Keeping a Wary Eye on Burma's Military

Obama's 'Asia rebalance' should not mean whitewashing Burma's human rights abuses.

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A vital component of the Obama administration's "Asia rebalance" is to bolster countries within Southeast Asia to counterbalance China's quickly expanding power. Among our refocused priorities in Asia is development and deepening of U.S. military-to-military relationships in the region. In addition to expanding relations with allies and partners such as the Philippines and Indonesia, the "Asia Rebalance" unfortunately means establishing a relationship with the Burmese military – a military with both a long and recent history of committing crimes against humanity.

In Southeast Asia, recent U.S. policy too often devolves into short-term accommodations of the region's interests, apparently in an effort to accumulate "soft power" which would presumably be useful at some later date. In the case of Burma, the Obama administration has found full engagement requires it to overlook Burma's dismal human rights record.

U.S. strategic interests depend on systemic change in Burma. Burma's military remains the largest obstacle to comprehensive government reform and continues to exert dominance over Burma's government, despite common American perceptions of Burma's government transferring power from military-to-civilian authority.

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When President Obama committed the U.S. to a leadership role in Asia and first spoke about rebalancing our resources, he explicitly identified democracy and human rights as vital to his strategic vision. Obama argued that the "essence of America's leadership" in Asia was to support those who stood firm on the side of "free societies, free governments, free economies, [and] free people."

The Obama administration must not lose sight of its original designs for U.S.-Asia Pacific policy as it evaluates  military-to-military engagement with Burma. If future U.S. policy contradicts this focus on human rights, it will adversely impact Burma's democratic reform, particularly after more than twenty years of American support for democratic transition in Burma.

If the Obama administration proceeds too quickly with military-to-military contact, there is very grave risk of alienating many people in Burma. 40 percent of Burma's population are ethnic minorities who have suffered high degrees of violence and even "ethnic cleansing" by the Burmese military. Indeed, Burma is known as one of the top persecutors of Christians in the world and is carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslims.

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One critical test case for Obama's strategic rebalance was considered by the U.S. House of Representatives during the recent vote on the National Defense Reauthorization Act. For the first time in more than thirty years, the National Defense Reauthorization Act includes provisions on the U.S-Burma military-to-military relationship. These provisions may potentially have far-reaching implications for U.S. strategic posturing in Asia.

Arguments for proceeding extremely cautiously on military-to-military engagement with Burma are coming from many bipartisan leaders on Capitol Hill. Provisions in this year's National Defense Reauthorization Act urge the Department of Defense to patiently assess military-to-military engagement with Burma and base engagement on the Burmese military's efforts to implement reforms, end impunity for human rights abuses and increase transparency and accountability.

U.S. policy should include a clear roadmap for potential military-to-military engagement with specific benchmarks that incentivize the Burmese military to reduce human rights abuses and transfer power to the civilian government. In particular, benchmarks should include civilian control of the military and government, the immediate release of all political prisoners, efforts at justice and accountability, prevention of forced labor, rape and child soldiers by the military, and withdrawal of the military from ethnic areas.