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Cracks Appear in US Myanmar Rapprochement

(Photo: REUTERS/Larry Downing)

By Steve Hirsch
April 30, 2014

New legislation signals growing concern over the Obama administration’s Myanmar policy.

Recent legislation introduced to U.S. Congress to put conditions on U.S. cooperation with Myanmar’s military may be one of the first signs of emerging dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama’s rapprochement policy with the post-junta government.

The bill was sponsored in the House of Representatives April 2 by Republican Steve Chabot, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, and Democrat Joseph Crowley. It grows out of concernsthat the Obama administration, having begun limited cooperation with Myanmar’s military, is moving too quickly without demanding reforms from Myanmar first. The bill is a modification of similar, earlier bipartisan House and Senate legislation and follows enactment of language in a funding law limiting spending for assistance to Myanmar.

Myanmar’s military is notorious for atrocities including destroying villages, using villagers as forced labor, and rape. Other concerns include Myanmar’s military ties with North Korea and continuing government fighting with ethnic minorities.

So far, U.S. cooperation with Myanmar’s military has been modest. Efforts have included allowing observers during the last two Cobra Gold regional military exercises, human rights talks, and exchanges and workshops on such goals as promoting civilian control of the military. They have also included exchanges with Myanmar military leaders, judge advocate officers, and others on human rights law and law of armed conflict.

In addition, Myanmar was among 10 countries Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel invited to participate in this month’s meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministers in Hawaii, the first such meeting to be held in the United States.

Administration officials have publicly cited the importance of working with Myanmar’s military in efforts to foster reform there. “Strengthening the rule of law and promoting security sector reform are essential elements of the reform effort,” State Department Senior Advisor for Burma Judith Cefkin told Chabot’s subcommittee in December.

“Voices from across Burmese society – including civil society, ethnic minority representatives, and members of the government and political opposition – are urging us to engage with the Burmese military and civilian police force to teach new models of conduct that help make the security services a stakeholder in the success of democratic reform,” she said.

“We believe that carefully calibrated military-to-military engagement to share lessons on how militaries operate in a democratic framework will strengthen the hand of reformers,” she told the panel.

However, Chabot, in an interview, called it “naïve” to think Myanmar’s leaders will be convinced to follow the appropriate path simply by asking them to do so and continuing to “giving them all the goodies without actually requiring them to follow through.”

The Chabot-Crowley bill would tie funding for certain types of security assistance to military and other reforms in Myanmar. It would bar such funding unless the secretary of State certifies that Myanmar has met conditions related to reforming its military, ending military ties to North Korea, opening the process of amending the constitution and opening elections, getting the military out of commercial businesses, and working to end ethnic conflicts.

In addition, the certification would have to show that Myanmar’s army is improving its human rights performance, ceasing attacks on ethnic minority groups, moving to withdraw forces from conflict zones, following cease-fire agreements and signing and implementing a code of conduct.

Chabot dismissed the defense that U.S. cooperation with Myanmar’s military is limited.

The military, he said, is such a significant element in Myanmar and its government, and its abuses have been so substantial “that having them reform is such a critical element that without that happening, the rest of it really doesn’t matter all that much, when you’re talking about the lives that are actually being affected in Burma.”

“So it’s critical that we insist on the reform of the military and it essentially cleaning up its act and stopping all the human rights abuses, we need to insist on that at every level and that should be a key aspect of our interaction with the government,” he said.

Backers of placing conditions on military cooperation are not asking the administration to ignore Myanmar’s military, which still wields substantial power and influence there.

Keith Luse, a well-regarded former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer who has also called for linking military engagement to specific reforms, expressing his personal opinion, has cited the need for the U.S. government to deal with the Myanmar military.

He told a Heritage Foundation session in October that U.S.-Myanmar military relations should be contingent on measurable reform benchmarks including a wide range of human rights issues and ending Myanmar’s military relationship with North Korea.

In addition, though, he said progress and reform in Myanmar “are more likely to accelerate with substantive mil to mil engagement and confrontation, due in part to the disdain often held toward professionals within Burma’s Foreign Ministry by those in uniform.”

“Over the long-term,” he said, “communication exclusively between the United States, others in the international community and Burma’s (so-called) civilian leadership will have incomplete results.”

He also said before proceeding on a long-term plan, Hagel must be fully informed on the Myanmar-North Korea military relationship and on the status of Myanmar’s nuclear, biological, chemical and missile programs – “points where the international community has been dismal in expressing interest or concern.”

Luse laid out a list of 10 questions to be answered on this subject, such as which Myanmar military or other projects have involved North Korean technicians and officials, projects or facilities with North Koreans present that have played a role in the development of Myanmar’s missile or nuclear programs, countries that knowingly or not have helped Myanmar’s nuclear and missile programs, and the range of military equipment and weapons provided or in the works to be provided by North Korea to Myanmar.

Jennifer Quigley, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Myanmar, called the Chabot bill “a message to the administration that they have not been clear, they’ve not laid out a roadmap — not just to Congress, but to the Burmese – as to what this engagement with the Burmese military is about, what they hope to accomplish with that engagement.”

Murray Hiebert, a senior Southeast Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, raised concerns about the bill but acknowledged that it shows a drop in support for the administration policy.

He said the bill’s backers are “trying to constrain something that is so tiny, you can’t even measure it right now.”

He called administration efforts so far “really very minimal,” consisting of talks, mostly on human rights issues and rules of engagement, but no training or weapons sales.

“It’s engagement basically on human rights issues, now why would we find that a problem?” he asked. He also wondered how the United States could promote democracy, human rights and reform “if we can’t even talk to the most powerful institution in the country.”

The bill’s introduction comes as skepticism is growing about the reality of change in Myanmar, which has led to questions about whether the administration has moved too far too fast.

Although Myanmar has seen significant changes since the end of junta rule, anti-Muslim violence is widespread, fighting with ethnic groups continues, and doubts are rising about political reforms. For example, there is increasing expectation that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be barred from running for president next year.

Chabot said he sees “considerable concerns” by himself and others about the administration’s Myanmar policy and said the strategy has “significant flaws.”

“I think that they have been too hasty and been too willing to overlook all the evidence on the ground that the military, in particular, is not living up to its end of the bargain and as a result, you know, the ethnic minorities and a lot of people on the ground are continuing to suffer, and so I do think that there’s not uniform support for the total Burma policy,” he said.

He acknowledged that progress has been made, and said he would commend the administration on that, “but I think they’ve been way too hasty to allow the military-to-military connections.”

He said there have misgivings from the start about the administration’s policy, that it was “going way too far too fast” without establishing benchmarks so outsiders would know what to measure to determine whether the strategy was successful.

“They kind of gave away the store,” he said, costing them the ability to influence the Myanmar military.

“The administration, rather than establishing standards or benchmarks, their idea has been to keep the strategy very flexible, and I just think that doesn’t work – not with a regime like Burma’s,” he said.

A congressional source who asked for anonymity was more pointed.

He said he thought the administration has declared victory and hoisted the “mission accomplished” banner too soon – and without a policy in place to actually get there.

“You’d think that after the past 12 years we’d learn that in foreign policy, wishing doesn’t make it so,” he said.

Hiebert suggested that there are now more questions about Myanmar policy, particularly in the House, than there would have been two years ago, partly because it is now becoming clear that reforms such as those underway in Myanmar are complicated.

“I think there is, probably, a diminution of support. I think earlier on they gave them … a sort of blank check – you know what you’re doing, carry on – and now people are asking more questions, and it goes beyond the military,” he said.

Steve Hirsch is a Washington D.C.-based journalist who has reported extensively on Western policies towards Myanmar.

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