Engaging Myanmar’s Military: Carpe Diem Part II

As Myanmar seeks to shed its pariah status and reengages with the world, the country’s military—its most powerful institution—has become a focal point for policymakers across Asia and in the West. Many countries, some at a faster pace than others, have moved to capitalize on Myanmar’s opening and engage the military, called the Tatmadaw. The United States has been more cautious and risks missing a golden opportunity for strategically engaging Myanmar’s armed forces.

The United Kingdom appears to be ahead of most western nations in reengaging the Tatmadaw. During President Thein Sein’s visit to the United Kingdom in July, the British government announced it would resume military ties with Myanmar, beginning with plans to provide military training to 20 Myanmar officers in 2014. British defense secretary Philip Hammond said that reforming the Tatmadaw and sustaining the peace process will be key to Myanmar’s stability.

Regional actors have responded to the Tatmadaw in different ways. Military ties between Myanmar and China, which benefitted from arms sales to the previous regime prior to 2010, never really took off due to suspicion on both sides. Beijing now appears keen on upgrading its relations with the Tatmadaw. In July, General Fan Changlong, a vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, visited Naypyidaw, where he met with President Thein Sein and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, to discuss ways to enhance strategic ties between the two militaries.

Min Aung Hlaing, who was handpicked for his position by former strongman Than Shwe, is no stranger to Chinese military leaders. But he remains a little-known figure in the West. Potentially the most powerful actor in Myanmar politics, especially ahead of the 2015 presidential elections, Min Aung Hlaing has carefully managed his image and his position on issues, both at home and abroad. Much of what is known about him comes from his interactions with foreign officials outside Myanmar.

Since becoming commander in chief in March 2011, he has visited Vietnam, China, India, Russia, Thailand, and Singapore. After his appointment, Min Aung Hlaing broke the decade-long tradition of Myanmar commanders in chief making their first foreign trip to China. He opted instead to visit neighboring Vietnam, a country with longstanding historical tensions with China, in November 2011.

Russia, which has long provided weapons and training to Myanmar officers, looks poised to benefit from future arms deals and technical cooperation with the Tatmadaw. During his June 2013 trip to Russia, Min Aung Hlaing visited a fighter jet plant and discussed the prospect of resuming a joint nuclear research center in Myanmar in his meeting with Russian defense minister General Sergey Shoygu.

Military ties with India have also improved since 2010. Last year, Min Aung Hlaing officially visited India and met with Defense Minister A. K. Antony and other top officials. India pledged to expand training for Myanmar defense personnel as both sides seek to combat insurgent groups on their shared borders. In July, Myanmar Navy chief Vice Admiral Thet Swe met with his Indian counterpart, Admiral D. K. Joshi, to discuss strengthening bilateral navy-to-navy cooperation, signaling Naypyidaw’s desire to take its military ties with India to the next level.

U.S.-Myanmar defense ties are still in a nascent stage, seemingly prompting Myanmar’s military leaders to look to Russia and India to balance their country’s new strategic stance. This means that Russia and India are well-positioned to take advantage of Myanmar’s military opening to the outside world.

The U.S. government recognizes the benefits and challenges that could come with engaging the Myanmar military. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in 2012, then-secretary of defense Leon Panetta said the United States is open to improving military ties with Myanmar if it continues on its path toward democratic reforms. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met briefly with his Myanmar counterpart, Lieutenant General Wai Lwin, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus in Brunei in August—the first bilateral meeting between the U.S. and Myanmar defense ministers in more than 20 years.

Much is still unknown about the generals in charge of the Tatmadaw, including Min Aung Hlaing. The military is no longer running the country on a day-to-day basis from Naypyidaw, but it still wields tremendous power behind the scenes. The Tatmadaw remains the real kingmaker in Myanmar and will play a determinative role in the years ahead on issues like constitutional reform, the peace process with ethnic minorities, and the 2015 elections, including whether opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be allowed to run for the presidency.

Myanmar’s 2008 constitution guarantees representatives of the military 25 percent of the seats in the bicameral legislature and grants the commander in chief authority to unwind democratic reforms should he determine that political liberalization could lead to instability or national disintegration. This means the Tatmadaw holds the power to vote up or down any constitutional amendments, which require approval from three-fourths of the legislature.

U.S. ambassador Derek Mitchell announced last month that the United States will begin limited engagement with the Myanmar military on human rights, humanitarian issues, and officer professionalization. These are a good starting point, but there are other avenues the United States could pursue. Washington could propose cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in a country that faces frequent devastating cyclones, floods, and other natural disasters. It could also explore cooperation in military medicine with a country that faces dangerous drug-resistant malaria and tuberculosis as well as dengue.

The United States might also consider how it could pursue more trilateral cooperation with other countries. Indonesia would be of particular interest in this effort because Jakarta is eager to get more involved in promoting the Myanmar reform process and is recognized in Naypyidaw as a viable model to follow to professionalize, and depoliticize, the armed forces following decades of military rule.

Initiatives like these would likely find a receptive audience in Myanmar and would probably find support among lawmakers in Washington who are still skeptical about engaging an institution that has so long abused the country’s population. To understand where the reform process in Myanmar is headed, it is critical for the United States to determine who’s who in the Tatmadaw today, who likely will replace whom in the next round of promotions, and what the intentions and perceptions of the military are. This type of information is only available through increased contact and exposure between U.S. officials and the Myanmar armed forces.

While slow efforts to build mutual understanding are laudable in light of the Tatmadaw’s despicable record, the United States has a narrow window of opportunity to establish a strategic foothold in Myanmar. Increasing military engagement with Myanmar will give U.S. policymakers a more informed view of the military, its commander in chief and his closest advisers, and who is likely to succeed them. The longer Washington stretches out engaging the military, the more likely Naypyidaw will be to hedge among several actors, potentially leaving Beijing the dominant influence in the military given China’s proximity and economic presence in Myanmar.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the September 5, 2013, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th & K Streets.)

Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Phuong Nguyen is a research associate with the Sumitro Chair.

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).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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

Phuong Nguyen