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Obama Should Invite Myanmar’s President to the Pentagon
By Murray Hiebert
When Myanmar president Thein Sein visits Washington this week, President Barack Obama should arrange for him to make a trip to the Pentagon. Myanmar is a key member of ASEAN, wedged like a keystone between China, India, and Southeast Asia. This strategic value means that the United States shares an interest with Myanmar in professionalizing that country’s military.
Thein Sein, a retired, and by most accounts clean and honest, general-turned-reformer would feel comfortable interacting with senior U.S. military officers and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. U.S. officers could reinforce the administration’s thinking about what more Myanmar needs to do to achieve full normalization of relations and restore military-to-military ties between Myanmar and the United States.
Washington has taken tentative steps to engage the Myanmar military since Thein Sein launched his reforms two years ago. Last October, several uniformed military officers, including Lt. Gen. Francis Wiercinski, the commanding general of the U.S. Army in the Pacific, participated in a two-day human rights dialogue in Naypyidaw along with Myanmar military officers. Wiercinski was the first U.S. military officer to visit the country in 25 years.
In February, two Myanmar military officers attended the Cobra Gold military exercises in Thailand, along with soldiers from the United States and 20 other countries, and were allowed to observe two events focused on humanitarian aid and military medicine.
These limited exchanges have set off protests from some human rights groups and members of Congress who think the administration is moving too quickly to normalize relations with those who mounted a brutal crackdown against pro-democracy protestors in 1988, fought with the country’s ethnic minorities for five decades, and ravaged the economy during 50 years of misrule. They say the United States needs to be realistic about the extent to which it is possible to influence an army that continues to commit human rights violations, particularly in minority areas.
Others argue that in light of the opening the military has given Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government, the United States ought to step up careful engagement to ensure that the military recognizes the benefits of not seizing power again. They support limited exchanges and training in such areas as human rights, rule of law, democracy, and transparency to help professionalize the military. They hope these encounters would provide opportunities for U.S. officials to tease out what the Myanmar military is looking for in a defense relationship.
Those supporting careful and sequenced military engagement say the United States could work with Myanmar’s neighbors to engage the long-isolated military in such forums as the annual Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore and the biannual ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus. The U.S. Pacific Command might also invite some Myanmar officers for exchanges at its Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
More U.S. engagement with the Myanmar military has the solid support of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the 1988 generation of student leaders who believe this exposure will help officers learn about the benefits of reform. Engaging the military is not a reward for past atrocities and abuses. Instead, it is recognition that if the military is not engaged and reformed, it could remain an obstacle rather than part of the solution to Myanmar’s daunting challenges. Importantly, the military’s role in the 2015 national elections could determine the future of political and economic reform. The question is whether the United States should refuse to engage and roll the proverbial dice, or engage and try to support good decision making by Myanmar’s military leaders.
Myanmar military officers regularly tell U.S. official and private visitors that they want to expand their foreign contacts beyond China. This provides the United States with a valuable short-term window—a year or two—to influence the military before the government gets too bogged down in tackling the country’s problems, which already appears to be getting more difficult. If the United States does not use this opportunity, other actors undoubtedly will step up to fill this space.
The United States should move forward with prudence and clear expectations about its military engagement with Myanmar. This would give encouragement to officers who want to follow the example of the Indonesian military, which gradually eased out of politics after the toppling of President Suharto in 1998. Exchanges could help the military recognize that there will be no real political solution to the country’s ethnic conflicts until the government considers increased power- and resource-sharing.
Many believe it is much too early to consider a resumption of U.S. International Military Education and Training (IMET) assistance to Myanmar. But one-off exchanges and training courses on subjects such as the rules of war, how to treat civilians, civil-military relations, human rights, peacekeeping, and professionalizing the military could be a good place to start. U.S. military medical experts might explore beginning exchanges or research on how to address drug-resistant malaria, which is a growing health threat in remote areas along Myanmar’s northern and western borders with China and Thailand.
Some of these exchanges and training exercises could be done in partnership with countries that do not face the same political sensitivities that Washington does in dealing with Myanmar’s military. For starters, countries in the region like Australia, Indonesia, and Thailand might be ideal partners for launching exchanges with the long-isolated military.
The United States might also explore Track 2 engagement that could include U.S. and Myanmar officers along with representatives of U.S. and third-country think tanks, academics, nongovernmental organizations, and human rights groups.
Reforming the military will take time. Likely, it will require an entire generation for the old guard to move out. But it is important for the United States to start engaging the next generation of officers now. The incentive of expanded ties with the United States and Asian neighbors could help prompt the next generation of military leaders to work to improve their human rights performance.
When China’s then-vice premier Xi Jinping visited Washington early last year, he was given a grand welcome and high-level meetings at the Pentagon. Some analysts say this may be a factor in the slight improvement in military-to-military ties between the United States and China since Xi became Communist Party chief and president earlier this year.
A similar invitation should be extended to Thein Sein and his defense minister when they come to Washington. Senior U.S. military officials could speak soldier to soldier about what changes Washington is looking for before it blesses a resumption of full military-to-military relations with Myanmar. An action-for-action road map could be presented about things like the need for increased respect for human rights in conflict areas and progress in moving from cease-fires to political settlements in minority areas. Concrete benchmarks would help Myanmar understand exactly what it needs to do before the U.S. military considers joint military exercises or the resumption of IMET.
Murray Hiebert, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies, CSIS.
Courtesy: This post originally appeared on the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C. cogitASIA blog
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