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Myanmar: time for Australia to engage with the military

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In Brief

With Aung San Suu Kyi now in parliament and Myanmar’s ongoing reform, it is time for Australia to increase the pace and level of engagement with this long-isolated state.

Numerous institutions within Myanmar require assistance to build capacity and implement reform (education is one key shortfall), but the military in particular must become the subject of increased and well-considered engagement.


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It is in Australia’s interest to see Myanmar continue to undertake economic and political reforms, and engaging the military is crucial in this process. The challenge is to engage in such a way as to avoid frightening the authorities into rejecting such overtures — and there are three underlying concerns that Australia must keep in mind when considering how to approach Myanmar.

First, the authorities’ deep-set concerns about foreign intervention have historical roots in the British, Chinese and Japanese invasions of the 19th and 20th centuries. As these invasions are still relatively fresh in the minds of the ruling elites, any planned engagement must be geared toward disarming this fear.

Second, the authorities have a gnawing fear about the potential balkanisation of the country — and there is a plethora of insurgent groups that would happily exploit any apparent fragmentation of the state. Engagement needs to be approached in such a way as to minimise concerns that reform initiatives may weaken the state and lead to greater levels of armed conflict.

Third, the country has a track record of fierce xenophobia. Nearly two million Indians were forcibly expelled in the 1950s as Myanmar retreated into its isolationist shell, despite the fact that the Indian population made a huge and largely positive contribution to the local economy. The state has also long shown a disregard for the many other ethnic groups including the Karen, Kachin, the Wa, the Shan, the Mon and Rohingya.

In light of these three concerns, any engagement has to be modest and discrete, rather than overbearing. Engagement requires cultural sensitivity, and Australian efforts need to be respectful of Myanmar’s history, culture and religious heritage. Having weighed up the issues at stake and the urgency of the tasks at hand, Australia should seize the moment. Competing vested interests within the country’s military (the Tatmadaw) and the government may yet unravel many of the reforms currently being implemented. Australia should declare its hand in support of reform, and offer its moral and practical support accordingly.

It is important to keep in mind that the Tatmadaw remains the most powerful and significant institution in the country; understanding its world view is important if engagement and reform are to gain any traction and longevity. The Tatmadaw-controlled constitutional process has ensured that no matter how much democracy is introduced, the military still remains the country’s back-stop.

The military will continue to play a pivotal role in determining Myanmar’s fate and remains central to any plan that aims to resolve ongoing conflicts with various separatist groups. The Tatmadaw is considered opaque, but little has been done to try and understand what they are thinking or why, as virtually no one seeks to engage them directly.

Arguably, then, the central institution requiring reform is the Tatmadaw. But to encourage reform requires deft handling and innovative thinking about how to proceed. Part of the issue is that many in the Tatmadaw simply do not know what the modern norms of acceptable military behaviour are. And Australia can only fully appreciate what the issues are by taking the risk of engaging with the military directly.

Herein lies the problem: while the Australian embassy in Yangon is staffed by excellent and dedicated people, none of them has military experience and they have few meaningful connections with the Tatmadaw. This is in part because the latter has a preference for speaking with those it sees as more like-minded — that is, others in uniform. Australia does have a part-time defence attaché assigned to the country, but the representative resides in Bangkok and must deal with competing priorities.

If Australia is to focus its efforts on Myanmar accurately and efficiently, then permanent military representation is needed in the country. Beyond that, Australia could offer the ‘law and leadership’ training program offered to (and warmly received by) other ASEAN armed forces. Short reciprocal information-exchange visits between defence academies could also be a first step toward deeper engagement. Australia should also start exploring — perhaps in conjunction with other ASEAN states — how it could offer a ‘good offices’ arrangement to help find a peace settlement between the state and warring ethnic groups such as the Kachin.

Some may say this is too hard or too risky. But with risk comes opportunity. Something needs to happen to halt the strife between Myanmar’s ethnic groups and the central government. Democratic reform will remain constrained until this vexed issue is addressed holistically. Now is the time for Australia to think outside the box and offer to engage with an open hand and a genuine desire to help find a way out of an otherwise apparently intractable situation.

John Blaxland is Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.

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