Burma observers have questioned the nature of this week’s visit by high ranking US defense officials to Naypyidaw. Vikram Singh, deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, is currently in Burma for a series of meetings.
The trip has no doubt alarmed human rights activists and ethnic leaders who think an active resumption of military cooperation between the two countries would be premature. However, according to US officials, these defense personnel were simply attending the first US-Burma Human Rights Dialogue to be held in the new capital.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told The Irrawaddy, “This first Human Rights Dialogue in Burma reflects the administration’s whole-of-government approach to the promotion of human rights and the rule of law.
“The Human Rights Dialogue will cover a range of human rights-related issues including the rule of law; protection of civilian populations in conflict areas; business, labor and economic development; freedom of expression; religious freedom; criminal justice and political prisoners; and human rights and the military,” she added.
Other prominent Department of Defense personnel attending the event include Lt-Gen Francis Wiercinski, the head of the US Army’s Pacific Command. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President’s Office Minister Aung Min, Naypyidaw’s chief negotiator with ethnic armed groups, were also present.
“This dialogue would promote mutual trust and bilateral ties between Myanmar and United States of America,” Burmese Deputy Foreign Minister Zin Yaw was quoted by The New Light of Myanmar on Thursday.
Deputy Minister for Defense Cdre Aung Thaw led the discussion session in which the two sides held talks on Burmese defense operations, future dialogue and bilateral cooperation, the effectiveness of the new Labor Law, the protection of civilians in conflict areas, provision of humanitarian assistance to regions, the criminal judicial system, matters related to prisoners and the role of civil society groups, reported the state-run newspaper.
However, US Defense Department officials insisted that the presence of US military officials should in no way be considered as a revival of military cooperation between the two countries. They attended the dialogue at the invitation of the State Department, Pentagon officials said.
“The Defense Department is participating in the US-Burma Human Rights Dialogue to discuss our support for human rights and respect for civilian authority. The official US government’s policy regarding defense activities with Burma remains one of disengagement, except in limited humanitarian and diplomatic instances,” Maj Cathy Wilkinson, the Defense Department press officer for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, told The Irrawaddy.
The delegation, led by the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner, includes senior representatives from the White House National Security Staff, the Office of the Vice President, the Department of Homeland Security, the US Agency for International Development and the Department of Defense, the State Department official insisted.
This increasingly high-level engagement comes after Burmese President Thein Sein visited the US last month and addressed the UN General Assembly. His speech completely departed from the official rhetoric of the past regime despite his previous leading position in the repressive military dictatorship.
“Within a short time, the people of Myanmar have been able to bring about amazing changes,” said Thein Sein in New York. “They have been taking tangible, irreversible steps in the democratic reform process. Myanmar is now ushering in a new era.”
He then publicly acknowledged democracy icon Suu Kyi in his address. “As a Myanmar citizen, I would like to congratulate her for the honors she has received in this country in recognition of her efforts for democracy.”
Undoubtedly, Thein Sein’s administration has demonstrated a sophisticated ability to softly win the hearts and minds of enemies and critics. In any case, this is no time to back out but instead to make full use of the new momentum in Burma.
Indeed, to increase diplomatic engagement with global powers is key. But one must do so cautiously. Thus, Washington made sure that the visit was framed around the issue of human rights even though the presence of high-ranking defense officials no doubt demonstrates a desire to re-establish contact between Burma’s military and the US armed forces.
As in the past, Burmese generals are keen to reestablish military ties with the US. Commander-in-Chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing even expressed a desire for Burma to be an observer at the annual Cobra Gold exercise between the US military and regional armed forces. It will not be surprising if Burmese military officials are allowed to attend such collaborations in the near future.
However, Washington should stick to its guns since engagement will undoubtedly entail some give and take. So far, the US is still widely considered to have the upper hand.
Burma first needs to prove that it is committed to better its abysmal human rights records and release all remaining political prisoners—Thein Sein has freed several thousand criminals since coming to power but hundreds of political detainees remain.
The Burmese military has been accused of burning homes, raping women as well as torturing and killing civilians in ethnic areas. The fighting in Kachin State continues and ceasefire agreements with several rebel groups remain fragile. The Burmese government and ethnic minorities suffer from a severe lack of mutual trust.
The armed forces and its intelligence apparatus have committed numerous crimes against humanity in the past including the torture and massacre of peaceful protestors, monks, students and activists. All sides must acknowledge that these crimes were committed in order to have genuine national reconciliation.
The US, which formulated a principled engagement policy under the Obama administration, should continue to play a key role in Burma’s reform process.
In April, Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs who has been the chief architect of the White House’s current approach to Burma, made a number of key points in his comments to the House Committee.
These included that the nascent reforms were “real and significant,” while also highlighting continued human rights violations in Arakan and Kachin states as well as acknowledging the need for further political, social and legal development. US officials insisted engagement was a “step-by-step process” and should continue as such until Burma shows concrete reform.
In this engagement process between the US and Burma, Beijing is also anxiously watching developments.
Burma has long been seen as satellite state of China, but this status will likely fade away in the future if the former reclusive nation continues to engage more actively with its neighbors and the West.
In the past, India was always the main counterbalance to Beijing’s growing clout in Burma. Now Burma wants to instead restore normal relations with Washington—receiving aid, military training and assistance—to perhaps forge closer strategic ties. The key is Burma’s direct access to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean.
Located between rising China and India, who boast nearly half the world’s population between them, resource-rich Burma is more attractive than ever. There are several reasons why the US sent high-level delegations to show that they want to move closer.
Washington’s strategic refocusing on the Asia-Pacific region is one of the driving forces behind embracing military-dominated Burma in order to advance its foreign policy goals—thus becoming the US’s pivot toward Asia.
Indeed, it is tempting to see changes and a new political opening in Burma. However, it is also vital to steadfastly stick to core values and a policy of principled engagement.