By Phuong Nguyen
The National Defense Authorization Act for 2015 recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives includes a few provisions allowing slightly expanded U.S. military engagement with Myanmar. In addition to supporting the Department of Defense’s continued consultations and training on human rights, the rule of law, and defense reforms, the bill paves the way for cooperation with Myanmar in the area of humanitarian and disaster relief and allows efforts to help improve medical and health standards in the country.
If passed in the Senate, the bill would signal a small but significant shift in tone by the U.S. Congress on the issue of military to military ties with Myanmar.
The narrative that permeated the Hill for the past year is that the reform process in Myanmar has been backsliding and that any increased military cooperation would depend on the Myanmar armed forces agreeing to civilian control and to fully observe democratic norms. A bill was introduced in the House in April that would have ceased all U.S. security assistance to Myanmar for the next two years unless the military returned to civilian control, established transparency, and gave up its business interests.
But lawmakers in the House now seem to suggest that they want to see bilateral military-to-military activities feed into the reform process, and they began to show interest in the broader objectives of security cooperation with Myanmar. Once the defense authorization bill is enacted, the secretary of Defense will be required to provide an annual progress report to Congress describing, among other things, how engagement with the Myanmar armed forces supports U.S. national interests and promotes reform in Myanmar.
Although bilateral security ties with Myanmar will likely be frozen until after the parliamentary elections around November 2015, the draft bill indicates recognition that the United States should find a way to work with the Myanmar military, rather than simply deriding it for its human rights record. Senior U.S. officials have stressed engagement could help shape the military’s outlook, provide it a degree of strategic autonomy from China, and strengthen the hands of reformers within the government.
The House bill does not spell out what it means by helping improve medical and health standards in Myanmar. Would it, for example, allow the U.S. military medical personnel to cooperate with their counterparts in Myanmar to tackle drug-resistant malaria, which is fairly widespread in the country’s border regions where the only health care is provided by the military? It is in the U.S. security and health interest to ensure drug-resistant strains of malaria do not spread across Myanmar’s borders into neighboring countries.
The bill also comes at a sensitive time for the administration, which remains uncertain about what will transpire in Myanmar after the 2015 elections, and as the Myanmar military continues to engage in armed conflict in Kachin state. Admiral Harry Harris, who was nominated by President Barack Obama to head up the U.S. Pacific Command, has assessed that Myanmar “remains firmly under military control” and that the time is not right to expand ties with its military.
In addition, it is unclear whether Myanmar president Thein Sein’s government will reach a nationwide ceasefire agreement with ethnic armed groups before next year’s elections, after both his government and the military refused to accommodate a key demand by ethnic groups to form a federal army under a new system. As long as armed conflict – and with it rights violations by the Myanmar military – continues to drag on, the U.S. government will find it difficult to step up engagement with the Myanmar military.
The House version of the defense authorization bill seems to reflect a slight shift in attitude, but it will not likely result in significant changes in U.S. military relations with Myanmar and, in any case, it does not go beyond the next fiscal year. But what it can do is pose the question about how U.S. legislation can be used toward Myanmar in the coming years to serve both U.S. interests and values, given how controversial a topic Myanmar has become in Washington.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.