U.S. Special Forces to Burma: Help or Hindrance?
With Afghanistan and Pakistan hot spots, and Special Forces still used in Iraq to train Iraqi commandos, the United States is in no rush to deploy them to Burma. However, without active intervention on behalf of the Burman civil opposition and the ethnic armed opposition, President Bush’s bans on imports from Burma and the export of financial services to Burma, as well as asset freezes on institutions and individuals, are but half-measures. On February 20, a state department spokesperson acknowledged as much when he stated that the United States Burma policy is under review.
For those in the United States to whom it matters, the rewards of trading for Burma’s abundant resources such as oil, natural gas, uranium, coal, zinc, copper, precious stones, timber, and hydropower are being ceded to China. For instance, China is building a port in Burma vast enough to handle supertankers transporting oil and natural gas from the Ogaden Basin on the Ethiopian-Somali border.
We asked Heinemann if he thought the United States should, in an ideal situation, send Special Forces into the ethnic regions. “It’s not about the Special Forces, per se,” he replied. The larger issue is “the U.S. government standing behind [the people of Burma, who] fought by our side in World War II.”
On the other hand, he believes, we need to discard our notions of democracy. “In conversations with a number of the leaders of the ethnic groups, I have learned that they strongly feel that ‘matters of national reconciliation’ — meaning resolution of ethnic rights issues — are the number-one issue.
“Aung San Kuu Kyi alienated herself somewhat in the late nineties when she announced that democracy was number one. … Also, her father is [said to have] killed ethnics after World War II and they have not forgotten.
“Waving the democracy banner looks right, but balance of power among ethnics” — and, presumably, the Burman majority — “is imperative for regional stability and peace, something that the United States is still learning in Iraq and Afghanistan. Interlopers in the region only skim the surface and readily go for the ‘poor-darling-of-democracy-imprisoned’ image. The graphic images” of junta violence against the ethnics “are too disturbing, whereas Aung San Kuu Kyi [is] tidy enough for tender Western sensibilities.
“It will take dedicated training, advising, and equipping to bring the various ethnic factions together for decisive action. … Special Operations forces are ideally suited to participate in this kind of effort in Burma.”
In light of all the human wreckage it’s left behind since World War II, American military intervention is normally contraindicated now. Anyway, while the junta seems immune to sanctions, an utter and complete moratorium on all international investment might impress upon it the need for reform. Besides, most insurgencies are leery of active military assistance since it soon comes to resemble borrowing money from the mob.
As Thakabaw told us, “We can easily overthrow the [junta] on our own, if countries like Russia, China, India, Singapore, Israel, Japan, Germany, and North Korea stop helping it [with] material, finance and advice. [If we just] hold out long enough, victory will be ours.”
Should the Karens, along with other minorities still fighting, indeed outlast the junta, or at least its current authoritarian incarnation, they will likely see their power increased. As Kaplan points out in his Atlantic piece, natural-gas pipeline agreements would need to be negotiated with the ethnic peoples inhabiting the regions through which the pipelines would pass.
Heinemann’s views on intervention aside, it’s tough to disagree with him when he observes, “[Currently] independent action and too many disparate voices hobble progress. Ethnics have awesome power in the stories they have to share with the world. But the key is the unity of that voice.”