Can US military ties return generals to the barracks?
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Can US military ties return generals to the barracks?

The Pentagon's decision to open up military ties with the Myanmar armed forces has come just weeks after US President Barack Obama visited the once-isolated nation.

An American defence official called the process "nascent steps" and the cooperation will include "non-lethal" training for Myanmar officers focusing on humanitarian assistance, military medicine and defence "reform".

"We're looking at nascent steps on the US-Burmese military relationship. We generally support the proposition that carefully calibrated, appropriately targetted and scoped military-to-military contact is effective in advancing overall reform efforts in Myanmar," the official said.

The speed of cooperation will surprise many Myanmar watchers, and indeed some have condemned US engagement with the former pariah nation as premature.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, said that the US has to be measured in its approach and cannot be seen to give too much legitimacy to Myanmar's government.

A Myanmar scholar, who is close to high-ranking army officials, lamented that military-to-military engagement could boost the morale and legitimacy of the armed forces despite ongoing ethnic conflicts. Nevertheless, the scholar added that military cooperation with Myanmar is "the right thing to do".

Myanmar's government "has been waiting to engage with the US ... [and] in the long run the armed forces must be seen as a professional army", he said.

Tin Oo, a former commander-in-chief of the armed forces who co-founded the National League for Democracy with Aung San Suu Kyi, supports US-Myanmar military cooperation but cautioned that the main objective for generals is to protect the country and serve the people. He also wants to see the Myanmar armed forces stay away from politics.

The irony is that four years ago the White House sent an aircraft carrier near to the Myanmar coastline and insisted on conducting humanitarian operations in the Irrawaddy Delta in the wake of deadly Cyclone Nargis wreaking havoc in the region.

It is estimated that more than 130,000 people were killed while the ruling junta refused to allow a US-led international humanitarian operation access. The warships eventually left after the regime allowed US C-130 planes from Thai bases to land in Yangon and deliver aid.

The junta's newspapers slammed the US and continued to carry critical reports regarding the quagmires that followed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. However, all this belongs in history books. State-run media no longer carries anti-American rhetoric to ridicule the global superpower. The clear message is that Myanmar now wants to be friends.

Relations between the US and Myanmar have warmed considerably since Thein Sein's administration began a programme of reform. However, this thawing is only a few weeks old whereas Thailand, a US non-Nato strategic ally, has more than a century of diplomatic ties.

Derek Mitchell, US ambassador to Myanmar, met high-ranking military officials including commander-in-chief of the armed forces Vice Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing, a loyal follower of former junta supremo Snr-Gen Than Shwe. A US diplomatic source said that Min Aung Hlaing has expressed willingness to transform the armed forces and asked for assistance from the Pentagon.

A month before Mr Obama's visit, the first US-Myanmar Human Rights Dialogue was held in the new capital. The exchange was designed to promote human rights and the rule of law, according to State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. Lt-Gen Francis Wiercinski, the head of the US Army's Pacific Command, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for East Asia Vikram Singh also attended the meeting.

On the Myanmar side, senior officials from the Defence Ministry, Suu Kyi and President's Office Minister Aung Min, Naypyidaw's chief peace negotiator with ethnic armed groups, were also present.

The US subsequently invited Myanmar to be an observer at the annual Cobra Gold military exercise. Last year, around 10,000 US military personnel took part along with around 3,400 of their Thai counterparts. Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea also participated while nine others sent observers, including China.

Myanmar generals once treated the exercise with deep suspicion as they presumed it was directed against their regime, this is no longer the case.

With the wind of change blowing through Myanmar, various groups at home and abroad are calling for increased military-to-military cooperation.

"If the military continues to support the transition to civilian rule and observes ceasefires in ethnic minority areas, the United States should begin to consider joint military exercises with the Myanmar armed forces and provide selected Myanmar officers access to US international military education and training opportunities in US defence academies," read a Center for Strategic and International Studies report released this year.

But experience teaches us that such engagement must be delicately handled. Myanmar has sent military officers to Britain and the US to receive training ever since it regained independence, and the results are plain to see.

Gen Kyaw Htin, commander-in-chief of the armed forces from 1977 to 1985, studied at the United States Army Command and General Staff College. Brig-Gen Tin Oo was trained by the CIA and went on to run one of the most feared and effective military intelligence spy networks in Asia throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Lt-Gen Tun Kyi and Gen Nyan Linn, both members of the State Law and Order Restoration Council that staged a coup in 1988, and Col Aung Koe, who also once ran the military intelligence unit, all received US military training.

This time, however, any engagement should be markedly different from the Cold War era. Washington has repeatedly said that engagement is to promote human rights, democracy and national reconciliation inside the country.

This new package will focus on humanitarian assistance, military medicine and defence "reform", insists the Pentagon. The training will be non-lethal. Let's hope they keep this promise.

However, if we look outside Myanmar's borders, engagement must be viewed in the context of the Obama administration's strategic policy of a pivot toward Asia. This is part of a multilateral approach to the region _ not to encircle rising China, Myanmar's traditional ally and main arms supplier, but to make sure Beijing plays by the rules. In this approach, Myanmar is a key piece in the puzzle that is Washington's broader engagement in the Asia-Pacific.

However, China is uneasy to see these growing US-Myanmar military ties.

"China, of course, detests America's strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific, but there is nothing much we can do about it at this stage," said Li Kaisheng, a professor of international politics at China's Xiangtan University.

The Global Times, owned by the Chinese Communist Party, also reported that the US's "nascent steps" toward military ties with Myanmar was a clear challenge to China's dominant influence on the country.

Similarly, Prof Michael Green, a former National Security Council Director, recently said that Washington's engagement in Myanmar has deepened suspicions in Beijing.

"Maybe we ought to look at Myanmar narrative with China and work together to help their development because it's been framed and viewed in Beijing as an effort by the US to steal a client state from China and then turn it against Beijing," he said.

However, he added that China's fears were unfounded. "It's just not that simple and it's not in fact what we're about."

To sum up, Myanmar will continue to forge closer relations with China but also wants to expand its relations with the West, and especially the US, in order to build a stronger nation.

Naypyidaw desires to be an independent rather than dependent ally of China. To aid this goal, Myanmar's engagement with Washington will likely increase with a view to balancing out Beijing's current dominance. This is no simple task, however.

In the long run, the US will have to measure and embark on a "carefully calibrated, appropriately targetted and scoped military-to-military contact" policy, according to a defence official.

As Thitinan Pongsudhirak remarked, military-to-military cooperation should not be about providing instruction and arms, but instead engaging enough to convince future generations of military leaders that the proper place for generals remains in the barracks, not in politics.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor of 'Irrawaddy' magazine.

Aung Zaw

Founder and editor of the Irrawaddy Magazine

Founder and editor of the Irrawaddy Magazine

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