PHR is deeply troubled by media reports that members of Burma’s military could be invited to observe an upcoming US-Thai military joint training exercise.
The exercise, to be held next year, would bring together participants from the US and the Thai armed forces as well as military representatives from several other Asian nations. Extending this invitation to Burmese military officers without a clear link to military reform and accountability in Burma sends the wrong message at this critical juncture in Burma’s path to democracy, both to the Burmese military and to its countless victims.
Burma’s military has long been identified by the international community as a major perpetrator of serious human rights violations. While measurable progress toward greater rights has been made in some parts of Burma, the Burmese military continues to target members of ethnic minority groups. PHR has documented these crimes, most recently in Bitter Wounds and Lost Dreams, Human Rights Under Assault in Karen State, Burma.
Throughout our research in Burma’s ethnic communities, we have seen the disastrous effects of an army that is not accountable to the nominally civilian government either through a rigorous command and control chain or through a funding structure. Members of Burma’s military who commit crimes are very rarely held to account, even for egregious crimes, and the military sustains itself by stealing what it can from villagers across the country.
Burma has embarked on several necessary reforms over the past two years, and the US understandably wants to reward such progress. But for this progress to be sustainable, the US needs to lead the international community on the tough issue of military reform and publicly define the complete restructuring and accountability of the Burmese military as a priority policy goal.
Burma is hardly the first country plagued by an out-of-control military complex that has stretched its tentacles into virtually every sector of society. Our hard-won lessons regarding military reform learned after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, as well as in Indonesia and emerging democracies in other parts of the world, can provide applicable lessons for a blueprint for reform in Burma. Only a detailed roadmap for military reform can ultimately ensure accountability and the undisputed supremacy of the civilian leadership.
To allow Burmese military leaders to attend live military exercises hardly addresses the crucial pre-requisite of systemic military reforms, and prematurely rewards the Burma Army without any change in behavior on its part.
Only when Burma’s military is fully under the rein of a civilian government and its members face appropriate accountability mechanisms for any crimes should the US embark on a new phase of engagement with the military.