BANGKOK/U-TAPAO AIR BASE, THAILAND – Thailand and the United States downplayed the presence of a Myanmar military officer at the opening Tuesday of the largest annual joint military exercise in Southeast Asia.
Myanmar’s military has been accused of massive human rights violations in its crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority, who have fled by the hundreds of thousands to neighboring Bangladesh.
U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn T. Davies told reporters that Myanmar was not participating in the Cobra Gold exercise in eastern Thailand but didn’t elaborate. Thai Gen. Thanchaiyan Srisuwan acknowledged inviting Myanmar to the opening ceremony.
U.S. lawmakers last week demanded Myanmar’s exclusion from the exercise. The U.S. in a statement said 11,075 service members from 29 countries are participating
The U.S. force is the biggest in years to join the exercise.
The United States scaled back attendance at Cobra Gold after a 2014 coup in Thailand. But relations between the junta and the United States have improved under President Donald Trump.
The presence of the 6,800 U.S. personnel — nearly double last year’s number — was a demonstration of America’s continuing muscle in a region where China is growing ever more powerful.
The Cobra Gold military exercise has been held for more than three decades.
“This exercise is the largest multilateral exercise in the Indo-Pacific region. It speaks to the commitment of the U.S. in the region,” said Steve Castonguay, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.
This year’s exercise has been marked by Thailand’s controversial invitation to Myanmar, where 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled military action that the United Nations has denounced as ethnic cleansing in response to insurgent attacks.
Castonguay confirmed an army major from Myanmar was attending the opening ceremony but that Myanmar would not participate in any military drills.
The United States has pushed for the restoration of democracy in Thailand, its oldest regional ally.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha had promised an election would take place in November this year, but the junta last month said it could be delayed until February 2019 — which would be the latest of several postponements.