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Not Time to Fully Reengage With the Myanmar Military

by Joshua Kurlantzick
September 24, 2012

Soldiers patrol through a neighbourhood that was burnt during this summer's violence in Sittwe, Rakhine State. Soldiers patrol through a neighbourhood that was burnt during this summer's violence in Sittwe, Rakhine State (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters).

As Aung San Suu Kyi travels the United States, and President Thein Sein arrives for the United Nations General Assembly, U.S. relations with Myanmar are expanding at a pace so rapid no one would have predicted it even a year ago, let alone five years ago. Suu Kyi, naturally, has been welcomed as a hero, including in Congress, and offered insight to many audiences. She now has gone along with many Burmese people’s view that sanctions on Myanmar are outdated and should be removed, giving Myanmar a chance to develop and putting the onus for democratization in the country firmly on Burmese people themselves.

But one aspect of the rapprochement should be worrying to rights activists, the many in Congress who care about Myanmar, and the Burmese people themselves. According to a story last week in the Financial Times, by the FT’s excellent Southeast Asia reporter Gwen Robinson, the Obama administration is considering restoring full military-military links with the Myanmar military, including training the Myanmar military and having regular exchanges. One source quoted in the piece suggests that as soon as 2015, Myanmar could become a major regional partner for the United States, receiving a comprehensive partnership agreement, perhaps similar to the one signed by the Obama administration with Indonesia.

Although the White House’s engagement with Myanmar thus far has, in my opinion, been successful, and Myanmar clearly is changing rapidly, it is too soon to establish full military-military ties like trainings. (I suspect, too, that Myanmar advocates in Congress also will have grave concerns about this idea.) Yes, Myanmar could be important strategically.  Yet even compared to some of the other regional militaries with whom the Pentagon has ties, like Thailand or Vietnam, Myanmar’s armed forces plumb a new low. They have been implicated in more severe rights abuses than the Thai, Vietnamese, or Filipino forces, and even compared to a place like Thailand, where the army staged a successful coup just six years ago, the Myanmar military still operates with minimal civilian control, particularly in regional commands. There is considerable suspicion in Myanmar that military men were responsible for helping stir up the renewed conflict in Rakhine State, which has allowed the armed forces to play a greater role there; even by the low standards of Thailand, it would be far harder to conduct any sort of independent inquiry into military abuses in Myanmar. What’s more, though there are skilled and more open-minded younger officers in Myanmar (as shown by the career of President Thein Sein, who came from the military), the armed forces is more heavily dominated by older and harder-line types than in other forces in the region —which I believe would make it harder for the Pentagon to try to identify officers to work with in Myanmar who truly had not been implicated in past abuses.

For now, then, this should be a step too far. The United States has always had a military attaché in Yangon, even during the period of sanctions, and the Pentagon and Ambassador Mitchell should continue to explore the future prospect of mil-mil ties both with the Burmese and with Congress, as well as Myanmar analysts. But for right now, the idea should be put on hold

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