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US to invite Myanmar to joint exercise: officials

BANGKOK -- The United States will 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 American and Thai military personnel and participants from other Asian countries for joint annual maneuvers, officials from countries participating in the exercises told Reuters.

“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 is part of a carefully calibrated re-engagement 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 towards 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.

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, 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.

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