WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army’s commander in Asia said on Tuesday he was eager for closer ties to the military in Myanmar after elections that the pro-democracy opposition won by a landslide, but this would have to wait for a policy decision by the U.S. government.
General Vincent Brooks told a defense writers’ roundtable in Washington that military leaders from Myanmar’s partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were also eager to see such U.S. engagement with Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.
He recalled a meeting with ASEAN defense ministers in 2014.
“I literally had leaders from other militaries grabbing me by the hand and pulling me to the Burmese general who was there; the region really wants the United States to engage Burma and help them to move forward,” he said.
“Now we have to move at the pace we are allowed to,” Brooks said.
The United States has been working to boost military ties throughout Asia to counter an increasingly powerful and assertive China, which shares a border with Myanmar.
Washington began lifting sanctions against Myanmar after a quasi-civilian government was formed in 2011 following decades of harsh military rule, but continuing human rights concerns that worry U.S. lawmakers have kept military-to-military ties to a bare minimum.
Brooks said Myanmar’s elections last month, in which pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a landslide victory, “have caused us to be ready to move forward.”
“But we haven’t advanced very rapidly thus far. I think there is good potential and so we will await policy guidelines on that.”
Brooks said one of his generals had been able to speak at Myanmar’s war college and he would like to engage more directly himself.
“It’s a relationship that I really want us to have and I am eager to be allowed to do that ... just kind of spend a bit more time with them.”
Brooks said the United States saw it as an opportunity to export U.S. military professionalism in terms of governance, engagement with the media, the public and civilian government.
On Monday, U.S. officials said Washington was temporarily easing trade restrictions on Myanmar in an effort to boost Aung San Suu Kyi’s party after its election win.
U.S. concerns about the military’s rights record were aired again last week when the State Department called for an investigation of reports of army atrocities in Shan State.
Editing by Alistair Bell