edge review18-24 October 2013

Photo: Burmese naval officers tour the USS Bonhomme Richard, November 2012 (US Navy\flickr).

Foreign governments cautiously engage Myanmar’s long-reviled military

It would have been a sight unimaginable not too long ago: on September 30, three Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force ships dropped anchor at Thilawa Port near Yangon, part of a round-the-world “goodwill tour” by the Japanese navy. The last time the Japanese military “visited” Myanmar was in World War II, when control of the country was a strategic priority for the Allies and Japanese alike.

As Myanmar re-emerges from more than five decades of self-imposed isolation, its strategic geography has once again made it a venue for superpower competition.

Western and Asian governments have called for increased engagement with Myanmar since political reforms began two years ago, after several decades during which Myanmar became increasingly reliant on China.

Naypyidaw’s newfound legitimacy has also brought with it renewed engagement with the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s long-reviled military. It is an institution that is widely regarded to be the most important force in national politics, despite ostensibly giving way to a civilian administration in 2011.

Western governments have framed their cautious military engagement with Myanmar as being aimed at helping its military become more accountable and professional. Although the Tatmadaw has proven willing to engage with its Western counterparts, it isn’t likely to be drawn into any exclusive sphere of influence, in keeping with a long history of non-alignment.

Political, economic and military engagement with Myanmar has been a cornerstone of Washington’s vaunted “pivot to Asia,” against the backdrop of increasing Sino-American geopolitical competition across the region. In February, Myanmar’s army was invited to be an “observer” at the annual U.S.-Thai sponsored Cobra Gold joint military exercises held in Thailand – a significant move towards rapprochement with an institution deemed responsible for making Myanmar an “outpost of tyranny,” as then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described it in 2005.

But critics have deemed American engagement with the Tatmadaw to be too much too soon, especially because Myanmar’s presence at Cobra Gold came against the backdrop of an increasingly bloody war in Kachin State, which re-started after the government unilaterally broke a longstanding ceasefire in June 2011.

Abuses against Rohingya Muslims since June 2012, which took place with the de facto complicity of the security services, also serve to paint a picture of a military that pays lip service to reforms without changing its behaviour.

“Burma’s military continues to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Mark Farmaner, director of the advocacy group Burma Campaign UK, told Reuters last October when Myanmar’s invitation to the exercises was announced. “It is shocking that the United States would invite them to military exercises.”

Despite the ostensible overhaul of the political system since 2011, the military is still the dominant player in politics and controls a sizeable chunk of the country’s economy through its commercial arm, Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings. No less than the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee has expressed “concerns regarding continuing abuses, and the possibility that any well-intended U.S. military engagement could be misdirected toward a negative result.”

Despite these misgivings, other Western governments are also making engagement efforts. In early October, the details of a British plan to provide training to Myanmar officers were announced: in January 2014, 30 Tatmadaw officers will head to the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom to take a course in security sector reform that has been offered to some 4,200 officers, mainly from “transitional countries,” since the early 2000s, according to The Irrawaddy.

The British Embassy in Yangon is also set to host a defence attaché for the first time in decades this month. Australia, too, is weighing its options for engagement in the near future. Canberra’s 2013 Defence White Paper, published in January this year, outlines the possibility of pursuing constructive engagement with the Tatmadaw, but falls shy of making tangible commitments.

Although high-profile gestures towards the army such as Cobra Gold have received significant attention internationally, navy-to-navy interactions such as the recent Japanese visit have been much more common. The Myanmar navy has become the preferred first destination for military-military contact over the past two years.

Myanmar has hosted naval visits by China, India, Japan and others over the past year, and Myanmar naval officers toured an American amphibious assault ship – the USS Bonhomme Richard – the day before President Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar in November 2012.

For better or worse, Myanmar’s navy does not suffer from the same stigma as the army, because its role has largely shielded it from involvement in the human rights violations committed by terrestrial forces throughout six decades of civil war.

The navy’s outward focus – it has never battled against “internal destructive elements” – has led to a more cosmopolitan officer corps than the army, better equipped to deal with foreign militaries and engage them diplomatically.

But like all branches of Myanmar’s military, the navy’s human rights record isn’t beyond reproach, although its behaviour is far from unique in the context of poor rule of law in Myanmar. An investigation by the Associated Press, published this week, detailed a land grab by the navy in Dalla Township opposite downtown Yangon, which forced out farmers without compensation to make way for the expansion of an existing naval base.

Aside from friendly naval visits, there’s little in the way of Chinese-led military-military initiatives like those spearheaded by Western governments.

Although re-calibrating China’s overbearing relationship with Myanmar has been a major driver of recent reforms, geography and China’s existing economic stake in Myanmar give Beijing arguably more leverage in Myanmar than any other foreign power, even if that power has diminished somewhat over the past two years.

Beijing has long had an awkwardly antagonistic relationship with its southern neighbour. While it has supplied the vast majority of Myanmar’s military hardware since 1989, it has also long provided arms to non-state groups that frequently operate against the government along the countries’ shared borders.

Naypyidaw’s defense ties with North Korea, meanwhile, have been a major thorn in the side of U.S.-Myanmar relations since the current warming in relations began.

Although President Thein Sein promised Obama last November that his government wouldn’t violate UN resolutions outlawing the purchase of arms from Pyongyang, the U.S. has maintained pressure on Naypyidaw to cut all remaining ties.

In July, the U.S. Treasury took the rare step of listing Lt. Gen. Thein Htay, the head of Myanmar’s Directorate of Defense Industries, under targeted sanctions, accusing him of being “involved in the illicit trade of North Korean arms to Burma.” But the Treasury also took pains to explain that Thein Htay’s listing “does not target the Government of Burma, which has continued to take positive steps in severing its military ties with North Korea” – a sign that the U.S. doesn’t wanted targeted pressure to disrupt other diplomatic channels intended to foster better relations between the two countries.

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