As ever with Washington’s forays abroad, there has been a faction – albeit a quietly spoken one – within Burma’s pro-democracy movement that has questioned the motives of reengagement with the military government. The US’ change of tack on Burma came last year as part of Obama’s ‘extending a hand’ strategy; an approach that has been used to coax hardline governments from Iran to North Korea into ‘softening up’ and ultimately becoming Western-friendly.
But while US concerns about the two governments may appear valid – both have at one point or another issued threats against Washington – its objectives for Burma are more complex, because Naypyidaw bears little threat to the US and its nascent nuclear programme is feeble, experts have said. So in this context, Washington has been able to champion a human rights cause in Burma and avoid any substantial suspicion of ‘ulterior motives’ that often hamper its quests overseas.
But those who buy into Obama’s humanitarian rhetoric may find last week’s developments sobering: on the very same day that US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who was in Hanoi for Southeast Asia’s largest security forum, berated Burma for its cosying relationship with the “belligerent, aggressive” military strongmen in North Korea, Washington announced that it would resume relations with Kopassus, the elite of Indonesia’s military whom rights groups claim has been responsible for multiple massacres at home and abroad, and who spearheaded Indonesia’s own anti-communist purge in the mid-1960s that saw around half a million people killed.
The u-turn comes after a decades-long ban on US military assistance to Kopassus. US defence secretary Robert Gates was in Jakarta last week as part of Washington’s canvassing of the East Asia region to announce that the Obama administration would begin a “limited program of engagement” with the force. It comes as Washington looks for more favourable relationships with governments here to help renege decades of waning influence in the region, and to promote America’s re-emergence at a time when China’s clout is booming. The US is particularly keen to reignite its once proud naval power in the region (note the current military exercises off the coast of North Korea) and dislodge China’s hold on the South China Sea, and Gates’ swift dispatch to Jakarta followed shock suggestions that Indonesia may look to the Chinese military for support if the US declined.
The defense secretary told reporters last week that the new offer of assistance came “as a result of Indonesian military reforms over the past decade…and recent actions by the Ministry of Defence to address human rights issues”. He added that “This initial step will take place within the limit of US law and does not signal any lessening of the importance we place on human rights and accountability.”
It is the last sentence that will raise eyebrows: a Human Rights Watch report last year found that Kopassus continued to perpetrate severe human rights violations in Papua, but has remained protected from legal scrutiny. The West Papua Advocacy Team (WPAT) reacted to Gates’ rosy assessment of the group by claiming that the new relationship with “the most criminal and unreformed element of the Indonesian military” could have further ramifications, by removing the pressure for reform of Indonesia’s military as a whole.
It follows growing US support for the status quo in Indonesia’s military, which began in 2002 after al-Qaeda’s bombing of the Bali nightclub gave Washington a ‘War on Terror’ pretext to resume military assistance. Moreover, the US, which provided lists of alleged communist sympathisers to Kopassus during the 1960s purge and which outrightly supported Jakarta’s occupation of East Timor that was orchestrated with the help of Kopassus, appears to have ignored the fact that many of the key players in both events have never been convicted and to this day remain active in the force.
As for Burmese and international watchers who have welcomed Washington’s ‘return’ to Burma and Southeast Asia, portentous questions over ‘vested interests’ may be forming: how can the US pledge support for a despised military outfit on the same day that it blasts another band of despots living in the same neighbourhood? Unfortunately, recent history suggests that while the US may like to see democracy in Burma, that is not the overarching concern, and the West Papauans, East Timorese and Chevron victims (whose ringmaster is conveniently left out of current US ‘humanitarian’ sanctions on Burma) will point to their own plights as proof. So the answer must lie with the giant to the north.
Hypothetically speaking, Washington’s ‘securing’ of Burma would bring an ally right to China’s doorstep at a time when its power is sweeping southwards across the region: it has just dislodged Thailand as the biggest investor in Laos, whilst a Free Trade Agreement between Beijing and the 10 ASEAN members will create the world’s third largest free trading zone. This comes on top of rocketing Chinese investment in US ‘unfriendly’ states such as Iran, Venezuela and Sudan – the latter a tell-tale sign of China’s myopic focus on economic power over what should be more pressing priorities, as the US, ironically, has argued. As well as the ideological bonus, US clout in Burma – again a wildly hypothetical proposition as things stand – may once again force China to rely on the strategically vulnerable Straits of Malacca for its oil needs, rather than a pipeline through Burma, thereby denting its growth confidence.
But it’s these sweeteners from the military in Burma, which will net some US$30 billion from the pipeline deal, that are attracting its hungry northern neighbour, and brick-by-brick, country-by-country, China is building a secure ring of allies. This does not go down well with the US, which may as well recall the messages of peace sent to Burma as it goes back on years of criticism to once again join hands with Kopassus.
So what now of America’s return to the East? Its decision to engage with the Burmese regime was probably the correct one; after decades of intransigence by the ruling junta, something had to change. The fanfare was short-lived, however, as six months into the programme it became obvious that the generals were up to their old tricks, and Washington was caught blushing. Several months on however, and the US is playing similar games – its selective courting of equally “belligerent, aggressive” militaries smacks of self-centredness, and the pretence of the human rights crusade is wearing thin.
It’s the double standards that grate, and nowhere will this hurt more than at the heart of Burma’s democracy movement: Aung San Suu Kyi said in an interview in 1999 that “the world… should understand that what has happened in Burma [in 1990] is no different from what has happened in East Timor”. She was speaking of the 1997 elections in East Timor, which were annulled by the Indonesian military – the same force the US is now keen to deploy against the ‘Chinese peril’, and whose reframing as a US-friendly entity begs the question of whether humanitarian interests really lie at the end of Obama’s outstretched arm.
“So we feel a great sense of empathy for the people of East Timor,” Suu Kyi continued. “We have suffered the same kind of wrongs and…as fellow human beings, we don’t like to see people to be so ill-treated and so unjustly crushed in their own land”.