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United States Makes Right Decision to go Slow on Military Cooperation with Myanmar

by Joshua Kurlantzick
October 7, 2013

A Muslim girl watches from the doorway of her home as soldiers walk by in Thapyuchai village, outside of Thandwe in the Rakhine state, on October 2, 2013. Security forces raced to contain deadly violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state on Tuesday, police said, after mobs torched Muslim homes and Buddhist villagers were attacked in a region plagued by intractable sectarian tensions. (Thandwe/Courtesy Reuters) A Muslim girl watches from the doorway of her home as soldiers walk by in Thapyuchai village, outside of Thandwe in the Rakhine state, on October 2, 2013. Security forces raced to contain deadly violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state on Tuesday, police said, after mobs torched Muslim homes and Buddhist villagers were attacked in a region plagued by intractable sectarian tensions. (Thandwe/Courtesy Reuters)

Last week, the Obama administration announced that, despite the rapid warming of ties between the United States and Myanmar, the former military dictatorship would not get any American military assistance in the fiscal year 2014. (Of course, as it stands now, there will be no U.S. budget in the fiscal year 2014!) As the Irrawaddy reports, the administration has taken this step because the Myanmar military allegedly still uses child soldiers, which makes it ineligible for U.S. military aid.

There are many advocates within the Obama administration for moving faster on military-military ties with Myanmar, and indeed several other democracies, like former colonial power Britain, are moving faster than the United States on military-military ties. Yet the use of child soldiers is hardly the only reason why this decision to hold off on military aid is warranted. As an excellent recent Associated Press report notes, one of the major arguments for closer military- military ties does not hold up to scrutiny. Advocates of quickly boosting military-military ties argue that the interaction will help inculcate in the Myanmar military a culture of respect for rights and for the rule of law. This can be accomplished, so the theory goes, by sponsoring leading Myanmar officers to attend training through the U.S. International Military Education and Training (IMET) program. Yet the AP report notes:

“The Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, concluded in an October 2011 report that IMET training plans did not place a priority on human rights. Because of weak monitoring of the careers of IMET graduates, the report said, it was not possible to demonstrate the program’s effectiveness ‘in building professionalism and respect for human rights within foreign military forces.’”

Given the weaknesses of IMET, and the fact that Myanmar’s inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence, some of which is linked to the security forces, shows no signs of abetting—in just the past two weeks there have been multiple attacks on Muslims in several parts of the country—the Obama administration has made the right decision on military-military ties, even if it is a decision that administration officials were forced to make by Congress and by Myanmar activist groups.

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