Thein Sein heads to the White House
By Bertil Lintner
CHIANG MAI - Myanmar President Thein Sein is poised to receive red carpet treatment today during a visit to the White House in Washington, the latest symbolic gesture in a diplomatic warming trend between the two countries. Groups of exiles have vowed to demonstrate against the former military commander's arrival, including ethnic Kachins whose compatriots in northern Myanmar have in recent months borne the brunt of the most massive aerial and artillery barrage yet launched in the country's 60 years of civil war.
The visit also comes in the wake of a series of mob attacks on Muslim homes and shops that have killed scores while the
country's law enforcement agencies, at least initially, turned a blind eye to the mayhem.
The violence is not expected to influence the US's message to Thein Sein, who will undoubtedly be praised and feted for his government's reforms. Myanmar has gone from being a pariah subjected to US sanctions and boycotts to an important emerging ally in the region. The turnaround in ties has come as Myanmar held what were widely viewed as rigged general elections in November 2010, released hundreds of political prisoners and allowed for more media freedom at any time since the military took power in a 1962 coup and maintained control of government under various guises ever since.
Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has said she ranks events in Myanmar over the past two years as the Barack Obama administration's main foreign policy breakthrough during her tenure. That perceived success has more to do with the US's regional security concerns than improvements in the Myanmar government's human rights and democracy records.
A closer look at the history of US-Myanmar relations shows that regional security concerns, and Myanmar's proximity to China, have always been more important to the US than domestic Myanmar politics. And the more independent stance of Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government vis-a-vis China has clearly been music to Washington's ears.
For the first time since the US imposed sanctions against Myanmar in response to the military's 1988 lethal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, military-to-military cooperation between the two sides seems possible. A resumption of strategic ties would fit with President Obama's "pivot" policy, which is ultimately aimed at containing China's influence in the region. Yet disagreements are already evident between the Pentagon's more strategic outlook and the State Department, which cannot ignore reports by human rights organizations and concerns expressed on Capitol Hill about ongoing abuses and atrocities committed by the Myanmar military, especially in the country's ethnic areas.
There is, however, a backdoor for the Pentagon, one that may suit the US's security interests better than cooperation with Myanmar's brutal infantry. The Myanmar Times newspaper reported on May 13 that the US naval attache to Myanmar, Captain Sean Cannon, traveled to the capital Naypyidaw on April 23 to meet Myanmar Navy chief Vice Admiral Thura Thet Swe. It was no chance meeting: the day before Obama visited Myanmar on November 19 last year "the US and Myanmar navies met quietly aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard in the Andaman Sea", the Myanmar Times reported.
Myanmar has also established naval cooperation with India, another regional power in the Indian Ocean that is loathe to see China's influence stretch that far south. In March, two ships from the Myanmar navy docked at the Indian port city of Vishakhapatnam, which is also the headquarters of the Indian Navy's Eastern Command. The Indian and Myanmar navies reportedly carried out a joint exercise near the maritime boundary between Myanmar's Coco Islands and Landfall Island, the northernmost of the Indian Andaman islands.
From Washington's perspective, Myanmar's Navy is considered "cleaner" than the army because it operates offshore and never enters the ethnic areas where the worst abuses occur, according to US officials and other regional analysts. India and the US have carried out joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean for years, and now they seem to have a potential new budding ally in Myanmar - depending, of course, on whether Myanmar genuinely intends to distance itself from China's strategic embrace.
China was Myanmar's main backer at the United Nations when Western countries, including the US, frequently criticized the former military regime's abysmal human rights record. After decades of steady engagement, Myanmar is strategically and economically important to China, both as an outlet to the Indian Ocean and as host to vital oil and gas pipelines being built to connect China's landlocked southern province of Yunnan with the Andaman Sea. Myanmar is also an important source of energy, including hydroelectric power, as well as minerals and timber. From Beijing's perspective, it can ill-afford to "lose" Myanmar to the US and the West.
Strategic middle ground
It is not the first time Myanmar has found itself in the middle of US and Chinese strategic interests. The US established formal relations with Myanmar, then known as Burma, on the eve of the country achieving independence from British colonialism in 1948. US aid programs began soon thereafter in 1950. But relations soon soured when it was discovered that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was providing clandestine support for Nationalist Chinese troops, which had retreated into the country's eastern Shan State after their defeat in the civil war in China. Thousands of Kuomintang (KMT) soldiers who could not join Chiang Kai-shek's exodus to Taiwan when Mao Zedong's communists took over the mainland regrouped at Mong Hsat and other places in Shan State.
Arms and ammunition were flown in from Thailand and Taiwan in what turned out to be a futile attempt to "re-conquer" China from the communists. The CIA's KMT support program was so secret that not even the US ambassador in Yangon, David Key, was aware of it until Myanmar authorities provided him with photographic and other evidence. He resigned in disgust in April 1952 and returned to Washington, arguing that CIA support for the KMT's operations in Myanmar had "cost us heavily in terms of ... goodwill and trust". It did not help that then US vice president Richard Nixon visited Yangon in 1953 and posed dressed in traditional Myanmar dress for photographers.
In response to the CIA's support for the KMT's aggression, the Myanmar government terminated all American aid programs in 1953 and brought the matter to the United Nations. Myanmar was there represented by U Myint Thein, or "Uncle Monty" as he was affectionately known, perhaps the most brilliant diplomat in the country's history. Following several UN resolutions, the KMT was requested to leave Myanmar and thousands of its soldiers were evacuated to Taiwan by special aircraft based in Thailand. But not all of them were Nationalist Chinese; many were hilltribesmen who had been recruited to fight at the same time as reinforcements were delivered.
The KMT was eventually thwarted after several military campaigns in the 1950s led by Brigadier Kyaw Zaw, one of the most outstanding officers that the Myanmar army has produced. Still, it was not until 1961 that the KMT was finally driven out of Myanmar. On January 26 that year, three divisions of soldiers from China's People's Liberation Army (PLA), or a total of 20,000 men, crossed the border into Myanmar. They swept in human waves down across the hills of eastern Shan State in a campaign code-named the "Mekong River Operation" that forced the KMT to flee into neighboring Thailand, where some still remain in the country's northern areas.
When Myanmar troops marched on the captured KMT bases, they found large quantities of US-made arms and ammunition. When the news was reported in local newspapers, violent demonstrations were held outside the US embassy on Merchant Street in downtown Yangon. However, neither the Myanmar government nor the Chinese have ever acknowledged that the PLA formed the core of forces that drove the KMT out of the eastern border areas.
By then, aid and other cooperation between the US and Myanmar had been resumed, including Fulbright, Asia and Ford Foundation programs. But those came to a halt after the 1962 military coup and the introduction of the "Burmese way to Socialism" under dictator Gen Ne Win. Nonetheless, Myanmar never joined any anti-US "socialist" bloc in the region or the world. In September 1966, Ne Win paid a state visit to the US and met then US president Lyndon Johnson - the last such high-ranking official visit before Thein Sein's trip this week to Washington.
Ne Win may have styled himself a "socialist", but the US saw his authoritarian military regime as a bulwark against the expansion of communism in Asia. This became especially important after the Chinese-supported Communist Party of Burma's (CPB) thrust into northeastern Myanmar after 1968. At the time of Ne Win's 1966 visit, China was just beginning to export Maoist revolution across Southeast Asia.
Shortly after the KMT debacle, the CIA had commenced a relationship with Myanmar's military intelligence that included training of its officers. In 1957, at least two Myanmar intelligence officers were sent to the CIA's main training facility in the region on the US-held Pacific island of Saipan. One of these was Tin Oo, or "Spectacles Tin Oo" as he was known at home, who would become the de facto chief of Myanmar's military intelligence after 1962 and once was considered Ne Win's heir apparent. He served as spy chief until he was ousted, charged with corruption and jailed in 1983, probably because he had grown too powerful even for Ne Win.
The other Saipan-trained Myanmar officer, Lay Maung, rose to become Myanmar's foreign minister in the early 1980s. At the same time, a CIA-sponsored "research unit" was formed in Yangon to track the CPB and its Chinese backers. The US also sent weapons to Myanmar to help fight the CPB, although this military aid was by all accounts modest and the Myanmar army depended mainly on arms produced in its own defense industries.
Several Myanmar army officers also received training in the US. Among them was Kyi Maung, who attended staff college at Fort Leavenworth in 1955-56 and after the 1988 crackdown joined the pro-democracy movement as a leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Another, Gen Kyaw Htin, was trained at the same US facility in 1962 and remained loyal to the government throughout his life as a general and chief of staff of the Myanmar Army from 1976-85. He also served as Myanmar's defense minister from 1976-1988.
Ne Win's 1966 state visit was not the only tour he made of the US. In April 1987, he made a secret five-day trip to Oklahoma to meet Ardith Dolese, a wealthy American woman who had interests in the state's oil industry. Then no longer president but rather chairman of the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party and as such still the most powerful politician in the country, Ne Win brought with him an entourage of 45 people, including five high-ranking military commanders, the foreign and defense ministers, his personal doctor, and members of his own family in a chartered plane.
The purpose of the extraordinary visit has never been made public but it is widely believed that the general was interested in revitalizing Myanmar's then moribund oil industry in a bid to reverse the country's severe economic decline. Underscoring the oddity of the unofficial visit, the delegation also reportedly paid a brief visit to Disneyland outside Los Angeles.
The Myanmar military's lethal suppression of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising brought those ties to an end. The US's imposition of punitive economic and later targeted financial sanctions against individual junta members drove relations to an all-time low. The generals surprise decision to move the capital city from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2005 is believed to have been motivated in part by the previous regime's fear of a possible pre-emptive US invasion.
Relations started to thaw after the November 2010 general election and release of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. Relations warmed considerably in September 2011 after Thein Sein's government decided to suspend a Chinese-sponsored hydroelectric project at Myitsone in Kachin State.
If naval cooperation proves successful and non-controversial, the next step could be to re-admit Myanmar army officers into US defense colleges, a program that was terminated in the wake of 1988 killings. Ravi Balaram, a scholar at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, has already compiled a list of former Myanmar army officers who once took part in International Military Education and Training (IMET) in the US, and who therefore could be seen as "friendly" towards Washington.
Among them are Nyan Htun, former commander-in-chief of the Navy and now vice president, and the current Myanmar defense attache to the United States, Myint Thein. Deputy Minister of Defense Aung Thaw, a former ambassador to Japan, and Myint Tun, Commodore at the Naval Dockyard, are also IMET alumni. There is fertile military-to-military ground to build on, but in the process Myanmar may find itself in the middle of a new great power game over which it has little or no control.
While the Obama administration commends Thein Sein for the progress his government has made on human rights and democracy, Washington's motivations for engaging his government are more firmly grounded in issues of regional security.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of seven books on Myanmar including Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Struggle for Democracy and Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.
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