Beware of Mirages

The Obama Administration is pursuing closer ties with the military in Burma -- a policy that could undermine efforts to build democracy.

Photo by Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama’s visit to Burma last week lasted just six hours. He did not visit Naypidaw, the political capital — reportedly at the request of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who initially opposed the visit as coming too soon in Burma’s tentative reform process. Instead, President Obama met with President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon.

Only as Obama arrived did the government announce it would submit to inspections of its nuclear facilities, a step meant to address concerns over Naypidaw’s dealings with North Korea. The government also released several dozen political prisoners and agreed to a process for reviewing the cases of others by the end of the year. "It’s like they’re using political prisoners as political bargaining chips," Letyar Htun, a former student activist told The Irrawaddy after his release from Tharrawaddy prison.

These steps, although welcome, didn’t justify a presidential visit, unless the administration’s top priority in Burma has shifted, from supporting a democratic transition to enlisting it in the "pivot," the administration’s plan to reorient U.S. foreign policy towards Asia and away from the Middle East. An aide’s comments about the pivot and the president’s "foreign policy legacy" suggest that is the case. The president’s visit, following suspension of sanctions, and the return of an ambassador to Rangoon makes a revival of ties with Burma’s armed forces the administration’s next priority.

Relationships with militaries like Burma’s often bear the burdens of unrealistic expectations by civilian and defense officials eager to justify them for strategic reasons. In Burma’s case, that would be a mistake. Washington has shunned Burma’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, since it crushed the 1988 student-led democracy protests and nullified the 1990 election results that overwhelmingly favored Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party and its ethnic allies. As recently as 2010, Washington pursued a commission of inquiry into Burma’s human rights abuses — including rape and child conscription by the military — an effort that has been abandoned as the United States inches its way toward a rapprochement.

The argument that exposure to the United States and its military is good for officers from non-democracies sounds reasonable and so far the Pentagon stresses it will focus on non-combat activities like disaster relief, searching for the remains of American servicemen who died in Burma during World War II, and engaging in dialogue.

Tin Maung Maung Than, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, observes that there has been no change in the institutional culture of the Burmese military over six decades, noting wryly that U.S. training in the late 1950s did not stop the 1962 coup by the former Prime Minister and General Ne Win. "These guys who came back from Leavenworth and Benning took part in the coup anyway."

Washington’s priorities were different then, but even after the end of the Cold War and democratic transitions in South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines, Washington didn’t always make military reform a priority. In her book, The Mission, Dana Priest reported extensively on the U.S. engagement with the Indonesian military, known as the Tentara Nasional Indonesia, or TNI, under the dictator Suharto. After the TNI engaged in a campaign of violence to thwart East Timor’s independence referendum in the late 1990s, writes Priest, "U.S. officials were chagrined to learn that 5 of the 15 Indonesian military officers named by the country’s human rights commission as allegedly involved in ‘crimes against humanity’ in East Timor were former IMET students," referring to the United States’ International Military and Education Training program. Military engagement undermined support for a democratic transition as U.S. diplomats and military officials embraced Prabowo Subianto, Suharto’s son-in-law and presumed successor. Prabowo, a top performer at U.S. training centers, was even then, according to Defense Intelligence Agency cables, known to be violent and volatile, and his unit was later implicated in torture and killings of democracy protesters.

Nor was a hard-headed approach emphasizing practical over moral objectives necessarily supported by Washington’s experience. Admiral Denis Blair, Commander in Chief of U.S. Pacific Command in the late 1990s, told Priest that neither he nor his subordinates tried to use their contacts with Indonesian officers to stop the violence in East Timor, stating: "It is fairly rare that the personal relations made through an IMET course can come into play in resolving a future crisis." After the experience in Indonesia (which included the Pentagon’s evasion of a congressional cut-off funds for training the TNI), the U.S. Congress required human rights vetting for participants, a difficult task under the best of circumstances. The U.S. Embassy in Nepal had to recall a participant from a training course after belatedly discovering evidence that his unit was involved in civilian disappearances.

But the U.S. can’t expect foreign countries to make reforms when Washington hasn’t reconciled its own priorities. News reports of President Obama’s post-Rangoon visit to Phnom Penh, where he met strongman Hun Sen, recount "tense" exchanges over human rights. At the same time, the Washington Post reported this month that the Pentagon is training counterterror units and special forces — despite a minimal need for them and despite Cambodia’s poor human rights record. According to the Post, the United States has embraced Hun Sen’s three sons, including awarding a full scholarship to West Point for the eldest, Hun Manet, who is now serving as a major general and being groomed to succeed his father. Incidentally, the younger Hun continued to attend West Point after a bloody 1997 coup by his father forced out democratically-elected coalition partners.

The desire to enlist Burma’s military in the Asia pivot will create incentives for the United States to give short shrift to the democratic transition. That may already be happening. In September, Kurt M. Campbell, the top Asia official at the State Department spoke of an imminent intensification of U.S. engagement and hinted that the blacklist the United States maintains on corrupt businessmen, officials and military officers "has to reflect the new realities inside the country and not inhibit … the kind of investments in reform that we want to see."

In the late 1980s, the desire to maintain American support also figured in the decisions of dictatorial regimes allied with Washington to step aside. The desire of Burma’s still un-elected leadership to at least balance neighboring China’s influence in their country is clearly a factor in Burma’s precarious political opening. The United States should use it to press for reform and accountability in the Tatmadaw, long considered one of the world’s most opaque, corrupt, and brutal armed forces.

Burma will test the Obama administration’s claim that democracy and human rights are at "the heart" of its pivot to Asia. Moving ahead with military engagement at the expense of political reform could derail a democratic transition as well as undermine the likelihood that Burma’s military will become a suitable partner for the U.S. in the region. No wonder Aung San Suu Kyi, standing on the steps of the house in which she spent 15 years under house arrest, warned the U.S. president: "We have to be very careful that we’re not lured by a mirage of success." 

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