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Myanmar ''set to join US military drills''

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BANGKOK (AFP): The United States plans to invite Myanmar to a major regional military exercise next year, host country Thailand has said, reflecting a dramatic easing of tensions between the former foes.

The move would see Myanmar's military which ruled the nation with an iron fist for almost half a century and is accused of a litany of human rights abuses to join the annual Cobra Gold drills as an observer.

"Myanmar is on the list of observers but it's not finalised yet," Thai Defence Ministry spokesman Colonel Thanathip Sawangsang said, adding that the participants would discuss the idea at a meeting later this month.

Cobra Gold is the United States' largest multilateral exercise in the Asia-Pacific region, bringing together thousands of troops from the United States, Thailand and other countries for field training.

Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and Malaysia are expected to participate next year along with 13 observer nations, Thai officials said.

Past survival training sessions have seen troops drink snake blood and behead chickens.

The proposal to invite Myanmar was Washington's initiative, according to a senior Thai military official who did not want to be named.

"If all members agree, it will become official," he said.

A US embassy spokesman declined to comment. Relations between the United States and Myanmar have improved markedly since President Thein Sein took power 18 months ago, ushering in a period of rapid political reforms in the former pariah state.

Thein Sein made a landmark trip to New York last month, becoming the first Myanmar leader to speak to the UN General Assembly, following a series of visits to Myanmar by US officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The regime has released hundreds of political prisoners, welcomed Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party back into mainstream politics and inked a series of ceasefire deals with ethnic minority rebels.

In response the United States and other Western countries have begun rolling back sanctions, despite concerns about an ethnic conflict raging in northern Kachin state and a surge in communal violence in western Rakhine.

New York based Human Rights Watch has accused Myanmar forces of opening fire on Muslims in Rakhine, an accusation denied by the government.

Washington has also urged Myanmar to cut any military ties with North Korea. Thein Sein's government has said that it will abide by UN resolutions banning weapons exports from the secretive communist state.

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