A BURMESE PERSECTIVE: Uncle Sam, the Cold War is over

Kanbawza Win | December 10, 2013

Isn’t it ridiculous to remind that the Cold War is over when the Berlin Wall has fallen since 1989 and the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) has ceased to exist on Christmas day of 1991?

It was at the height of Cold War in the 70s, that Uncle Sam construing that General Win fought the Communist that the US army shipped dozen of helicopters fighters and an immense arms and ammunition. In 1980 alone the United States financed $4.7 million in military sales and paid for about 175 Burmese officers to attend U.S. military schools under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) security assistance program.[1] The main aim is to fight the Burmese communists backed by Red China. Instead the marauding Tatmadaw used all these arms to suppress the ethnic freedom fighters. This was proven when the KNU shot down one of the helicopters and held a press conference. Uncle Sam’s endeavour was again proven wrong when General Ne Win take the country into the Socialist Camp by its Burmese Way to Socialism an odd mixture of Marxism and Buddhism Hence Burmese man in the streets are asking now the US repeat the same mistakes again, when the US President Barack Obama’s administration said that it hoped to expand limited training for Burma’s military to augment the pace of democratic reforms.[2]

Testifying before Congress, administration officials said the United States wanted to provide training on human rights to Burma’s military, which ruled the country for decades but allowed a nominal civilian to become president in 2011. “The importance of the military’s support of reforms so far should not be underestimated,” Pentagon official Vikram Singh, told a House of Representatives Committee, saying the United States believes the army is interested in taking steps to modernize, professionalize and reform itself as well. “Our limited engagements have begun to expose the military to international norms of behavior and fostered new trust and understanding. This will help us gain influence with the Burmese military and encourage reform after decades of disengagement,” [3] Singh said.

As a Burmese, we understand that Vikram Singh, a Panjabi, who has its roots in India which has supported the Burmese Junta all these years have some sort of sentiments to the Burmese thugs in civilian costumes, and we would like to convey him the message Babu! Burma Ga. Ah Cha Nein Héi (बर्मा अच्छा नहीं है) meaning Burma is still not up to the mark. As a Burmese we understand the realpolitik that the rapid US reconciliation with Burma, which included a visit last year by Obama, has come as the United States seeks to step up its presence in Asia amid concern by several countries about China’s growing clout. The United States has increased development aid to Burma and ended most economic sanctions on the resource-rich and strategically placed country, which has become a growing destination for Western investors.[4] With Burma sending observers to the US-led Cobra Gold exercises in Thailand and the United States was giving the right to resume searches for unaccounted World War II personnel in the country, a small step for a big price.

Contemporary History of Tatmadaw

Is there any positive achievement of the Tatmadaw of Burma for more than half a century to be exact is from 1962 to 2013? Obviously these old generals will be unanimous in pointing out that it has prevented Balkanization of the country, like Yugoslavia, when in fact it was the other way round that united in diversity would work more and easy for the country to stay together. But the greatest achievement was that it can manage to take the country from one of the richest and most advanced country in Southeast Asia to the least developed status and the pariah country of the world. The Myanmar Tatmadaw which currently remains the biggest obstacle to the ongoing reform process initiated by President Thein Sein—the remnants of a brutal dictatorship still endowed with a quarter of parliamentary seats, a constitutional amendment veto, a deep reach into major state industries and responsible for a catalogue of human rights abuses. Indeed, that the Tatmadaw cannot afford to properly pay its own 350,000 troops despite receiving almost a quarter of the national budget leaves many analysts aghast.[5] By contrast, healthcare for Burma’s population of 60 million received just 1.3 per cent last year.

“The biggest single economic problem in Burma extends from the fiscal burden of its armed forces, this distorts government budgetary policy, monetary policy, trade policy… and just about everything else” said Sean Turnell, economist and Burma specialist at Australia’s Macquarie University,

Because of the Tatmadaw is unsustainable in the orthodox fiscal sense, it directly leads to the problems of ‘direct extraction.’ Accordingly, this is an issue for urgent attention and solution. The government cannot solve this problem by slimming down the Tatmadaw apparatus, and bring with it economic dividends of profound importance.

A 1997 order made each battalion was made responsible for sourcing its own food. Each regional commander is given a great deal of independence regarding finances with frontline troops forced to sustain themselves—the lowest-ranking soldiers traditionally earn just US $10 per month.

“The officers told us to get along with the villagers. But we had nothing to eat. And so we ate the vegetables that the villagers had planted. We didn’t have the money to buy and eat them. So if they didn’t give them to us, we would go and steal them at night,”[6]

Naturally, a hand in the lucrative drugs trade has become a necessary means for military battalions to survive in ethnic nationalities border regions where rebel armies have long used narcotic production as a means of survival. What’s more, poppy growth was more prevalent in Tatmadaw-controlled areas of Shan State than those held by rebel groups.[7] Elaine Pearson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch, Asia division said that basic accountability is needed to know exactly how much each unit is receiving and what soldiers are being paid.

“I think the self-sufficiency policy has definitely exacerbated abuses by the Burmese army like forced labor and looting of villages, though it’s not the only Factor. It’s certainly high time that the military addresses it. Part of the problem is the complete opaqueness over the military budget.”[8]

So could greater links with the US military help reform the Burmese armed forces? Timothy Heinemann, a retired US Special Forces Colonel and founder of Worldwide Impact now, a non-governmental organization that works with conflict-affected ethnic minority communities in Burma, is not optimistic and said,.

“The conversation of US military engagement] must be about balanced professionalization and empowerment of all ethnic groups within a federal union. This needs to be done at national and state levels or the place will be a mess. Development of the military is just one small point of really developing a nation. It’s got to be tied in with a good plan on developing governance systems, security systems such as the police force and economic systems to really get a country on the right path.”

Therefore, a lot of progress—mostly reforms currently obstructed by the generals—is required before the United States should teach the Tatmadaw more efficient methods of combat. Anyone in doubt about the military’s supremacy in all things can look at the escalating conflict in Kachin State—the same fighting Thein Sein ordered to cease in December 2011.

Tatmadaw Mentality Remains Intact

Even though the reforms are implemented it is still reversible because the leaders of the government and the leading members of parliament have not yet changed their basic mentality _ these former high-ranking Tatmadaw officials in the previous junta still do not understand that the actions they took in the past and are still talking today, are morally wrong and harmful to the nation. If Thein Sein is truly committed to both reform and reconciliation, then upon taking office he would have acknowledged that the brutal repression the ex-junta subjected the Burmese people to for the past 20 years was wrong, and vowed that the new government would correct the damage done by its past human rights violations, mis-governance and cronyism..[9] If the government leaders can't understand and acknowledge their past faults and mistakes, then it is still possible for them to repeat these actions anytime they feel it is in their best interests to do so. It is not too much to ask for the ex-generals to stand up and issue a full-blown mea culpa to the people of Burma at this juncture, but they at least need to demonstrate by their actions that they understand the repugnance and damaging consequences of their past activities.

The problem is that despite these reforms, there is still ample evidence that the current government is willing to be just as brutal and repressive as the old regime when it suits its purposes. It cannot be said often enough that the presence of political prisoners and human rights violations in war zones _ including the displacement and traumatizing of an estimated 40,000 people in Kachin State in a totally unnecessary war that continues to date _ is unacceptable, does not take time to remedy and runs contrary to every claim that Thein Sein and his colleagues make about the changing nature of the government. This indicates that Thein Sein and his colleagues have made reforms to date because it was in their self-interest to do so, not because they believe what they did in the past was wrong. So how can anyone say for certain that they would not reverse course and clamp down on the media, the opposition political parties and the ethnic nationalities, if any of them became overly bold in their activities and presented a real challenge to the ruling clique's authority and economic interests?

During the visit to Burma by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Daw Suu Kyi said, "There have been times that Naypyidaw has weakened, but I don't think it has ever really broken." What this means is that although the leaders of the new government have agreed to relax their iron grip on Burmese society in order to obtain certain benefits, they have still not reformed from within their own ranks nor taken the big risks that will put political power back in the hands of the Burmese people.[10]

Another aspect is that there is a strong and crucial link between the Tatmadaw and economy, given the nature of the country’s recent history where the lines between business tycoon and military general were heavily blurred. The Tatmadaw elites will certainly not want any part of the reforms cutting into their economic interests which is likely why they are the one institution not touched by Thein Sein as he said

“The Tatmadaw has its own agenda for continuing this war, foremost being maintaining its grip on this resource-rich area where personal and institutional fortunes are so intricately intertwined.”[11]

Clash of Western and Asian Values

It’s lucky for the people of Burma that not all the members of the House are gearing for corporate and strategic interest, there are people who wants to do the right aspect, that still loves democracy and human rights and uphold the American tradition as the arsenal of democracy. One of them is Joe Crowley, who spearheaded sanctions on Burma, said that the United States was moving too quickly to build military ties in the face of “outrageous and terrible” abuses against the mostly Muslim Rohingya community and other ethnic nationalities. “I personally don’t think that the Burmese military needs to be trained to stop killing and raping and stealing lands, Training the Burmese military, even if it’s on a limited basis, is a huge win public relations-wise” said Crowley, a member of Obama’s Democratic Party.[12] Instead he suggested that the prospect of defense relations could be used as an incentive to encourage the military to undertake further reforms, such as reforming the constitution to allow opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to seek the presidency in 2015 elections. Representative Steve Chabot, a Republican, said that “Obama’s engagement strategy has lost sight of the realities on the ground and has become hasty and, I’m afraid, also misguided,” said Chabot, who heads the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific.[13]

But both Republicans and Democrats were skeptical about the military’s willingness to reform, saying abuses against ethnic and religious minorities persist in the country and the military remains involved in weapons deals with North Korea against UN sanctions.[14] In the past 18 months, a bloody upsurge in sectarian violence that security forces have failed to stop against minority Muslims has displaced more than 200,000 people and an all-out war against the Kachin made the international community to think whether Burma is on the road to democracy? While there is now a nominally civilian government, the military remains a critical force with an effective veto on constitutional reforms Republican Rep. Trent Franks called the Burma military “one of the worst oppressors of human rights in recent history” and said it should meet clear benchmarks before any sanctions are lifted. Even former military commander-in-chief of the Burmese army U Tin Oo, has criticised moves by the Obama administration for the US military to develop ties with the Tatmadaw.[15]

Burma’s leaders, who ignore United Nations resolutions with impunity, have increased their engagement with the outside world, making an all-out effort through media, diplomacy and peace missions to polish the country’s image. Former military officials have been welcomed to Western capitals and treated as honored guests with seemingly little regard for whether they have blood on their hands. The Generals in civilian skirts even dismissed the outrageous August 19 mob attack on Tomás Ojea Quintana, the United Nations’ special human rights rapporteur in Burma. [16] Why is Uncle Sam so blind?

In short, constitutional reform and the 2015 elections rest to a significant degree on a military-to-military incentive package from the United States as the Generals want to exchange democracy with arms from the US.[17]Burma has a good record of bargaining with democracy and favour from the West, the hypothesis that Tatmadaw will agree to constitutional changes and a clean elections only if the US has military to military relations as put up by Vikram Singh will have little or no water for the American who place democracy and human rights as their core values.

Perhaps one of the main purposes for the American strategic thinkers is to make Burma a link in the containment of China in its “return to Asia.” Washington may again try the Dollar Diplomacy that President William Howard Taft practiced in Latin America and East Asia to further U.S. aims through use of its economic power, but chances are that it won't succeed. Times have changed, and more importantly, Burma isn't a banana republic. Uncle Sam can never win over Burma with the dollar, which isn't as aplenty as it was during President Taft's time.[18]

Now the White House will find itself held more accountable for the Burmese military’s continued violence against ethnic nationalities, as well as any nuclear ties with North Korea and the people of Burma dashed expectations for lasting political change.

Very lately in Washington, there are concerns over Chinese efforts to increase its influence in the region, exemplified by the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone and the Chinese claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea, while on the other hand many Chinese feel that their profound interests - strategic, energy, infrastructure, economic - have been undercut by the improvement in Burma-US relations. This is a “Cold War” thinking redox? [19] These people regard the people of Burma as simply pawns in a larger power disagreement. Those who hold the zero-sum position on either side are, in effect, denigrating the Genuine Federal Union of Burma the capacity to determine its own policy and national interests

It is lamentable to witness that the Asian values practiced by ASEAN’s Constructive Engagement Policy, China, India and Japan has managed to creep into the American policy makers to shore up the Burmese dictators as advocated an Asian naturalized American.


[1] Zin;Min, Why it make sense to Engage with Burmese Military. Foreign Policy 26-9-2013
[2] US seeks greater Myanmar military training AFP News 6-12-2013
[3] http://www.thedailystar.net/beta2/news/us-seeks-greater-myanmar-military-training/
[4] Ibid
[5] Cambell; Charlie, Folly of tickling the Tatmadaw’s belly Irrawaddy 14-9-2012
[6] Fink; Christina: Burma under Military Rule by Living Silence, published in 2001, includes several interviews with low-ranking troops who are explicitly instructed to engage in graft for survival.
[7] Read the four issue of the Shan Drug Watch SHAN Shan Herald Agency for News in October 2011
[8] Cambell; Charlie, Folly of tickling the Tatmadaw’s belly Irrawaddy 14-9-2012
[9] Zwa Moe :Kyaw; Burma: Brutal mindset threatens reform Bangkok Post 20-12-2012
[10] Zwa Moe :Kyaw; Burma: Brutal mindset threatens reform Bangkok Post 20-12-2012
[11] Pamum Shayi in DVB & Kachin Land News
[12] US seeks greater Myanmar military training AFP News 6-12-2013
[13] Ibid
[14] Pennington; Matthew, US Seeks Limited Military Ties With Burma AP News 5-12-2013
[15] NLD patron speaks out against US military support for Tatmadaw Mizzima News 6-12-2013
[16] Human rights abuses rampant in Burmma Mizzima 21-11-2013
[18] Uncle Sam can't beat out the Chinese in Myanmar The China Post 7-8-2013
[19] Steinberg; David I, Burma sits on the corner of an international triangle The Global time 9-12-2013

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