YANGON, Myanmar— During the years he lived as a child in Indonesia, President Barack Obama learned the culture of Jakarta, spoke the language, survived chicken pox, and recalls frequently feeling “the sting of [his] teachers’ bamboo switches.” As a young military officer training in the United States, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, known as SBY, parachuted out of planes with Fort Benning’s storied 82nd Airborne Division and attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. It is an interesting parallel between presidents that each spent formative years in the other’s country.
Many have remarked that President Obama’s time overseas gave him the gift of a global perspective. What’s unfortunate, however, is that SBY’s experience is the increasingly rare one for some Southeast Asian nations. At a time when the region is undergoing a potentially seismic shift from military to civilian leadership, well-meaning restrictions on our International Military Education and Training (IMET) program—which sent SBY and thousands like him to the U.S.—have prevented us from exposing a new generation of leaders to principles of civilian governance, democratic values and human rights.
Walking these streets today reminds me of the time I spent in Indonesia a decade ago, where I saw IMET-educated officers managing Indonesia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. It’s hard not to feel a new energy and sense of possibility here since Myanmar’s mostly-democratic elections re-opened it to the world last November. If the upcoming parliamentary elections in April proceed smoothly, the U.S. will likely lift economic sanctions that have been in place for two decades. The very first thing the U.S. should do when easing those sanctions is to bring IMET back to Myanmar and help breathe new life into a society that hasn’t experienced rule of law in more than half a century.
Established in 1976 to strengthen ties between the U.S. and foreign militaries, IMET gives promising junior officers from friendly nations the opportunity to study in the U.S., modeling what a vibrant civil-military relationship looks like in a free society. In 1991, Congress expanded IMET to more overtly emphasize human rights promotion, and the program currently provides roughly $100 million in grant aid to over 7,000 students from 130 countries, from Albania to Zambia.
Myanmar is not one of them. Despite rewarding ruthless dictators like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and AWOL allies such as Pakistan, the U.S. cut off IMET and other aid to Myanmar following the junta’s brutal crackdown and refusal to honor the results of the 1990 election.
Before that, thousands of young military leaders traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Myanmar. Within 14 years of achieving its 1948 independence, Myanmar had sent over a thousand officers to the U.S. in the days before IMET. Even after the military coup of 1962 and the ruthless dictatorship of Ne Win, the U.S. maintained aspects of this relationship. In the decade before the U.S. imposed sanctions, 255 Burmese officers graduated from American military training programs—more than in any other country.
This support provided a promising link between an established democracy and a country wracked by successive coups and anemic economic development. But today’s generals were all trained in Burma, and consequently, as Georgetown Professor David Steinberg writes, “largely insulated from the outside world.”
IMET’s absence cuts to the heart of Myanmar’s present difficulties. In a country where the military has been called a “state within a state,” the insularity of the military will continue to threaten the long-term stability and potential of the nation. Across the army, there isn’t an officer under the age of 55 with any memory of what a free society looks like. Until young officers experience for themselves how civil society and rule of law operate, Myanmar will never fulfill its full potential.
There’s no question that militaries that have benefitted from IMET have committed reprehensible human rights violations. In a recent review by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, only a third of IMET training programs for relatively “unfree” participant countries emphasized respect for human rights. That is an area that the Departments of State and Defense, which jointly administer IMET, can and must strengthen.
But cutting off IMET entirely weakens the hand of reform. It is a tragic Catch-22 that says: “Until your military is more professional and respectful of human rights, we will not teach your military to be more professional and respectful of human rights.” Much as economic engagement very often does more to liberalize a society than absolute economic isolation, IMET’s military-to-military engagement provides us far more leverage.
Critics focus on the horror, not the hope. A study from the Center for Civil-Military Relations found that 95 percent of IMET participants reported that they had gained an improved understanding of U.S. systems, while 84 percent said their views of the U.S. had changed, largely for the better. It brings to mind the many young Indonesian officers I met while living through Indonesia’s halting but determined evolution who knew there was a better way—because they had seen it in America.
As Yunus Yosfiah, a former lieutenant general and minister of information fiercely supportive of a free press, said to me at the time, “I first learned about the importance of the First Amendment in the library at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.”
I look forward to the day when Myanmar’s military leaders can say the same. President Obama’s latest budget includes $27.2 million in aid for Myanmar, with a focus on “strengthening civil society.” The best way to accomplish that would be to reestablish IMET, so that officers like his Indonesian presidential counterpart can live and learn in the U.S.
There will always be bad apples, of course, and a single course at Fort Bragg will not change the course of a country overnight. But it would go a long way toward showing other nations that true, lasting power comes not from a bayonet, but from a ballot.