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.