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2 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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
"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."