YANGON, Myanmar – Britain's most senior serving military officer discussed possible training cooperation with Myanmar's armed forces during a visit that ended Tuesday, the first by the head of a Western nation's armed forces since the Southeast Asian country began recent reforms.
Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Sir David Richards also confirmed that Britain will appoint a permanent defense attache at its mission later this year, the British embassy said.
Britain and other Western nations imposed sanctions on Myanmar's previous military junta and avoided military-to-military contacts. Most sanctions were dropped after President Thein Sein took office in 2011 and instituted sweeping economic and political reforms.
Critics say Myanmar's army still commits human rights abuses in fighting against ethnic minority rebels, especially against the Kachin in the north. The government last week said it had made progress in peace talks with the Kachin.
The embassy said in a statement that a British "joint military-civilian team comprising experts on security sector reform, policing reform, and governance" arrived in Myanmar on Tuesday for a two-week visit, with plans to meet representatives from all sectors of society to help identify how Britain can help support further reforms.
Richards met with Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as armed forces commander Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, politicians and representatives of ethnic minority groups, the embassy said.
"Richards discussed the role of the military in supporting Burma's democratic transition, and the importance of security sector reform," it said, adding that he also talked about moves for peace and reconciliation and "welcomed the progress made over the last two years in ending fighting across much of the country." Britain, like the United States, still officially refers to Myanmar as Burma, the name used before it was changed by the junta, and the appellation still preferred by some in the country's pro-democracy movement.
British Ambassador Andrew Heyn described Richards' mission as "very successful."
He said Britain feels it can help "to make the peace process move forward and to help the military make the transition from where they were to where they need to be," and that Myanmar's military expressed interest in taking such advice.
Heyn said opposition leader Suu Kyi strongly supported the idea of cautious military-to-military engagement.
During his visit, Richards paid his respects at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Htauk Kyant, just outside Yangon, where the remains of tens of thousands of Allied soldiers who battled the Japanese in the Burma campaigns of World War II are buried. Richards' father took part in the bloody fighting, the embassy said.