RANGOON — The United States plans to expand its defense ties with Burma and would consider resuming arms sales if the country’s human rights record greatly improves, a senior US State Department official has told IHS Jane’s, a UK publication that specializes in military and defense industry issues.
Kenneth Handelman, deputy assistant secretary of state for defense trade controls in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, said the United States was not currently selling weapons to Burma or Vietnam because of concerns over poor human rights conditions in both countries.
In the future, however, this could change as US policy toward both countries evolves and Washington continues its strategy of developing closer bilateral military ties with Asian Pacific nations, Handelman told Jane’s Defense Weekly on the sidelines of the Singapore Airshow earlier this month.
“We are starting down a long road with both these countries. If Myanmar or Vietnam ask us for a purchase through the Foreign Military Sale system or if they approach a US company and request a purchase through the direct commercial sale system, we are going to consider it. Every export license is like a small independent foreign policy decision,” he was quoted as saying.
Handelman stressed, nonetheless, that “human rights is a huge issue” when it comes to US approval for arms sales.
A spokesperson at the US Embassy in Rangoon said in reaction to the report that the comments on future arms sales to Burma “are of course speculative,” adding that current US policy is to “take a measured and calibrated approach to engagement with the Burmese military, which has been very limited thus far.
“Our goal is to promote the professionalization of the Burmese Armed Forces—and we define that to include accountability, civilian control, understanding of, and adherence to, international law, and the protection of human rights,” the embassy official said, adding that so far Burmese military leaders had attended three seminars organized by the US Defense Institute of International Legal Studies on human rights law and law of armed conflict.
“Any expansion beyond these types of engagements is contingent upon further progress on human rights, national unity, democratization, and severance of military ties to North Korea,” the official said. “We continue to be committed to maintaining sanctions on military-owned companies and preventing U.S. companies from payments to the military.”
The remarks by the US State Department’s Handelman could stir up controversy because of the Burmese military’s record of decades-long political repression, rights violations and brutal warfare against the country’s ethnic rebel groups. In 2011, a military junta made way for President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government, and next year Burma is scheduled to hold its first and free elections in decades.
Thein Sein’s government has introduced sweeping political reforms, released thousands of political prisoners, and signed ceasefires with more than a dozen rebel groups. Serious concerns remain, however, over the sizeable political powers of the Burma Army, which directly controls a quarter of Parliament, and ongoing rights abuses by the army in ethnic areas where conflict continues to fester.
The United States suspended its trade sanctions against Burma in 2012 but maintains an arms embargo that was first implemented in the mid-1990s. The European Union dropped its economic sanctions last year, but also keeps up an arms embargo, which it is expected to renew in April this year. The EU embargo covers arms, munitions and military hardware, and other equipment that might be used for internal repression.
Bertil Lintner, a veteran journalist who has written several books about Burma, said it came as no surprise that the United States desired closer defense ties with Burma as part of Washington’s strategy to seek regional allies and balance out China’s growing political and military clout.
He warned, however, that US arms sales to the military would be unpopular within Burma, where the army remains disliked by many groups in society because of its past record and current political power.
“Obviously, the US wants to include Myanmar and Vietnam in its ‘Asian pivot,’ which is aimed at containing the spread of Chinese influence in the region,” he wrote in an email.
“But if the US were to ease the arms embargo against Myanmar, not only the armed ethnic resistance groups would be opposed to such a move, but also Bamar opposition groups,” Lintner added, referring to the country’s majority ethnic Bamar people.
Both the United States and Britain have been seeking to strengthen military ties with Burma on the back of the reforms introduced by Thein Sein. London appointed a permanent military attaché at its Rangoon embassy last year and the UK chief of defense staff visited Burma in June 2013.
The London-based Campaign Against Arms Trade said Britain in January 2013 approved sales of US$5.3 million worth of “inertial equipment,” most likely technology that aids radar navigation systems, to Burma. Since 2008, it has sold Burma another $700,000 worth of defense equipment, mostly software, and measurement and navigation equipment, although one of the export licenses also included a bomb suit.
Andrew Smith, a spokesperson from Campaign Against Arms Trade, cautioned against any potential arms deals between Western governments and Burma. “[W]hen it comes to business the human rights usually often play second fiddle to the short term profits of the arms companies,” he wrote in an email Monday.
“In addition, Britain has been doing military training with the Burmese army, which concerns us greatly. When the west works with regimes like the one in Burma it is giving them moral, political and military support and increasing their international legitimacy.”
Over the past few decades, Russia and China were the main suppliers of military hardware, such as surface-to-air missiles, artillery and aircraft, to the isolated former junta, while Naypyidaw has also sought to buy missile technology and weapons from North Korea—much to the concern of the US government.