US Training of Burma’s Military Could Help Democratization: David Steinberg

By The Irrawaddy 13 September 2016

The Irrawaddy speaks with veteran Burma scholar David Steinberg about burgeoning US-Burma relations, an anticipated easing of US sanctions, and the prospect of military-to-military engagement between the two countries.

Some say that policy changes by the United States towards Myanmar in recent years were the result of an expanding Chinese role in the country and the region. What do you think?

I think the Obama engagement with Myanmar did not start because of China. The junta sent signals that they were interested in change and the Obama administration recognized that the previous [Clinton–Bush] administrations’ policy of regime change through sanctions had essentially failed. So there was a mutuality of interests, but the Obama administration was constrained from going too far by the Congress. So high-level contacts were started but the sanctions remained, essentially because of US internal political considerations.

I think China figured into the picture only later… but the US recognized that Myanmar must continue to have good relations with China. Certainly China was worried about too great a role for the US in Myanmar, but I do not think this will happen, and I think that Myanmar will have a balanced foreign policy with China, the US, the European Union, India, Japan, and of course Asean. Myanmar needs good relations with China to solve the ethnic issues in the north, but China needs Myanmar for investments, markets, access to the Indian Ocean, etc.

The whole concept of the “pivot” or “rebalancing” of the US in East Asia is nothing new, and came two years after improvements in Myanmar relations. I have been lecturing and writing for years that the US policy in that region has been a constant for about 150 years: to prevent the rise of any hegemonic power in the region, e.g. the open-door policy in China in the 19th century, the Washington Naval Treaty with Japan in the early 1920s, World War II in the Pacific, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the US foreign aid program, etc. I think the US does not want any one power—China at the moment—to dominate the region.

There is disagreement over the appropriateness of improved US-Myanmar military relations. What is your view?

I would like to see better US relations with the Myanmar military and the reintroduction of the International Military Education & Training (IMET) program for non-lethal training. I think that arms sales should not resume at this time. But training is important and I believe it is wanted by the Myanmar military. Some human rights groups say that it should not resume until true democracy is in evidence. But democracy is a goal that has never completely been achieved (even in the US); and training should be a means to help the process of democratization along. The Myanmar military must feel comfortable in both its internal political and external relations.

 What is the likelihood of any new US administration changing its policies?

I hope any new US administration will continue its positive engagement with Myanmar. One of the few positive elements of the Obama administration’s East Asia policy has been relations with Myanmar. Hillary Clinton would continue that. Myanmar is not (yet) on Donald Trump’s agenda, but he would have little to gain by changing US policy and engagement. The present US ambassador is a seasoned, careful, and thoughtful representative of the US who is well aware of the dangers of an inappropriate attempt to be domineering.

Will Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s US trip result in the removal of remaining sanctions?

Sanctions could be removed if she said they were no longer appropriate. Some are congressionally mandated and others imposed by the executive branch.  But it seems she wants them as potential leverage against the military, should they stop the reform process. I think it would be wiser to try to reassure the military that the broad goals of the state are mutually shared. The National League for Democracy and the Tatmadaw [Burmese military] need to collaborate to be effective. Mutual trust, including among the ethnic groups, is essential, and is presently lacking.

I have never believed that it is appropriate for US foreign policy toward any country to be effectively determined by a person in that country, whether that person is the British prime minister, the president of any state, or in the case of Myanmar—a Burmese.  Yet Aung San Suu Kyi effectively determined US policy toward Myanmar until well into President Obama’s first term. She still, I believe, exerts a strong influence but no longer plays the only dominant role. But if she told the Congress that sanctions were an impediment both to development and to better governance, they would likely go along.

There are cronies and others still on the US sanctions list. Should they remain on it?

There is a lot of talk about cronies. The term, in my memory, came about through Philippine President Marcos’ buddies, who were ineffective as well as venal. I am sure there are “cronies” in Myanmar and plenty of illegal activities that benefited a few with access to power. But let us remember that President Park Chung Hee’s “cronies” in South Korea in the military government period of the 1960s-1970s were the guys who founded Hyundai, Daewoo, LG, etc. I am sure they were given extra-legal opportunities. I am not justifying their past roles, but simply trying to say that the pejorative term “cronies” should be carefully used. In both cases a free press was lacking and civil society censored. That situation no longer applies to Myanmar.

I think US firms would partner with the cronies of Myanmar with danger, because public opinion both here and there would complain. That is what a free press is all about. The Myanmar legal system has to come to terms with these people, and it would be a test of the independence of the judiciary (so obviously lacking for more than half a century) to begin to deal with these issues. In other words, the media and civil society in Myanmar have essential roles to play to ensure that justice is done. Foreign intervention in the highly nationalistic environment of Myanmar is both dangerous and likely to be ineffective, and denigrates the capacity of the people of Myanmar to address their own problems. It denies the dignity that the people of Myanmar deserve.

David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, Georgetown University. His latest book as editor is “Myanmar: The Dynamics of an Evolving Polity.”