Having established cordial relations with Burma’s government, Western nations are now contemplating whether they should also re-establish links with the country’s military, known as the Tatmadaw.
Low-key meetings have been held between representatives of the US military and Burmese officers, and Britain has conducted what it calls human-rights training with the Tatmadaw. Australia is said to be exploring the possibility of having soldiers from Burma take part in UN peacekeeping missions. Critics, among them the Burma Campaign UK, argue that this fledgling cooperation is with the same military that they say is responsible for abuses and atrocities, especially in the parts of Burma where ethnic minorities live. In June 2011, the Burma Army launched a major offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the north, using heavy artillery, Russian-supplied Hind helicopter gunships and attack aircraft. More than 100,000 people have been displaced as a result of the fighting, and Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of murders of civilians, rapes and the destruction of entire villages. The KIA has been accused of committing atrocities as well, but not nearly on the scale of the Tatmadaw.
The West is no doubt aware of these abuses and has occasionally expressed its concern. But that hasn’t stopped, for instance, Washington from pressing ahead with its defense outreach, including considering whether to allow Burmese military officers to train in the United States. In fact, military cooperation between Burma and the United States was quite extensive before the massacres of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988. It is important to remember that Washington saw Gen. Ne Win’s 1962-88 regime as a bulwark against communist expansion in Asia. It may have called itself “socialist,” but the Burma Army fought against the Chinese-supported Communist Party of Burma (CPB).
In September 1966, Ne Win paid a state visit to the United States and met then US President Lyndon Johnson. At the time of that visit, China was beginning to export Maoist revolution to Southeast Asia. When President Thein Sein was received in the White House in May last year —the first such visit since 1966—another, business-oriented China was emerging, a China that wants to expand its influence over the region, dominate its markets and exploit its natural resources. Even if Beijing’s agenda this time is different, the United States and China are still at opposite ends of the strategic contest in Asia. Washington wants Naypyidaw to be on its side in the new Cold War that’s sweeping over Asia—and a military re-engagement with Burma should be seen in this context. It is clear that the United States has always had other, more important priorities than human rights and democracy in strategically located Burma.
As early as 1957, at least two Burmese intelligence officers were sent to the Central Intelligence Agency’s training facility on the US-held island of Saipan in the Pacific. One of these was Tin Oo, or “Spectacles Tin Oo,” as he was known at home. After the 1962 coup, he became the de facto chief of Burma’s Military Intelligence and was once considered Ne Win’s heir apparent. He served as spy chief until he was ousted, charged with corruption and jailed in 1983. The other Saipan-trained Burmese officer, Lay Maung, rose to become Burma’s foreign minister in the early 1980s. At the same time, a CIA-sponsored “research unit” was formed in Rangoon, and the main common enemy was of course the CPB and its Chinese backers. The United States also sent weapons to Burma to help fight the CPB, although this kind of military aid was modest and the Tatmadaw continued to depend mainly on arms produced in its own defense industries.
Several Burma Army officers also received training in the United States, among them Col. Kyi Maung, who attended staff college at Fort Leavenworth in 1955-56. In 1962, Kyi Maung became a member of the Revolutionary Council set up by Ne Win, but later broke with him and became one of the founding members of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Another, Gen. Kyaw Htin, was trained at the same US facility in the early 1960s and remained loyal to the government throughout his life, as chief of staff of the Burma Army from 1976-85 and defense minister from 1976-88.
The 1988 uprising changed that cosy relationship. Relations were brought to an all-time low and did not improve until the November 2010 election and, especially and significantly, after Thein Sein’s government in September 2011 decided to suspend the Chinese-sponsored hydroelectric power project at Myitsone in Kachin State. That was music to Washington’s ears, and in December that year the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma, followed by President Barack Obama in September 2012. Then, in May last year, the red carpet was rolled out for Thein Sein in Washington.
Ravi Balaram, a US military researcher and the son of a Burma-born ethnic Indian, has already compiled a list of Burmese officers who once took part in International Military Education and Training (IMET) in the United States, and, therefore, could be seen as potentially “friendly” to Washington. Those identified by Balaram in a February 2013 paper are Nyan Tun, former commander-in-chief of the Navy and now vice president; Myint Thein, who became a defense attaché in the embassy in Washington; the commodore of the Naval Training School, Tin Aung San; the commanding general of the army ordnance department, Hla Win; a deputy defense minister and former ambassador to Japan, Aung Thaw; and Aye Pe, a member of the Lower House of Parliament.
It is an open question to what extent other Western powers are also involved in this re-engagement with the Burmese military. But if history is anything to go by, Australia may play an important role as well. Australia recognized at a very early stage Burma’s strategic importance. When in the 1950s it was too sensitive for the former colonial power Britain to support the then government headed by U Nu, Australia became one of Burma’s most generous aid donors—and, at that time, it was the communist specter that hovered over the region. A 1953 Australian government report titled “The Strategic Basis of Australia’s Defence Policy” stated that “under anti-communist regimes, Burma, Thailand and Indochina would come under the category specified as countries whose defence will assist the defence of Australia.”
In other words, Australia concluded that the defense of Burma was of utmost importance to its own national security, and a number of places on the Australian army’s Command and Staff College were set aside for Burmese officers. In November 1953, two senior Burma Army officers, Col. Maung Maung and Lieut.-Col. Tin Soe, visited Australia and were met on their arrival in Melbourne by the Australian army’s directorate of military training, the legendary Lt.-Col. F.P. “Ted” Serong. By August 1954, no less than 16 Burma Army officers were undergoing training in Australia. Serong, who was also an expert in counterinsurgency warfare and founder of Australia’s Jungle Warfare Training Center at Canungra in Queensland, arrived in Rangoon in 1957 to continue his mission there. The 1962 coup brought all that to an end, but there are indications that Australia may be interested in re-establishing military-to-military relations with Burma. And, now as in the 1950s, it is the China factor that is of overriding importance.
There is fertile ground to build on but, in the end, Burma may find itself in the middle of a new big-power game over which it would have little or no control. It is also plausible to assume that the West would prefer continuity and stability in Burma to any abrupt change after the 2015 general election. While Western powers continue to pay homage to the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, it is more likely that they would prefer for the next government to be more or less the same as the present one. Because, as always, regional security is more important for the West than human rights and genuine democratic development.
Bertil Lintner is a journalist and author of numerous books on Burma and Asia.