US Says Military Engagement Key for Burma Reform

By Matthew Pennington 26 February 2014

WASHINGTON — The appointee to become the top US defense official for Asia said Tuesday engagement with the Burmese military is crucial for democratic reform in the Southeast Asian nation.

David Shear said in congressional testimony that without support from Burma’s military, the transition to democracy “will likely falter.”

But State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki also said Tuesday the US is not considering resumption of arms sales that were stopped after a bloody military crackdown on democracy protesters in 1988.

“The US is not considering lifting the arms embargo on Myanmar,” she told reporters.

The United States and other Western nations have rapidly eased economic and political sanctions against the nation as its government has initiated reforms after five decades of military rule.

The US has retained stiff restrictions on military engagement, however, although it’s begun dialogue on human rights and military law, hoping to encourage reforms within the military itself.

“I would characterize engagement with the Burmese military as crucial to the overall success of the ongoing reform movement in Burma,” Shear said, adding that the Pentagon should move ahead with “calibrated and conditional engagement.”

Congressional opposition to expansion of even nonlethal cooperation because of allegations of continuing human rights abuses by Burmese forces remains a constraint on what the Obama administration can do.

Shear, who has served most recently as ambassador to Vietnam, said the US should be “clear-eyed” about the Burmese military’s poor rights record and history of dominating politics and the economy. Any expansion of defense ties requires progress on democratization, human rights and ending military trade with North Korea, he said.

Shear, was responding in writing to questions posed for his Senate confirmation to become assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs. The Senate must approve his appointment.