Can US-Burma Defense Ties Return Generals to the Barracks?

By Aung Zaw 21 December 2012

The Pentagon’s decision to open up military ties with the Burmese armed forces has come just weeks after US President Barack Obama visited the once-isolated nation.

American defense officials called the process “nascent steps” and the cooperation will include “non-lethal” training for Burmese officers focusing on humanitarian assistance, military medicine and defense “reform.”

“We’re looking at nascent steps on the US-Burmese military relationship. We generally support the proposition that carefully calibrated, appropriately targeted and scoped military-to-military contact is effective in advancing overall reform efforts in Burma,” the official said.

The speed of cooperation will surprise many Burma watchers, and indeed some have condemned US engagement with the former pariah nation as premature.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said that the United States has to be measured in its approach and cannot be seen to give too much legitimacy to Burma’s military or quasi-civilian government.

A Burmese scholar, who is close to high-ranking army officials, lamented that military-to-military engagement could boost the morale and legitimacy of the armed forces despite ongoing ethnic conflicts. Nevertheless, the scholar added that military cooperation with Burma is “the right thing to do.”

“They [Burmese government] have been waiting to engage with the US … [and] in the long run the armed forces must be seen as a professional army,” he said.

Tin Oo, a former commander-in-chief of the armed forces who co-founded the National League for Democracy with Aung San Suu Kyi, supports US-Burma military cooperation but cautioned that the main objective for generals is to protect the country and serve the people. He also wants to see the Burmese armed forces be professional and stay away from politics.

The irony is that four years ago the White House sent an aircraft carrier near to the Burmese coastline and insisted on conducting humanitarian operations in the Irrawaddy Delta in the wake of deadly Cyclone Nargis wreaking havoc in the region.

It is estimated that more than 130,000 people were killed while the ruling junta refused to allow a US-led international humanitarian operation access. The warships eventually left after the regime allowed US C-130 planes from Thai bases to land in Rangoon and deliver aid.

The junta’s newspapers slammed the United States and continued to carry critical reports regarding the quagmires that followed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. However, all this belongs to the history books. State-run media no longer carries anti-American rhetoric to ridicule the global superpower. The clear message is that Burma now wants to be friends.

Relations between the United States and Burma have warmed considerably since Thein Sein’s administration began a program of reform. However, this thawing is only a few weeks old whereas Thailand, a US non-NATO strategic ally, has more than a century of diplomatic ties.

Derek Mitchell, US ambassador to Burma, met high-ranking military officials including Commander-in Chief of the Armed Forces Vice-Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, a loyal follower of former junta supremo Snr-Gen Than Shwe. A US diplomatic source said that Min Aung Hlaing has expressed willingness to transform the armed forces and asked for assistance from the Pentagon.

A month before Obama’s visit, the first US-Burma Human Rights Dialogue was held in the new capital. The exchange was designed to promote human rights and the rule of law, according to State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. Lt-Gen Francis Wiercinski, the head of the US Army’s Pacific Command, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Vikram Singh also attended the meeting.

On the Burmese side, senior officials from the Defense Ministry, Suu Kyi and President’s Office Minister Aung Min, Naypyidaw’s chief peace negotiator with ethnic armed groups, were also present.

The United States subsequently invited Burma to be an observer at the annual Cobra Gold military exercise. Last year, around 10,000 US military personnel took part along with around 3,400 of their Thai counterparts. Five other countries participated—Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea—while nine others sent observers, including China.

In the past, Burmese generals treated the exercise with deep suspicion as they presumed it was directed against their military regime. But this is no longer the case.

With the wind of change blowing through Burma, various groups have called for increased military-to-military cooperation.

“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 Center for Strategic and International Studies report released this year.

But experience teaches us that such engagement must be delicately handled. Burma has sent military officers to Great Britain and the United States to receive training ever since it regained independence, and the results are plain to see.

Gen Kyaw Htin, commander-in-chief of the armed forces from 1977 to 1985, studied at the United States Army Command and General Staff College. Brig-Gen Tin Oo, also known as “MI Tin Oo,” was trained by the CIA and went on to run one of the most feared and effective military intelligence spy networks in Asia throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Lt-Gen Tun Kyi and Gen Nyan Linn, both members of State Law and Order Restoration Council that staged a brutal coup in 1988, and Col Aung Koe, who also once ran the military intelligence unit, all received US military training.

This time, however, any engagement should be markedly different from the Cold War era. Washington has repeatedly said that engagement is to promote human rights, democracy and national reconciliation inside the country.

This new package will focus on humanitarian assistance, military medicine and defense “reform,” insists the Pentagon. The training will be non-lethal. Let’s hope they keep this promise!

However, if we look outside Burma’s borders, engagement must be viewed in the context of the Obama administration’s strategic policy of a pivot towards Asia. This is part of a multilateral approach to the region—not to encircle rising China, Burma’s traditional ally and main arms supplier, but to make sure Beijing plays by the rules. In this approach, Burma is a key piece in the puzzle that is Washington’s broader engagement in the Asia-Pacific.

However, China is uneasy to see these growing US-Burma military ties.

“China, of course, detests America’s strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific, but there is nothing much we can do about it at this stage,” said Li Kaisheng, a professor of international politics at China’s Xiangtan University.

The Global Times, owned by the Chinese Communist Party, also reported that the US “nascent steps” towards military ties with Burma was a clear challenge to China’s dominant influence on the country.

Similarly, Prof. Michael Green, a former National Security Council Director, recently told Georgetown Journal of International Affairs that Washington’s engagement in Burma has deepened suspicions in Beijing.

“…maybe we ought to look at Burma narrative with China and work together to help their development because it’s been framed and viewed in Beijing as an effort by the US to steal a client state from China and then turn it against Beijing,” he said.

However, he added that China’s fears were unfounded. “It’s just not that simple and it’s not in fact what we’re about. So, they have allowed the symbolism to look like containment too much.”

To sum up, Burma will continue to forge closer relations with China but also wants to expand its relations with the West, and especially the United States, in order to build a stronger nation.

Naypyidaw desires to be an independent rather than dependent ally of China. To aid this goal, Burma’s engagement with Washington will likely increase with a view to balancing out Beijing’s current domin ance. This is no simple task, however.

In the long run, the US will have to measure and embark on a “carefully calibrated, appropriately targeted and scoped military-to-military contact” policy, according to a defense official. Providing lethal training and weapons to Burma will no doubt sully the engagement process in the eyes of the world.

As Thitinan Pongsudhirak remarked, military-to-military cooperation should not be about providing instruction and arms, but instead engaging enough to convince future generations of military leaders that the proper place for generals remains in the barracks, not in politics.