Courting Small and Unpleasant Regimes: It’s China, Stupid

Faine Greenwood on why the U.S. should take it easy on restarting military aid to Myanmar—and why we…

Courting Small and Unpleasant Regimes: It’s China, Stupid Courting Small and Unpleasant Regimes: It’s China, Stupid

Uncategorized September 11, 2013 0

defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets with Myanmar Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin on Aug. 28, 2013. Marine Corps photo Courting Small and Unpleasant... Courting Small and Unpleasant Regimes: It’s China, Stupid
defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets with Myanmar Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin on Aug. 28, 2013. Marine Corps photo

Courting Small and Unpleasant Regimes: It’s China, Stupid 

Faine Greenwood on why the U.S. should take it easy on restarting military aid to Myanmar — and why we engage with nasty little regimes in the first place.

The U.S. is mulling over reopening military ties with Burma after 25 years of silence, and less than a year after Pres. Barack Obama’s much-ballyhooed — and controversial — visit to Yangon.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has met with former junta leader Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin, U.S. legal defense experts are sniffing around the country, and Sen. Mitch McConnell has given his blessing to the scheme. The Pentagon hastens to note that the assistance rendered would be “non-lethal” training, focusing on topics like military justice and military-civilian relations. What could possibly go wrong?

Too bad it is not that simple in Burma. If it is ever simple in Burma.

Much as Obama and the U.S. like to heap praise on Burma’s leadership, there is still a long way to go before this diverse and exceedingly complicated nation is ready to elbow its way into the ranks of Western powers. And even “non-lethal” American military assistance could go a long way toward emboldening the already exceedingly powerful Burmese military, known as the Tatmadaw. It is also worth questioning how long “non-lethal” assistance is likely to stay that way.

The list of human rights woes in modern-day Burma is sobering. Rebel groups in Burma’s restive north continue to battle the government, as pogrom-fearing Rohingya flee the coastline in boats, looking to go anywhere but Rakhine state, while over 92,000 refugees languish in IDP camps near the city of Sittwe.

International humanitarian leader Aung San Suu Kyi has stayed almost entirely mum on the issue of Myanmar human rights. Tension between Buddhists and minority Muslims is bad and getting worse throughout this diverse and complicated nation.

And the military — whatever Western powers may prefer to believe — is not exactly a beacon of hope for reform in Burma.

We’ve seen the U.S. render limited military assistance to Southeast Asian nations in the modern era before. One example comes to mind: Cambodia, another nation with a lousy human rights record that has enjoyed millions of dollars in military aid from Washington.

The Cambodian military is controlled by long-time dictator Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which hung onto power after a close and extremely contentious election rife with irregularities and fraud allegations. Cambodians are subject to random land grabs, the violent breakup of protests and grinding economic inequality, among a host of other ills too long to list here.

Angry as the opposition may be about this dismal humanitarian state of affairs, a Cambodian Spring remains unlikely: not least because the ruling party, thanks to its stranglehold over the military, has access to exponentially more firepower than the opposition. The U.S. directly assists this exceedingly armed force, providing services from counter-terrorism training to joint military exercises as well as military equipment.

Human Rights Watch has called for the U.S. to end the military relationship for years, a request that has fallen largely on deaf ears from both sides of the aisle. Obama may have snubbed Hun Sen at the November ASEAN meeting in Phnom Penh, and Hun Sen may throw the occasional snit-fit — but both leaders are keenly aware that the status quo beats the alternative.

Why does the U.S. court small and unpleasant regimes for military aid, such as CPP-run Cambodia? Even in the face of incontrovertible evidence of human rights abuse? America’s increasing worry over China’s influence in Southeast Asia accounts for much of the answer. Providing military aid to Cambodia gives the U.S. a convenient way to win the hearts and minds of Khmer leaders.

The same logic applies to the Myanmar issue, whose leaders are being actively courted by both Beijing and Washington for access to the nation’s wealth of natural resources.

Cambodian leader Hun Sen certainly was refreshingly frank about the Southeast Asian tug-match last month, after the U.S. expressed its (moderated) displeasure with the unfair July elections. He noted his nation was happy to end all U.S. military aid if its leaders felt that way. “Cut it off!” he crowed, with his traditionally slightly cracked smugness, noting he could easily fill the gap with Chinese funds.

America’s Asia watchers, it is certain, took note. China will merrily step in where the U.S. hesitates to send arms and trainers The lesson will not be missed by those formulating a Burma policy.

Too bad. Extending military aid to Myanmar in the face of egregious human rights abuses would prove another example of U.S. foreign policy valuing profit over our oft-professed morality. Further, emboldening the already exceptionally powerful Tatmadaw — even with “non-lethal” techniques — may not lead to the pleasingly democratic results the U.S. is hoping for. If we are to behave prudently, we are simply going to have to wait a few years longer, and see.

But China will not be waiting, and influence over Myanmar needs to be won now, at this particularly pivotal time for both investors and foreign-policy chess players. Burma’s victims of humanitarian crimes, as always seems to be the case, must resign themselves to being a distinctly secondary priority.