WASHINGTON - After a period of broad bipartisan support, US President Barack Obama's cautious opening towards Myanmar's reformist quasi-civilian government is starting to meet resistance in Congress.
Concerns center on Obama's budding engagement with Myanmar's rights-abusing military and his administration's reluctance to place preconditions on expanding strategic ties.
Military-to-military relations have so far apparently been limited to such matters as allowing Myanmar observers to two US-led Cobra Gold regional military exercises in Thailand, talks on human rights and exchanges on the rule of law. Obama administration officials have claimed the limited engagements have exposed Myanmar's military, known as the Tatmadaw, to international norms of behavior and built new trust after decades of disengagement with the previous military-led regime.
Congressional critics, on the other hand, believe that Obama has moved too fast and given too much. Representative Steve Chabot, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific and sponsor of new pending legislation on the issue, has raised questions about whether Myanmar has instituted enough reform to justify Obama's unilateral decision to undertake high-level military-to-military engagement.
In October last year Cabot told a meeting at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington that despite superficial changes, problems related to ethnic insurgencies and political prisoners bubbled below the surface. "The [Myanmar] military's leverage over the government remains intact and its participation in human rights abuses against ethnic and religious minorities is rampant," Cabot said.
Chabot's proposed legislation would bar security assistance to Myanmar unless the secretary of state certifies the country has taken steps toward political and military reform in establishing civilian oversight of the military, addressing human rights abuses committed by the military, severing military ties with North Korea, and ending the country's numerous ethnic conflicts.
The bill does not bar Myanmar's participation in a Defense Department program of training on civil-military relations and human rights or prevent US provision of disaster assistance in the country. Chabot told the same meeting that in switching from an "action-for-action" policy approach to a less restrictive strategy the Obama administration had "essentially given [Myanmar] a blank check."
Myanmar's military has and maintains a reputation for brutality. On June 9, the third anniversary of renewed fighting between the Tatmadaw and the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Thailand-based organization Fortify Rights issued a report saying that Myanmar authorities have "systematically tortured" Kachin civilians believed to be aligned with the KIA for the past three years.
The report stated that "Myanmar Army soldiers are operating within a permissive environment with respect to the use of torture, and torture appears to be carried out with the knowledge and consent of senior military officers."
The same day a group of Kachin Americans visited Washington to lobby members of Congress, calling on them to back legislation that places conditions on future assistance to Myanmar and ties military engagement to progress on human rights.
A handful of bills has been filed recently with bipartisan backing in both the House of Representatives and Senate. Legislation has included a bill similar to Chabot's earlier version introduced last year by Senators Robert Menendez, Bob Corker, Benjamin Cardin and Marco Rubio, the senior Democrats and Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee and its East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee.
Rubio, the Asia subcommittee's top Republican, lauded efforts to strengthen reform in Myanmar but said that "while the Obama administration has continued to normalize relations, I am concerned about long overdue political and military reforms that are yet to be taken."
The bill, he said, would provide the means to ensure "that US military assistance is not provided to the [Myanmar] government until meaningful accountability reforms are taken, including the fair and equal treatment of all ethnic groups, addressing human rights abuses committed by the military, and cutting off military relations with North Korea."
Obama administration officials contend that engagement with Myanmar's military is limited and should be sustained to encourage continued reform. Judith Cefkin, the State Department's senior adviser for Myanmar, told Chabot's subcommittee in December that "carefully calibrated military-to-military engagement to share lessons on how militaries operate in a democratic framework will strengthen the hand of reformers."
Those views were echoed by a senior State Department official in a recent interview with this correspondent. "Our experience," the official said, "has led us to feel very strongly that engagement is the way that we're going to have more leverage and more influence, and we've seen examples of that in the last several years."
The official, who requested anonymity, said that while there is a "whole variety" of areas where the Obama administration expects Myanmar to make progress, "we don't want to necessarily tie ourselves up, saying, you know, well, they've made great progress on 'a, b, c,' but we told them they had to do 'd' before we could do 'a'. We think that through flexibility and being able to be nimble and respond to developments on the ground we're actually going to have more influence with them than by having a very rigid script."
The official described current military-to-military engagement as "virtually nothing right now" and stressed the US is moving forward cautiously and slowly. While the Obama administration would like to expand its current exchanges to include more formal training in such areas as human rights and civilian control of the military, there were no plans for training in "anything that is in the traditional military combat [or] logistical capacity building."
"I mean, nobody has an interest in that until there's really substantial changes, reform of the institution," the official said.
It is not clear that any of the proposed legislation will pass within this year. However, it does seem that the administration will face increasing resistance on future Myanmar policy, one of Obama's few self-touted foreign policy successes.
Vikram Singh, until recently deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, said in an interview that he sees major risks in adopting the sorts of preconditions to even modest military engagement that congressional critics are proposing. Even so, he sees skepticism emerging toward the administration's opening towards Myanmar.
Singh, now vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington, suggested that because conditions might not be met for years Myanmar's military could opt instead to develop ties with other countries.
"I think the opportunity cost there is that the void will get filled by others, that we will diminish our influence, that we will fail to build the relationships we could build with the leadership of what is and will be a very vital part of this society for a long time," Singh said.
Instead, he said US policy should be more oriented towards supporting President Thein Sein's democratic reform efforts. At the same time, Singh acknowledged that there has been recent deterioration in support for the administration's Myanmar policy, partly due to the natural consequence of its novelty wearing off, partly due to concerns it has moved too fast in some areas.
"I would argue," Singh said, "that they moved quickly in a lot of symbolic ways but moved very carefully in substantive ways."
Inviting Thein Sein to visit Washington last year, he suggested, was seen as giving too much, too fast. At the same time, Singh said "that was a very useful symbolic gesture. It showed, hey, we support you because you have taken the hard steps of reform, and it didn't mean that we somehow opened the floodgates."
"I think," he said, "the administration has been trying to do a very carefully crafted, step-by-step engagement process and sometimes the public part of that, which is that we should embrace the reform, gave people the impression that they must be going way faster than we think, or being more reckless than we think."
Frank Jannuzi, formerly the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's policy director for East Asian and Pacific affairs, suggested that what is causing congressional concern is that the pace of the US-Myanmar military relationship has accelerated quickly, even if it is still a limited relationship.
Some sort of engagement with the military is necessary both from the US and Myanmar perspective, according to Jannuzi, now president of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington. The Myanmar military, he said, "remains the most influential, important institution in the country."
Given its institutional power, Jannuzi said, the military "has to see value from the normalization process. They have to see some benefit for them flowing out of handing over more and more power over time to the civilian leaders, because if they don't they'll put a halt to it."
In addition, he said, the US has a range of security issues it wants to pursue with the Myanmar military in areas such as Myanmar's regional role, potential counter-terrorism cooperation and balancing China's growing influence in Southeast Asia. He suggested the administration could accomplish its greater goals with proposed congressional restrictions in place, as proposed legislation does not aim to cut off all military engagement.
Congress, he said, "is just a little bit gun-shy - literally - about sort of over-militarizing the US-[Myanmar] relationship at a time when it's US policy to bolster the civilian side of the governance package in Myanmar."
Jannuzi suggested the US has more leverage with Myanmar's military than the administration thinks partly because of its interest in moving away from China as its sole benefactor and returning to the good graces of the US. The administration wrongly believes that if it were to demand significant, measurable military reforms in exchange for graduated assistance "that basically the [Myanmar] military would tell the US to go to hell."
Steve Hirsch is a Washington DC-based journalist who has reported extensively on Myanmar and Western policies towards Myanmar.
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