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. lawmakers had demanded Myanmar's exclusion from the exercise.
"The truth is Myanmar is not a participant nation," U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn T. Davies told reporters at the Cobra Gold exercise in eastern Thailand. "They're not part of the exercises here." He did not explain the Myanmar officer's attendance.
Thai Gen. Thanchaiyan Srisuwan acknowledged inviting Myanmar to the opening ceremony. However, Myanmar's flag was not flown.
Last week, the Pentagon and U.S. State Department said Thailand had invited up to three Myanmar officers to observe the part of the drills focused on responding to natural disasters. But Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Logan, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday that the only Myanmar officer in attendance was a deputy military attache who is an army major. The officer attended the opening ceremony, along with other members of the defense attache corps in Bangkok, he said.
"Beyond this, no Burmese officers are participating or otherwise observing any parts of Cobra Gold," Logan said.
Burma is the old name for Myanmar before it was changed by the country's previous military government, and is still used by the governments of the U.S. and several other nations.
It was not immediately clear what changed the earlier plan for Myanmar observers, but it followed criticism from both Republican and Democrat members of Congress over the invitation to Myanmar. Sen. John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Associated Press "militaries engaged in ethnic cleansing should not be honing their skills alongside U.S. troops," a reference to accounts of atrocities committed by Myanmar troops.
A U.S. statement said 11,075 service members from 29 countries are taking part in this year's exercise, with Thailand, the U.S., Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia the seven main participants.
It said the aims of the exercise are to enhance security cooperation, develop peacekeeping forces and maintain readiness for humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions.
The exercise includes humanitarian components, such as evacuation drills, as well as traditional military exercises such as amphibious landings.
Disaster relief has assumed a high profile in recent years, especially after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in 14 countries. Multinational forces mobilized for relief efforts after that crisis, as they did again on a more limited scale after 2008's Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar, killing upward of 130,000 people.
Davies, in an indirect reference to such crises, told reporters that "It's very important that everyone from around the region have an eye on what's happening here and to some extent to be part of it, but I'll come back to what I said earlier that Burma is not a participating nation."
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.