Panetta open to military relations with Myanmar

The U.S. is open to improving military ties with Myanmar if the country continues to enact political and human rights reforms, Pentagon chief Leon Panetta told Asian leaders Saturday.

His comments at a defense conference in Singapore reflected new efforts by the Obama administration to ease penalties against the Asian nation, also known as Burma, as it moves to put in place democratic reforms.

Assuming Myanmar is able to make such changes and continue efforts to open up its political system, the Pentagon would be willing to have discussions about how the countries can improve their military relationship, Panetta said.

"In dealing with the countries of the Asia-Pacific region, this is not a Cold War situation where the U.S. simply charges in, builds permanent bases and tries to establish a power base in this region," Panetta said, responding to a question after his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a prominent defense conference.

In the world today, he said, the U.S. must engage with other countries to help them build their own military capabilities so they can defend themselves.

"We will encourage that kind of relationship with every nation that we deal with in this region, including Myanmar," Panetta said.

A senior defense official traveling with Panetta said the secretary expects the government of Burma to continue on the path of reform and promotion of human rights, and once it shows progress then stronger military ties could be possible. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to reflect internal discussions.

Myanmar is emerging from decades of authoritarian rule and diplomatic isolation. Last month, President Barack Obama eased an investment ban on Myanmar, and named the first U.S ambassador to the country in 22 years.

Human rights activists, however, criticized the move, saying it was too soon to reward the country since hundreds of political prisoners are still being held there.

Panetta's speech was designed to promote America's new effort to focus more attention on the Asia-Pacific region, both militarily and diplomatically.

Also Saturday, Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi made her first foreign trip in 24 years, visiting Thailand for a firsthand look at her nation's long-standing refugee crisis.

The trip is seen as evidence of the confidence she has in her country's reforms. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner had spent 15 years over the past two decades under house arrest, and had previously refused to leave the country because she feared the ruling generals who were in charge would not let her return.