(Interview) – U.S. Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma Derek Mitchell met with Commander in Chief of the Burmese Defense Forces Lt. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing during his third visit to Naypyitaw. It was the first time in 23 years that a high U.S. official met with the Burmese armed forces chief. The state newspaper reported that they discussed "cooperation between the two nations' armies" during their meeting on November 3, 2011. As the relationship has seemed to improve dramatically, the US has resumed humanitarian assistance to Burma and appears to be moving ahead with military cooperation between the two armies. Mizzima reporter Ko Pauk interviewed Burmese military analyst U Htay Aung, who has observed the Burmese military for decades.
Question: What does a meeting between U.S. representative Derek Mitchell and Burmese Commander in Chief Lt. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing really mean?
Answer: We could presume that the relationship between the two governments must be adequate after the U.S. representative’s meeting with the Burmese president. But the U.S. envoy's additional meeting with Min Aung Hlaing means something else; the U.S. military seems to have softened its stance on the Burmese army and may want to deliver a “gesture” message.
Q: Was there any past military cooperation between the two countries prior to the 1988 popular uprising?
A: Since 1988, after the military had taken over power in Burma, the military ties between the two countries were severed. Previously, there was some close cooperation under the "drug eradication campaign," even under U Ne Win's one-party BSPP rule. Many Burmese military officers were trained in U.S. military schools. It included intelligence training, and Burma bought some weapons through U.S. companies. Actually, many Burmese generals have a high view about Western countries, particularly the U.S. They prefer to use U.S.-made military equipment and even when they watch war movies, they prefer U.S. films. While Burma has been relying heavily on China, China has offered a double-faced policy. The Chinese sold arms to the Burmese junta while at the same time, Chinese companies built small-arms factories for ethnic cease-fire groups in Burma. After the clashes with the Kokant ethnic armed group and the Burmese army, there has been some tension in the Sino-Burma relationship.
Now theUnion Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)-led government has given up on a lot of dealings with the Wa and Mongla ethnic groups because of China's pressure. As Burmese military leaders have gradually realized that long-term relationship with China will be cumbersome, they make eyes at the U.S. And to do that, they have to deal with Aung San Suu Kyi inevitably.
Q: When did you start to notice that they gave a winking signal to the U.S.?
A: Under the SLORC/ SPDC rule, they approached the U.S.in regard to anti-drug policies. Moreover, they had searched for remnants of U.S. planes that went down in Burma during WW II and returned them to the U.S. They have tried to appease the U.S. administration for quite a long time. Now they take advantage to approach closer to the U.S. as it ‘opens its arms.”
The termination of the Myitsone Dam project is basically, I think, to teach the Chinese rather than about listening to the voice of the Burmese people. They show they can approach another country, and they show they can shift from a close relationship with China.
Q: What could the two countries do in terms of military cooperation?
A: The aerial surveillance planes for the Burmese navy and the navy ships bought from China can't compete with the Thai weapons delivered by the U.S. The Burmese military leaders know that. If there is military cooperation, they want to buy arms from the U.S. and acquire US technology and then they will train in the U.S. They really wanted such a situation for quite a long time. What they can give in return is drug eradication in Burma. If they have good relations with the U.S, the Wa will be in tight corner. The Burmese army would attack the Wa sooner or later.
Q: Could a joint military exercise be possible in the region?
A: It could be possible. When the Nargis cyclone hit Burma, the U.S. navy approached the junta to help, but the Burmese leaders declined the proposal. There could be more cooperation later.
Q: Will military relations cause concern in the region?
A: I don't think so. The U.S. and Thai are doing joint military exercise annually. The U.S. is doing similar exercises with India and Bangladesh. If the exercise has a limited purpose and scale, it would not be a problem for anyone. As long as foreign bases are not allowed in Burma and Burma doesn't keep nuclear weapons, it could not be presumed to be a threat to the region. A good relationship with the U.S. doesn't necessarily mean to sever relations with China. Chinese investments are already there in the country. If we rely only on one country, it could be a problem longer-term.
Q: What are the obstacles for such cooperation?
A: As the U.S. army is working under the U.S. government and it upholds human rights standards and norms as well, the cooperation will happen after their demands are fulfilled. The relationship between the two governments is first and then the two armies are second.
The Burmese military regime has claimed that they haven’t been hurt by U.S. sanctions. Actually, the sanctions have hurt them a lot psychologically and economically. The meetings with Suu Kyi and the government are mainly to approach the U.S. Now the Burmese junta follows through with this military gesture.
Q: Snr-Gen Than Shwe met with U.S. Senator Jim Webb in 2009. Since he was also the commander in chief during that time, can we say this was the second meeting with a high U.S. official and the Burmese commander in chief?
A: Jim Web is a senator and he is responsible only for a senate affairs committee. He might have sounded out the Burmese government as a representative of the senate. But Derek Mitchell is a representative appointed by the U.S. government. His report will have much more impact on the two countries' relations.