US, Burma talk military cooperation

Discussions over the prospect of military cooperation between the US and Burma were among a slew of topics broached when senior officials from Washington met with top government officials in Naypyidaw last week.

The US has been quick to douse speculation of a wholesale U-turn on its isolationist policies towards Burma, although both Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Michael Posner, and US envoy, Derek Mitchell, have hinted that the pace of reform in the country could see relations begin to warm on a number of fronts.

At a press conference in Rangoon on Friday last week, at the end of a five-day visit, Mitchell was questioned about a statement in Burmese media that claimed he discussed with army chief Min Aung Hlaing the “cooperation of the armed forces of the two countries”.

The US has long been a staunch critic of the Burmese regime and army, but its rhetoric has softened in recent months as it looks to break ground with the nominally civilian government.

“Well I wouldn’t overstate the promotion of military-to-military ties. That will have to wait for much further down the line,” he said, adding that the talks he and Posner held with Min Aung Hlaing were “very fruitful”.

He continued however that without “some accountability” of the country’s derided military, particularly in its ongoing conflicts in ethnic regions, “it will be very hard for the United States to be engaged military-to-military in a very fundamental sense.

“Again, we’ll watch this very closely and if we see reform or commitment to reform, then we’ll get behind it and be partners in that reform. We’ll need to watch this very closely and continue the conversation.”

The lack of clarity on what would constitute reform in Burma has dogged recent murmurings in the international community that policy will soon change. The US, which for decades has been a vocal supporter of the opposition movement and Aung San Suu Kyi, has not avoided scepticism.

Bertil Lintner, a long-time observers of Burma’s military, is not convinced by the rhetoric. “The US is more worried about China and North Korea than democracy and human rights in Burma – those issues are just for public consumption, and to make [their approaches to the government] more acceptable to Congress.”

He said the “astounding silence” over the crackdown on protestors by US-allied governments in Yemen and Bahrain earlier this year signalled how far the US was willing to prioritise a human rights agenda over that of strategic necessities.

Burmese political analyst Aung Thu Nyein said however that pressure from Congress on the US government to push for reform in Burma would serve the dual purpose of improving the situation inside the country, and opening the door for future military cooperation.

Drug eradication efforts in the 1980s and 1990s saw the US step up its support for sectors of the Burmese army, while military officers from Burma have historically trained in the US, including special programmes conducted by the CIA in the late 1980s. A raft of punitive measures enacted by Washington since the mid-1990s however has seen that cooperation all but severed.

Both Lintner and Aung Thu Nyein say however that the potential for rekindling some sort of military alliance is certainly there. Aung Thu Nyein thinks that at the minimum level of cooperation, the Burmese government could allow US troops into the country to search for the remains of hundreds, possibly thousands, of US pilots downed during World War Two.

Lintner, on the other hand, says that the US may one day invite the Burmese military to take part in Cobra Gold, the annual joint military training exercise between the US and Thai armies. A bilateral invite such as this would take some of the pressure off the US, he thinks.

Washington has made little secret of its anxiety over China’s growing clout in the region, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton penning a seven-page article in Foreign Policy Magazine last month in which she provided a veritable blueprint for America’s re-entry to the Asia-Pacific region, following decades spent watching its strategic influence there wane.

Rights groups have warned however that saddling up to countries like Vietnam, and indeed the rekindling of an alliance with the maligned Indonesian military outfit, Kopassus, both in a bid to create an alliance of anti-Chinese forces in the region, puts Washington’s proclaimed human agenda in the spotlight, an issue pertinent to its thaw in relations with Burma.

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