni group of Myanmar officers who have studied in the United States. That group would include some interesting and influential leaders such as the minister of social welfare, the agriculture minister, and the chairman of the investment board." 

Continued 1 2  

True stripes revealed in Myanmar (Jun 16, '12)

Myanmar's military reform gap
(Jun 13, '12)

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