WASHINGTON — The nominee to become the next commander of US forces in the Pacific says the time isn’t right to expand nascent military ties with Burma as the Southeast Asian nation remains “firmly under military control.”
That’s an unusually stark assessment from a US official of the state of reforms in Burma. Adm. Harry Harris Jr. was responding in writing to policy questions posed for his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday.
Burma’s shift from direct military rule toward a more democratic system was meant to be a crowning foreign policy achievement for US President Barack Obama. Restrictions have eased in the past three years, but there’s been no change to a junta-era constitution. Obama acknowledged on a visit last month that reforms have slowed or even moved backward.
The administration has argued that US military engagement with Burma officers could encourage them to submit to civilian rule, but interaction has been very limited to date, going little beyond seminars on rule of law and disaster relief.
US lawmakers have been wary of authorizing deeper ties, fearing it could confer prestige upon Burma’s army, which is still fighting ethnic insurgents and accused of serious human rights abuses.
Harris said there have been some steps toward reform in the country. He voiced support for the approach of Derek Mitchell, a former defense official who has served as US ambassador since Washington normalized diplomatic relations in 2012.
“His cautious and reciprocal step-for-step approach, while looking for opportunities, will help democracy take root,” he said.
If his appointment is confirmed by the Senate, Harris would command US military personnel operating across a vast swath of the globe, from waters off the west coast of the US to the western border of India. He is currently commander of the US Pacific fleet.