Myanmar army may get invite to US-Thai exercise

BANGKOK - Myanmar's military, long criticized for human rights abuses, may be invited as an observer at annual U.S-Thai joint military exercise next year, a Thai official said Friday in what would represent another reward for the new government's recent political reforms.

The invitation to the Cobra Gold exercise would come after years of Myanmar being frozen out of U.S. regional activities because of Washington's disapproval of the former military regime's repression.

Thai Defense Ministry spokesman Thanathip Sawangsaeng said that there are tentative plans to invite Myanmar, but participating countries must agree on the action at a meeting late this month.

"We would need a consensus from all participating countries. However, the move to include Myanmar in the exercise could be seen as an attempt to expand military readiness in the region," he said.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman declined to comment.

Myanmar has been slowly shedding its status as a pariah state now that the army-backed but elected government that took power last year has instituted political and economic liberalization. The reforms follow almost five decades of repressive military rule

The country's moves toward political reconciliation with democracy movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi won it the easing of sanctions imposed by the West. Participation in the Cobra Gold would be a further sign of improvement of relations with the U.S. in particular.

The 31st Cobra Gold exercise was held earlier this year with members of the Indonesian, Japanese, Malaysian, Singaporean and South Korean militaries taking part, more than 10,000 in all. Other regional countries were invited as observers.

Thailand-based Cobra Gold is the biggest and longest-standing U.S. military exercise in the Asia-Pacific region.

Cobra Gold began in 1980, a year after Vietnamese troops pushed to the Thai border after invading Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge regime. Early exercises concentrated on conventional military tactics and strategies for attack and defense.

In recent years, the exercise has concentrated on peace-keeping operations and humanitarian and civic assistance projects.

When a deadly cyclone hit Myanmar in 2008, U.S. Navy ships were diverted from Cobra Gold to offshore Myanmar to offer assistance. But the military government then in power declined its help, apparently suspicious about U.S. intentions.