Carpe Diem: U.S. Military Engagement with Myanmar

U.S. secretary of defense Leon Panetta told Asian defense leaders meeting in Singapore June 2 that the United States is open to improving military ties with Myanmar if the country continues implementing democratic reforms and improves human rights conditions. In the context of the U.S. refocusing on Asia, Panetta said the United States would help countries develop their military capabilities. Many are seeking support from the United States and other partners. “We will encourage that kind of relationship with every nation we deal with in the region, including Myanmar,” Panetta said.

Interestingly, Panetta’s comments were followed at the same forum by Myanmar defense minister Hla Min, who said that his country’s military is “100 percent in support” of reformist president Thein Sein’s agenda, and that it will follow orders from his government. The minister added that the military’s guarantee of 25 percent of the seats in the country’s parliament, as enshrined in the constitution, could be reduced over time. Hla Min insisted this is not a “rigid” or long-term requirement. “When the time is right, we will make changes,” he said.

Hla Min’s statement was the latest in a succession of indications that at least some in Myanmar’s military leadership are open to amending the constitution and stepping back from politics. Army chief General Min Aung Hlaing said during an Armed Forces Day speech in Naypyidaw March 28 that the military is not above the law: "Our [army] has to respect and obey as well as preserve the state constitution [italics added].” Presumably that includes the clause allowing the constitution to be amended. The military’s second-highest ranking officer, Soe Win, went further when he said during the May 19 signing of a peace deal with the Shan State Army-South, “In the constitution there are differences but we can work together and we can go into the parliament and maybe amend the constitution.”

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 U.S. military. 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.

Human rights groups and some in Congress are unlikely to welcome any engagement with Myanmar’s military, considering the brutality with which it has treated the regime’s opponents and the country’s ethnic minorities over the past five decades. In the 1980s, military officers from Myanmar, then called Burma, studied in the United States under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program. The U.S. and Myanmar militaries also worked together to tackle drug eradication efforts. But military cooperation ground to a halt in the mid-1990s as Washington imposed punitive sanctions against the country for the ruling junta’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

The day before Panetta and Hla Min spoke in Singapore, Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, on her first overseas trip in more than two decades, made clear in a speech in Bangkok that the pace of reform depends largely on support from the military, which remains the most influential political player in the country. Suu Kyi said she believes in “the sincerity of the president when he speaks about his commitment to reform.” But she added that “he’s not the only person in the government. And, as I keep repeating, there’s the military to be reckoned with.” Suu Kyi clearly recognizes that the country’s nascent steps toward democracy can be halted abruptly if the military is not behind them.

Political advisers to President Thein Sein talk of looking to Indonesia as the model for how the role of the military could evolve over time. During President Suharto’s rule, the Indonesian military had a dual function of preserving security and overseeing government policy. After Suharto was toppled in 1998, each new president negotiated step–by-step reforms with the military that resulted in its political influence being substantially reduced. Most importantly, by 2004 the military agreed to abandon its guaranteed 20 percent of seats in Indonesia’s parliament. Increased exposure to Indonesia’s experience and engagement with U.S. officers may help Myanmar’s military to feel more confident in a professional and less political role in the country if it allows the reforms to move ahead.

“We need political relations between the military and the political parties to be cordial.… Our military needs more political exposure,” says one of the president’s advisers in Yangon. “Without further benefits for the military, it will be hard for them to accept the changes. They need to be educated on how the military operates in democratic societies.”

Panetta’s comments in Singapore followed the U.S. administration’s announcement last month that it would suspend hard-hitting sanctions barring financial transactions with and investment in Myanmar in response to the last year of political and economic reform. The defense secretary did not spell out what types of military engagement he had in mind, but it could begin with cooperation to search for the remains of several hundred U.S. pilots who were downed or crashed in northern Myanmar carrying supplies from India to China during World War II. Joint searches for the remains of missing American servicemen in neighboring Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos played a critical role in helping improve relations between the United States and those countries.

Myanmar could be invited to be an observer at annual U.S.-sponsored multilateral exercises like Cobra Gold in Thailand, or bilateral exercises like Balikatan in the Philippines and the eight Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training, or CARAT, exercises held each year around the region. More than 20 Asian countries already participate in Cobra Gold. The United States might also include Myanmar in the Navy’s Pacific Partnership program or the Air Force’s Pacific Angel operations, annual U.S.-sponsored humanitarian assistance exercises aimed at strengthening ties with host countries and responding to natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies. Australian and Japanese troops often participate in these programs, as do troops of regional host countries.

Expanding the ambitions of regional security cooperation and trust building within the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus forum is also a logical venue to expand contact with and training for Myanmar’s military in a regional context. This approach has the benefit of involving all regional militaries including China.

The United States could also send a military attaché 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. 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.

To be sure, Washington will want to begin any engagement by making it clear to Myanmar’s military leaders up front that any further opening in military-to-military relations would depend on progress toward ending the decades-long conflicts in the ethnic areas, releasing of political prisoners, and continuing military support for the government’s nascent reforms.

Little is known about why the military has allowed President Thein Sein to continue his reforms toward democracy. But it must have had little trouble recognizing how unpopular it was in the April by-elections when military-backed candidates lost all but one of the seats they contested, including several in the capital of Naypyidaw. The military might have realized that the 2015 general elections could be grim for it and its allies unless something is done to refurbish the army’s image and change its role in the politics of Myanmar.

This realization may have opened a door for the Pentagon and its friends in Asia to consider re-engaging a military that they have largely shunned and isolated for the past two decades. As lessons learned in Indonesia have demonstrated, cutting off military–to-military ties with important countries in Asia does not promote U.S. national security interests. Engaging the military in Myanmar must be done carefully, step by step, but the first step should be taken sooner rather than later.

(This Commentary first appeared in the June 7, 2012, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th and K Streets,

Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Murray Hiebert
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program