How Should Washington Re-engage with Myanmar’s Security Agenda?

Recent Features


How Should Washington Re-engage with Myanmar’s Security Agenda?

Multi-track diplomacy holds the key to effective engagement with the Tatmadaw.

How Should Washington Re-engage with Myanmar’s Security Agenda?
Credit: Flickr / thaigov

Is it time for Washington to re-engage Myanmar on military and security agendas? The answer is yes, but how? Engagement is the key, but means is the essence. Engagement by the Obama administration was off to a flying start with positive impacts on Myanmar’s transition, and Myanmar’s military (Tatmadaw) to re-engage with western states after decades of isolation. While the United States seemed to retract from Myanmar under the Trump administration, and Naypyidaw seems to be swinging towards Beijing, this momentum for re-engagement remains.

Since 2012, Tatmadaw has made significant progress on the international stage; Canberra and Brussels have opened a new chapter with the Myanmar military. Peacekeeping and capacity building for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief are the main areas of engagement.  Under the banner of supporting the peace process, Tatmadaw officers have undertaken international study trips to Europe and post-conflict states. The United States is not an exception. Although military relations and security related engagements are still sanctioned, Tatmadaw officers have partaken in training and fellowship programs arranged by the State Department, together with representatives of the ethnic armed organizations and government.

Engagement through the U.S. State Department program has had a positive impact; however, deeper engagement with the Tatmadaw is hampered by reports of human rights abuses. A fundamental issue is the state-within-a-state situation established by the 2008 constitution. Unique forms of civil-military relations favor the Tatmadaw to formulate national security policy and a space to pursue its own foreign policy. This setup has significantly weakened the civilian administration, especially the current administration, with no prior experience on security matters and hegemony over the Tatmadaw like never before.

Recent mobilization in the Rakhine state, after the meeting with the Arakan National Party (ANP), showed Tatmadaw may conduct its operations without prior coordinating with the administration. Although, Tatmadaw recommends the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Border Affairs ministers, both ministries report directly to the President’s Office.

The case of Thailand’s democratic setback sets a precedent for Washington’s thinking that military-military engagement alone may not be enough to tame the armed forces into safeguarding democracy. This assessment keeps the proposal to engage with the Tatmadaw in limbo. Still, engagement is perhaps the only window for the Tatmadaw to be exposed to healthy democratic civil-military relations.

The Expanded International Military and Education Training (E-IMET) program could be a good starting point; however, it may not be sufficient to strengthen the democratic reforms and peace processes in Myanmar as the capacity of the civilian government to handle the security related matters tis still limited. In addition, tapping into the administration, without an institutionalized civil-military relation mechanism, is not sustainable and may be an uphill struggle for both the administration and the Tatmadaw.

A strong civilian government is the key to shepherding the transition and safeguarding Myanmar’s democracy. Engagement should focus on empowering civilian government to expand capacity in the security sector and further hone civil-military relation mechanisms that allow fluid coordination among the administration, parliament (Hluttaw) and Tatmadaw. Washington’s engagement should follow three tracks: Empowering the civilian government and parliament (Hluttaw), engaging with the Tatmadaw on non-lethal workshops, and resilience projects for civil society organizations.

The role of the parliament (Hluttaw) in the security sector has been discounted, but it is the most appropriate institution to engage, as 25 percent of the seats represent the Tatmadaw. Washington should consider engagements with workshops and exposure activities on budgeting, defense reviews and hearing processes on Capitol Hill. This will unlock new options to engage, from formulation and ratification of the national security policies to defense review processes, which Myanmar needs for security sector reform.

Development of local security related think tanks will de-monopolize the Tatmadaw roles in the security sector and support the civilian government’s efforts on developing security policies. Few security related think tanks have sprung up recently; however, they have limited resources to provide policy inputs to stakeholders. Engaging and empowering these nascent institutions will enable the United States to conduct more effective track-II diplomacy.

There is no doubt that engagement for military and security agendas may have positive impacts. Rather than looking through the direct engagement with Tatmadaw, multi-track diplomacy will enable the pendulum to swing back to Washington. Engaging with the paradigm of strengthening and empowering the civilian government is pragmatic without requiring undue political capitals.

Amara Thiha is the Asia Foundation’s 2017 William P Fuller Fellow in Conflict Resolution and a visiting fellow at the Stimson Center. He previously worked in the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee and the Myanmar Peace Center. The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of the Asia Foundation and Stimson Center.