Ethnic Minorities Question US-Burma Military Ties

By Htet Naing Zaw 21 August 2014

RANGOON — As the United States insists that military engagement with Burma is crucial to promote political reforms, human rights activists and ethnic minorities are raising some questions.

Among them: Who will take responsibility if US assistance to Burma’s armed forces is used to oppress, rather than help, the Burmese people?

Tom Malinowski, the US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, met with the commander-in-chief of the Burmese military during his visit to Naypyidaw in June. Washington has repeatedly sought to assure critics that military engagement in Burma would not involve training of combat forces or the exchange of weaponry systems, but would instead focus on promoting respect for human rights and professionalism.

But ethnic minorities in Burma, who have for several decades been the victims of brutal military campaigns, are not so convinced. Thirteen ethnic groups from Shan State sent a letter to the US Consulate in Thailand’s Chiang Mai last month, saying they believed US military engagement in the country was premature.

“What if ethnicities are attacked with US-provided technologies? That’s the question,” said Khun Htun Oo, a prominent Shan leader, adding that the uncertainty of Burmese politics was reason for caution.

“We don’t even know what will happen in 2015. We don’t know whether the election will be free and fair. Now, proportional representation (PR) is being debated and we don’t know how things will develop.”

Khon Ja, an activist from the Kachin Peace Network, also opposes US-Burma military engagement, saying she wonders what will happen if the Burmese army does not follow ethical rules after undergoing training, especially if the United States does not continue to monitor it.

During half a century of dictatorship, the military committed more rights abuses than the Burmese government, said Cherry Zahau, an ethnic Chin human rights activist. “There is no consensus in regards to how to engage with the Burmese military, which keeps on committing human rights abuses,” she said.

The military has signed bilateral ceasefires with most ethnic armed groups since 2012, but over the past three years clashes in northern Burma have left more than 100,000 people displaced.

The Chin activist accused the United States of strengthening ties with the Burmese military not to further political reforms, but due to the geopolitical importance of Burma for US national security.

“The military has continuously been a hindrance to reforms. It has impeded the progress by waging battles. It is ridiculous that [the US] says it’s engaging with the Burmese military to encourage reforms,” she said.

Because the United States is a mature democracy and a superpower, Mya Aye from the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society says he believes US mentorship for the Burmese military would not be problematic, if the focus was on preventing further rights abuses.

“US’s military ties with Burma could help build democracy in Burma, but only when it takes the human rights situation in the country into consideration,” he said.