WASHINGTON – The Obama administration faced strong bipartisan opposition Wednesday to plans for limited U.S. engagement with Myanmar's powerful military due to concerns over human rights and its lingering ties with North Korea.
Senior administration officials called for congressional support for non-lethal assistance to the military, such as training on human rights. But both Republicans and Democrats were skeptical, saying abuses against ethnic and religious minorities persist in the country also known as Burma and its military remains involved in weapons deals with North Korea against U.N. sanctions.
"I personally don't believe that the Burmese military needs to be trained to stop killing and raping and stealing lands from people within their own country," Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley of New York told a hearing of a House panel that oversees U.S. foreign policy toward East Asia.
Republican panel chairman, Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, also said the administration was being too hasty to engage with the military, and that the U.S. risks losing its remaining leverage to encourage further reforms.
The introduction of democracy after five decades of repressive military rule has ended Myanmar's diplomatic isolation and seen a rapid easing of sanctions by the U.S. and other Western nations. Some 1,100 political prisoners have been freed and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent years under house arrest, has been elected to parliament.
But in the past 18 months, a bloody upsurge in sectarian violence that security forces have failed to stop against minority Muslims has displaced more than 200,000 people and cast a shadow over the country's move towards democracy.
While there is now a nominally civilian government, the military remains a critical force with an effective veto on constitutional reforms. Its troops continue to clash with ethnic armed groups despite nascent peace talks.
Senior U.S. defense official Vikram Singh said there have been initial contacts between the U.S. and Myanmar militaries, including discussions on military law, but current sanctions prevent a formal training program. He said engagement was an opportunity to shape the military's outlook and dilute its reliance on old partners and arms suppliers, like China.
"Burma is finding itself having, for the first time in many years, to actually figure out where it wants to place its bets, where it wants to put its cards, who it wants to deal with," Singh said. "We want to shape the kind of choices that Burma makes."
Judith Cefkin, the State Department's senior adviser on Myanmar, said that some officers have a vested interest in the military's continued involvement in the nation's economy and politics, but that "carefully calibrated military-to-military engagement to share lessons on how militaries operate in a democratic framework will strengthen the hand of reformers."
Chabot, however, said Myanmar's military leaders have not demonstrated a sincere interest in reforms and the government of President Thein Sein has not fulfilled promises to allowing international humanitarian access to conflict areas and end illicit weapons deals with North Korea.
Republican Rep. Trent Franks called the Myanmar military "one of the worst oppressors of human rights in recent history" and said it should meet clear benchmarks before any sanctions are lifted.
Singh, who acknowledged Myanmar had yet to sever its military ties with North Korea, said a normalization of U.S.-Myanmar military relations would require fundamental reforms and was likely years away. Cefkin said assistance being proposed now for the Myanmar military would provide "nothing to enhance their tactical warfighting capability."
Crowley wasn't reassured. He said to begin even a non-lethal U.S. training program would offer the military a public relations victory.
"I'm concerned our military-to-military (engagement) is moving too quickly because they feed off this prestige. I want us, visually and in reality, to slow this down," he said.