Obama's plan to restore military ties with Myanmar 'too soon' for some US lawmakers

Obama administration wants to re-establish defence training for Myanmar's military, but some Republican lawmakers say it's too early

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 4:13am


The Obama administration wants to restart US defence training for Myanmar that was cut 25 years ago after a bloody crackdown on protesters.

While assistance would be non-lethal, some American lawmakers are resisting, concerned that Washington is moving too fast in forging ties with a military still accused of attacking ethnic minorities and blocking humanitarian aid.

The administration has rolled back tough sanctions and hosted President Thein Sein, a former junta member, at the White House to reward his heady rush towards democratic reform, but restoring military ties is particularly sensitive and viewed as one of Washington's few remaining points of leverage.

The administration, which is looking to boost American influence in Asia, is moving carefully but swiftly. With the backing of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, US defence legal experts last week made their second trip to Myanmar in two months, scoping out what help they can provide on teaching about human rights and rule of law. And last Thursday, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel met on the sidelines of a regional conference in Brunei with another former junta member, Lieutenant General Wai Lwin - the first bilateral meeting between the US and Myanmese defence chiefs in two decades.

Military co-operation was severed after thousands of democracy protesters were gunned down during a 1988 popular uprising, and an arms embargo is still in force.

But with a quasi-civilian government in place and national elections due in 2015, the Obama administration argues that talking "soldier-to-soldier" with Myanmar on issues like military justice and military-civilian relations can encourage reform and help the US build ties with a military it knows little about.

The administration has backing from Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who in August declared support for "a modest, targeted military-to-military relationship".

But other lawmakers are against it, sharing the concerns of activists who argue it would give international legitimacy to a military that has waged a brutal campaign displacing 100,000 civilians in northern Kachin state during the past two years of political opening.

"It is far too soon to initiate military engagement between the US and Burma," said Republican congressman Steve Chabot, chairman of a House of Representatives panel that oversees policy towards East Asia. "The Burmese military not only maintains control over the civilian structures of Burma's government, but has extended its hand as a perpetrator of human rights violations against the ethnic minorities that are sweeping the country."

A number of Western nations are already moving ahead. Britain has invited 30 Myanmese officers to a prestigious defence conference. Australia is also pledging basic military engagement to support security sector reform.

Priscilla Clapp, a former US chargé d'affaires in Yangon, says standing on the sidelines doesn't serve US interests. "We need to reach into the organisation of the military and help educate people and expose them to new ideas."