The Myanmar junta have come a long way in a very short space of time. Aung San Suu Kyi has been released and has met with world leaders including US President Barack Obama, the media is incrementally liberalising with more international exposure, and people in central Myanmar regions are reporting more freedoms of expression and collective rights. Myanmar is stumbling down the path to democracy, but is heading in a favourable direction.
Nevertheless, there have been some recent incidents that raise questions about how quickly Myanmar is transitioning. A violent crackdown by police on workers and Salingyi villagers protesting outside the China/Myanmar-run Letpadaung Taung copper mine left scores of villagers and monks with burns and other injuries. Since then, President Thein Sein has appointed Aung San Suu Kyi to head a taskforce investigating the conduct of Myanmar forces during the incident and the Myanmar police force have apologised for their actions. This whirlwind of bureaucratic housekeeping has taken place before any public international or regional condemnation, media statements or official responses. ASEAN has also remained silent, preferring to report rather than comment on the incident.
It’s not yet clear what this says about developments in Myanmar’s military (known officially as Tatmadaw) and its approach to policing. In particular, the West will have to decide how to engage with a regime that has fallen short of its promises in the past, and some might argue that sanctions were lifted too soon. Brutal crackdowns like these show a potential for Myanmar to fall back into isolation and despotism. They also point to a possible fissure between the ruling military government and the police force. However, the reform and opening of Myanmar’s junta in the last year is unprecedented and there are still plenty of opportunities for the West to help things along. As ANU’s John Blaxland has suggested, in order to elicit meaningful change in Myanmar, there needs to be deeper engagement with policymakers, politicians and those in uniform. The ADF is well poised to play an important role in this enterprise—the militarised nature of politics in Myanmar makes it a very difficult task for DFAT alone.
Militarised states like Myanmar have a distinct strategic and political culture. Resistance to railroading by foreign powers stems from a history of legitimacy loss and leadership dissolution at the hands of China and Japan. Blaxland’s hypothesis that Napyidaw was developed in response to US-led regime change in Libya and Iraq is consistent with the junta’s desire to reinforce central control against external attack. The Tatmadaw have traditionally offered frosty receptions to US figures, and foreign nationals are subject to sustained surveillance. Blaxland has also observed an ingrained strategic culture of violence in the Myanmar military and police forces. They are trained in effective suppression, and are currently not familiar with non-violent approaches to conflict. The use of incendiary weapons on unarmed villagers and monks in this latest crackdown contravenes the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons, and betrays a lack of regulation in weapons distribution and use within ranks of law enforcement.
Australia has potential to shape Myanmar’s emerging strategic culture in the long term, and to help direct broadening its international outlook towards regional security. Australia could work with ASEAN and India to recalibrate its approach. India has had longstanding historical and cultural ties with Myanmar and is therefore in a position to exert favourable influence. And there’s much to learn from our past experiences engaging with the militaries of ASEAN countries. Our experiences with Thailand have borne good results with regards to human rights observance (PDF). A long standing relationship with Indonesia’s military also gives us some confidence in partnering with forces with darker histories but which are now becoming more respectful of human rights and the rule of law.
However, deeper political and cultural engagement faces stiff opposition because of existing economic interests. For instance, the Letpadaung Taung mine site is set to expand under the auspices of the junta and a Chinese arms producer. Mining projects of this nature are largely located in rural locales, where ethnic minority populations are most concentrated, and so have potential to exacerbate existing ethnic conflicts such as those between the junta and the Karen National Liberation Army or Kachin Independence Army. There are also regional implications: internal movements of displaced people are undesirable for the junta and cross border movements aggravate existing problems across the border in Thailand. While a daily influx of cheap labour from Myanmar underwrites Thailand’s economic growth and raises revenue, there is little political room for unregulated arrivals in already-packed refugee camps.
Australia must be mindful that the Myanmar military and police are still in transition, and will be reluctant to take up the mantle of engagement unless it is presented in a manner that acknowledges their existing concessions. Forging a strategic relationship with Myanmar must be conducted on a basis of partnership. It can enjoy the geopolitical benefits of access and influence that come with strategic reciprocity and increased military engagement with Myanmar. Australia’s burgeoning relationship with our Asian Pacific neighbours is commensurate with our geostrategic interests—there’s no reason why Myanmar shouldn’t be next in line.
Sarah Norgrove is currently undertaking ASPI’s internship program. Image courtesy of Flickr user Kris_B (Christophe Brisbois).