A lot has changed for Myanmar’s Tatmadaw, or armed forces, since it formally handed over power to a nominally civilian government in 2011, but there is little doubt in anybody’s mind that it remains a force to be reckoned with. That’s why foreign governments that once treated the country’s former junta as a pariah are now lining up to restore military ties after more than two decades.
What we still don’t know, however, is how far the Tatmadaw itself is willing to go to change its ways after half a century of almost total control over the country. This is a question that looms large not only for countries that hope to improve relations, but also for Myanmar’s people.
In August, the US ambassador to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, acknowledged the continuing importance of the Tatmadaw when he appeared at a press conference alongside visiting US Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes. “This is an absolutely critical institution in the country and has been for 50 years,” said the top US diplomat, explaining why his country wants to establish a regular dialogue with the Tatmadaw.
But simply going back to the days of providing military assistance and training, as the US did until the Tatmadaw crushed a pro-democracy uprising in 1988, is not enough, the ambassador added. “We need to get new ideas into that institution because they have been operating on old ideas that haven’t seemed to work very well for the country,” he said.
One major obstacle facing any attempt to upgrade US-Myanmar military relations is the Tatmadaw’s recruitment of child soldiers, a problem that has existed for decades. Myanmar is one of five countries that will not receive US military assistance in 2014 under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which places restrictions on security assistance and commercial licensing of military equipment for governments found to recruit underage soldiers.
Despite this issue, however, Mr. Mitchell (who once served in the Pentagon) and other high-ranking US officials have made a point of meeting with Tatmadaw leaders, including Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing—no doubt mindful of the fact that Myanmar is strategically located between China and India, and therefore important to regional stability.
Some, however, are not happy with the West’s moves to engage the Tatmadaw, arguing that it is still too early to tell if Myanmar’s military is really serious about ending human rights abuses, especially in ethnic areas where conflict with armed groups continues.
To counter such objections, the US government, which last year allowed Myanmar to send a team of observers to its Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand, has said that its initial engagement with the Tatmadaw would focus on humanitarian issues, officer professionalization and human rights.
Meanwhile, the UK is said to be finalizing the details of military assistance that will see 30 high-ranking Tatmadaw officers 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 U Thein Sein in July, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the country would begin engaging with the Tatmadaw. The aim of cooperation, Mr. Hague said at the time, was to try to foster accountability and respect for human rights in Myanmar’s armed forces.
According to Dr. Laura Cleary, the head of the Centre of International Security and Resilience at England’s Cranfield University and the person in charge of the course, the request for the training came from none other than Myanmar opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
On March 27, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi attended the Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw for the first time, signaling a thaw in her relationship with the Tatmadaw, which was founded by her father, independence hero Gen Aung San. According to military sources, she has also expressed a desire to meet with Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing and other senior military leaders to discuss ways to “help” the armed forces.
What this means is not exactly clear, but it is probably related to her oft-expressed desire to rehabilitate the Tatmadaw in the eyes of Myanmar’s people, who have long regarded the military as an oppressive, rather than defensive, force.
While international engagement alone will likely do little to restore faith in Myanmar’s men in uniform, Dr. Cleary believes that the generals can be taught to earn the respect that they have long since lost through their often brutal mistreatment of the civilian population.
“The purpose of this engagement is to encourage the [Myanmar] military to normalize their role within society to improve 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.”
This story was originally published in the November 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.