RANGOON — For the first time since the United States began its limited re-engagement with the Burmese army, a US military officer has addressed his Burmese counterparts at the Myanmar National Defense College in Naypyidaw.
Lt-Gen Anthony Crutchfield, deputy commander of the US Pacific Command, emphasized human rights and the need for civilian control during a speech at the college, which trains colonels and other high-ranking military officers.
“My presence here is indicative of the new chapter in our countries’ relationship,” Crutchfield told more than 100 military officers, instructors and college staff during his address last week, according to a transcript published by the US Embassy in Rangoon.
Citing the US armed forces as an example of a professional military, he urged strict adherence to ethical conduct and rule of law, as well as acceptance of diversity. He said respect for human rights was not only a matter of following international laws such as the Geneva Conventions.
“It is also an operational necessity,” he said. “When we commit abuses against the civilian population, we lose their support, and our adversaries gain popular support. This makes it harder for us to prevail, and ultimately places our troops in greater danger.”
Burma’s military was implicated in widespread rights abuses during decades of dictatorship, as it waged wars on multiple fronts against ethnic armed groups across the country. In addition to committing arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings, the military regularly forced civilians to serve as porters and committed sexual assault against women and girls.
Allegations of war crimes have persisted since a quasi-civilian government took office in 2011, as the military continues to fight against two ethnic armed groups in northern Burma.
Amid ongoing calls for justice, Crutchfield focused on the importance of accountability for rights abuses. “Sometimes I hear the concern that prosecuting soldiers who commit such offenses hurts morale in the force. We have found in the US military that the opposite is true. Without real accountability to deal with these cases quickly and transparently, discipline breaks down, command and control suffers, and the mission can fail,” he said.
He added that the US military did not have a perfect record, particularly in the Middle East. “We are an organization made up of individuals who sometimes make wrong choices,” he said. “At the start of our war in Iraq, we had a problem with abuse of civilians. …It damaged the international reputation of the US military, giving our enemies an advantage.”
In 2003 and 2004, reports emerged that US military personnel were committing torture and abuse of Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib Prison. The reports sparked international outrage and a few low-ranking officers were imprisoned, but higher level officers only received reprimands and demotions.
In Naypyidaw, Crutchfield said one of the key factors to creating a professional military was control by a civilian government. “Simply put, militaries possess capabilities that are too powerful to be placed at the discretion of just a few people. Rather, they must be at the service of all people and used in accordance with the democratic will of the people,” he said.
Crutchfield’s address at the military college last Wednesday coincided with a visit to Burma by Tom Malinowski, the US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Malinowski met with the commander-in-chief of Burma’s military, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, as well as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other officials.
In recognition of President Thein Sein’s political reforms, the US government has initiated limited military engagement with Burma and has suspended most economic sanctions against the country. However, critics have accused the United States of moving too quickly to resume ties, amid reports of ongoing rights violations by the military.
Crutchfield emphasized that US-Burma military engagement did not involve the training of combat forces or the exchange of weaponry systems, but was limited to trainings on disaster response, human rights and rule of law.
“Those are the steps that we think we can take initially,” he told reporters in Rangoon on Saturday. “What steps we take after that of course will be completely up to the government and how fast the reform moves, and once that’s done, through consultations with the US government and the office of the secretary of defense, we will decide what further military-to-military steps we take.”
The United Kingdom has also re-engaged with Burma’s military since 2011, including by appointing a permanent military attaché at its Rangoon embassy last year. In January this year, the UK government funded a course for dozens of Burmese military officers about human rights, accountability mechanisms and professionalism.
With reporting by May Sitt Paing.
Correction: The original version of this article mistakenly attributed the statement made to reporters in Rangoon to US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell. A correction was made on July 2 to reflect that the statement was not made by Mitchell, but by Lt-Gen Anthony Crutchfield.