The United States has vowed to strengthen its military relationship with Burma, shortly after issuing another warning to Naypyidaw that it must sever its defence ties with North Korea.
US Ambassador Derek Mitchell met with the head of Burma’s armed forces Min Aung Hlaing in the Burmese capital this week to discuss legal practices in military combat. Burmese state media described the meeting as a “cordial” effort to strengthen defence relations between the two countries, emphasising the army’s “important role” in Burma’s democratisation process.
“This dialogue is consistent with continuing efforts to build mutual understanding in order to promote human rights awareness, and promote the values and activities of a modern, disciplined and respected military that acts according to international norms,” said Derek Mitchell on Thursday.
But the meeting coincides with news that the US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel admonished the Burmese Foreign Minister Lt-Gen Wai Lwin on the sidelines of the ASEAN conference in Brunei for his country’s ongoing military relationship with North Korea.
“The secretary discussed the importance of continued progress on reform and the importance of Myanmar [Burma] severing military ties to North Korea,” US Defense Department spokesman George Little said in a statement.
The US announced in August that it was planning to step up its military engagement with Burma less than a month after blacklisting a senior military general, Lt-Gen Thein Htay, for allegedly “purchasing military goods” from North Korea. But the superpower took great care to avoid sanctioning the Burmese government.
The decision has drawn scorn from some critics, who view it as a “carrot and stick” approach intended to bring Burma into the US’s geopolitical ambit. “The US knows that the Burmese military are still dealing with the North Koreans,” veteran journalist and Burma expert, Bertil Lintner, told DVB on Friday.
Lintner has previously slammed the notion that Thein Htay, who heads Burma’s Directorate of Defence Industries (DDI), could have purchased military equipment from North Korea without authorisation from President Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing as “absolutely impossible”.
The DDI is a military agency which carries out missile research and development projects, and reportedly has a memorandum of understanding to build ballistic missiles in partnership with North Korea. The agency was already slapped with US sanctions in July 2012 for their continued engagement with the Pyongyang regime.
Lintner explained that the US is sending a “clear signal” to the government that they must move away from North Korea, while offering military training as a reward. “Forget US talk about ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’, that’s just window dressing,” he said. “The US main concern in Burma is strategic: to keep China at bay and the North Koreans out.”
According to Lintner, North Korea is helping Burma develop a SCUD-type missile, an allegation which the government has denied. In a previous interview with DVB, the president’s spokesperson, Ye Htut, claimed to have “no idea” why Thein Htay had been blacklisted, but insisted that it would not affect US-Burma relations.
Burma has received international praise for introducing a series of democratic reforms since March 2011, but continues to be plagued by civil strife, especially in its ethnic minority territories.