US President Barack Obama boards Marine One before departing for a trip to Thailand, Burma and Cambodia.

US President Barack Obama boards Marine One before departing for a trip to Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. Photo: Reuters

US President Barack Obama is making an historic visit to Burma on Monday on the eve of the East Asia Summit in Cambodia.

The presidential visit signals US endorsement of the reform measures undertaken so far.

But the visit is intended also to encourage a consolidation of those reforms and urge further changes to address the internal security problems, notably in the Rakhine and Shan states.

Australia has similarly engaged with Burmese authorities for the same sorts of reasons, recently bolstering its AusAID budget to assist with the Rohingya people.

An integral part of the US approach is the engagement with the country's military, the Tatmadaw, through its in-country military attache office. There is a growing recognition of the significance of the carefully scripted continuing central role of the Tatmadaw, mandated in the 2010 constitution, which gives them a veto over further constitutional reform.

While Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD are likely to win an overwhelming majority at the 2015 elections, analysts are coming to recognise the Tatmadaw's role cannot be further diminished without its willingness to allow more reforms. After all, the country having experienced multiple invasions in the past two centuries (British, Japanese and Chinese) and with lingering concerns about Balkanisation, the Tatmadaw sees its role as fundamental to the security of the state.

Engagement with the Tatmadaw is increasingly recognised as necessary to reduce the military's impulse to undermine or reverse the democratic reforms instigated so far. Such engagement also is necessary to constructively contribute to a de-escalation of the violence against ethnic minorities. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has also indicated such engagement may be considered, but has held back at this stage, apparently fearful of those in politics pitted against such engagement.

There are some who argue we should not engage with the Tatmadaw until it stops its human rights abuses and cedes more power. While this approach sounds ideal and avoids the risk of being tainted by association, it is also completely removed from the cultural, social and political realities on the ground. There are few if any grounds for thinking that such an approach will work in Burma.

In a Hinayana Buddhist country such as Burma, where form precedes function and where saving face is a necessary precursor to an amicable compromise solution to conflict, respectful engagement is far more likely to achieve a constructive outcome than megaphone diplomacy from afar.

Those with an understanding of mainland south-east Asian mores recognise that the best approach to influence and shape opinions and policy, and to shape events to get a desired outcome, involves a respectful, culturally aware and historically informed approach. Such an approach would show an understanding of their world view, of how they came to form their position and of how their prejudices and biases came about. Armed with such understanding, effective communication could commence.

Currently, Australia barely talks to the Tatmadaw. We have an outstanding ambassador in Bronte Moules, but she is overloaded with a massive range of responsibilities and minimal staff. She also is constrained from gaining access to the inner workings and thoughts of the Tatmadaw by virtue of being a civilian - yes, it is that simple in a country long dominated by the military such as Burma.

Australia has a part-time non-resident defence attache. But not being based in Burma, he is constrained from establishing and consolidating a network of contacts.

Such contacts can help provide insights and access for a considered, culturally attuned and insightful contribution from Australia. And such a contribution is far more likely to be well received and make a lasting impact than a patronising and prescriptive approach.

The Americans and our ASEAN regional partners all understand this. That is why they have established permanent military representation in Rangoon to understand and to seek to influence.

Australia should be there, too. We should be seeking to open doors, to understand their predicament more fully and, in a respectful and attuned manner, offer to engage and to show them that there is another way for a nation's armed forces to behave.

The members of the Australian Defence Force have a remarkable record as soldiers, ambassadors, teachers and peacekeepers. Australia also does not have the colonial baggage of the European powers and is recognised as being a part of the region.

Yet many are wondering how serious we are about being part of the region when we cannot bring ourselves to engage with the one institution that holds the keys to the reform process in Burma, the Tatmadaw. If we genuinely want to see liberal reform consolidated and furthered, and human rights abuses minimised, then we have to think constructively about how that might eventuate.

John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.