WASHINGTON – Human rights advocates and some lawmakers say the United States is sending the wrong signal by opening the door for broader engagement with Myanmar's widely criticized military just weeks after President Barack Obama assured opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi that closer ties weren't going to happen soon.
Congress, acting at the administration's request, is expected to allow U.S. training in some noncombat activities for the military in Myanmar, also known as Burma. This would be part of a sweeping defense policy bill slated to pass this week.
The administration says this does not mean closer ties are imminent with a military known for rights abuses. Patrick Ventrell, a National Security Council spokesman, said the provision would "give us the flexibility to pursue slightly broader engagement if the military takes steps to implement reforms and support Burma's democratic transition."
But lawmakers who oversee U.S. foreign policy say it's ill-timed. Political reforms have stalled, tens of thousands of minority Muslims are still living under apartheid-like conditions in displacement camps after attacks by Buddhist extremists, and fighting is heating up between the government and ethnic rebels.
"It sends the wrong message to the people of Burma who are counting on the U.S. to uphold the values and rights they so desperately seek," said Republican Rep. Steve Chabot, who chairs a House panel on Asia.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said it would be different if reforms were advancing in Myanmar. "But even the president (Obama) is saying they are going backward."
When Obama traveled to Myanmar last month, his second visit in two years, Suu Kyi requested that the U.S. not pursue new areas of military engagement at least until the national elections in late 2015, according to several congressional aides who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge briefings on the trip given by administration officials. The president gave that assurance, the aides said.
Ventrell confirmed Obama discussed the subject with Suu Kyi and others. He said the president's message was that the U.S. did not intend to go further toward "more traditional military-to-military cooperation" until the Burmese military makes clear steps toward reform.
Washington has normalized diplomatic relations and rolled back sanctions to reward the former pariah state's shift away from five decades of authoritarian rule. But the U.S. retains an arms embargo and strictly controls ties with the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar's military is known. So far engagement has been limited to seminars on human rights, rule of law and institutional reform. Myanmar has also been an observer at annual U.S. military exercises hosted by neighboring Thailand.
The defense bill would allow "consultation, education, and training" on humanitarian and disaster relief, and medical and health standards — areas that critics say should be left to Myanmar's civilian government agencies. The language was drafted by the House and Senate committees that oversee defense policy and are more hopeful than their colleagues on foreign policy panels that military engagement will, over time, encourage reform.
"Increased contact of their troops with the U.S. military will help to demonstrate the principles of accountability, civilian control, and rule of law that are the hallmarks of a healthy democracy," said Sen. Jim Inhofe, top-ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
But Sen. Robert Menendez, Democratic chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to Obama this week saying the bill's language appears to be at odds with the commitments Obama made to Suu Kyi. He called for the administration to articulate a "clear and consistent policy" on military engagement, and which of the new authorities it intends to exercise.
Rep. Eliot Engel, top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Associated Press: "Deepening our military ties with Burma sends the perverse signal that the United States will turn a blind eye to the Burmese military's violent and regressive behavior."
Five days after Obama's visit, the military shelled a Kachin rebel camp, killing 23 people, a blow to talks aimed at ending decades of war in the nation's border regions. The military said the strike was unintended.
And despite Obama's appeal for reform of a junta-era constitution that guarantees a military bloc in the legislature and bars Suu Kyi from becoming president, the government has since announced that won't happen before the election.
The nominee to become the next commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Adm. Harry Harris Jr., said in Senate testimony last week that Myanmar remains "firmly under military control."