Thu 20 Sep 2012
Filed under: International,Military,News
Discreet talks have been held between US and Myanmar defence officials about prospects for re-establishing training programmes and exchanges with Myanmar’s military.
The security talks involve military representatives as well as civilian defence officials from both sides, including officials from the US joint chiefs of staff and staff in the offices of US assistant secretaries of defence.
The development follows Myanmar’s rapid opening under the reformist administration of President Thein Sein and highlights US anxieties about its close relationships with China and North Korea, particularly the military assistance the country receives from Beijing.
In a separate move on Thursday the UK and France are believed to have begun the process of re-accrediting military attaches to Myanmar, withdrawn as a result of international sanctions, according to European diplomats.
Initial discussions between the US and Myanmar have focused on proposals for non-military training – such as at US think-tanks – and the exchange of military visits at commander level.
However, ideas under discussion suggest that training and assistance programmes could go much further if initial steps go smoothly.
Myanmar has also requested observer status at regional US and multilateral military exercises, although a decision has yet to be made, regional and western diplomats say.
“Both the US and Myanmar want to do some direct bilateral joint training – the Americans want to focus on talented junior officers who don’t have murky backgrounds but who can get training and effect reform and change,” said a western analyst close to the talks.
Proposals discussed so far involve joint training through the Association of South-east Asian Nations and through established channels such as US think-tanks and defence schools Washington will want to make sure it has strong support in Congress before it deepens military contacts beyond the superficial.
It has been suggested that some Myanmar cadets could attend US military academies and the US’s International Military Education and Training programme for Myanmar could be restarted.
Comprehensive screening mechanisms to check military records would be a priority the analyst said, because the US “could have a hard time vetting these guys”.
After an initial period, visits would become more senior and training more comprehensive. “The relationship could easily trend toward a comprehensive partnership or even go strategic after 2015 depending on how [Myanmar’s 2015] elections go,” he added.
The US embassy in Myanmar is among the only western embassies to have retained military attachés throughout the years that Myanmar faced sanctions, and has enjoyed high level access as a result. Leon Panetta, US defence secretary, told a defence forum in Singapore in June that he would discuss a security relationship with Myanmar officials as bilateral ties improved.
Defence co-operation and arms sales, however, remain sensitive issues for all western governments, because of the Myanmar military’s decades-long record of repression and abuse, including numerous reports of torture, forced labour and use of child soldiers.
Many retired and active Myanmar military officers remain on government “blacklists”, and the US has prohibited its companies from dealing with Myanmar companies that feature large military holdings.
There are “still many issues,” said one western diplomat, including reports of military abuses in fighting with ethnic rebels in northern Kachin state, and in recent sectarian violence in western Rakhine state. But US and other western officials have privately praised some of Myanmar’s military leaders, particularly the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing.
Min Aung Hlaing, whose title is “vice-senior general”, rose under former dictator Than Shwe, who is retired but still holds the title “senior general”. However, like President Thein Sein, a former loyal deputy to Than Shwe, the military chief has pursued reforms and has recently outlined plans for further changes to senior visiting western officials. These include what one diplomat present at a meeting said was his professed intention to “gradually return the military to the barracks.”
The military chief also selects officers for the 25 per cent of parliamentary seats allocated to the military. In another meeting with western officials, he said he had urged military MPs to “vote with their hearts not minds” and had replaced some earlier this year for voting in a group. However, in a recent showdown over the constitutional court, military members voted en bloc.
In another sign of Washington’s shift in thinking, CSIS, a US-based think-tank, urges the US in a new report to engage with the military.
The US “should use engagement opportunities to provide training to a new generation of military officers in such areas as civilian-military relations, law of war, and transparency”, the report said.
However, it warned, “vetting military officers and complying with US legislation will not be easy, particularly as fighting continues in some areas controlled by ethnic groups, such as Kachin state, and violations of ceasefires continue in other border areas.”
Based on discussions with Myanmar officials, the CSIS team said the country’s military wants to “professionalise, cede its dominant role in politics, and focus on national security issues.”
“To achieve this, military leaders say extensive training is needed, particularly among young rising officers. The military says it has the utmost respect for the professionalism of the US military and would like to receive as much training as the US is willing to offer,” the report concluded.