Dr John Blaxland is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

Myanmar, emerging from a long period as a pariah state, is confounding sceptics with the pace and extent of reform since Senior General Than Shwe handed over power to his successor as president, Thein Sein, under Myanmar's new partially democratic constitution.

However, conventional wisdom has held that the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, still calls most of the shots from behind the scenes, having ensured key appointments were filled by ex-generals.

If Australia is serious about wanting to consolidate reform it needs to extend a genuine hand of friendship to the one organisation that retains a pariah status: the Tatmadaw. Only then can the Tatmadaw be encouraged to look at the world from a more liberal perspective, framed by an understanding of the rule of law, the significance of the laws of armed conflict, and the significance of the separation of military power from the levers of an elected government.

When Than Shwe's hand-picked successor was chosen observers initially thought his role would be to maintain order and to protect the interests of the entrenched military regime that had ruled since Aung San Suu Kyi's stolen election victory in 1990.

They were right, but didn't take into account the genuine intention of the Tatmadaw leaders to reposition the country as a more liberal, market-oriented and more democratic state that was genuinely interested in fostering greater links with the rest of ASEAN and the world, and in so doing, reducing Burma's dependence on its northern neighbour, China, and fostering economic growth and development. The result has been a series of reform initiatives the pace of which has left critics and many commentators and government policy formulators floundering.

In Australia's case, there have been a number of initiatives in response, most visibly the recent visit to Myanmar by Foreign Minister Bob Carr.

Even so, there remains considerable reluctance to proactively engage in the area of defence cooperation.

To date, Australia's Defence Cooperation Program (DCP) has not been extended to Myanmar and no decision has been made even to establish a defence attaché office in the country on a permanent basis. (The United States has maintained one there for years and even a number of European countries – which are much further from Myanmar than Australia –are weighing up their options to return.)

Elsewhere in ASEAN, the DCP has helped foster a network of relatively liberal minded and well placed senior military officers who are well disposed towards Australia. For little cost, the DCP has been a remarkably effective tool for enhancing regional security ties across South East Asia and the Pacific, further cementing regional security and stability, and fostering a constructive view of the place of armed forces in democratic societies. Myanmar stands as the glaring exception.

At the moment, the defence attaché in Thailand is cross-accredited to Myanmar and visits periodically. But not being based in Myanmar, he is severely constrained in terms of insights, access and engagement.

Access to senior military figures is key to better understanding and to influencing their thinking. Insights into the thinking of senior Tatmadaw officers are critical to deciding what can be done to foster relations and reinforce the trends towards reform, democratisation and enhancement of security and stability; this includes arrangements with ethnic and armed separatist groups on the country's periphery.

To generate constructive engagement a permanently posted defence attaché needs to be established in Myanmar. Further, prompt action is required to engage the Tatmadaw, offering them placements on courses aimed at furthering their understanding of the place of armed forces in civil society and the international laws of armed conflict.

Delegations could be encouraged to visit Australian military training and education institutions, providing opportunities for discrete and respectful engagement to encourage fresh thinking in a constructive way without being culturally-insensitive or patronising (a sure way on ensuring they don’t pay any attention). Placements on Australian courses could be offered, much as they are for other ASEAN countries at the Australian Defence Force Academy and Staff College in Canberra. 

The time for action and innovative thinking is now.  

Photo by Flickr user eGuide Travel.