US Military Engagement with Burma? Way Too Soon

USCB sat on a panel last week discussing the US government’s efforts to establish military relations with Burma. Read on to find out why the US government must rethink its strategy if it wants to retain the political leverage needed to promote freedom and human rights in Burma.

Burmese military leaders / The Guardian
Burmese Military Leaders / The Guardian

The skinny:

What: “Examining U.S.-Burma Military-to-Military Relations” Panel Discussion (click link for video)

When: October 29, 2013

Host: Heritage Foundation’s Asia Studies Center Director Walter Lohman.

Keynote Speaker: U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific Chairman Hon. Steve Chabot

Panel: U.S. Campaign for Burma Executive Director Jennifer Quigley, Human Rights Watch Asia Advocacy Director John Sifton, and Former Advisor to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Keith Luse

The meat:

In his keynote address, Rep. Steve Chabot questioned whether Burma has reformed enough to warrant US military engagement with Burma. Although on the surface Burma looks different, a new wave of nationalism is exposing ethnic and religious minorities to new forms of violence. The Burmese government’s complicity in anti-Muslim violence, detention of political prisoners, illegal land confiscations, and other human rights abuses is extremely worrisome. Most importantly, the military’s leverage over the government remains intact.

Rep. Chabot Chairing the House Asia & the Pacific Subcommittee

Rep. Chabot expressed his concerns that the Obama Administration has given Burma a blank check: there are no assurances that Burma’s reforms are permanent, and yet today the United States has very little leverage left to play. The US has gone from an action-for-action policy to an action-for-hope policy toward Burma. Military engagement is one of the US’ last points of leverage that could be used to push for further positive reform, but the Obama Administration has not moved to use it. The Administration has instead moved forward to implement military engagement without firm preconditions; the Administration has invested too much in Burma’s success story and is getting ahead of itself. Through establishing preconditions on military engagement with Burma, the US has the opportunity to promote the end of human rights abuses, national reconciliation, judicial and constitutional reforms, and the end of the Burmese-North Korea military relationship. These preconditions must be required from the Burmese government before military-to-military relations are initiated.

The panelists
The panelists

John Sifton started the panel discussion by describing the Burmese military as one of the most abusive militaries in the region, characterized by impunity, criminal activity, and decades of human rights violations. Its human rights record includes the ongoing indiscriminate use of force, intentional targeting of civilian populations, and the use of forced slave and sexual labor. Furthermore, the military’s economic activities fuel corruption and cronyism.

Mr. Sifton explained that policymakers have used different narratives to explain why the US Administration is pursuing military-to-military relations with Burma:

1) military relations could improve the Burmese military.

2) military relations could drive political reform (though the US Administration hasn’t set out benchmarks or preconditions to drive reform, instead choosing to keep things “flexible.” Sifton argues that this so-called flexibility policy over the past year has resulted in no concrete reforms.)

3) military relations could help further US-Burma relations and there is a real political need for the current Administration to ensure that US-Burma relations is a success story.

4) the Pentagon enjoys having closer relations with other militaries as a means to have access to information and a better general understanding of its foreign counterparts.

5) “The Burmese military leadership needs to be rewarded or else they will feel left out, and cause problems to the reforms.” (Sifton argued that there is no empirical evidence, or even anecdotes, that support this claim.)

6) ”The military is threatened by the reforms, and thus needs to be engaged.” (But the Burmese military is responsible for the reform process, and does not feel threatened by it. In fact, Sifton made the case that the Burmese military is likely exceedingly happy at how well things have progressed with bare minimum sacrifice required by the international community from Burma’s top players. Things are going better than the military expected.)

Jennifer Quigley argued that the Burmese military should not be treated as a reformer. The military does not release prisoners or sign ceasefires. In fact, the military continues to violate ceasefire agreements established between the government and ethnic leaders. The international media, and our own US government, continually gloss over the fact that the military is not an agent of change or reform – it continues to break ceasefire agreements.

The military has only allowed Burma’s reforms to go forward because of Burma’s need to distance itself from China. But in a strategic sense, it is naïve to think Burma-China relations will worsen simply because of Burma’s new relations with the United States. Ms. Quigley explained that the US has miscalculated its engagement with Burma: the military had already benefited without cost from the removal of economic sanctions, and now the US has lowered the bar even further by introducing mil-to-mil relations. There has not been any recent progress in Burma because there is no more leverage in international policy toward Burma.

The Burmese military wants the prestige and recognition that will come from relations with the US military, but it needs to first demonstrate that it is genuinely interested in reforms. American engagement ought to be tied to concrete and irreversible positive action by the Burmese government and military, such as constitutional reform.

Ultimately, there must be change for people on the ground. In October, 133 ethnic civil society organizations voiced their concerns about military relations with Burma in a joint letter to the international community. The US must remember that Burma has more than half a million IDPs; in the past couple of years, an additional 250,000 people have been displaced. Ongoing sexual slavery, forced labor, and pandemic land confiscation perpetuated by the military and government demonstrate that Burma is not a success story.

Credit: Telegraph UK
Credit: Telegraph UK

Keith Luse reinstated that “the ship is adrift” when it comes to the Obama Administration’s foreign policy toward Burma. Burma and its military need to answer vital questions, especially regarding their ties to North Korea, China, and Russia. The Burmese government and military ought to disclose detailed information about each project that has been completed with ties to any of these governments, including the listing of facilities that have received foreign assistance in developing missile and nuclear programs. Mr. Luse argued that the US should engage the Burmese military, but this should be done with an action-for-action expectation, where accountability and transparency are required from Burmese leaders.

Credit: Foreign Policy

During the Q&A, panelists established that human rights abuses by the Burmese military are not due to Burma’s lack of capacity. Rather, Burmese leaders are capable of acting but unwilling to act.

The panelists agreed that although military-to-military relations is an Obama-initiated policy, the public should not hold the Administration as the sole actor responsible for the US’ military engagement policy. Certain senators have also been involved in forming U.S. policy on Burma. Still, the US Administration has acted in a non-transparent fashion, has refused to testify or explain its military engagement policy to Congress, and has the obligation to seek a greater variety of opinions from members of Congress, especially from the House of Representatives.


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