The Obama administration wants to restart U.S. defense training for Myanmar that was cut 25 years ago after a crackdown on protesters. While assistance would be nonlethal, some American lawmakers are resisting, concerned Washington is moving too fast in forging ties with a military still accused of attacking ethnic minorities and blocking humanitarian aid.
The administration has rolled back tough sanctions and hosted President Thein Sein at the White House to reward his moves toward democratic reform, but restoring military ties is particularly sensitive and viewed as one of Washington's few remaining points of leverage.
The administration, which is looking to boost U.S. influence in Asia, is moving carefully but swiftly. With the backing of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, U.S. defense legal experts last week made their second trip to Myanmar in two months, scoping out what help they can provide on teaching about human rights and the rule of law. And last Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met on the sidelines of a regional conference in Brunei with another former junta member, Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin – the first bilateral meeting between the U.S. and Myanmar defense chiefs in two decades.
Military cooperation was severed after thousands of democracy protesters were gunned down during a 1988 popular uprising in the country, and an arms embargo is still in force. Myanmar has turned to China, Russia and North Korea for defense supplies and training.
But with a quasi-civilian government in place and national elections due in 2015, the Obama administration argues that talking "soldier-to-soldier" with Myanmar on issues like military justice and military-civilian relations can encourage reform and help the U.S. build ties with a military it knows little about.
The administration has backing from Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He's the most influential voice in Congress on Myanmar policy, and in August declared support for "a modest, targeted military-to-military relationship."
But other lawmakers are against it, sharing the concerns of activists who argue it would give international legitimacy to a military that has waged a campaign displacing 100,000 civilians in northern Kachin state during the past two years of political opening.
"It is far too soon to initiate military engagement between the U.S. and Burma," Republican Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, chairman of a House panel that oversees policy toward East Asia, told The Associated Press.
A number of Western nations are already moving ahead. Britain has invited 30 Myanmar officers to a prestigious defense conference. Australia is also pledging basic military engagement to support security sector reform.
Priscilla Clapp, a former U.S. charge d'affaires in Yangon, says standing on the sidelines doesn't serve U.S. interests. "We need to reach into the organization of the military and help educate people and expose them to new ideas," she said.
Before sanctions were applied, the U.S. financed $4.7 million in military sales delivered to Myanmar between 1980 and 1988, and trained 167 officers at American military schools under the International Military Education and Training, or IMET – a program jointly managed by the State Department and Defense Department that helps more than 120 countries.
While the IMET alumni have rarely been movers and shakers in Myanmar's military hierarchy, they include a current vice president and several senior government officials. The State Department contends that has helped create a constituency for reform and closer ties with the U.S.
But the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, concluded in an October 2011 report that IMET training plans did not place a priority on human rights. Because of weak monitoring of the careers of IMET graduates, the report said, it was not possible to demonstrate the program's effectiveness "in building professionalism and respect for human rights within foreign military forces."
When the Obama administration informed Congress in the spring about plans for gradually resuming military ties with Myanmar, both Republicans and Democrats pushed back and urged the administration to move slowly, congressional aides said.
Various budget bills working their way through Congress reflect that unease. A draft House defense authorization bill for the fiscal year starting in October says the Myanmar military's efforts "to end impunity for human rights abuses" should be assessed before going beyond initial dialogue and engagements.
While the State Department says it's too soon for a full resumption of IMET, it does advocate moving beyond dialogue and starting a formal training program. A so-called Extended IMET program would contribute to military reforms by teaching about human rights, military justice and humanitarian assistance, it says.
Legislative obstacles remain, and the endorsement of Suu Kyi, who is revered in Washington, would also be crucial for it to become a reality. She has supported the recent visits by the U.S. Defense Institute of International Legal Studies to Myanmar.
Despite their common loathing for the government's armed forces, Myanmar's myriad ethnic minority groups have varying opinions about the merits of U.S. military engagement. That's reflected even within the United Nationalities Federal Council – an umbrella group that represents various ethnic rebel groups seeking more autonomy within Myanmar.
Khin Maung, the council's deputy head of foreign affairs from western Arakan state, was skeptical the U.S. would be able to change what he calls the entrenched chauvinism of Myanmar's military against minorities. But David Tharckabaw, a council vice president from Karen state, was hopeful U.S. training could turn the military from "bandits" to a disciplined army that is responsible for national defense while respecting human rights.