As Thein Sein Visits White House, Calls for Caution on US Military Ties

By Andrew D. Kaspar 20 May 2013

Burmese President Thein Sein’s White House visit on Monday attests to the dramatic changes in Naypyidaw’s relationship with Washington, as links once unimaginable are discussed—including potential partnerships between the Pentagon and a Burmese military that critics say is hardly deserving.

While there has been no official indication that any formal military-to-military ties will be forged this week, US officials and a growing chorus of pro-engagement voices have broached the subject as Thein Sein’s reformist government continues to redefine perceptions of the former pariah state.

It’s a question that divides human rights activists and advocates of Burma’s transition to democracy. Even programs centered on providing soldiers with basic human rights training are viewed by some as rewarding a military, known as the Tatmadaw, which continues to commit rights abuses on a systemic level.

“Perception is reality, and if the US military is seen as hobnobbing with the Burmese military, any vestiges of trust that the US government has with the Burmese people, especially ethnic communities and political activists, will be irrevocably damaged,” said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, the Southeast Asia director of Freedom House, a US-based NGO that promotes democracy and political freedom.

“It is quite shocking to us in the human rights community that the US [government] has such a short memory when it comes to the decades-long atrocities of the Tatmadaw. Leopards don’t change their spots—and they certainly don’t change them overnight.”

Most rights advocates agree that if there is to be any military-to-military relationship, its scope should be initially limited.

Engagement could take a number of forms. According to Ret Lt-Gen Wallace “Chip” Gregson, a former assistant secretary of defense, there are 15 US programs that work with Washington’s foreign military counterparts. They range from providing English-language instruction to military leaders to allowing US taxpayer-funded arms sales to recipient countries via the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program.

One of the more high-profile and controversial initiatives is the International Military and Education Training (IMET), a joint program of the US departments of state and defense that offers education and technical training to military personnel from more than 120 countries.

Burma received IMET assistance beginning in 1980, but the program was pulled following the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy student protesters in 1988.

Educating soldiers on human rights is one of the primary stated aims of the IMET program, though a 2011 report from a US accountability agency found that rights training was not sufficiently emphasized in recipient countries with restricted political freedoms.

Hard Lessons in Indonesia

Indonesia is one such recipient of IMET funding. Like Burma today, Indonesia in the late 1990s faced the arduous task of democratization after decades of military rule. Ethnic insurgencies also plagued that archipelago’s peripheries.

The United States engaged with the Indonesian military for much of the regime’s existence, but scaled assistance back significantly following a 1991 massacre of civilians by Indonesian armed forces wielding US-supplied guns. It withdrew completely from military-to-military engagement in 1999 after Indonesian troops ran rampant in a newly independent East Timor, killing more than 1,000 people.

Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher, said that in considering involvement with Burma’s army, the United States should draw on its experience in Indonesia, where he accuses Washington of prioritizing its own interests ahead of its values in resuming military ties.

“There should be conditions and very serious measures to improve rule of law and respect for human rights and fighting against impunity in Indonesia,” Harsono said. “What the US has done [in Indonesia] is not enough, far from enough.”

Still, Harsono said it was “hugely important for the Burmese regime to resume military ties with the world’s militarily strongest nation,” with initial forays into some of the education programs centered on human rights and accountability systems.

With cases like Indonesia reminding policy makers of the potential liabilities of military-to-military engagement, Lex Rieffel, a Southeast Asia specialist at the US-based Brookings Institution, said initial engagement with Burma may not be rolled out with fanfare.

“What will be more important than what is announced is what is agreed on but NOT announced,” he wrote in an e-mail. “There is a lot of good mil-mil work that can be done as long as it stays below the radar.”

The potential liabilities are significant at this early stage of Burma’s reform process, as the
Tatmadaw is widely accused of ongoing rights abuses despite the government’s reform efforts.
In a report released last month, HRW accused the army of complicity if not active participation in a series of “coordinated attacks on Muslim neighborhoods and villages in October 2012 to terrorize and forcibly relocate the population.”

The report said security forces, including Tatmadaw troops, “stood by and did nothing to provide security for attacked Muslims and at times participated directly in the atrocities” in western Burma’s Arakan State.

Rioting in March again pitted minority Muslims against Buddhists in central Burma, killing 43 people and displacing thousands, mostly Muslims. The military was criticized for dragging its feet in that bout of violence, as forces only managed to restore order after three days of clashes in the town of Meikthila.

The United Nations said in a report earlier this month that the Tatwadaw continued to conscript child soldiers, with at least 770 cases of child recruitment between April 2009 and February this year, as well as attacks on schools, child abductions and rape.

A series of clashes in Shan State last month also brought allegations that Tatmadaw troops were in violation of a ceasefire signed with ethnic rebel groups last year.

The ongoing rights abuses come as no surprise to Rieffel.

“Reforming a national military establishment as powerful and entrenched as the Tatmadaw is very hard,” he said. “To be perceived internationally as being on a par with the military in the Philippines or Vietnam today is likely to take more than one generation.”

Despite the potential political blowback, the United States has already taken tentative steps to re-engage with the military. In October last year a US military delegation visited Naypyidaw, and in February two Tatmadaw officers were permitted to observe an annual military exercise sponsored jointly by the United States and Thailand. It was the first time the operation, known as Cobra Gold, hosted representatives of Burma’s armed forces.

This re-engagement comes amid a broader US “pivot” to the Asia Pacific over the last few years that has seen Washington ramp up economic, diplomatic and military ties in the region. Those efforts, including the establishment last year of a permanent Marines presence at an Australian base in Darwin, are widely viewed as intended to keep a rising China in check.

‘Sending a Message’

Jennifer Quigley, executive director of the US Campaign for Burma, said she believed that with a recent push by US congressional representatives, the Obama administration had backed away from any significant plans to re-engage with Burma’s military at this time.

In one recent letter from a trio of US lawmakers to a key appropriations subcommittee, the cosigners insisted that any IMET or FMF aid would require Burma to meet several preconditions. Among other requirements, aid would be tied to the revision of Burma’s 2008 Constitution to ensure civilian control of the military, and to “meaningful and well-documented efforts to promote peace agreements or political reconciliation in conflict areas.”

Like Harsono and the US lawmakers, Quigley urged a conditional re-engagement.

“We see a breakdown of ceasefires, we don’t see the Burmese military getting better, and it’s about time the US government actually sends a message that they do actually have to reform if they are going to gain something from the US government,” she told The Irrawaddy.

“We think it’s completely unacceptable to have mil-to-mil relations while they [the Tatmadaw] are still attacking the Kachin,” she added, referring to the ongoing conflict in Kachin State. The government has signed ceasefires with 10 of the country’s 11 major ethnic armed groups, but a peace deal in Burma’s northernmost state has proven elusive.

Though military-to-military engagement carries particular sensitivities, it fits into a larger debate over whether the West’s normalization of relations with Burma is moving at an appropriate pace. That question, too, elicits widely divergent viewpoints.

“The Myanmar security forces need to change and adapt to [the] new political environment as the country continues its long transition. They need all sorts of help to do that from the international community,” Jim Della-Giacoma, the Asia program director at the International Crisis Group, told The Irrawaddy. “Threatening, isolating and ostracizing them is not necessarily the best way to help them change quicker and for the better.”