The Myanmar junta’s defence ministry has been invited to a five-day regional meeting and table-top exercise on maritime security co-hosted by Thailand and the United States next month, Myanmar Now has learned.
The ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM)-Plus Experts’ Working Group on Maritime Security brings together member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) and dialogue partners Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.
Lt-Col Martin Meiners, a spokesperson for the US Department of Defence (DoD), confirmed that the Myanmar junta had received an invitation to attend next month’s meeting and exercise.
Asked if the DoD approved of the move, he said that the invitations had been sent by the ASEAN Secretariat on behalf of co-chairs Thailand and the United States in accordance with the regional grouping’s protocol.
“Attendance at ASEAN forums is determined by ASEAN member states,” he added.
According to leaked meeting documents seen by Myanmar Now, the table-top exercise will simulate three “problems”: search and rescue; piracy; and human trafficking and drugs and weapons smuggling.
Meiners did not respond to questions on whether the Myanmar Navy will be invited to attend field exercises likely to be held later this year with member state navies.
The meeting and exercise is taking place weeks into Indonesia’s chairmanship of ASEAN, with Indonesia’s defence minister, Probowo Subianto, leading the ADMM.
In November, Indonesian President Joko Widodo proposed that the Myanmar military be banned beyond major summits for its failure to abide by a five-point consensus reached in April 2021 that called for an end to violence in the wake of the military takeover in February of that year.
Also in November, junta defence minister Mya Tun Oo was excluded from ADMM meetings for the first time.
Meanwhile, Thailand has maintained a policy of engagement with the Myanmar junta, deepening divisions in ASEAN. Earlier this month, the Thai military chief met Min Aung Hlaing in the resort town of Ngapali in Rakhine State, and last month, Thailand hosted an informal “non-ASEAN” meeting that gave the junta’s foreign minister a rare opportunity to meet face-to-face with four of his regional counterparts.
The Myanmar junta’s invitation to the maritime security meeting and exercise follows a decision by the US to withdraw from ADMM-Plus meetings on counterterrorism co-hosted by Russia and the Myanmar military in July and December of last year.
At the time, the US said it would not attend because the Myanmar military had used its position to propagandise and justify atrocities that it has been committing.
However, a Myanmar military delegation was allowed to participate virtually in an ADMM-Plus gathering on maritime security that was hosted by the US military in Hawaii last August, according to Meiners.
Moe Zaw Oo, the deputy foreign minister of the publicly mandated shadow National Unity Government, called it “quite ironic” that a regime “responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes that threaten the security of the region and beyond” had been invited to a regional meeting on maritime security.
In a message to Myanmar Now, he warned the organising countries that the move would likely “damage the credibility and intention of such exercises.”
Chris Sidoti, an Australian human rights expert, was also critical of the decision to allow the Myanmar regime to join the Bangkok meeting, noting that the table-top military exercises would strengthen the junta’s capacity to oppress the country’s people.
“Training these killers, which is what a ‘table-top exercise’ is, is akin to arming them, as Russia and China are doing. It makes the United States as complicit as Russia and China in the atrocities of the Myanmar military,” he told Myanmar Now.
He added that by treating the junta as a regional security partner, the US military was “demonstrating its contempt” for recent legislation passed by Congress aimed at isolating the regime and supporting Myanmar’s democratic movement.
“Nothing could be further from what Congress legislated. But the US military is proceeding unconcerned,” he said of the decision to allow the regime to take part in the exercise.
An investigation by activist group Justice for Myanmar last year concluded that ASEAN’s “practical assistance and support for the Myanmar military likely amounts to the aiding and abetting of the military’s genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.”