The US is to invite Myanmar to the world’s largest multinational military field exercise, a powerful symbolic gesture toward a military with a grim human rights record and a milestone in its rapprochement with the West.
Myanmar will be invited to observe Cobra Gold, which brings together thousands of US and Thai military personnel and participants from other Asian countries for joint annual maneuvers, officials from countries participating in the exercises said.
“This appears to be the first step on the part of the US to re-engage Myanmar militarily and to wean it away from its reliance on China,” said Jan Zalewski, an analyst covering Myanmar for IHS Global Insight, a research firm.
Washington’s rapprochement with Myanmar’s military is part of re-engagement under the umbrella of humanitarian dialogue, the sources said, constituting one of the boldest rewards for Myanmar’s semi-civilian government after 49 years of military rule.
It is also seen as a first step towards US-Myanmar military-to-military ties, cut off after 1988 when soldiers opened fire on pro-democracy protesters in a crackdown that killed or wounded thousands and led to the house arrest of democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi.
Thailand, co-host of the exercises, lobbied for Myanmar’s inclusion, the sources said.
It could prompt charges that Washington is moving too quickly in seeking to rehabilitate a military accused of continued human rights violations in ethnic regions such as Kachin State, where tens of thousands of people have been displaced in 16 months of fighting.
Refugees fled forced labor, killings, rape and torture by the Myanmar military, Human Rights Watch reported in June.
“Burma’s military continues to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is shocking that the United States would invite them to military exercises,” said Mark Farmaner, director of advocacy group Burma Campaign UK.
The invitation follows a visit this week by a delegation led by the US Department of State’s top human rights official, Michael Posner, to Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar, also known as Burma. The US team also included Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Vikram Singh and other US military officials.
The talks on the Myanmar side were led by Burmese Deputy Minister for Defense Commodore Aung Thaw. Myanmar state media reported that the “two sides held talks on levels and operations of defense institutions of Myanmar and US and exchanged views on future dialogue and bilateral cooperation.”
US officials declined to comment.
“If there is a decision to move forward with military-to-military operations with Burma, then we are going to be prepared to support that the best we can,” the head of US Pacific Command, Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear, said in Bangkok on Tuesday.
“Nothing has been finalized,” said Thanathip Sawangsan, a spokesman at the Thai Defense Ministry.
He said a decision would be made at the end of this month.
The invitation is another illustration of US President Barack Obama’s administration’s pivot from Iraq and Afghanistan to focus national security resources on the Asia-Pacific region.