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Western military ties to Myanmar under the spotlight

British and US engagement scrutinised

Francis Wade, Bangkok

June 12, 2014

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US and British military involvement with Myanmar has come under the spotlight, as has an offer for Myanmar to discuss the potential to send its troops as UN peacekeepers, following the release of a report this week detailing continued use of torture by the Myanmar army and evidence that it has committed war crimes in the past year.

The report, "I Thought They Would Kill Me”: Ending Wartime Torture in Northern Myanmar, by Fortify Rights, documents more than 60 instances of torture of civilians committed since the Myanmar army rekindled a conflict with the Kachin Independence Army in June 2011. Among these are severe and prolonged beatings of civilians, deprivation of food and water, and the forcing of detainees to lick pools of their own blood. 

The report comes amid renewed scrutiny of developing western relations with the Myanmar government and military. Critics have argued that the government’s promise of wide reaching reforms, which prompted the US and Britain, among other nations, to re-establish ties with the government, have in many instances failed to materialize. Conflict is ongoing in northern and eastern parts of the country, and a widening crackdown on free expression has seen journalists and protestors jailed on spurious charges.

The war in Kachin and Shan states is considered evidence of a significant backslide in progress towards peace with ethnic armies. The pledge from President Thein Sein to cement ceasefires with multiple armed groups had led both Britain and US to begin military engagement with the army in 2013, while in a meeting in February this year the UN invited Myanmar to discuss the possibility of sending UN peacekeepers.

But a month later, amid increasing reports of abuse, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a call for Myanmar to “fully investigate and respond to current and historical human rights violations and abuses, including crimes of sexual violence.” Four weeks on from Ban Ki-moon’s statement, the Free Burma Rangers aid group reported the rape of a 17-year-old Kachin girl by two Myanmar soldiers in Dawhpum Kagam village in Kachin state.

A spokesperson for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told that the initiation of peacekeeper discussions did not automatically lead to a deployment of troops, which “takes time and at every step the UN has the opportunity to assist and advise the member states in their preparation to ensure they comply with UN standards.”

But Matthew Smith, author of the Fortify Rights report, said that in light of repeated reports of abuse, the invitation for discussions was “absurdly premature”.

“The military isn't willing to address its own abuses and atrocities at home, let alone hold perpetrators accountable, and we're supposed to believe it's sensible to have a discussion about spreading those same troops around the world? The Myanmar Army's behavior violates everything the UN stands for.”

The British government has also come under criticism. Around £87,000 has been spent on a ‘Managing Defence in the Wider Security Context’ course, which is aimed at examining “different approaches to governance and management of defence in developed and transitional democracies”.

A spokesperson at the British embassy in Yangon said that “human rights will stay at the heart of our engagement,” and that Britain’s relationship with the military “is not unconditional”.

British parliamentarians however acknowledged in November 2013, shortly after the engagement policy was announced, that Britain may not be able to check the progress of Myanmar troops after the trainings. One MP said that “active post-course monitoring of participants is not practicable”, but rather that Britain would “enquire about their progress.”

“There's a lot of cynicism about these programs, but I've also seen them be effective,” said Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific regional director of the International Commission of Jurists.

On the other hand, military engagement should not be carried out in a way that would reward, or appear to reward, abusive military officers or units.” 

Of the military-to-military engagement, Smith said: “This isn't a chicken and egg scenario. The army doesn't need full engagement with Britain or the US to know its behavior violates international law, or to know how to stop it.”

He added that while the military shouldn’t be isolated, “it's unwise to be talking about engagement before serious discussions about human rights reforms.”

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