Monday, 15 October 2012

US military officials arrive in Myanmar

A delegation of three dozen US military and civilian officials began arriving in Myanmar at the weekend, in Washington’s most comprehensive push yet to engage with Myanmar’s military and government.
The US trip highlights a growing debate, in Europe and in other western countries, over greater engagement with the military, which has ruled the country with an iron fist for decades and been subject to western sanctions.The US maintained military attachés in Myanmar – even in the years when it imposed sanctions. However, the participation of senior US military officers such as Lt Gen Francis Wiercinski, head of the US Army’s Pacific command, in this week’s visit reflects the growing view in Washington that the support of Myanmar’s military is essential to any lasting reforms, or peace agreements with ethnic minorities.
In a recent report, the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies warned that the US should start bilateral programmes of training and exchange visits as a precursor to normalising military relations.
This week’s visit follows successful trips to the US last month of President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and opposition leader who has backed the idea of US engagement with the military.
Myanmar’s government has forged ceasefire agreements with 10 of 11 main ethnic rebel groups. However, fighting continues in northern Kachin state, and military offensives and local people being displaced have been reported.
Even as the government struggles to engage Kachin commanders in peace talks, tensions within other large ethnic groups, particularly the Karen National Union on Myanmar’s eastern border with Thailand, have raised concerns about the fragility of agreements signed in the past eight months.
“This visit makes perfect sense,” said Thant Myint U, who is involved in the government’s peace efforts. “It would be counter-productive for the peace process to proceed without involving Myanmar’s military.”
The US delegation visiting Myanmar this week also includes William Burns, deputy secretary of state, Vikram Singh, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, Derek Mitchell, US ambassador to Myanmar, and other senior officials from the State department, National Security Council, Homeland Security department, and USAid. They are due to meet Thein Sein, Min Aung Hlaing, commander of the military, and other senior officials.
Outside of the government, the US group will meet leaders of ethnic groups. These groups will include Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists from the western coastal state of Rakhine (formerly Arakan), where sectarian violence broke out in June. They will also meet with trade unions and religious groups, as well as members of Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and Generation 88, a group of former political prisoners.

Myanmar’s ruling United Solidarity and Development Party opened a three-day national meeting over the weekend to elect officials and appoint a chairman to replace Thein Sein, who vacated the role when he won the presidency early last year. The party will also discuss strategy for the 2015 presidential election.
The general-secretary, U Htay Oo, told The Myanmar Times, an independent English-language newspaper, that the USDP would greatly expand its two main leadership committees and make other moves to “improve organisation”.
The weekly newspaper cited senior party sources as saying that the speaker of the lower house, Thura Shwe Mann, would be chosen as leader. The party will choose more than 200 executive committee members at the gathering, 35 of whom will be appointed to the central executive committee.
The USDP has been beset by tensions since losing by-elections on April 1 to Ms Suu Kyi’s party, which won 43 of 45 parliamentary seats.
By - Gwen Robinson in Bangkok

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