June 12, 2015 1:00 pm JST
Kamal Alam

Pakistan's warming ties with Myanmar

The British Empire revolved around the Indian subcontinent, which it called the jewel in its crown. Through India, the British projected power from the Middle East all the way to Northeast Asia.

     In 2015, there is a different kind of diplomatic activity between Islamabad and Naypyitaw. Multiple defense pacts are being signed between Pakistan's and Myanmar's armies. For Myanmar, it has been the British, and in particular its military, that has helped bring it in from the cold.

     The architect of the West's road back into Mandalay has been Gen. Lord David Richards, the former chief of Defense Staff of the U.K. Richards was one of the first British generals to lead U.S. troops in combat since World War II. He headed up NATO forces in Afghanistan. Richards has also been the main architect of Future Force 2020, a framework for British military policy over the next few years.

     Richards has given Southeast Asia particular attention in recent years, through his ties with Myanmar, Nepal and Brunei. Being a Colonel Commandant Brigate of Gurkhas and having a close relationship with the Sultan of Brunei meant that Richards was uniquely placed to talk to Myanmar's military leadership.

     The general was of the belief that talking to Myanmar's generals was essential, no matter how difficult initial meetings may prove. The U.S., for some, appears to have long seen Myanmar through the eyes of either Hollywood films such as "Rambo" or through the dictum of "dictatorship versus democracy." Many in the U.K. see Myanmar through the eyes of Aung San Suu Kyi because of her British husband and children. However, Richards understood the region through his closeness to Nepal and Brunei. This led the Myanmar military to trust him.

     "A bright future beckons for Myanmar," Richards told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Whether Western liberal opinion likes it or not, for some time yet the Myanmar armed forces will play a crucial role in charting that future. But this is a new army that recognizes its responsibilities and is determined to be constructive. It is vital that Western armed forces engage and assist their Myanmar comrades in arms, to give them the confidence and resolve that they will inevitably need in what will be a difficult journey."

     Richards helped stabilize the relationship between the Pakistan military and NATO when things went sour after the Salala attack of November 2011. In that attack, NATO helicopters killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers, leading to a complete meltdown in relations between Islamabad and Washington. As in the Myanmar context, Richards proved to be a soldier diplomat, calming tensions by getting the U.S. to apologize to Pakistan. The Pakistani generals were at ease working with Richards when it came to doing diplomacy for the future of Afghanistan. Richards also made history by visiting Myanmar in June 2013. It was the first visit by a senior British official since the 1962 coup.

     Richards' father fought in Burma, as Myanmar used to be known, during World War II. This informed his son's thinking. As Richards lay out the strategy for British military engagement in East Asia, he was aware of the role the British Indian military played in the fight for Burma during World War II.

     The first ever Pakistani Army Chief, Field Marshal Ayyub Khan, also took part in the World War II battle for Burma. Here, Richards saw a connection between the contemporary Pakistan military and Myanmar's generals. The military in Myanmar watched for four decades as Pakistan's generals perfected the art of negotiating with the West. Despite being far from champions of democracy, Pakistan's military leaders have been able to get billions of dollars of aid from Western economies by explaining their cause and contributing to regional stability.

     In the first week of May, the Myanmar Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, visited Pakistan. During the visit, he signed several defense engagement treaties and an agreement on a comprehensive expansion of bilateral economic ties. The agreements come at a time when a China-Myanmar-Pakistan alliance against India is beginning to take shape. Myanmar has also become one of the first countries to buy the joint Chinese-Pakistan fighter jet, the JF-17.

     In March 2015, during a high-level Pakistan and Myanmar Air Force delegation meeting, an initial understanding was reached for Myanmar to buy the jets. The last week of May also saw Myanmar Air Force Commander-in-Chief (Air) Gen. Khin Aung Myint visit Pakistan to have further discussions on this deal and other partnerships. These events took place despite the bombing of Chinese villagers by the Myanmar Air Force a couple of months ago. Myanmar has taken to military diplomacy as means of forwarding their national strategy.

     The danger the Islamic State group poses in Southeast Asia means new diplomatic alliances will be strengthened, despite ideological differences. Myanmar and Pakistan seem to be one such alliance. Despite anger against Myanmar's treatment of Rohingya Muslims among Pakistanis, the two militaries are determined to cement their ties. On Tuesday, the Pakistani Taliban announced it will help the Rohingya Muslims by starting a fight there.

     Myanmar, for its part, realizes the importance the British military put in it, when the U.K. became the first NATO country to send its Defense Chief in June 2013 to negotiate an agreement to resume normal ties with full diplomatic relations. The Myanmar military knows that for the U.K.'s East Asian policy to continue to work in Nepal and Brunei, it must coordinate with Naypyitaw. Myanmar also knows the modern Pakistan Army needs it to counterbalance Indian influence in Southeast Asia.

Kamal Alam is a fellow for Middle East regional defense and security issues at the Institute for Statecraft.

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