LONDON-Fifteen years ago this week, the United States invasion of Iraq began.
Before the statues of Saddam Hussein came down and U.S. forces transitioned to an occupation force two months later, a highly-decorated Special Forces colonel was asked to identify what it would take to stabilize Iraq and turn it into a functioning democracy. In the prescient report that he and his team delivered to U.S. Central Command, Colonel Tim Heinemann (Ret.), the Green Berets commander, was frank in his assessment. He argued that the U.S. military hadn’t developed the “street smarts” it needed in Iraq, hadn’t built relationships with the real power brokers on the ground, and hadn’t done enough to prevent Iraqi military officers from going underground as insurgents. The surest way to develop the insights necessary to stave off chaos, the report argued, was to engage tribal leaders in a massive counterinsurgency effort to build trust – in his words, “not just to share tea one-on-one with local leaders, but to share tea 10 times until they opened up.”
The report was shelved by the chain of command, but that doesn’t mean it was wrong: not only did Iraq devolve into chaos precisely as the report had predicted, but the counterinsurgency strategy launched four years later to save Iraq by General David Petraeus shared much with Heinemann’s insights in 2003. Determined to see the mistakes of Iraq not repeated in other regions where democracy might flourish, the Green Berets commander left the army in 2005, started a non-profit organization, and moved to a country of strategic importance to the U.S. where it was hoped that dictatorship would soon end: Myanmar, also known as Burma.
For the last 13 years, Heinemann has worked with American veterans and businessmen in Burma, “building friendships, allegiances, critical capacities, and networks” as he tells me, to be “of use to the U.S. when the time was right.” An opening came in 2010, when the military junta that has controlled the country since 1962 traded uniforms for civilian clothes, called elections, and opened the economy to foreign investors. Heinemann continued to collect “muddy boots insights” on the ground as headlines hailed the start of a new era in Burma.
At long last, in January of this year, Heinemann released a report with his findings, called, “Weaponizing U.S. Economic Engagement in Burma.” It has been widely shared across defense and intelligence networks worldwide the past two months, and with good reason: Its warning of a “Burma in crisis” is stark. “US government and businesses are being deceived,” it begins, “by mischaracterizations of realities past and present in Burma. By the time the rules of this game are figured out, the US public and private sectors will be fully committed on the ground. It will then be too late, as has been the case in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The report leaves little doubt about the chief protagonist: “The rules?” it asks. “There are no rules. The gravest danger today is that Burmese generals are waging war against democracy and America’s interests by misleading the U.S. government and business into supporting them. The strategy’s brilliance is to get U.S. stakeholders to help the strategy succeed against America’s own interests, and then thank the generals for this.”
It then gets to the heart of the matter. “The US assumption that Burma is now in a post-conflict transition” – meaning that the civil war that raged between the Burman majority and the nation’s other ethnic groups since 1945 and was widely reported to have ended upon the country’s opening in 2010 – is “incorrect. The generals’ war of unilateral dominance is ‘on plan'” … and “has chilled interest in full fact finding.” The U.S. government’s “requests for proposals, programs, and initiatives are now being wielded like a club in the shadows by Burmese generals holding democracy hostage. The generals then intimidate pro-democracy ethnic leaders, state governments, traditional governments, civil society, as well as Burman pro-democracy losers to ‘stay in line, or else.'”
This “narrative of Burmese power elites,” it concludes, has “diminished America’s chance to ‘finally get it right’ on the other side of Asia.” Put simply, “Nobody is calling the kettle black.”
Since most Americans aren’t familiar with the geography of Burma, let’s use the U.S. political map to demonstrate what Heinemann is talking about. As we all know, America is blue (referring to Democratic states) on each coast and red (Republican states) across the vast middle of the country. Now, imagine if this divide were even more stark: that there was a continuous belt of blue along both coasts connected by a long blue line across the top of the country, surrounding the red states like a horseshoe. Imagine if everyone in the red states were Christian and Caucasian and everyone in the blue states were people of color and of many different religions. Now, imagine if the vast majority of America’s economic resources were all in the blue states, but that the U.S. government was operated by and for the red states, with an all-powerful and unaccountable U.S. military that constantly exploited the resources of the blue states for its own gain while denying its people basic rights.
That, in a nutshell, is Myanmar. Living in the “red” is the Buddhist Bamar ethnic group that makes up two-thirds of the population and controls the interior regions of the country and all of the instruments of state power. Living in the “blue” horseshoe are the people of 135 ethnic groups that worship different religions and speak different languages – all while laying claim to more than 80 percent of Burma’s resources, from jade to timber. But since the “red” Bamar majority controls the government and the large and powerful military, there is little check on the generals exploiting the resources of the blue areas, despite various ethnic armies fighting for autonomy and control. The story is basically the same as it’s been since 1962.
As international outcry grows over the Bamar military’s ongoing and depraved campaign of genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s western Rakhine, more Americans are demanding action. But what most don’t understand is that the Rohingya crisis is not an exception in Burma, but the highest-profile case of a seven-decade-old reality: the exploitation of the weak by the strong. Without sufficient Western economic engagement in Myanmar, as Heinemann puts it, we have “left the fox in the henhouse,” allowing Myanmar’s military – and China – to dominate the game. Without understanding the big picture, any solution centered solely on resolving the Rohingya crisis won’t just fail to solve the real problem in Burma, it will make it worse.
So how does Heinemann suggest we begin to change the dynamic in Burma?
First, our long-term goal should be to turn Myanmar into a self-reliant economic powerhouse. Though it is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia that faces basic economic challenges like shoddy or non-existent infrastructure, scarce access to electricity, and low life expectancy, it is growing quickly and has the potential to “resume its place as one of the most dynamic economies in Asia.” Breaking the military’s hold over time starts with fostering a more competitive economy – giving people greater choice and freedom.
Second, America’s public and private sector should join forces to experiment with more targeted economic development. Rather than spread U.S. investments ineffectively across the country, the U.S. should start by aiming small in specific mini-regions, increasing our impact and demonstrating what U.S. investment can do to improve the economy and quality of life. Instead of empowering the military or ethnic political organizations, Heinemann says, we should invest in “strong and honest” ethnic civil society organizations. As a local expert tells me, “The game remains about investing in slow processes of change, to empower the underdogs and help to build bridges between all sides over time. Military owned companies and selected crony-run empires should be kept off-limits.”
Third, and finally, we need to recognize who the real change agents are. In Heinemann’s view, these are the “Young Lions in both Burman and Non-Burman ethnic camps who well appreciate the failures of their elders clinging to old ways.” Min Zaw Oo, peace negotiator and Director of the Myanmar Peace Center, agrees. “Ethnic conflict in Myanmar has changed its dimension,” he tells me, “The young generation of Burmans blames the military and does not seek Burman dominance . . . we still have a chance to become a nation without internal armed conflict, but it may take another 20 years.”
One way to develop our ties with the next generation and encourage them to embrace the right values is to invite these Young Lions to participate in U.S.-led military training and professionalization programs, including the International Military Education Training (IMET) program. But we should move fast; we’re not the only country to recognize the potential of Myanmar’s younger generation. As one local analyst points out, when sanctions were last imposed on Myanmar, it simply drove the military closer to China and Russia, with hundreds of junior officers studying in the latter. Nothing would do more to drive further instability while compromising US interests on this crucial border nation to China and India.
We didn’t heed Tim Heinemann’s warnings in Iraq in 2003, and America paid the price. Hopefully, we won’t make that same mistake again in Burma. We may choose not to act. But with this report, we can’t pretend not to know.