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Military Outreach Seen as New Step in Engaging Burma


Amphibious assault vehicles prepare to hit the ground at a join military exercise, 'Cobra Gold' on Hat Yao beach in Chonburi province eastern, Thailand, February 10, 2012.

Amphibious assault vehicles prepare to hit the ground at a join military exercise, 'Cobra Gold' on Hat Yao beach in Chonburi province eastern, Thailand, February 10, 2012.

Burma may be invited to observe the largest multilateral military exercises in the Asia-Pacific region for the first time. The invitation is part of the international response to the government's political reforms.

The Pentagon says it supports Thailand's plan to invite Burma to observe the Cobra Gold joint military exercises for the first time. Over 10,000 troops from the U.S. and several Southeast Asian nations participate each year in Thailand, the largest multilateral exercise in the region.

John Blaxland, a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre Australian National University, says military engagement is critical for achieving a democratic, market-oriented state in Burma, because the army is the pivotal institution in the country.

'A compliment'

He says an invitation amounts to a compliment to the military, which has long been isolated from its neighbors, and that the participation in these exercises, even as an observer, is important for regional stability.

"The authorities in Myanmar clearly want to diversify their strategic security relationships," he said. "They have had a very close relationship with China in recent years, India has made overtures, they're part of ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations], so the opening up of the opportunity of participating in Cobra Gold is actually a very important step. So for Myanmar to have observer status it's not a huge step forward but a very positive step for Myanmar to come out of its cloistered shell."

The U.S. has recently lifted economic sanctions and made other steps to engage with Burma, including visits this week of military and human rights delegations.

The U.S. and Burma had military ties through the 1980s, and included training exchanges and arms and supplies sales. But after the military government crushed a student-led pro-democracy movement in 1988, most military engagement between the two countries has centered on counter-narcotics measures or recovering the remains of World War II servicemen.

Tin Maung Maung Than, professor at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, sees military engagement as a natural extension of civilian engagement, and an attempt at balancing the Chinese sphere of influence.

"Americans have always been engaging militaries in Southeast Asia in the assumption that they are also a part of the process, democratization, human rights issues," he said. "The military could be one of the players that could hasten or hinder the reform process. From the Myanmar side, again, it is keeping your options open, you are engaging everybody else in the international community, the caveat is that you don't want to upset the Chinese."

Premature engagment

But international rights groups caution against prematurely engaging with the military. Matthew Smith, the Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch, says the military continues to commit abuses, particularly in border areas where ethnic minority militias have been active. He says it is naive to believe the military could be professionalized through engagement.

"One of the key areas in need of attention is accountability for the abuses that have occurred, and increased engagement between the Burmese army and any other military isn't necessarily going to change that. If we did see some movement toward accountability for the abuses that have been very well documented, that would be an indication of positive changes and positive reform within the military but we're just not seeing that yet," he said.

Burma's government, for two decades considered one of the most repressive in the world, began a series of political reforms two years ago, that include allowing Aung San Suu Kyi, the leading opposition figure, to be elected to parliament. Other changes include freeing some political prisoners and gradually opening up the country's economy to foreign investment. However, the military dominates parliament and remains a signficant force in the country. It also continues to fight some ethinic minority rebels in the country.

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