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US invites Myanmar to joint military exercises

The US is said to invite Myanmar to observe a powerful gesture that unites thousands of Americans.

The US is said to invite Myanmar to observe a powerful gesture that unites thousands of Americans.

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 has been 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.

"It's a significant and symbolic gesture that shows the rapprochement is gathering momentum," said Christopher Roberts, a security expert at Australia National University.

The invitation is part of a carefully calibrated re-engagement with Myanmar's military 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 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.

The invitation came after intense lobbying by Thailand, co-host of the exercises, 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.

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