While some had their doubts when the U.S. abruptly dropped economic sanctions against Burma, the new approach is already paying off. The FT reports that Burma recently began talks with the U.S. involving possible military exchanges and training programs.
Initial discussions between the US and Myanmar have focused on proposals for non-military training – such as at US think-tanks – and the exchange of military visits at commander level.However, ideas under discussion suggest that training and assistance programmes could go much further if initial steps go smoothly.Myanmar has also requested observer status at regional US and multilateral military exercises, although a decision has yet to be made, regional and western diplomats say.“Both the US and Myanmar want to do some direct bilateral joint training – the Americans want to focus on talented junior officers who don’t have murky backgrounds but who can get training and effect reform and change,” said a western analyst close to the talks.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made sure to clarify that any measures taken would be cautious, as the U.S. wants to avoid giving aid to groups that may plunge the country back into violence. In a country whose democratic transition has been very slow, this is a very real concern.Burma has some big issues on its plate. Tensions between tribal minority groups and the government as well as conflicts over the status of the Muslim minority have led to bloodshed and armed revolt. The army is going to be heavily involved in solving—or failing to solve—these longstanding problems. Presumably many of the Burmese military authorities hope that closer ties with the U.S. will lead to better training and better weapons that will help the military bring its version of order to the country. Presumably U.S. officers and diplomats hope that closer contact with the Burmese military will change the way many officers approach the problems of national unity and construction.We’ll see where this goes; the two sides don’t know each other very well yet and a number of misunderstandings are likely to emerge. But it’s a promising start; the Burmese seem to understand that what they’ve been doing isn’t working, and the Americans are eager to help.