Ethnic Groups Concerned Over US, UK Military Engagement With Burma

By Nyein Nyein 30 April 2014

CHIANG MAI — Kachin rebel leader Gen. Gun Maw said ethnic rebels groups have doubts about US and UK military engagement with the Burma Army, as the military has yet to prove that it will end its oppression of the country’s ethnic minorities and democratic opposition.

Gun Maw said ethnic armed groups understand that Western military support for Burmese military focuses on changing the mindset and behavior of the army and excludes combat skills training, but he stressed that concerns remain over any type of engagement that bolsters the army’s capabilities in their ongoing fight against rebel groups.

“If these skills development [programs] enhance their [Burma Army’s] combat ability and affect the ethnics, we, the ethnics, would have to speak out loud about it,” he told The Irrawaddy in an interview after a meeting of the ethnic alliance’s Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Tuesday.

“There is no fixed rule that the specific technical support can only be used for specific affairs,” the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) deputy commander-in-chief noted.

Gun Maw recently returned from a 12-day visit to the US, becoming the first Kachin leader to make an official visit and meet high-levels officials such as US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski, as well as US Congressmen and members of the Kachin community in America.

The KIA and an armed Palaung group, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), are the only two ethnic groups that have yet to sign a bilateral ceasefire with Naypyidaw. In recent months, the Burma Army has stepped up military operations in Kachin and northern Shan State and has engaged in deadly clashes with both groups and the Shan State Army-North.

Reports of human rights abuses against ethnic civilians, including rape, are being reported during current operations. Naypyidaw has insisted that, despite the offensive, it is committed to signing a nationwide ceasefire with all major ethnic groups soon.

Since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took over from a military regime in 2011, the international community has quickly reengaged with Burma. Last year, defense ministries of the United States and the United Kingdom began direct cooperation with the Burma Army, which controls a strategically located country long considered under the influence of China.

Gun Maw said ethnic groups feared that expanding Western military-to-military engagement could, in the near future, enhance the Burma Army’s combat skills, while US engagement appears to offer international support for the army even before it has reformed its military operations and long-standing goal of stamping out ethnic ambitions for political autonomy.

The military also continues to have sweeping political powers through the 2008 Constitution that it drew up—a charter widely considered undemocratic and reviled by the Burmese public.

“This makes it difficult for us to give an answer on whether or not we should support such international military engagement,” he said, adding that he discussed these concerns with US officials and lawmakers during his visit.

Gun Maw said Washington should do more to clarify its engagement with the army towards the Burmese public, who could be led to believe that the “Burmese officials are right and that’s why a powerful country, the United States, supports them.

“Local people do not know about this situation, that’s why the United States should be clear about their support [for the military].”

After a senior US State Department official was quoted as saying in February that Washington would consider future arms sales to Burma, US officials were at pains to stress that the military cooperation so far only concerned training Burmese officers in increasing professionalism and respect for human rights. Considerations of any other type of support, the US Embassy said, were “speculative.”

The UK has appointed a permanent military attaché at its Rangoon embassy last year and the UK chief of defense staff visited Burma in June 2013.

The London-based Campaign Against Arms Trade said Britain in January 2013 approved sales of US$5.3 million worth of “inertial equipment,” most likely technology that aids radar navigation systems, to Burma. Since 2008, it has sold Burma another $700,000 worth of defense equipment, mostly software, and measurement and navigation equipment, although one of the export licenses also included a bomb suit.

Before the military’s bloody crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising, the US offered generous support to Gen. Ne Win’s military government, which was one of the few non-Communist regimes in Asia during much of the Cold War.

From the 1970s onward, the US provided military support for Burma’s anti-narcotics campaign, including the sale of a fleet of Bell 205 helicopters and M 16 automatic rifles, and the helicopters were reportedly used in combat offensives against ethnic groups. During the same period, Burma’s feared spy agency received training from the US Central Intelligence Agency.

After the crackdown in 1988, however, the US halted shipments of military equipment to Burma and stopped providing CIA training, forcing the junta to turn to China, which became the regime’s most important military and political ally.