By Greg Poling & Kate Rustici
Myanmar president Thein Sein January 2 confirmed reports that the military employed air strikes and gunship helicopters in its fight against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) near Laiza, the rebels’ capital in northeastern Myanmar. The strikes, which reportedly began December 28 in response to KIA attacks on government convoys, are continuing. The United States and United Nations, among others, have decried the use of airpower against lightly armed fighters near a population center.
The decision to use air strikes also raises important strategic questions about the reform process in Myanmar. It shines a light on two outstanding issues that are the most intractable for the government and the most likely to cause backsliding in reforms: the civilian authorities’ control over the military, and the chance for nationwide peace with ethnic minorities.
Thein Sein’s admission that troops had used air strikes contradicted government statements just two days prior denying the allegations. It is still unclear how involved the president was in ordering the air strikes, or whether he was even aware of the military’s intention to do so. What is apparent, though, is that the recent uptick in violence is out of step with repeated calls from Naypyidaw for the military to halt offensives against the KIA.
The military remains a strong force in Myanmar politics—many argue the strongest force—and its support for the reform effort is critical to the effort’s success. Despite the military’s privileged place in the state, civilian oversight of the armed forces will prove crucial for the consolidation of democratic reforms. The fact that the leadership in Naypyidaw, including the president and most members of the cabinet, are recently retired military officers has likely bought them a degree of acquiescence from the generals on this front. But the situation in Kachin State offers strong evidence that the submission of military commanders to the central authorities is far from complete.
In an emerging democracy seeking national reconciliation, this impunity undermines fragile trust in the government and allows a minority of the military to act as a spoiler. Events such as the Letpadaung copper mine crackdown and security forces involvement in communal violence in Rakhine State continually mar the slow process of building of trust between citizens and the authorities. The government has signed cease-fire agreements over the last year and a half with most of the country’s major armed ethnic resistance movements, except the KIA. Seeing that government offensives against the Kachin are not only continuing, but actually escalating, sends a chilling message to groups still uncertain about the government’s trustworthiness.
Outside partners like the United States have limited ability to shape the outcome. What Washington can and must do, however, is ensure that the issue is not ignored. U.S. ambassador Derek Mitchell traveled last month to Kachin State, and said January 8 that he has quietly raised the Kachin issue with top brass in Naypyidaw. These are necessary, but not sufficient, messages of concern. U.S. and other like-minded officials should make it clear that the violence in Kachin State threatens the historic progress made toward opening Myanmar to the outside world and normalizing relations.
The United States can begin to assist in some limited ways, including by attempts to help professionalize the Myanmar military. U.S. military officials held a groundbreaking meeting in October 2012 with their counterparts in Myanmar during which they discussed issues of human rights, the laws of war, and civilian control of the military. Such limited engagement must continue. Myanmar’s leaders, both civilian and military, should be told that continued progress on these fronts will be a requisite for more advanced military engagement.
Setbacks on Myanmar’s road to democracy will continue until a cultural change occurs within the military itself, and such changes do not occur overnight. The United States should respond critically, especially in a situation as troubling as that in Kachin State. But it must also remain engaged. The other choice is to condemn from the sidelines, which might assuage consciences but will do nothing to help Myanmar or the United States.
Mr. Gregory B. Poling is director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.