CFR Presents

Asia Unbound

CFR experts give their take on the cutting-edge issues emerging in Asia today.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


What David Petraeus Should Ask in Myanmar

by Joshua Kurlantzick
February 13, 2012

U.S. officials announced last week that CIA director David Petraeus may visit Myanmar this year. U.S. officials announced last week that CIA director David Petraeus may visit Myanmar this year. (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters)


Last week it was reported that Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus likely would be traveling to Myanmar to meet with senior officials there. His visit would follow that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as those of several other senior State Department officials and a bevy of prominent businesspeople, non-governmental organizations, international aid organizations, and other prominent world leaders, including the foreign minister of France.

Petraeus, and the Agency more generally, has a lot to potentially gain in Myanmar, even if, as I noted before, some signs of political reforms in the country may be ebbing. Some key areas Petraeus should focus on:

  • What is the Burmese military doing at a mountain called Naung Laing, in Myanmar’s north? As the Sydney Morning Herald and other news outlets have reported, the military has for several years been apparently burrowing a secret complex into this mountain. Why? Given the military’s previous attempts to import civilian nuclear technology from Russia, buy a special device for ballistic missile production, and other rumors of nuclear and missile efforts, it is critical to get a better understanding of exactly what is going on at this bunker facility. If the Myanmar government is really serious, as it says, about not having any nuclear intentions, it should be open to discussing this facility.
  • What is the size and budget of Myanmar’s military? Although the new civilian government has become more transparent in many areas, the military budget remains a highly-guarded secret, as the armed forces have numerous secret, special funds that no one can track. Where does this money come from? Does it come directly from revenues from offshore petroleum? Who handles it? What is it used for?
  • What is the government’s long-term strategy regarding the United Wa State Army? The most powerful of the ethnic armies in Myanmar, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) remains one of the biggest narcotraffickers in the world. Even if a cease-fire is turned into some kind of more permanent peace with the UWSA, how does it plan to wean the UWSA — and businesspeople in Myanmar who have worked with it —off drugs production, which is enormously lucrative, fuelling the methamphetamine trade throughout Southeast Asia? Since the United States has already contributed significant resources to helping Thailand interdict drugs shipments coming from Myanmar (principally from the UWSA) to Thailand, both Washington and Bangkok should press the Burmese government for real answers about what will happen to the UWSA.
  • Which North Korean military units have managed the relationship with Myanmar? Although there have been reports of a military-military relationship, including high-level meetings by senior Myanmar leaders to North Korea in the past two years, we still do not really know the details of how the North Korean military has managed its relationship with Myanmar, including alleged military training, technology transfer, and other suspicious activities. Having a better understanding of these details would allow the intelligence community to pinpoint North Korean activities like narcotics trafficking, military training, and weapons smuggling when they go on in other countries.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Russell Moll

    Very intriguing questions! I am interested to hear your thoughts on what realistic expectations we should have for Gen. Petraeus’s visit? I think it’s appropriate to veil serious matters under business and aid opportunities given the fragility of US relations with Burma, but i’m wondering when and how the US should take a more hard line approach to press the Burmese for action on UWSA or demand transparency on their relations with North Korea? I recently posted a blog ( about the opportunities that renewed relations with Burma offer the US. I am very interested in discussing ways on how to seize these opportunities without squandering them.

  • Posted by David Steinberg

    I think a visit by Petraeus any time in the near future would be an error in US policy that has been deftly handled by the Obama administration to date. The reforms are still fragile, and should not be seen as manipulated by the U.S., but this is the signal that his visit would convey to many Burmese, as well as to the Chinese. Our history of CIA involvement with the Kuomintang and in other fields in Burma are remembered. The US may have forgotten this, but the Burmese surely have not.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required