TOKYO — The tour of the USS Bonhomme Richard looked like any other official visit except for one key detail — the smiling guys in the white uniforms were Myanmar navy officers.
The rather mundane affair — down a few decks, through the medical bay, up for a briefing on the amphibious ship’s flight deck — represented some of the friendliest contact the U.S. military has had in decades with Myanmar’s military.
The tour happened Sunday in the nearby Andaman Sea. A port visit to a country officially considered a pariah by Washington is still apparently a step too far.
The military’s cautious engagement appeared to mirror the message that President Barack Obama gave to Myanmar during a landmark speech in Yangon on Monday: We think we’re ready to get along, but we’re not quite sold yet.
The military still dominates Myanmar’s power structure, as it has since it orchestrated a coup in 1962. When soldiers opened fire on thousands of pro-democracy protesters in 1988, Myanmar earned sanctions that still remain, though Obama has suspended some of them through executive order.
Myanmar’s recent inclusion of pro-democracy activists in government and its shift away from North Korea began the thaw that culminated in Obama’s visit.
The presidential stopover, following a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has paved the way for a military-to-military relationship.
No one is talking about anything as grandiose as an alliance with Myanmar, which the United States and Britain still officially refer to as Burma.
For now, the military dialogue still heavily depends on how Myanmar deals with warring minority groups, political prisoners and the official corruption that has left it one of the poorest countries in the region. Pacific Army commander Lt. Gen. Francis Wiercinski and Vikram Singh, deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, were in a delegation that met with Myanmar leaders last month to discuss those problems.
“The dialogue provided an opportunity to have a frank and open discussion with the Burmese military on human rights and rule of law issues and concerns,” Pacific command spokeswoman Lt. Theresa Donnelly said in a statement Tuesday.
Pacific Command officials told Stars and Stripes on Tuesday that sanctions still limit the extent of what they can do. No port visits are scheduled, Donnelly added.
Even the limited engagements the Navy has with countries like Vietnam — sports, medical aid and community projects — aren’t feasible yet, analysts said Tuesday.
Ideally for the U.S. military, Myanmar’s push toward normalization would advance to a point where America could drop its sanctions. That would allow more cooperation on piracy, freedom of navigation and other military priorities in Southeast Asia.
However, the Obama administration realizes that Myanmar’s regime is too unreliable to contemplate that kind of cooperation at this point, analysts told Stars and Stripes on Tuesday.
“Most people don’t understand just how complicated the sanctions are,” said Tin Maung Maung Than, senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “They’re still just suspended and can always come back when things go bad. A complete lifting probably won’t happen in the near future.”
U.S. military engagement will instead focus on individual relationships for the forseeable future, Tin said.
The U.S. has already restarted talks on recovery of servicemember remains. Given that it has periodically cooperated with North Korea on that issue, it’s hardly a measure of a military relationship’s success.
The more important indicators will become apparent when senior military leaders talk. The U.S. is considering Thailand’s request to let three Myanmar officers come as observers to next year’s Cobra Gold, an annual exercise that includes thousands of U.S. troops. There are also scheduled discussions to include Myanmar leaders in some of the U.S. military’s academic circles.
Whatever the outcome, China will be watching closely. Beijing is always suspicious of America’s military relationships with smaller nations in Asia, which many of its leaders see as a plot to prevent their rise, Tin said.
However, China also has a stake in its neighbor’s stability, and a normalized relationship with the West could help the nation prosper enough to keep its myriad tensions from boiling over.
Given its own difficulties in persuading Myanmar to follow its wishes, it’s unlikely that China is worried about any kind of U.S. military presence asserting itself on the Myanmar border.
The Myanmar regime largely does what it wants, Andrew Selth of the Australia-based Griffith Asia Institute wrote earlier this year.
“Beijing may not be entirely comfortable with the idea of the U.S. developing a closer relationship with its prickly southern neighbour, but it knows … [Myanmar] would not allow itself to become the puppet of any major power,” Selth stated.