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Thugs to hugs: can Burma’s army make the transition?

Thugs to hugs: can Burma’s army make the transition?

Today, Secretary Clinton begins her historic visit to Burma. In 2009, as the Obama administration was conducting an initial ‘review’ of its Burma policy, I cautioned the secretary to be mindful of the nature and history of this thuggish regime. A lot has happened in two years. There have been a number of significant changes and overall there seems to be a sense of cautious optimism about both the changes to date and the potential for this visit to bring more. I too am hopeful, but like many long time Burma watchers, it still feels a bit like we have been down this dead end road before.

Joshua Kurlantzick from the Council on Foreign Relations has articulated some useful indicators for judging the success of the visit. The release of all political prisoners is critical, but Kurlantzick also highlights the importance of the U.S. obtaining regular interaction with senior members of the military. This often overlooked point is probably the key to any real and lasting change in Burma. There will be no freedom or national reconciliation in the country until the Burma army ends its rampant rape, torture, forced labor, forced conscription, pillaging and razing of civilian villages in ethnic minority regions. In contrast to other lauded improvements for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy, the suffering of the ethnic nationalities has only intensified in recent months.

The abuses are so severe, widespread and longstanding that the U.N. has called for an investigation into crimes against humanity. The amount and brutality of the sexual violence against Kachin, Shan, Chin, Mon, Karenni and Karen women and girls is especially disturbing. Over the years, the Women’s League of Burma and its member organizations have documented hundreds of incidents of rape and sexual violence, and in their recent letter to Secretary Clinton cited 81 documented cases of rape just since March of this year when Thein Sein became president. When they meet on Thursday, the Secretary hopefully will outline in detail his legal culpability for military crimes on his watch and the importance of taking action to end impunity.

A stated goal of the Secretary’s trip is to see how the U.S. can support a transition to democracy in Burma. As part of that process, she would do well to begin a discussion about the importance to any democracy of civilian control of the military. If the trip goes well she might even suggest that on his next trip to Burma, Special Envoy Derek Mitchell bring a relatively high ranking officer from U.S. Pacific Command with him to model successful collaboration in government between civilian diplomats and military officers. Such engagement, soldier to soldier, might even lead to a broader discussion under the auspices of ASEAN, of successful military transitions to civilian control. Thailand and Indonesia especially have relevant experience to share in this regard. Australia has been providing human rights training on and off to senior officials, including military, for years and may be willing to help with such a dialogue. And if Burma’s desire for a closer relationship with the U.S. to balance China’s influence as some commentators are saying, they might welcome a joint military dialogue with ASEAN, Australia and the U.S., even on sensitive issues like impunity.

Historically, the Burma Army (Tatmadaw), was a well respected institution that produced war heroes like Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San. She has said herself that the military has an important role to play in Burma’s future. That role will only be a positive one if the Burma army transitions from its role as the worst perpetrator of violence against its own people to its proper place of honor as the protector of all the people groups of Burma. It’s a tall order, but creative diplomacy and careful, strategic engagement could help.