US-Burma Military Ties ‘Would Push Reform’

By Charlie Campbell 12 September 2012

The United States should engage with Burma’s armed forces, collaborate with China and further roll back sanctions to enhance reforms, urges a leading think-tank.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) visited Burma in August to explore the current political, economic and social transformation enacted by President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government and reported that greater regional engagement was needed including joint military exercises.

“If the military continues to support the transition to civilian rule and observes ceasefires in ethnic minority areas, the United States should begin to consider joint military exercises with the Myanmar armed forces and provide selected Myanmar officers access to US International Military Education and Training opportunities in US defense academies,” read a CSIS report on the trip released on Wednesday.

The Washington-based think-tank encouraged President Barack Obama to meet with both Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi when they visit the United States this month. Economic sanctions on imports from Burma should also be rolled back while assistance programs by international financial institutions must receive immediately support.

“Myanmar’s government, opposition leaders, civil society groups and business leaders all emphasized that there is an urgency and immediacy around the process of change in their country,” said the CSIS.

“The United States should be aware that there are important, perhaps even historic, opportunities to promote and support reform. It needs also to be aware of substantial threats to reform and transparency.”

While admitting that real change is underway in the former pariah state, the CSIS denied that excessive dependence on China was a primary motivation for military leaders to pursue reform and, conversely, a proactive policy of consultation with China could help mitigate concerns in Beijing.

“In fact, the group’s interlocutors stressed China’s role as a traditional neighbor and encouraged the United States to avoid zero-sum policies toward China,” continued the report.

“Given China’s long near-monopoly on political ties, military sales and trade with Myanmar during the decades of military rule, the country’s rapidly warming ties with the United States are being greeted with suspicion in China and are stoking fears about imagined US containment efforts.”

In fact, the CSIS claims that it was the generals’ damaged pride over Burma’s economic failings and fatigue with running the country in the wake of the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” democracy protests and subsequent violent crackdown that prompted the current wave of democratization.

“Describing Than Shwe as a wily political manipulator, informed observers speculated that he sought to diffuse power to avoid a Ceaușescu-style uprising in the wake of the Arab Spring and to safeguard his inner circle’s perquisites once safely in retirement,” said the report, referring to former Romanian communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu who was overthrown and executed in 1989.

The CSIS said that economic growth in post-sanctions Burma could be rapid considering the military-dominated nation’s geostrategic position at the “crossroads of China, India and Southeast Asia,” yet a lack of expertise and experience could jeopardize reforms along with ongoing ethnic conflicts—as well as the Rohingya crisis in western Burma’s Arakan State.

“Two years ago, the notion of ‘federalism’ was considered a dirty word by the government. Today government officials have begun to talk openly about the concept, although they leave it undefined,” said the think-tank. “The [CSIS] delegation heard considerable goodwill toward the ethnic groups from senior officials, but so far much of their attention is focused on ceasefires, which history suggests is not enough to resolve long-standing differences.”

Civil society activists emphasized to the CSIS that it was vital to build support for reform and institutionalize change in the run-up to the 2015 general election while building confidence within the military with a view to eventually altering undemocratic articles in the widely-condemned 2008 Constitution.

“Government officials, including representatives of the Ministry of Defense, said they expected the military planned to gradually cede its grip on 25 percent of the seats in Parliament as is now mandated in the Constitution,” read the report.

“Officials frequently cited the Indonesia model where the military gradually gave up the protected seats it had in the Parliament following the 1998 toppling of President Suharto. In Myanmar, military members of Parliament do not always vote as a bloc and end up sometimes supporting the opposition as many did on a recent proposal requiring that parliamentarians should declare their assets.”

Meanwhile, despite expressing disapproval with the manner in which their country’s name was changed from Burma to Myanmar, opposition figures told the CSIS group that “the country should be called Myanmar unless and until the people of Myanmar change the name in the future.”