The Obama Administration & Pentagon are rushing to establish military relations with Burma. But the US is not conditioning its engagement by first asking the Burmese military to meet very basic benchmarks (e.g. stopping attacks on civilians). A military engagement policy that dismisses justice and accountability threatens to exacerbate abuses for people living in conflict zones – those whom the Burmese military is currently robbing, raping, and killing. Let’s review why joining hands with one of the world’s most atrocious militaries is a bad idea:
5. The Burmese military isn’t interested in reform. US engagement won’t magically change the course of 60+ years of military impunity. The military – the most repressive institution in Burma – has not taken any steps to indicate genuine interest in real reform. Treating the military as a reformer will rightly cost the US the trust of Burma’s people, particularly as the military continues to wreak havoc, land seizures, and war across the country.
The military continues to engage with China and North Korea, imprison Rohingya women as sex slaves on military bases, use thousands of children as soldiers, break ceasefires, wage war against ethnic peoples, commit mass atrocities, use rape & sexual violence as weapons of oppression, force villagers off their land, and torture, kidnap, detain, and kill civilians, etc. The military cemented into the 2008 constitution the permanent independence and power it needs to commit these crimes with impunity. The military is thus unsurprisingly Burma’s biggest roadblock to dire constitutional reform.
4. Military engagement gives Burma’s top rights abusers a free pass for their decades of brutality, undermining the peace process. The US policy goal toward Burma is ostensibly to promote “the establishment of a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic state that respects human rights and the rule of law.” National reconciliation is impossible without justice and accountability. Letting military masterminds off the hook because it’s allegedly good for short-term US relations is therefore naïve and foolish. A state can’t be stable – decades of conflict can’t be harmoniously resolved – unless there are independent justice mechanisms. Befriending Burma’s mass murderers will blatantly undermine justice and accountability, advance corruption and non-transparency, and spit in the faces of the US’ long-time democracy and ethnic allies in Burma. It’s obvious that a financial and strategic alliance, not national reconciliation, is the US’ new end game. But without stability and peace, Burma will be a poor long-term ally.
3. International laws like the US-endorsed Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court mandate that Burma’s military leaders be investigated for committing mass atrocities against their people, not befriended. The Obama Administration was so quick to run to the rescue of international law in regards to Syria but ignores international law violations in Burma?
2. Military engagement will further empower the Burmese military to treat ethnic and religious minorities as inferiors. The Burmese government and military’s tactics of oppression have centered on ethno-religious discrimination and violence. Those who are not Burman and not Buddhist are second-class citizens, if they are even considered citizens at all. Burma’s minorities, targets of the military, have not tasted the fruit of Burma’s reforms.
US political & financial engagement has exacerbated the military’s oppressive power over Burma’s people. The lifting of sanctions and increased international investment opportunities over the past two years have perpetuated conflict over land and natural resources. The military has broken new ceasefires, seized hundreds of thousands of acres of land, and launched new attacks. Instead of seeking solutions to ethno-religious conflict, US military engagement is positioning itself to be woefully discriminatory, an agent of ethnic marginalization. The US seeks to train the Burmese military, but it doesn’t want to simultaneously support and train the ethnic armed groups. Engaging Burma’s war criminals while ignoring the ethnic groups who are being increasingly disenfranchised and displaced by international investment will only perpetuate Burmese military power and supremacy even further.
1. The people of Burma are pleading with the US government not to engage with the Burmese military. 133 ethnic civil society organizations sent a letter to President Obama in October 2013 urging the US not to engage with the Burmese military unless very clear preconditions are enforced. These preconditions include requiring the Burmese military to:
- Stop all attacks throughout the country in both ceasefire and non-ceasefire areas, withdraw from conflict zones, send soldiers back to barracks, adhere to the conditions of ceasefire agreements, and sign a code of conduct;
- Acknowledge that human rights abuses have and continue to be committed by the military and commit to a zero tolerance policy;
- Agree to amend the constitution to provide for civilian control of the military and national reconciliation, and to establish legitimate justice and accountability mechanisms;
- Cease all economic activity.
Perhaps rather than listening to the doublespeak of Burmese military leaders, the US should listen to the military’s victims, nearly 100,000 of whom have been given refuge in the US since 2005. The US has the opportunity in Burma to use its influence and resources to construct a long-term engagement policy committed to national reconciliation, transparency, and ethnic equality. Speedily engaging the military isn’t a rational short-cut to foreign policy success. In Burma, America must play the long game for peace.