Britain Preparing ‘Political’ Training for Burma Army

By Mark Inkey 2 October 2013

Britain is finalizing the details of military assistance that will see 30 high-ranking officers in the Burma Army receive specially tailored training, including instruction on how to operate within the rule of law, the head of a UK training center said.

During an official visit to London by President Thein Sein in July, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the country would begin engaging with the Burma Army. The aim of cooperation, Hague said at the time, was to try to foster accountability and respect for human rights in the Burmese military, which only handed power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011 but remains influential.

The 30 officers of the Burma Army, known as the Tatmadaw, are set to attend a course in January. The training is jointly run by Cranfield University and the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, and will take place in Burma.

Laura Cleary, the head of the Centre of International Security and Resilience at Cranfield University, is in charge of the course.

“The request came from Aung San Suu Kyi for education to be delivered for the security forces within Burma. The decision was taken within the UK government to deliver this particular course,” Cleary told the Irrawaddy.

The course, entitled “Managing Defence in the Wider Security Context,” has been running since the early 2000s, she said. Since then more than 4,200 military personnel from 147 countries have received the training, which is run 12 times a year abroad and once a year in the UK.

“The target audience has been and will remain states that are post-conflict or post-authoritarian,” Cleary said. “We are working with countries that are making that difficult transition to democracy and undergoing security sector reform.”

The course for the Tatmadaw will be made up of two-weeks of bespoke training for the officers, taught through Burmese-speaking translators.

The course is designed for army decision makers, so is only open to officers of the rank of lieutenant colonel and brigadier or equivalent. The soldiers will be taught by a team of four consisting of academics and serving British Army officers.

The exact details of the course are yet to be finalized, Cleary said.

“We are currently in discussions with the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence to identify the appropriate topics,” she said.

As well as the UK, The United States and Australia have also said they want to begin military assistance to Burma’s military. Critics say the West’s reengagement is coming too soon, and may provide legitimacy to Burma’s military, which is still engaged in fighting armed ethnic groups.

Cleary told The Irrawaddy the British course would contain no offensive military content.

“The purpose of this engagement is to encourage the Burmese military to normalize their role within society to improve the respect for human rights and enhance the governance of those security forces,” she said.

“It’s not tactical. It’s strategic, it’s political. We are not teaching people how to fire a rifle or drive a tank. We are seeking to help them better understand when military force is appropriate and when it is absolutely not appropriate.

“We are looking at aspects of governance so we’re looking at accountability, oversight, operating within what we would term the rule of law.”

Cleary said the purpose of the course was to show the Burmese Army how they could improve rather than tell them what to do.

“My role as an academic is to encourage individuals to analyze what they are doing, identify where they are making mistakes and take their own decisions,” she said.

“We will not succeed if we simply say you should do it this way. We have to couch the conversation in terms of: there is a better way of doing it; there is a better way of providing security.”

Cleary said Britain’s Foreign Office would be closely monitoring the course and that the training would be subject to the British Government’s Overseas Security and Justice Assistance human rights guidance.

Providing all goes well, the British Government sees this as the first in a series of educational courses for the Burma Army.

“One two-week educational intervention is not going to change the world. Hopefully repeated engagement over a sustained period of time with different audiences within the society will effect change,” Cleary said.

The military training is only one small part of Britain’s aid plan for Burma.

“The British Government has a range of tools at its disposal through which it seeks to engage with various countries. No one tool will open the door in any country, it is a combination,” Cleary said.

“There is a broader strategy for Burma and we are one element of implementation of that strategy.”

A British military attaché will also start working at the embassy in Rangoon from this October to help with relations between the countries’ military forces. Britain is also keen to get UK companies investing in Burma.

Mark Farmaner—the director of Burma Campaign UK, who disputed that Aung San Suu Kyi had advised Britain to provide the training—said it was useless trying to reform a military that has committed numerous abuses over years of military rule and in the ongoing conflicts with ethnic armed groups.

“The way to improve the Burmese Army is for soldiers to be jailed for committing human rights abuses, and for their commanders to be jailed when they order soldiers to commit them,” he said.