2014 Myanmar-US Retired Military-to-Military Dialogue

March 4-5, 2014
Honolulu, Hawaii

The Pacific Forum CSIS, in partnership with the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (M-ISIS), and with support from the US Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA), held the first Myanmar-US Retired Military-to-Military Dialogue in Yangon, Myanmar, on Sept 14-16, 2014. The group included approximately 25 participants and observers from Myanmar and the US, all attending in their private capacity. Discussion topics included respective views on national security strategies and policies, civil-military relations and defense sector management, non-proliferation, and regional security cooperation, including combating nontraditional security threats.

The overall atmosphere was extremely positive and constructively interactive. Participants were open in expressing their views and it was a generally free-wheeling discussion, providing each side an opportunity to hear the other’s views on a range of critical issues.

Key findings included:

- From the Myanmar perspective, the most important security challenge is holding the nation together in the face of multiple armed insurgencies. All other security issues pale in comparison. (Government officials and security experts sent a similar message during the DOE/NNSA-sponsored Myanmar-US/UK Non-Proliferation Dialogue in Feb 2014,) First and foremost, the military is concerned with internal security challenges, including numerous persistent ethnic and communal conflicts. A Myanmar participant wounded four times in combat stated: “You [the US] do not understand how hard it is to keep the nation together.  The Tatmadaw is the only institution that can change the country.” They are also concerned about the fragility of the peace process and political uncertainty as the democratic transition continues.

- From a US perspective, America’s greatest security challenges are external and include the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially into the hands of non-state actors. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program was seen in this light, in addition to the direct threat Pyongyang poses to US security allies, South Korea and Japan. The US also closely watches the rise of China and Beijing’s increased military capabilities and growing economic influence, as does Myanmar and all of China’s neighbors.

- Myanmar participants expressed great affection for prior interaction with the US early in their careers (pre-1988) and both sides hoped to see greater mil-mil engagement at some point in the future, as circumstances permit.

- Myanmar is surrounded by two major powers, China and India (with half the world’s population), and has "no choice" but to maintain good relations with both and adopt a neutral foreign policy. As it seeks to integrate regional organizations (and as reflected in its current ASEAN chairmanship), Myanmar aims to use diplomacy and dialogue to find common ground among various stakeholders. The US, likewise, seeks positive constructive relations with both China and India and wants to avoid “zero sum” relationships.

- Myanmar does not face any major external threats today. Its neighbors—notably China, India, and Thailand—have a tradition of supporting insurgent groups along Myanmar’s periphery as part of a “buffer strategy,” but these states now are trying to maintain good relations. Participants expressed little concern about Japanese “remilitarization”; US participants noted the limits associated with Tokyo’s reinter-pretation of the Japanese constitution to permit Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense.

- Myanmar participants stressed that there is no appetite for the development of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in Myanmar because "they are too costly" and not needed to deal with existing threats. They insisted that the Tatmadaw felt compelled to purchase military supplies from North Korea and China because sanctions prevent it from dealing with other countries. US participants distinguished between Chinese and North Korean purchases, noting that the latter used arms sales proceeds (prohibited by the UNSC) to pursue nuclear weapons programs that directly threatened the US and its allies.

- With the ongoing democratic transition and the parliament exercising control over the budget, the Tatmadaw must do more with less. Its goal is to become "leaner, meaner, more modern, and more professional." The Tatmadaw's priority is to maintain national unity and peace, while allowing the democratic government to pursue socio-economic development.

- The primary threat to the nation is internal; there are over 100,000 armed insurgents (about half currently are observing ceasefire arrangements; the other half are not). One particular concern is the spread of Islamic extremism, including the recently announced intention by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri to launch an active cell in Myanmar. The Tatmadaw worries that Al Qaeda or ISIS/ISIL, through their connections with groups in Bangladesh, will sponsor or serve as a model for Islamic insurgents in Myanmar.

- Myanmar participants named a range of nontraditional security threats their nation faces, including terrorism (by insurgent groups), arms smuggling, drug and human trafficking, illegal migration (mostly Chinese), illegal and destructive fishing practices (mostly Thais), food security, forced Islamization, and HIV/AIDS and other health concerns, which contribute to its internal challenges. Addressing these issues requires intelligence sharing among neighbors, which is proving difficult given Myanmar’s (and ASEAN's) traditional principle of non-interference in other states' internal affairs.

- The retired Tatmadaw officers expressed keen interest in developing stronger relations between the US and Myanmar militaries. Sanctions and restrictions make this difficult, however, hence the importance of this Track-1.5 dialogue as a first step in the process.

- Nontraditional security issues are a good area for Myanmar-US cooperation at official and Track-2 levels. Promising issues include humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, public health and military medicine, as well as environmental issues, including illegal fishing and logging. Cooperation in the area of non-/counter-proliferation is low cost, high value, in that it can serve as “proof” of Myanmar’s commitment to reform and honoring international norms.

- Both sides are committed to continuing the dialogue. In addition to examining the dangers of proliferation and Myanmar’s interaction with North Korea, possible future topics of discussion could include security sector reform and greater understanding of civil-military relations and how to manage and improve them.

This summary represents the impressions of the project coordinator. The Key Findings are not necessarily shared by all members of the US and/or Myanmar delegations. They are provided as an informal accounting of the discussion. Questions or comments should be directed to Ralph Cossa, Pacific Forum CSIS.