The Pacific Forum CSIS, in partnership with the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (M-ISIS), and with support from the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA), held the third Myanmar-US Retired Military-to-Military Dialogue in Yangon, Myanmar, on February 24-25, 2017. The group included approximately 25 participants and observers from Myanmar and the United States, all attending in their private capacities. There were several new participants on both sides and, for the first time, several active duty military officers also participated as observers. The group shared views on the political dynamics that are shaping bilateral relations, perceptions of the primary security threats in Southeast Asia, the role of history in shaping civil-military relations in the two countries, perspectives on security sector reform and development, and ideas for building bilateral confidence through cooperation with a particular emphasis on enhancing military-to-military relations. The overall atmosphere of the meeting was extremely open, friendly, and engaging.
Key findings included:
– Myanmar participants argued that past, present, and continued importance of the Tatmadaw in maintaining stability (until things are better and they can relinquish control) is an important narrative that the US should overtly acknowledge, whether or not it agrees. Meanwhile, the US has consistently delivered a message that civilian control of the military is a desired end-state and that serious movement in this direction is a requirement for future opening in mil-mil engagement. To bridge this gap, an in-depth discussion of how the Tatmadaw views the transition that occurred during the Thein Sein presidency would be helpful.
– Poor strategic communication and the lack of a coherent media strategy has been a shortcoming of the Tatmadaw in the conflict with the ethnic minorities. Myanmar participants expressed frustration that even though the presence of the Tatmadaw was being gladly welcomed as “liberators” in the ethnic communities, the outside world continues to have a negative view of the Tatmadaw based on reports of human rights violations and other abuses in Rakhine State.
– Integrating strategic communications into its operational planning would be an important step for the Tatmadaw. This requires a degree of cultural change in their military not unlike what happened to the US military after Vietnam, and a greater sophistication in the understanding of ongoing changes in the media, including the role of social media.
– US participants made it clear that the new administration is likely to take seriously any revelations regarding a military relationship between the DPRK and Myanmar, and that any such revelations would likely cause a halt to any current cooperation and a reversal of any progress with the US-Myanmar relationship. Myanmar must be alert and sensitive to the fact that any interaction with representatives from the DPRK is fraught with risk given the DPRK’s long history of using its relations with countries in Southeast Asia to advance its nuclear and missile programs.
– There are significant challenges to reconciling differences with the ethnic minorities in the northern region of Myanmar. Given longstanding animosities, it has proven difficult to achieve consensus on power sharing among the groups. This is slowing progress on the realization of the second Panglong Peace Conference, which was originally scheduled for the end of February 2017. A significant complicating factor is that the region is a haven for illegal businesses (primarily narcotics trafficking and illegal logging) that are supported by criminal elements from across the borders of China and Thailand. This has created a vicious cycle where insurgents use these illegal businesses to purchase arms. Claiming that the situation in the northern region has grown worse, several argued that the US needs to help the central government gain control of the region.
– There was general agreement that drug cultivation and trafficking in Myanmar presents a serious and growing threat. There is strong sentiment among the Myanmar contingent that increased support from the US Drug Enforcement Agency, including training and technology sharing, is urgently needed (although they did not seem to fully appreciate how much is already being done).
– Myanmar participants reiterated that having 25 percent military representation in Parliament is not permanent. However, the Tatmadaw’s priority is to maintain national unity and peace, while allowing the democratic government to pursue economic development. It will relinquish its role when it believes that the political and security situations are sufficiently stable. In effect, this means that constitutional reform will likely be resisted until there is some form of reconciliation with the ethnic minorities.
– Myanmar participants noted the urgent need for the development of technical skills among Myanmar’s junior and middle grade military officers. While promoting disaster relief/consequence management and military medicine are useful entry points for engagement, education and training centered on legal issues such as the Geneva Convention, laws of land warfare, and humanitarian treatment of enemy combatants could be very valuable contributions to advancing trust building within the Tatmadaw.
– Myanmar participants highlighted their sincere interest in expanding the scope of US-Myanmar mil-mil collaboration. While there are a variety of ways to develop additional trust between the two sides in the pursuit of that goal, the US side continually stressed that it was important for them to understand that one of the keys to getting support from the US Congress on this issue would be a request from the popularly elected civilian government (which appears to fear that such a request, for IMET for example, would “legitimize” the Tatmadaw’s current power-sharing arrangement).
– The Myanmar government is supportive of increased autonomy for the ethnic minorities. But the Tatmadaw will not accept a solution that allows state or local governments to maintain their own armed forces. Any suggestion that provinces/groups/states should have their own militias/national guards, no matter how well meaning, appears counterproductive.
– The importance of building bilateral confidence in combatting proliferation and illegal trafficking was emphasized throughout the discussions. While this can be done in a variety of ways, multilateral initiatives through UN- or ASEAN-based organizations offer an excellent opportunity to facilitate this interaction.
– While not traditional military-to-military topics, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, and climate change are of interest to the Myanmar military and could be used in future dialogues to leverage a more in-depth discussion on what the Tatmadaw see as the future of Rakhine State beyond the immediate confrontation between the government and the Muslim population.
– There was general agreement that nontraditional security issues are a good area to start building military-military cooperation. Promising issues include humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, public health and military medicine, and United Nations peacekeeping training. Other areas that should be explored include flight safety training, joint hydrographic surveys, and ship visits.
– Dialogues like this prove that familiarity leads to greater frankness, openness, and deeper conversations. Our first session was very formal; now we have a much more candid, richer discussion.
This summary represents the impressions of the project coordinator. The Key Findings are not necessarily shared by all members of the US and/or Myanmar delegations. They are provided as an informal accounting of the discussion. Questions or comments should be directed to Ralph Cossa, Pacific Forum CSIS.