BANGKOK (Reuters) - 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 manoeuvres, 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 labour, 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.
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.
The talks on the Myanmar side were led by Deputy Minister for Defence Commodore Aung Thaw. Myanmar state media reported that the "two sides held talks on levels and operations of defence institutions of Myanmar and U.S. and exchanged views on future dialogue and bilateral cooperation".
U.S. officials in Bangkok and Washington 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 U.S. Pacific Command, Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear, told journalists in Bangkok on Tuesday.
"Nothing has been finalised," said Thanathip Sawangsan, a spokesman at Thai Defense Ministry. He said a decision would be made at the end of October.
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 takes place in Chon Buri, a 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 an 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 neighbouring China.
Some 255 Myanmar officers graduated from the United States from 1980 to 1988 under the International Military Education and Training programme, more than from any other country, said Maung Aung Myoe. The programme was halted, and U.S. sanctions were imposed, after the junta crushed the 1988 uprising and refused to honour 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. (Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)