By Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall and Andrew Quinn
BANGKOK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Myanmar will be invited to a major U.S. and Thai-led multinational military exercise, a powerful symbolic gesture toward a military with a grim human rights record and a milestone in its rapprochement with the West.
Officials from participating countries told Reuters Myanmar would be asked to send observers to the annual Kobra Gold exercise, which involves thousands of American and Thai military personnel and participants from other Asian countries.
"This appears to be the first step on the part of the U.S. 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 has been carefully calibrated under the umbrella of humanitarian dialogue, the sources said, constituting one of the boldest rewards for Myanmar's new semi-civilian government after 49 years of direct military rule.
It is also seen as a first step toward U.S.-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.
The expected invitation follows intense lobbying by Thailand, co-host of the exercise, the sources said.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said in Washington that any Myanmar participation in Cobra Gold would focus on humanitarian relief, disaster assistance and medical programs.
"The United States is open to considering a request from the kingdom of Thailand to have a small contingent of Burmese military officers attend Cobra Gold as observers," Little said.
Pentagon officials said discussions were still underway between Thailand and the United States on the issue, and said the expected Myanmar contingent would number about three officers.
But the initiative could still 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, reported Human Rights Watch 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.
HISTORIC U.S. TIES
The invitation follows a visit this week by a delegation led by Michael Posner, the U.S. State Department's top human rights official, to Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar, also known as Burma. The U.S. team also included Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Vikram Singh and other U.S. military officials for discussions that U.S. officials said focused on human rights.
The talks on the Myanmar side were led by Deputy Minister for Defense Commodore Aung Thaw and other officials. Myanmar state media reported that the "two sides held talks on levels and operations of defense institutions of Myanmar and U.S. and exchanged views on future dialogue and bilateral cooperation."
"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 U.S. Pacific Command, Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear, told journalists in Bangkok on Tuesday.
Posner, speaking to reporters on Friday, said the United States would continue to press Myanmar's military on its rights record including charges it has used brutal tactics against ethnic rebel groups and permits child soldiers.
"We had an open and direct discussion of the kinds of allegations and concerns that have been expressed over time," Posner said.
"I can't tell you coming out of the meeting that there was a specific promise to do x or y, but the tone of the discussion was straightforward and we certainly put on the table the things that we are concerned about."
The invitation is another illustration of the Obama administration's pivot this year from Iraq and Afghanistan to focus national security resources on the Asia-Pacific region.
Cobra Gold take places in Chon Buri, a Thai province east of Bangkok where the United States built up a massive military presence during the Vietnam War. It began in 1980.
Last year, about 10,000 U.S. military personnel took part, along with about 3,400 Thais. Five other countries participated — Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. And nine countries sent observers, including China.
"In the past, Myanmar has always been unhappy about this Cobra Gold, thinking that it was directed against them and was like a step towards invasion," said Dr Tin Maung Maung Than, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and expert on Myanmar's military.
Even when it was a dictatorship, Myanmar sent more officers to the United States than to any other country. More than 1,200 officers trained there between Myanmar's independence from Britain in 1948 and General Ne Win's military coup in 1962, according to Maung Aung Myoe, author of "Building the Tatmadaw: Myanmar Armed Forces since 1948."
Ne Win's coup ushered in nearly half a century of isolation and misrule, but the United States maintained military ties as a bulwark against the spread of communism from neighboring China.
Some 255 Myanmar officers graduated from the United States from 1980 to 1988 under the International Military Education and Training program, more than from any other country, said Maung Aung Myoe. The program was halted, and U.S. sanctions were imposed, after the junta crushed the 1988 uprising and refused to honor the results of a general election won by Suu Kyi's party two years later.
Re-engagement began in earnest with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's historic visit to Naypyitaw in November last year. Clinton said she spoke with President Thein Sein about recovering the remains of U.S. servicemen who died in Myanmar during World War Two, noting that "the search for missing Americans once helped us repair relations with Vietnam."
During World War Two, nearly 1,000 Americans and 600 planes were lost over Myanmar due to bad weather and Japanese guns while flying from India to China. About 730 Americans remain unaccounted for, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
The Hawaii-based unit Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) ran three missions in Myanmar before its patron, former spy chief Khin Nyunt, was purged by ex-dictator Than Shwe in 2004. After Clinton's visit, the United States and Myanmar governments began talks about resuming the missions.
In August, a team of military intelligence officers from Myanmar visited JPAC to learn about remains recovery techniques and to discuss operations in Myanmar, said the U.S. Defense Department. JPAC's plans to resume missions in Myanmar remain "very tentative," its media chief Jamie Dobson told Reuters.
British efforts to re-engage with the Myanmar military have also begun. Retired general Sir Mike Jackson, one of the British Army's most prominent figures, met Myanmar's deputy commander-in-chief General Soe Win in Naypyitaw on September 21. They "frankly discussed promotion of ties" between the British and Myanmar militaries, reported the state-run Myanmar News Agency.
(additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and David Storey)
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