Should the U.S. have closer military ties with Burma? Some members of Congress think so, and are trying to make it happen. But such a move would be inadvisable.
In a proposed amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which Congress is slated to take up when it returns from recess in September, the Senate signaled support to expand the scale and scope of U.S.-Burma military-to-military ties. Such an expansion is a bad idea on many grounds, not the least of which is Burma’s current ties to North Korea – a regime who’s nuclear and missile programs the Trump administration has made a cornerstone of its foreign policy to counter.
The amendment would further expand the U.S. military’s ties with the Burmese military by providing training in regional and global security issues and anti-trafficking best practices. It would also enable consultation on maritime and peace-keeping operations, among other issues.
Joseph Yun, the U.S. Department of State’s Special Envoy for North Korea, visited Burma late last month to press the Burmese government and military to suspend its ties to North Korea. Burma was one of a handful of priority countries that the Trump administration physically dispatched officials to visit for the express purpose of discussing curtailing ties to Pyongyang.
During his visit to Burma, Yun specifically stated that the U.S. could not fully normalize ties to the Burmese military if it does not discontinue its support for North Korea.
While Burmese military officials deny having any ties beyond “normal relations” with North Korea, publically available evidence suggests otherwise. In fact, Burma has aided North Korea’s missile program development and may even house North Korean defense facilities. They also have a shared history of drug trafficking, counterfeiting, and money laundering. Profits from these illicit activities often fill the private coffers of the Kim regime or help fund the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s nuclear and missile weapons programs.
President Obama officially normalized relations with the Burmese government near the end of 2016, which culminated in the lifting of most sanctions toward Burma in October 2016. However, a mere six months later, evidence surfaced that Burma’s military continued to support North Korea. And on March 21, 2017, Burma’s Ministry of Defense Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI) was re-sanctioned under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act for materially supporting Pyongyang and their nuclear and missile program.
The military is also guilty of more than a handful of other sins. Just this year, Human Rights Watch documented the use of child soldiers by the Burmese military, for example. The military also plays a crucial role in the subjugation of the Muslim minority Rohingya. The situation in Rakhine State is dire; Rohingya may even be experiencing ethnic cleansing or genocide.
The military poses a substantial threat to democracy in Burma and already enjoys immense power. Today, the military controls the Interior, Defense and Border Affairs ministries. And the Burmese constitution specifies that 25 percent of seats in parliament are automatically allotted for the military, granting them de facto veto over constitutional amendments, which require 75 percent of the votes to pass. Clearly, the military has proven more of an obstruction to democratization in Burma than a help.
Some in Congress contend that the U.S. military should engage with the Burmese military, if for no other reason than to counter China’s influence in the region. But the reality is that China already has influence that is unlikely to be countered by the proposed military exchanges. U.S. long-term strategy should therefore seek to engage civilian authorities, rather than the military.
Should Congress move to further normalize military relations between the two countries, it has the potential to undermine democracy and burgeoning democratic institutions in Burma by further strengthening the military -- the part of the system that is least democratic and already enjoys substantial power. Further normalization in the U.S. relationship would grant further legitimacy to an organ of the Burmese political process that already enjoys immense power and has not proven a responsible stakeholder in the Burmese political reform process.
Congress should think carefully before pursuing deeper normalization of military relations with Burma. It’s not in Burma’s interest, and it’s not in the U.S. interest to reward the military, which seeks to undermine democratic transition in the country.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes