US Maintains Block on Military Assistance to Burma

By Samantha Michaels 4 October 2013

RANGOON — Following pledges to enhance military ties with Burma, the United States has maintained a block on military assistance to President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government for its use of child soldiers in armed conflict, US officials said on Thursday.

Burma is one of five countries that will not receive US military assistance in 2014 under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA), which places restrictions on security assistance and commercial licensing of military equipment for governments found to use child soldiers.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the sanctions would affect Burma, Rwanda, Central African Republic, Sudan and Syria.

The CSPA requires the United States to identify countries whose government armed forces or government-supported armed groups recruit and use child soldiers. Ten countries were identified on the 2013 list, published in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.

Harf said President Barack Obama on Tuesday waived in full or in part the restrictions on military assistance for five countries on the list this year—including Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen—while deciding not to waive the restrictions for the rest, including Burma.

Restrictions will apply in the 2014 fiscal year and prohibit assistance through International Military Education and Training (IMET), which helps train foreign militaries, as well as Foreign Military Financing (FMF), which funds the sale of US military material and services.

When asked why Burma did not receive a waiver, Harf said “steps are being taken … to begin to address the child soldiers issue in Burma.”

“In 2012, the government of Burma signed a child soldiers action plan with the UN, which had been under negotiation for more than five years,” she told reporters in Washington on Thursday, according to a press briefing transcript on the State Department website. “So we’ll continue to raise this issue diplomatically with the Burmese government.”

While some sanctioned countries including Rwanda were earlier slated to receive a small amount of IMET and FMF funding, Harf said she did not believe that Burma received such assistance.

Burma has been on the CSPA list since 2009, when the US law went into effect.

Since Thein Sein’s reformist government came to power in 2011, the United States has lifted nearly all of its economic sanctions on Burma as a reward for political reforms, but it has kept an embargo on arms sales, amid ongoing accusations of rights abuses by Burma’s armed forces.

However, the Obama administration has indicated that it wants to resume nonlethal defense training and assistance for Burma. The United States cut military assistance after the Burmese military junta brutally cracked down on pro-democracy protesters in 1988.

In the eight years prior to 1988, the United States reportedly financed US$4.7 million in military sales to Burma and trained 167 officers at US military schools, according to the Associated Press.

Amid ongoing political and economic reforms, the Obama administration has expressed a desire to improve military-to-military relations with Burma to encourage a more professional armed forces. US defense legal experts visited the Southeast Asian nation in August for the second time in two months to consider possibilities of offering training on human rights and rule of law. US Ambassador Derek Mitchell also met with the chief of Burma’s military, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, in Naypyidaw to discuss legal practices in military combat.

Despite reassurances that any assistance would be gradual and nonlethal, the idea of enhancing military ties has met with resistance from some US lawmakers and activists who caution against granting international legitimacy to a Burmese military that continues to use child soldiers and has displaced more than 100,000 civilians over the past two years in clashes with non-state armed groups.

The US Embassy in Rangoon could not be reached on Friday to comment on how the military assistance restrictions in 2014 would affect US efforts to enhance military ties with Burma.

The Burma military was notorious under the former regime for recruiting child soldiers to wage wars over several decades against non-state armed groups in ethnic states. Thein Sein’s administration has sought to clean up the military’s image by discharging dozens of underage soldiers. In August, the Burmese military erected an eye-catching billboard in downtown Rangoon to promote a “No Child Soldiers” campaign.

The military discharged 68 child soldiers in August, according to the United Nations, and in July it released 42 children and young adults who were recruited for soldiering and other duties.

However, new cases of child soldiers continue to be reported. In August, around the same time the billboard went up in Rangoon, two families in the city publicly alleged at a press conference that the military had recruited two of their children.