19 October 2012
by Boris Volkhonsky
As reported by London's The Guardian, a delegation of more than 20 senior US defense officials has arrived in Myanmar (or, as it is still called in British and American media, Burma) to meet senior government ministers and members of the military, marking Washington's strongest overtures to the Myanman army in nearly a quarter of a century.
The weird thing in the report is that the US military delegation headed by, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and South East Asia Vikram Singh, and head of the US army's Pacific command Lieutenant General Francis Wiercinski are taking part in the first US-Burma Human Rights Dialogue.
Even before the US delegation left for Myanmar, the Defense Department spokeswoman for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Major Cathy Wilkinson said that Pentagon rules out resumption of a defense relationship with Burma until the US' concerns on human rights issues with the Burmese military are addressed.
"The official US Government policy regarding defense activities with Burma remains one of disengagement, except in limited humanitarian and diplomatic instances," said Ms. Wilkinson.
If that is true, the question arises why the human rights issue is tackled by the military.
For the explanation, one should look at the issue of US – Myanmar military ties in a broader context.
In recent months, the US has shown all kinds of bows in respect of the Myanman leadership which has shown some minor sign of its readiness to soften the decades-old authoritarian military rule. While the true nature of the reforms – whether it is going to result in radical reforms or end up in a failure like Gorbachev's perestroika – remains unclear, major human rights violations are still taking place in Myanmar. They include ethnic and communal clashes that has displaces dozens of thousands people and a military offensive against ethnic minority groups in northern Myanmar. Human Rights Watch has accused the army of burning homes, raping women and torturing and killing civilians during interrogation.
The true nature of the relationship between Myanmar's leadership and the top military also remains unclear. While Myanmar's President Thein Sein is trying hard to maintain his image of a reformist, the military more often than not ignore his orders, like in the case of the above offensive against ethnic minorities.
But this does not seem to bother the US. During last several months, President Barack Obama has been consistently lifting economic sanctions on Myanmar – the step aimed at easing the way for US companies into all spheres of Myanmar's economy. The leader of Myaman opposition and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, often dubbed as Myanmar's next president, last month receiveda state-level reception in the US, during which she welcomed the change of US attitudes towards her country.
The core of the issue is simple. For decades, while Burma/Myanmar was ruled by the military the only country that had unlimited access to its resources and maintained control over a strategically crucial area in north-east Indian Ocean was China. Myanmar plays an important role in China's "string of pearls" policy of establishing its strategic presence in the Indian Ocean, and is in fact the shortest route connecting the ocean with China's southern regions.
China – Myanmar cooperation is not limited to economy – Myanmar has provided China with a number of military facilities including listening stations on Coco Islands and a deepwater port in Khyaukpyu. When completed the China-controlled infrastructure projects in Myanmar will give China an easy way to bypass the Malacca Strait which is presently swarms with pirates, and in the nearest future (with the US expanding its military ties with Singapore) is going to be totally controlled by the US Seventh Fleet.
Definitely, by courting Myanmar the US is aiming at a two-fold objective. One - cutting China's supply routes, the other - establishing its own presence in China's soft belly.
And with these objectives in mind, it is easy to forget about minor things like human rights, or even consigning the task to carry out the human rights dialogue to the military, which is hardly their business.
*Boris Volkhonsky, senior research fellow, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies