The presence of Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where she met with cadets and delivered a speech last Friday, surprised many activists at home and abroad.
The visit has come under fire from some quarters, with the harshest critics blasting the democracy icon for spurning activists there who had sought her audience. Those who count themselves among the disappointed might rightly wonder why the civilian parliamentarian, who for nearly two decades was placed under house arrest by her own country’s armed forces, would prioritize this stop on her latest European tour.
The answer may lie in Suu Kyi’s complicated relationship with the brass back home. Could it be that Suu Kyi’s visit to Sandhurst—which once received and trained several Burmese military officers—was an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the generals in Naypyidaw?
Just before Suu Kyi arrived in London on her second visit to Europe in a year, Britain was finalizing the details of a military assistance program that will see 30 high-ranking officers in the Burma Army receive specially tailored training, including instruction on how to operate within the rule of law. Suu Kyi, it just so happens, was the one who asked Britain to provide education to security forces in Burma.
The Irrawaddy reported earlier this month that the course has been designed for army decision-makers, and so is only open to officers of the rank of lieutenant colonel and brigadier or equivalent. A team of academics and serving British Army officers will be involved in teaching senior Burmese officers.
The woman in charge of the course told The Irrawaddy that the training would be “political, not tactical,” meaning “we are not teaching people how to fire a rifle or drive a tank. We are seeking to help them better understand when military force is appropriate and when it is absolutely not appropriate.”
This is all part of the United Kingdom’s renewed engagement with Burma’s most powerful institution. As an eager but calculating Britain ramps up its military ties with Burma, it should not come as a surprise if top generals including Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing receive formal invites to London in the near future.
The backdrop to the tricky balance that human rights-conscious Western nations must strike is China.
Min Aung Hlaing recently paid a visit to Burma’s at times overbearing neighbor to the north, where he received red carpet treatment and met Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Since the late 1980s, China has been a reliable arms supplier to Burma, providing military hardware at a time when much of the rest of the world would have nothing to do with the oppressive regime.
Western governments’ engagement with Burma’s armed forces will be cautious and gradual, but they also don’t want to see the Burmese generals slipping back into China’s sphere of influence.
And the historical ties are there. Since 1952, Burma, a former colony of Britain, has sent several army officers to receive training at Sandhurst and other military institutions abroad. From 1952-56, the country sent 65 military officers to Sandhurst.
In fact, officers were also sent to the US Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth and Australia’s Fort Queenscliff.
But it would be naïve to think that military training from the West will make Burma’s armed forces more humane and professional. The Thai army, as a cautionary tale, is a strong ally of the United States and continues to enjoy a robust military-to-military relationship with the United States, but has staged numerous coups in the kingdom, the last one taking place just seven years ago.
History has shown that Burma’s talented army officers picked up their infamous “four cuts” strategy in London during informal meetings with their instructors while studying there.
The four cuts strategy—involving forced resettlement of entire communities and confinement of villagers in special camps and cutting intelligence, recruitment and financial support to insurgents—was used to great effect by the British during their colonial days, and would later prove to be another unfortunate legacy of that country’s Burma ties.
In a memoir published several years back, Col Tun Tin, who became prime minister in 1988, wrote that soon after returning from London in the early 1960s, forces under his command staged a three-day war game exercise attended by senior officers, including then commander-in-chief Gen Ne Win.
The plan demonstrated “four cuts operations” in practice—resettling villagers, and cutting the war game enemy off from supplies, intelligence gathering, recruitment and fund-raising.
The four cuts strategy was indeed useful: In the next few years, several military commanders applied the tactics in successful and ruthless military campaigns against ethnic insurgents and communists.
During Suu Kyi’s visit to London last week, UK Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said, “The focus of our future defense engagement with Burma will be on the creation of modern armed forces, subject to democratic accountability and compliance with international law.
“I am delighted to see that Aung San Suu Kyi has chosen to look at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as an example of how to train professional soldiers to cope with the many challenges we face in the modern world.”
As the daughter Burma’s independence hero Gen Aung San, founder of the country’s armed forces, and as a politician who has openly expressed her desire to become president of Burma, Suu Kyi has every right to visit Sandhurst.
But within the context of those presidential ambitions (lest we forget Suu Kyi is still constitutionally ineligible to run for the office, and will need to win over at least a few of the generals sitting in Parliament to change that), it is not difficult to conclude that we are witnessing a courting of the generals, whose grip on the country remains strong.
This year, for the first time, Burma’s democracy icon appeared at the Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyidaw. There are rumors that Suu Kyi has sought a meeting with Min Aung Hlaing, but has not yet been able to sit down with the general. It is unclear whether this is a snub or simply a benign inability to align busy schedules.
Certainly it is notable that the democracy icon turned opposition parliamentarian has not yet met the country’s commander-in-chief, given that Min Aung Hlaing has seen fit to meet with leaders of the Karen National Union, an ethnic armed group formerly labeled “terrorist insurgents.”
For many who remember the brutality of the former military regime, Suu Kyi’s cozying up to the generals is a dance with the devil, but the presidential aspirant clearly feels she has no other choice.