US Must Rebuke, Not Reward the Myanmar Army

September 13th, 2017  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  8 minute read
Featured image

The US Senate has proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – the annual defense budget – to normalize relations between the militaries of the US and Myanmar[1] , a move that was vehemently opposed by Myanmar civil society. As the US Congress considers deepening military-to-military ties with the Myanmar Army, it is vital that the aims of human rights, sustainable peace and an inclusive democratic transition remain of the utmost priority for the US Government. If, however, Congress decides to throw its lot in with Myanmar’s military, the institution that is the biggest obstacle towards peace and democracy will only be further emboldened and legitimized in its perpetuation of egregious human rights violations that include the use of rape as a weapon of war in its decades-long campaign of terror against ethnic communities.

The NDAA will be debated and voted on by US Congress in the coming days. The democratic and human rights benefits for the people of Myanmar if this is approved would be nil. As a statement by 85 Myanmar civil society organizations points out, “such engagement could potentially undermine the civilian-led Government and fledgling Parliament whose biggest obstacle to further democratic progress is the intransigence of the Tatamdaw [Myanmar Army] itself.”

The Myanmar Army is an abusive, unaccountable institution that is uncompromising towards democratic progress. The actions of the Myanmar Army in northern Rakhine State during clearance operations after October 2016 attacks on Border Guard Posts by Rohingya militants – the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – and more recently after attacks on 25 August, 2017 have made for disturbing reading. A flash report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights detailed appalling human rights violations committed during the post-October 2016 attacks crackdown against the civilian population by the Myanmar Army that could have amounted to crimes against humanity. Consequently, a fact-finding mission was mandated by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to investigate military and security forces-related rights abuses throughout the country. The August 25 attacks by ARSA have been countered by a new and even more severe crackdown by the Myanmar Army with a litany of abuses documented as it targets villagers indiscriminately, sending nearly 370,000 Rohingya people fleeing into Bangladesh. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described the situation as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” in his opening address to the UNHRC.

It is not just Rakhine State that bears the brunt of the Myanmar Army’s abuses. In August 2017 in Kasung Township, Kachin State, the Myanmar Army launched an offensive that displaced 1,000 civilians, and killed a villager and injured two more as it fired indiscriminately at innocent people. They also rounded up villagers and forced them to act as porters through the jungle, torturing them on the way. This is not an isolated example in northern Myanmar, just the most recent. Since 2011, over 100,000 people have been displaced in the conflict with the Kachin Independence Army alone and human rights abuses have been documented by local and international human rights organizations for many years against ethnic nationality people throughout Myanmar.

Already, members of Congress have begun to have reservations. Senator John McCain expressed how he will seek to withdraw support for military-to-military relations, stating, “While I had hoped the NDAA could contribute to positive reform in Burma, I can no longer support expanding military-to-military cooperation given the worsening humanitarian crisis and human rights crackdown against the Rohingya people.”

The argument that the US will successfully reform the Myanmar Army into an institution that will be accountable for its actions, accept civilian control, and end its persecution of religious and ethnic minorities is naïve and flawed. As long-time Myanmar writer Bertil Lintner recently pointed out, “Myanmar today has a political system that was designed by the military to preserve their power. It suits them perfectly and they have no intention to change it.” The Myanmar Army knows full well what human rights and fully-fledged democracy mean. They do not need help to understand these concepts. Rather, as Lintner further argues, change will come from within the military.

Meanwhile, if Congress goes ahead and accepts the proposal to deepen military-to-military ties, the Myanmar Army will be given legitimacy as a credible institution, and embolden it to continue to commit human rights violations with little or no rebuke from the most powerful military in the world. Rather, it will be rewarded with technical assistance. As spokesperson for the Kachin Women’s Association – Thailand (KWAT), a Kachin women’s organization that documents human rights abuses, Shirley Seng stated, “Increasing military-to-military cooperation is emboldening the Myanmar Army to commit war crimes. Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing should be ostracized internationally as a war criminal, not treated like a VIP.” A salient precedent of Myanmar security forces receiving foreign assistance includes the Police Force, which caused controversy as EU-trained police units savagely beat peaceful protesters during education reform demonstrations in 2015.

“Increasing military-to-military cooperation is emboldening the Myanmar Army to commit war crimes. Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing should be ostracized internationally as a war criminal, not treated like a VIP.”

Shirley Seng, spokesperson for the Kachin Women’s Association – Thailand (KWAT)

Echoing the call by Myanmar civil society, if the US wants to support Myanmar, it must “seek to engage and expand relations with civilian authorities and rights-based civil society that would contribute effectively to establishing peace and democratic institutions and practices rather than the very institution that remains impervious to democratic progress.” Given the recent atrocities committed by the Myanmar Army, the international community as a whole has a responsibility to act, and today as the UN Security Council meets, a global arms embargo must be approved in order to stop selling to the Myanmar Army the very weapons that it is using to slaughter civilians.

The US has long been a good friend of Myanmar, supporting initiatives that strengthen national reconciliation, government transparency and accountability, and civil society empowerment. It must continue to do so, and not risk sullying its reputation and jeopardizing its positive contribution as a promoter of a peaceful and democratic Myanmar that respects and protects the human rights of all people in the country, regardless of race or religion.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week


Statements and Press Releases

Myanmar: Official Response to Rakhine Crisis ‘Unconscionable’
By Amnesty International

Who are the Rohingya and why are they fleeing Myanmar?
By Amnesty International

Myanmar Army Landmines along Border with Bangladesh Pose Deadly Threat to Fleeing Rohingya
By Amnesty International

Myanmar: New Landmine Blasts Point to Deliberate Targeting of Rohingya
By Amnesty International

Joint Letter to UN Human Rights Council on Rakhine State
By Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development and Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network

Burma Facing Biggest Human Rights Crisis in Decades – British Government Response Pathetic
By Burma Campaign UK

157 Parliamentarians call on Government to suspend and review British Military Training Programs with Burmese Military

By Burma Campaign UK

Burma Human Rights Network Publishes Research Revealing State-led Persecution of Burma’s Muslim Minority
By Burma Human Rights Network

Statement by Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides on the Humanitarian Situation in Myanmar

By Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management

Statement by the High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini on the situation in Rakhine State, Myanmar
By European Union High Representative/Vice-President Federica

Burma: Rohingya Describe Military Atrocities
By Human Rights Watch

Burma: Satellite Images Show Urban Destruction
By Human Rights Watch

Recent Defamation Case in Phakant Highlights Urgent Need to Bring the Burma Army Under Civilian Control
By Kachin Women’s Association-Thailand

‘Inclusivity, Diversity and Equal Opportunity Should be Core Business Values’
By Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business

SASC Chairman McCain Sends Letter to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Requesting Adherence to Human Rights Obligations
By U.S. Senator John McCain



Creating a Paradigm Shift: Legal Solutions to Improve Access to Remedy for Corporate Human Rights Abuse
By Amnesty International and Business & Human Rights Resource

BHRN Report: Persecution of Muslims in Burma
By Burma Human Rights Network

MCRB Publishes Briefing Paper on Discrimination by Business and in the Workplace in Myanmar
By Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business

ျမန္မာနိုင္ငံရွိစီးပြားေရးလုပ္ငန္းမ်ား ႏွင့္ လုပ္ငန္းခြင္၌ခြဲျခားဆက္ဆံမႈအားတိုက္ဖ်က္ျခင္း အႏွစ္ခ်ဳပ္စာလႊာ ထုတ္ေဝ

By Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business

Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”