Thai soldiers take part in a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High Explosive training drill as part of the annual combined military exercise Cobra Gold 2013 at a Navy base in Sattahip on February 19, 2013. Officers from Myanmar have observed recent exercises, and critics say the Obama administration is courting the country's military too quickly.
Credit: Pornchai Kittiwongsakul

WASHINGTON, DC — When US forces tested their jungle warfare skills in last year’s Cobra Gold exercise in Asia, two officers from Myanmar got privileged access, attending as observers.

That's one example of cooperation that would have been unthinkable a few years ago — when the US still knew Myanmar as Burma — and which remains controversial today.

Critics contend that the administration of President Barack Obama has been too quick to embrace Myanmar's military since the country initiated reforms, overlooking its dubious international allies and its lamentable reputation for violence against civilians and minority groups. In addition to launching military cooperation, the Obama administration has eased sanctions and other restrictions.

Dominated by generals, Myanmar’s government has long ranked among the world’s most oppressive and corrupt. It maintains close ties to China and North Korea. The latter link may have aided Burmese nuclear weapon and missile efforts.

In an October letter, more than 100 organizations representing ethnic minorities wrote that their members have endured “decades of oppression and persecution” under military rule in Myanmar. “They have destroyed our villages, stolen our land, forced us to serve as their slave labor, to carry their equipment as they hunt down, torture, kill, and enslave our fellow ethnic brothers and sisters, and rape, gang-rape, and sexually assault our women and girls,” the groups wrote.

But after decades of military rule, in 2011 the country began reforming and opening up.

Under the new order, officials have released the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. The government is now ostensibly civilian, although the military still plays a prominent — arguably dominant — role.

While few doubt that Myanmar is moving in the right direction, there's growing debate over just how quickly the US should be embracing this still-troubled country. Critics, including prominent members of Congress, want to slow engagement with Burma’s military. They want to require Myanmar to take specific steps before the US grants further military engagement.

A key question is whether Myamar will allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run for the presidency in elections slated for 2015. Her candidacy would require changes to the constitution written by the junta that held her under house arrest for years. A report released last Friday signaled an apparent reluctance to do so, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In defense of the administration, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Vikram Singh told a House subcommittee that its steps with the Myanmar military are “largely symbolic.”

In addition to allowing observers at the Cobra Gold exercise, they include participation in a bilateral human rights dialogue; resumption of accounting operations for missing US World War II personnel; and academic exchanges and workshops on subjects such as civilian military control, rule of law and the military’s role in humanitarian assistance.

The Obama administration sees this effort as aiding Myanmar’s liberalization. Judith Cefkin, the State Department’s senior advisor for Myanmar, said “military-to-military engagement to share lessons on how militaries operate in a democratic framework will strengthen the hand of reformers.” 

The administration stresses that further defense relations will depend on Myanmar’s progress liberalizing and suspending relations with North Korea, but the administration does not want to tie expansion to specific Burmese actions.

As a senior State Department official told GlobalPost, the idea is to “get away from a rigid quid pro quo.”

That is the crux of the dispute.

There is general agreement that US involvement with Myanmar’s military could speed reform and help wean the country from North Korea and China.

Jennifer Quigley of the US Campaign for Burma told an October Heritage Foundation session that the administration is “rapidly developing this military-to-military relationship without really taking into consideration the types of consequences that this will have for people on the ground,” such as ethnic minorities being attacked by the military.

In their October letter, the 133 groups representing ethnic minorities urged, as a precondition for further engagement, that Myanmar end attacks throughout the country, acknowledge past and present human rights abuses, and end economic activity by the military, among other things.

“Allowing military engagement with the Burmese military without requiring the Burmese military to demonstrate an interest in reform and to adhere with our preconditions conveys an undeserved legitimacy on the Burmese military and will jeopardize our efforts to persuade the Burmese military to agree to national reconciliation,” they wrote.

Keith Luse, a respected former Senate staffer, expressing his personal opinions at the Heritage session, acknowledged the need to deal with Myanmar’s military, but called for military relations with Myanmar to be contingent on “measurable reform benchmarks,” including human rights improvements and termination of Burma’s North Korea military relationship.

Legislation to put conditions on further military engagement has been introduced in the Senate and House. Senate sponsors include Marco Rubio, Bob Menendez, Ben Cardin and Bob Corker, the top Democrats and Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee and its Asia subcommittee. The bill was introduced in the House by Steve Chabot, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Affairs Asia subcommittee, and Democrat Joseph Crowley.

The bill would bar military aid to Myanmar other than basic training on human rights and civilian control of the military. It would lift the prohibition only if Burma acts to measurably improve human rights conditions, including establishing civilian oversight of its military, addressing human rights violations by the military and terminating military relations with North Korea. The bill would request an annual report on the administration’s strategy to engage Myanmar’s military.

“I think there’s been far too much carrot and far too little stick,” Chabot said.

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