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US ready to engage with Burmese military, officials say

A delegation of senior officials from the United States has left Burma with the message that “it is time to engage” the country’s military.

Speaking to reporters in Rangoon on Saturday, Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, said that the US is preparing for “cautious” engagement, which could include non-combat training.

“The purpose of this engagement, the sole purpose, was and is to speak to the military about the importance of human rights, the rule of law and civilian control,” Malinowski said. He added that “there is the potential for a deeper partnership, even a full partnership, in the future.”

The assistant secretary led a week-long delegation of officials from the US military and treasury department, making stops in Moulmein, Hpa-an, Rangoon and Naypyidaw.  They met with a range of Burmese politicians, ethnic leaders and specially designated nationals, or blacklisted entities.

The delegation also met with Burma’s Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and members of the Union Election Commission. The purpose of the tour, Malinowski said, was to engage the Burmese government on a range of issues including ensuring free and fair elections and determining the future role of the Burmese military.


Also present at Saturday’s briefing was Maj-Gen Tony Crutchfield, one of the highest-ranking US military officials ever to visit Burma. Crutchfield explained that military-to-military assistance will not include training combat forces or exchange of weapons systems. Engagement could include professional training sessions and disaster relief preparedness, he said.

In the first address ever given by an American officer at the Myanmar National Defence College in Naypyidaw, Crutchfield spoke to young soldiers on Wednesday about professionalism, ethical conduct and the importance of civilian control over military actions.

“What I tried to do is portray an alternate future for the Myanmar military,” Crutchfield said at the briefing. “I painted a picture of what’s possible; a more professional military, a military that is trusted by you, the people.”

In addition to warming the American military relationship with Burma, officially known as Myanmar, the delegation spent a day in Rangoon meeting with several blacklisted entities. Malinowski said that these meetings consisted of laying out guidelines that could lead to their removal from the specially designated nationals list. “How soon is up to them,” he said, “but they are going to have to make some fundamental changes.”

Malinowski was appointed as the assistant secretary of state in April of this year. He previously served as the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s leading rights research and advocacy bodies.

In his press remarks, Malinowski reiterated that the US remains “profoundly concerned” by the humanitarian situation in western Burma’s Arakan State, where ethno-religious riots have left hundreds dead and more than 140,000 displaced, many still living in isolated camps that are systematically denied access to life-saving assistance.

The US has maintained a distant relationship with Burma throughout the country’s decades of military dictatorship, but has shown a willingness to engage since the transition to a nominally civilian government in early 2011. Economic sanctions were eased beginning in 2012, though Burma remains subject to some restrictions on investment as of May 2014, when President Barack Obama renewed a national emergency order.


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