The United States says it will back Burma as an observer at the US-Thai Cobra Gold joint military exercises next year, in a major breakthrough for Burma which seeks to normalize relations with the US.
The US is open to considering a request from the Kingdom of Thailand to have a small contingent of Burmese military officers attend the exercises, said a US spokesperson.
A Pentagon spokesman said the invitation would be limited: “If the Burmese come and attend as observers, we would ensure that they observe the portions of Cobra Gold that deal with humanitarian relief, that deal with military medicine, things like this,” he said.
John Blaxland, a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre Australian National University, said military engagement is critical for achieving a democratic, market-oriented state in Burma, because the army is the pivotal institution in the country, in a Voice of America (VOA) article on Saturday.
An invitation amounts to a compliment to the military, he said, which has long been isolated from its neighbors, and that the participation in these exercises, even as an observer, is important for regional stability.
“The authorities in Myanmar clearly want to diversify their strategic security relationships,” he said. “They have had a very close relationship with China in recent years, India has made overtures, they're part of Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations], so the opening up of the opportunity of participating in Cobra Gold is actually a very important step.”
The invitation gives further credence to how far US-Burma relations have come since the former military regime transformed itself into a political party and after elections formed a quasi-civilian government.
It comes as a major US human rights delegation visited Burma last week for the first Human Rights Dialogue conference in Naypyitaw.
At a briefing with reporters Friday, US Ambassador Derek Mitchell said great progress has been made that would have been impossible one year ago.
“This was really a remarkable, remarkable meeting. It was constructive,” Mitchell was quoted by news agencies. Mitchell said the two sides discussed labor rights, religious freedom, rule of law, and the justice system.
The joint military exercise involves more than 10,000 U.S. and Thai troops and other participants from countries in the region.
Thai officials said Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia are expected to participate in Cobra Gold next year, along with 13 observer nations.
The US government has also announced that it will provide $2.7 million in aid to victims from last month's rioting in Rakhine, pitting ethnic Rohingyas, who are predominantly Muslim, against local Rakhine, who are mostly Buddhist.
The United Nations and others have warned of an impending humanitarian crisis in the area where up to 70,000, most Rohingyas, have been displaced.