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Defence relations with Burma: Our future past

Defence relations with Burma: Our future past

Andrew Selth is a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute and author of Australian Defence Contacts with Burma, 1945-1987. Photos by the author.

John Blaxland's persuasive piece on the possible renewal of defence cooperation between Australia and Burma (Myanmar) prompts a look at past contacts in this field. For it is a little known fact that Australia was once an important source of military training and advice for the Burmese armed forces (known as the Tatmadaw). It could become so again.

Between 1948, when Burma regained its independence from Britain, and General Ne Win's coup d'etat in 1962, Australia provided training for over 90 Burmese military officers and NCOs. They were drawn from the army and air force as part of a major effort by the fledgling Tatmadaw to develop its technical and leadership capabilities (there is no record of any naval trainees).
Australia was also considered a source of expertise in areas relevant to Burma's national security. In 1957, an Australian Army officer was chosen over candidates from several other countries to train the Burmese in counter-insurgency warfare, in Burma. In 1960, he was made a strategic adviser to the Tatmadaw.

When the xenophobic Ne Win seized power, this assignment was terminated and most foreign military contacts ceased. However, a small number of Burmese officers still attended training courses in Australia, the last in 1987. Despite its alliance with the US, Australia was viewed by Rangoon as a friendly country prepared to provide assistance to Burma in both military and civil fields without trying to exert undue political influence or subvert its trainees. [fold]

After the Tatmadaw crushed a nation-wide pro-democracy uprising in 1988, such defence contacts ceased as Australia joined wider Western efforts to isolate and punish the new military regime. Yet, even then, Australia took a measured approach and kept open important lines of communication. Australia's Defence Attaché had been withdrawn from Rangoon in 1979, mainly for financial reasons, but after 1988 the DA in Bangkok remained accredited to Burma and continued to make occasional visits.

It was reported in January that defence relations with Burma will be considered as part of the 2013 Defence White Paper. Given the remarkable changes taking place under President Thein Sein, believed by many to be 'Burma's Gorbachev', this move is timely. In both practical and symbolic terms, the outcome of those deliberations could have far-reaching implications.

Over the past 24 years, activists have successfully painted the Tatmadaw as a brutal and corrupt military machine which has not only dominated Burma's political affairs but has been guilty of terrible human rights abuses. Some now claim that nothing has changed. They point to the strong military bias in the 2008 constitution, the excessive force used against the Rohingyas in Arakan State in 2012, and the bitter civil war in Kachin State.

It is precisely because the Tatmadaw remains the most powerful political institution in the country, however, and continues to employ harsh measures against its opponents, that a carefully managed program of external engagement with the armed forces is so important.

Despite continuing scepticism on the part of some commentators, it is clear that Thein Sein's reforms are real and that Burma has entered a new phase of political, economic and social development. The Burmese Government still faces many challenges, and in most areas reforms will be slow. Old habits on the part of the security forces will die hard, particularly among those with vested interests in the old system. However, the best way to encourage further reform is to strengthen the hand of the reformers and to give the armed forces a larger stake in a more democratic Burma.

There are many officers in the Tatmadaw who broadly welcome their government's reforms, and share Thein Sein's wish to see Burma become a more modern, prosperous, stable and respected country. By inviting such people to Australia for training in non-lethal disciplines, such as those offered by staff colleges, engineering schools and medical colleges, Australia can expose them to international norms, promote new ways of thinking and encourage them to consider different ways of approaching Burma's complex problems.

As a recent visit to Burma revealed, the Tatmadaw is keen to resume contacts with developed Western countries. Not only would this help balance its links with other states — notably China — but Burma's military is also hungry for the technology, expertise and ideas of the West. The door is already open. During his December 2012 visit, Barack Obama foreshadowed closer US-Burma defence ties and last month, for the first time, Burma sent a team of observers to Exercise Cobra Gold in Thailand.

No one realistically expects that a six-month staff course will turn Burmese officers into pocket democrats, able to influence national events on their return. Some may even reject the lessons offered to them. Yet, it would seem worth making a modest investment in this area, while the need is greatest and the outcomes potentially so beneficial. Also, until the reappointment of a resident DA, these officers can offer points of entry for Australian officials into a system that for decades has been closed to them.

It is perhaps also worth making the point that, due largely to the efforts of Burmese exiles, human rights campaigners and other supporters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma has long been held to a higher standard than those applied to any of its regional neighbours, even North Korea. Australia already has close defence ties — including exchanges of personnel — with several countries which have less than perfect records when it comes to their systems of government and the conduct of their armed forces. 

Notwithstanding Thein Sein's ambitious reform program, the Tatmadaw will exert a strong influence on Burma's government, economy and society for the foreseeable future. In considering the question of bilateral defence relations, the Australian Government can look at Burma's dark past and imperfect present, or it can look to the future and take the opportunity to assist in the development of a more professional, capable and open-minded officer corps. That would not only be in Burma's long term interests, but also Australia's.

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