Monday, October 29, 2012

U.S.'s Lost Moral Compass in Myanmar

Americans have fought at home and on many a distant shore with resolve in truths that they hold to be self-evident, "that all men are created equal". Under the Barack Obama administration, America appears to have abandoned this principle through its recent engagement policy with until recently military-run Myanmar.

To be sure, Myanmar matters. The country has emerged as China's main gateway to the Indian Ocean, with massive natural resource wealth at home and important international markets beyond. Myanmar has thus emerged as a key state in the US's "pivot" policy towards Asia.

The flaws in the US approach are threefold, including: (1) failing to understand the unambiguous, enduring power of ethnic populations; (2) failing to engage them fully as equal stakeholders in the country's future; and (3) forgetting that many have been faithful American allies going all the way back to World War II.

US national elections and uprisings in the Middle East have masked the dangerous precedents the Obama administration is quietly establishing for arguably Southeast Asia's most strategically important nation.

Most Americans have little idea what is really happening in Myanmar, nor grasp the implications of Obama's and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's moves and initiatives, including the relaxation of economic sanctions.

This is because American policymakers have not had an open debate with full disclosure on how to best engage Myanmar. As a result, the US is now arguably making some of the same mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan. These have come at an incredible cost in lives lost and others tragically altered, in a staggering national debt and in a loss of US credibility after decades of high stature around the world.

The Obama administration has decided, in the face of valid protest, to embrace Myanmar's reformist government led by President Thein Sein, who served as prime minister under the previous abusive military junta. The US has effectively shifted course and given favor to a strong central government and army dominated by urban ethnic Burmans.

The US has a history of latching onto high-profile personalities and then pushing for the establishment of strong central governments and national armies around those personages. The US pushed this centralized approach to nation-building in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In doing so, it has generally failed to understand the very core nature of these multi-ethnic societies, where power has historically been diffuse and decentralized.

Ethnic minorities total up to half of Myanmar's populace, comprise seven of its 14 states with ancestral lands that dominate most of the country's borders and international trade routes, and occupy lands that account for the majority of the country's natural resources.

In spite of this, ethnics have to date been sidelined and largely left out of the US's engagement initiatives. The major pan-ethnic alliance representing 11 of the major armed ethnic groups has been virtually ignored by the Obama administration.

The US State Department asserts generally that it has "spoken" with ethnics, but conversations this writer had with ethnic alliance leaders reveals they feel they have been relegated to the sidelines of US engagement initiatives. They say it would be impolite to point fingers on the world stage about their marginalization in the process, even though they represent up to half of Myanmar's total population.

Ethnic resistance armies have thwarted the Myanmar army for decades because of a superior motivation to protect their lands and people. This gives their political leaders a credible voice of authority, one that must be engaged to achieve enduring peace and stability. Given all that has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, where ethnic power brokers have played crucial roles, the US is taking a considerable risk in ignoring Myanmar's ethnic leaders.

Limited limelight

President Thein Sein and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, both ethnic Burmans, are elite personae who have dominated the limelight of Myanmar's opening. After tours to the US and Europe, they have both become darlings of the West. Yet despite laudable reform gestures and rhetoric, Thein Sein still lacks civilian control over the army's generals, both active and retired.

His army is now mercilessly attacking ethnic Kachin villages in the country's northern region, leading to new allegations of systematic rights abuses. This is primarily because Kachin ancestral lands occupy areas that China wants for hydro-power development and natural resource exploitation, including supposed rich deposits of uranium.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi, meanwhile, has deliberately avoided drawing attention to the Kachin situation, apparently because she feels it detracts from the big picture move to democracy from military


This may, however, reflect a deep-rooted urban Burman elitist attitude toward non-Burman ethnics. Burman chauvinism against minority ethnic groups came to the fore during the recent crisis in Rakhine State, where ethnic minority Rohingya have been castigated as illegal settlers by Burman officials and activists alike.

It is an awkward point to raise given the good prospects unfolding in Myanmar. But it should be a legitimate concern for US policymakers, no matter how inconvenient it may be for those in the Obama

administration who want to turn the page on past poor relations and strengthen ties for wider strategic considerations.

Historically, many of Myanmar's ethnic minorities, including the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni and Shan, were America's and Great Britain's faithful allies during World War II. Their families were murdered by the thousands by the ethnic Burman majority, who had sided with the Japanese but then conveniently jumped ship at the war's end.

After the end of the war, Burmans took charge of the government as colonial Britain pulled out. Burman-led regimes have ever since tried to dominate ethnic minorities and their territories through campaigns of repression, coercion, and murder, as international human rights organizations have revealed in their investigations and reports.

At the same time, ethnic minority armies have historically provided muscle for the pro-democracy movement, keeping military-led governments bogged down in conflict. Though systematically impoverished and oppressed, they have held the line trying to protect their families, villages, ancestral lands and cultures in the face of a scorched earth campaign by the Myanmar military. (In Myanmar's new "democracy", the military is given gratis 25% of the seats in parliament.)

"Live Free or Die" is the motto at the entrance to one ethnic resistance force encampment in the remote jungle mountains of eastern Myanmar, words that resonate deeply in the US. They are words that Myanmar's ethnics have affirmed at a bloody cost of thousands of torched villages, over 400,000 internally displaced persons and over 800,000 forced laborers in eastern Myanmar alone, according to

independent rights groups. Nobody has yet been held to account for those crimes. Ongoing attacks against Kachin villages are consistent with this record of violence and impunity.

These acts have been perpetuated by the same Burman-dominated military that the Obama administration is now keenly engaging, including through proposed military-to-military relations.

Any military engagement that excludes ethnics, however, will likely aggravate the conflict. The US ignores this fact at some peril given the ethnic conflicts that continue to rage in Iraq and Afghanistan after pouring in hundreds of billions of dollars, if not more, over the last decade.

The Obama administration's intent to lift economic sanctions, promote public aid and private investment and engage the Myanmar military are of a questionable morality to all Americans, regardless of their political party affiliations. How America's engagement gambit treats the plight of Myanmar's ethnic minorities will be key to the policy's ultimate failure or success.

This is particularly so since many of Myanmar's ethnic groups have consistently carried pro-democracy banners in their fight against a succession of abusive military-led regimes. Many have done this with

the idea that America and its Western allies were champions of their cause.

America's global stature and legitimacy are ultimately at stake. After the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, although not military in nature, the US needs to get its Myanmar policy right to restore

confidence in its global diplomacy and intentions. America's "pivot" is already being tested in Myanmar, and in many important ways it's already on the wrong track.

Tim Heinemann is a retired US Army officer and strategist who does volunteer assistance work in support of ethnic pro-democracy groups in Myanmar. Joyo News

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