Considering International Military Education and Training in Myanmar?

By Ravi Balaram

Acting Assistant Secretary Joseph Yun’s Senate testimony on April 25 on security cooperation and challenges in the U.S. rebalance to Asia reflects the intersection of security and development domains. Inextricably linked, Secretary Yun said that U.S. security and prosperity depends on Asian peace, stability, and economic growth. In the Asia-Pacific, part of the U.S. whole-of-government strategy is deepening military engagement and cooperation. As the United States looks across the region on where, how, and why to deepen its engagement, it should turn its focus towards Myanmar.

Secretary Yun succinctly summarized the nearly normalized relations with Myanmar:

“Our commitment to advancing freedom, democracy, and the rule of law has manifested itself in our steadfast support for reform and opening in Burma, where positive developments on a range of concerns of the international community have allowed us to open a new chapter in bilateral relations.”

The United States has recognized Myanmar’s recent democratic, economic and social reforms by lifting sanctions, placing an Ambassador in Yangon, and encouraging continued progress through the first visit by a President of the United States while in office.

As the United States considers additional enhancements to the relationship, it must engage the military. The military, or Tatmadaw, has either directly or de facto governed Myanmar for 52 of the past 65 years. Arguably playing a profound role in any progress (or backsliding) in economic and political reforms, the Tatmadaw is the most robustly resourced and organized institution of the country’s nascent government. The question then, for the United States, is how to best positively influence the Tatmadaw to assist in modernization, respect for human rights, rule of law, and civilian control of the military.

Education is one part of the solution. From 1980 to 1988, the United States funded 175 Tatmadaw officers to attend U.S. military schools as part of the Department of State funded International Military Education and Training (IMET) program. In that time, State invested $1,557,000 for these officers to attend professional military education and technical training programs with most courses lasting 6-18 months in the United States. The program abruptly ended in 1988 in response to violent Tatmadaw suppression of civilian protests.

U.S. government officials and policymakers generally subscribe to the conventional wisdom that IMET is a low-cost, effective foreign policy tool for defense diplomacy. Secretary Yun told the Senate April 25 that IMET was a critical security assistance program playing

“a key role by building partner capacity, including strengthening maritime domain awareness capabilities, working with partners as they develop and professionalize their armed forces, and enhancing our partner capabilities and interoperability to work with the United states to address emerging challenges, both internationally, and in the region.”

A 2011 Government Accountability Office report, however, showed that the effectiveness of IMET is largely unfounded and anecdotal at best due to significant data gaps and a lack of rigorous analysis. IMET program monitoring and evaluation remains inchoate. Critics of IMET with Myanmar including pro- human-rights organizations are quick to provide anecdotes linking IMET to Tatmadaw human-rights violations. These groups argue that the United States should withhold IMET until all culpable parties are held accountable and institutions drastically reform.

IMET should not be used as a foreign policy tool for compellence.  IMET is an educational development program designed to promote knowledge and U.S. culture and values as part of a long-term strategy that properly nests and compliments other engagement policies, especially those targeting human rights violations. IMET as a compellence instrument only reduces opportunities for engagement in a military already rife with problems and in great need of development assistance.

Systematic evaluation of IMET in Myanmar should be a prerequisite to considering options for future military engagement and program resumption.  President Obama’s April 5, 2013 Security Sector Assistance Policy states, “Resource allocation will be evaluated based on common U.S. Government assessments, multi-year strategies, and performance against measures of effectiveness.”  This era of continual defense budget reductions requires an in-depth appraisal of IMET outcomes and processes worldwide to provide the U.S. public with valuable information on the return on investment of taxpayer dollars.

Mr. Ravi Balaram is guest contributor for the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies. Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

Photo from Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.


7 comments for “Considering International Military Education and Training in Myanmar?

  1. Paul Marshall
    May 11, 2013 at 11:24

    I agree completely and would hope cooperation develops between the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I., USA and the Naval forces of Myanmar. Those of us associated with the navy in Newport appreciate and value the participation and cooperation between navies that comes from such education and sharing.

    • Mark Riley
      May 12, 2013 at 13:09

      My comment has to do with attempting to argue “effectiveness” in general for any particular program or action.

      A recently published Foreign Affairs article in part reinforces the thinking that attempting to determine “effectiveness” is too high a bar. Even though there is indeed a lot of data to pull, especially in the digital age, the countless number of factors impacting the environment makes causation (that an action caused an effect) too difficult to determine.

      Association with success may indeed be as far as we can reasonably argue the success (or failure) of a particular program/action.

      • Ravi Balaram
        May 13, 2013 at 22:55

        Differentiating causation versus correlation in success or effectiveness of course can be very difficult especially with a lack of data in a complex multivariate environment. I think you touch upon an important note. As we begin to better collect data on IMET, we need to develop effectiveness metrics both in processes and outcomes to optimize IMET with best practices.

        • Claudia Risner
          May 22, 2013 at 12:21

          Excellent article Ravi. It is a good follow-on to your presentation at the GPIS Conference. Your focus on effectiveness, metrics, and outcomes is exactly right. These are the aspects of SFA the USN grappled with in connecting tactical action to strategic results. Not sure we arrived at a satisfactory answer, at least not at the TYCOM level. We ended up focusing on outputs (MOP) rather than outcomes (MOE). Accurately defining the desired effects of IMET is difficult but crucial. Is it capability building, access, influence, partnership or a combination? Are we considering the desired effects from the perspectives of the recipient military as well as our own? And what about all the other intervening variables? On the other hand, as you raised in another comment, is the value of our engagement / partnership as a preemptive against that military forming such a relationship with China or Russia a valid and worthwhile objective? Politically? Economically (taxpayer view)? Egypt is an interesting case in view of our long mil-to-mil relationship and the recent developments in the country. As will be Myanmar.

    • Ravi Balaram
      May 13, 2013 at 22:50

      Thank you for your comment, Paul. In my research, I interviewed several Tatmadaw graduates of the U.S. Naval War College. I have also found that the U.S. Naval War College also does an excellent job maintaining an active alumni network with its IMET graduates. Like the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, the Naval War College uses formal social/professional networks to continue the education process well after the last day of class. Formal and informal networks are a great way to apply class lessons to the real world and as a forum to challenge and adapt theories and conventional wisdom to environmental conditions.

  2. Rich Chen
    May 12, 2013 at 21:16

    While I agree that IMET should not be used as a carrot/stick instrument, the Tatmadaw needs to understand that the American public (read taxpayers) is loathe to support regimes that ignore human-rights, are corrupt, or that are ineffective. Just reference what ended up happening to the School of the Americas or the public support for Chiang Kai-shek. With this in mind, the Tatmadaw can better understand what they need to do/not do in order not to lose IMET, or more importantly, US support in general.

    • Ravi Balaram
      May 13, 2013 at 23:02

      Rich, thank you for your comment. I think you echo what many American policymakers have been feeling since 1988, when IMET and all U.S. foreign assistance ended. They’ve already lost IMET. In the meantime, Tatmadaw officers have only had options to train in non-Western nations over the past 25 years. The majority of Tatmadaw officers sent abroad for training since 1988 have gone to China or Russia. Neither of those two countries are hallmarks of pro- human-rights, rule of law, transparency, effectiveness or lack of corruption.

      Witholding education can also serve as a lesson. But, it may not be the lesson that we, the U.S., want or intend.

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