CHIANG MAI - When United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta signaled at a recent regional defense confab in Singapore that political reforms underway in Myanmar could pave the way for bilateral military-to-military engagement, it represented a possible strategic turning point for the long-isolated, historically military-run nation.
While the prospect of Washington engaging a rights-abusing military is not unprecedented, any such move will be highly scrutinized and closely watched given that until 2011, hard-line soldiers had governed the country with an iron-fist for nearly five consecutive decades. Many of the previous ruling junta's top soldiers are in positions of power in reformist President Thein Sein's quasi-civilian administration.
Military-to-military ties between the US and Myanmar were first downgraded in 1988, in response to soldiers killing thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators. Relations were completely severed by the mid-1990s and further obstructed by sanctions imposed by both the Bill Clinton and George W Bush administrations in punitive response to the regime's persistently poor rights record.
The script has flipped since Thein Sein began to implement an ambitious political reform program, highlighted by the release of hundreds of political prisoners, an easing of press censorship, and allowances for pro-democracy icon and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to take seats in the country's partially elected new parliament.
The US has responded by rolling back restrictions, including a long-held ban against American companies from investing in the country. While various other economic and financial sanctions remain in place, including an embargo on arms sales, Panetta said on June 2 that the US would consider opening the way to strategic engagement if Myanmar stays its current reform course.
Panetta's broad overture comes at a time of transition for both militaries. While the US has announced a new global defense strategy, the so-called "pivot", emphasizing closer strategic ties with allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region, Myanmar's military has signaled it is striving to develop a more professional role after being stripped of many of its past political functions.
Myanmar Defense Minister Lieutenant General Hla Min said at the same defense conference where Panetta spoke that the military would gradually "surrender" its allocated seats in parliament, which currently consists of 25% of both legislatures. He said that the army, also known as the Tatmadaw, is "100% in support" of Thein Sein's reform agenda.
That would necessarily entail a complicated constitutional reform process, which the military has the power to block through its parliamentary numbers. However, Soe Win, the military's second-highest ranking officer, suggested the military may be amenable to amending certain clauses of the charter after signing a ceasefire with the rebel Shan State Army-South on May 19.
Observers say there are other tentative signs that soldiers, especially among the lower ranks, are already shifting away from governance roles and towards more straightforward security and defense functions.
"Hla Min's support for reforms and his suggestion that the military could reduce its political role over time may have opened the door a crack to begin contacts with the US military," wrote Murray Hiebert, senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Myanmar's armed forces, which have long depended on China for most of their training and weaponry, are reportedly looking to the United States and other Western powers as well as Asian powers to help promote their evolution toward a more professional force under civilian control. Washington should carefully test that hypothesis."
According to Nyo Ohn Myint, a representative of the National League for Democracy Liberated Area who has recently worked closely with Thein Sein's government to aid negotiations with armed rebel groups, the US could play a key role in this evolution.
"The US government should look at how to improve [Myanmar] army leaders' mentality. Greater engagement and opening of its military institutions will bring benefits to all," he told Asia Times Online.
Influential US lobbyists, including those who have steadily campaigned against economic sanctions, have recently echoed those calls. Stanley Weiss, founder of the Washington-based Business Executives for National Security, a business lobby group, believes recently ramped up engagement between the US and Myanmar should include security matters.
"We should improve our defense relationship with Myanmar in every way possible," he said, claiming that decades of diplomatic isolation has distanced the US from a whole generation of military officers. He believes that re-engagement would give them "a taste of what civilized society looks like".
Until now, Myanmar's benighted military rulers have had little incentive to cooperate in Western-led multilateral initiatives, including on matters related to human rights.
"The Tatmadaw has always had its own concepts, and has stood on its own two feet," explained Nyo Ohn Myint. "The more it has been isolated, the more difficult it has become to deal with… Tatmadaw leaders have had no alternative but to deal with China, India, and Pakistan. Distrust with Western countries has created more problems domestically."
While the causes cannot be blamed simply on isolation from the West, there is little doubt that the Tatmadaw's archaic approaches, not just to governance but also to counter-insurgency (COIN) warfare, have been the most damaging "domestic problems" in Myanmar's recent history.
Certain ethnic rebel groups have fought against the government for decades, alternately for independence and greater degrees of autonomy. The ongoing conflict with Kachin rebels in the country's northern region has been attended by new accounts of Tatmadaw rights abuses targeting civilian populations, according to reports by Human Rights Watch, a US-based rights lobby.
Significantly, there have been instances during the ongoing hostilities where commanding officers have ignored Thein Sein's commands to stop offensive operations. As COIN strategies against a variety of insurgent groups have focused on the devastation of entire communities thought to be supporting rebels, millions of civilians have been displaced both along the country's borders, entrenching divisions along geographical and ethnic lines.
Meanwhile, a system where senior generals reward loyal commanding officers with economic concessions in those areas has meant that resource extraction and development has persistently suited the interests of the Tatmadaw and neglected civilians of basic necessities such as electricity and running water.
Dysfunction pervades Myanmar's armed forces from top to bottom, and given its rigid obedience to hierarchies based on seniority, change will likely only come from the top-down. Whether the US would be able to influence such change through training and other joint exercises is an open question.
CSIS suggests engagement could begin through joint cooperation to search for several hundred US pilots shot down during World War II over northern Myanmar. The influential Washington think tank also suggested that Myanmar could be invited as an observer at the annual US-led Cobra Gold multilateral exercises, the largest in Asia, held every year in neighboring Thailand, as well as the US Navy's Pacific Partnership program or the Air Force's Pacific Angels operations, annual assistance exercises aimed at building ties with host countries.
"The United States could also send a military attache to Myanmar with the task of regularly engaging the country's military, mapping opportunities to target training efforts to key leaders, and in general figuring out who is who," wrote CSIS's Hiebert. "Among other things, the officer could put together an alumni group of Myanmar officers who have studied in the United States. That group would include some interesting and influential leaders such as the minister of social welfare, the agriculture minister, and the chairman of the investment board."
According to a former US Marine Corps Infantry Captain with bilateral training and advisory experience in Thailand, Iraq and Afghanistan who spoke to ATol on the condition of anonymity, the US would need to launch a comprehensive engagement program to have a meaningful impact. Anything less, he argues, would struggle to overcome entrenched inertia among the leadership and the myriad of political and cultural factors associated with the abusive status quo.
"[Military cooperation] would only play a small part in a much larger picture and so relationships like this must be sustained over years," said the US military trainer. "Much of the [military's mentality] has to do with the upper leadership, who often are not engaged in the day-to-day exercises. Their attitudes will be trickier to change."
He suggests that while joint training can slowly foster modern military concepts, including the notion that a soldier should serve the nation and its people, systemic change would involve decades of persistent engagement and would ultimately be more reliant on initiatives in sectors outside of the military.
So how likely is the initiation of a US-Myanmar military-to-military exchange program? As outlined by Panetta, the US's new defense strategy focuses on developing stronger ties with Asia Pacific militaries in order to establish new shared "rules" and "modernize and strengthen alliances in the region".
While the US is being forced by economic reasons to cut military spending, military planners have also learned from the recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan that modern day global security threats cannot be tackled through only conventional warfare means.
Panetta's outlined "rules" include the "principle of open and free commerce, a just international order that emphasizes rights and responsibilities of all nations and a fidelity to the rule of law; open access by all to their shared domains of sea, air, space, and cyberspace; and resolving disputes without coercion or the use of force."
Thomas Barnett, a renowned US contemporary military strategist who among other posts currently serves as Vice President of the Center for America-China Partnership, has long advocated that the US military should work first and foremost to build alliances with other states towards the aim of establishing "new rule sets" for mutual security and prosperity.
His strategy's premise is that states that have prospered from economic globalization in recent decades are a lesser threat to the US than those which remain "excluded from globalization's functioning core". The theory argues that the spread of neo-liberal economics, alongside the strengthening of partnered militaries, is the best way to expand this "core" and pre-empt future security threats.
Isolated by decades of punitive Western sanctions, Myanmar has until now been excluded from this core. The George W Bush administration took hard aim at the Tatmadaw's abusive record, once referring to Myanmar as an "outpost of tyranny". The isolation and presumed threats of a possible US invasion forced the previous military regime led by Senior General Than Shwe into some hard choices, including military engagement and arms deals with North Korea's rogue regime.
With Thein Sein's election and Western engagement, Myanmar's current military leaders have signaled a course shift, including a shelving of its previous North Korea-assisted nuclear program. Speaking at the July 2 conference, Defense Minister Hla Min made clear his understanding of the connection between economic prosperity and security.
Moral military dilemma
Whether that understanding translates into meaningful military reform is an open question. Premature outside assistance to the Tatmadaw's operational capacities, including potential US-facilitated arms deals channeled through its ally South Korea, would risk destabilization of the country's already fragile security environment further and potentially put civilian populations at greater risk.
According to Timothy Heinemann, a retired US Special Forces Colonel and founder of Worldwide Impact Now, a non-governmental organization that works with war-affected ethnic minority communities in Myanmar, argues such a move would be "wrong" both "morally and practically".
"Discussing the prospect of defense engagement as the [Myanmar] Army is attacking Kachin villagers is particularly bad style," Heinemann said. "It casts a blind eye to the established fact that the primary function of the [Myanmar] Army has been repression and exploitation."
With around 25% of Myanmar's land mass under the control, or heavy influence, of armed non-state ethnic minority groups, any US efforts to empower the Tatmadaw alone will likely perpetuate the conflict and marginalize even larger civilian populations, he argues. "Seeing the [Myanmar] Army empowered [by the US] can drive them toward radicalism that we have not seen to date," he said.
"As we have experienced in both feudal Iraqi and Afghan societies, attempts to empower a central government and single standing army have proven to be folly," said Heinemann. "Any discussion of empowering Burmans without parallel discussion of empowering ethnics in the security sector is a bankrupt approach from the start."
Although Thein Sein's government has initiated an unprecedented number of ceasefires with rebel groups in recent months, many have proven fragile and Myanmar remains a deeply fractured state. While the government's current approach aims to bridge gaps through economic development and centralization, its refusal to make armed opposition groups legitimate political stakeholders has perpetuated conflict in some areas and distrust of the government's motivations in others.
Ethnic groups have essentially been told to give up their arms, cooperate with government-led economic development initiatives and set up political parties to run for parliament if they wish to have political influence. The 2008 constitution, however, provides little space for local autonomy, which remains at the core of most opposition groups' demands.
For decades, these groups have served as the primary providers of relief, healthcare and education to millions of marginalized and disenfranchised citizens and maintain significant popular support. The fact that over 90,000 people displaced by fighting in Kachin State have fled into Kachin Independence Army-controlled areas rather than territory held by the government, as have millions of others in similar situations in ethnic Shan, Karen, Karenni and Mon areas, displays clearly these grassroots preferences.
Heinemann argues that while the US should steer clear of directly empowering the Tatmadaw with weapons, it should leverage its newfound influence on Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government to get "control of the [Myanmar] Army and reform the defense-security sector in a manner that is inclusive of ethnic [leaders], and that properly empowers states for local governance".
"The conversation [of US military engagement] must be about balanced professionalization and empowerment of all ethnic groups within a federal union. This needs to be done at national and state levels or the place will be a mess," said Heinemann.
In an era where Myanmar's future is influenced by external factors more than any time since independence from colonial rule, the US is expected to play an increasingly significant role. Washington's influence over Myanmar will grow as long as Thein Sein continues to open the economy and the US incrementally lifts its remaining economic and financial sanctions.
Reformation of the Tatmadaw into a more responsible army will take time, and will depend more on domestic factors than external ones. While the US pushes to have more influence over Myanmar's military, any engagement will likely be a process of evolution rather than revolution.
"Development of the military is just one small point of really developing a nation," said the former US Captain and military trainer. "It's got to be tied in with a good plan on developing governance systems, security systems such as the police force, and economic systems to really get a country on the right path."