“In the past, Myanmar has always been unhappy about this Cobra Gold, thinking that it was directed against them and was like a step towards invasion,” said Dr Tin Maung Maung Than, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and an expert on Myanmar’s military.
Even when it was a dictatorship, Myanmar sent more officers to the United States than to any other country. More than 1,200 officers trained there between Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948 and General Ne Win’s military coup in 1962, according to Maung Aung Myoe, author of “Building the Tatmadaw: Myanmar Armed Forces since 1948.”
Ne Win’s coup ushered in nearly half a century of isolation and misrule, but the United States maintained military ties as a bulwark against the spread of communism from neighboring China.
Some 255 Myanmar officers graduated from the United States from 1980 to 1988 under the International Military Education and Training programme, more than from any other country, said Maung Aung Myoe. The programme was halted, and U.S. sanctions were imposed, after the junta crushed the 1988 uprising and refused to honor the results of a general election won by Suu Kyi’s party two years later.
Re-engagement began in earnest with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s historic visit to Naypyitaw in November last year. Clinton said she spoke with President Thein Sein about recovering the remains of U.S. servicemen who died in Myanmar during World War Two, noting that “the search for missing Americans once helped us repair relations with Vietnam”.
During World War Two, nearly 1,000 Americans and 600 planes were lost over Myanmar due to bad weather and Japanese guns while flying from India to China. About 730 Americans remain unaccounted for, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
The Hawaii-based unit Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) ran three missions in Myanmar before its patron, former spy chief Khin Nyunt, was purged by ex-dictator Than Shwe in 2004. After Clinton’s visit, the United States and Myanmar governments began talks about resuming the missions.
In August, a team of military intelligence officers from Myanmar visited JPAC to learn about remains recovery techniques and to discuss operations in Myanmar, said the U.S. Defense Department. JPAC’s plans to resume missions in Myanmar remain “very tentative,” its media chief Jamie Dobson told Reuters.