Myanmar Navy to Join US-led Maritime Exercise in South China Sea

By Moe Myint 27 August 2019

YANGON—Myanmar’s navy said on Monday it is traveling to the Gulf of Thailand to take part in a five-day maritime exercise led by the United States with seven ASEAN navies.

The exercises, set next to the contested South China Sea, will take place the first week of September. 

The US placed sanctions earlier this year on top Myanmar military figures, making joint naval drills between the two countries controversial and possibly in opposition to stated US policy. 

Navy Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Moe Aung posted on Facebook using a different name Monday morning that his frigate F-12, a 100-crew-carrying ship known locally as Kyan Sitt Thar warship, has departed Yangon to take part in the ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise (AUMX). 

According to the military newspaper Myawaddy and the Facebook page of the Myanmar navy, a delegation is being led by Lieutenant Colonel Khun Aung Kyaw and naval drills are planned to take place from Sept. 2 to 6, with warships from at least seven ASEAN countries in the first-ever AUMX.

Regional experts say the US-led exercise is intended to strengthen ties between the US and ASEAN militaries in an effort to balance China’s maritime influence in the region, especially in the South China Sea.

In July 2019, the United States sanctioned the Myanmar military’s Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing; its deputy chief, Vice General Soe Win; Major General Than Oo; and Major General Aung Aung, along with their family members, for what a UN fact-finding mission called the military’s “crimes against humanity” carried out against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority in the western state of Rakhine with “genocidal intent” in 2017. The commanders and their families are barred from entering the United States. 

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing (center), Vice Snr-Gen Soe Win (left of center) and other senior military officials arrive at the 21st Century Panglong Conference in Naypyitaw in July 2018. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

The military campaign drove more than 730,000 Rohingya from northern Rakhine State int0 neighboring Bangladesh, creating the world’s largest refugee camp. Repatriation efforts between the two countries have stalled, with many Rohingya reportedly afraid to return. At the first scheduled repatriation last week, no Rohingya refugees show up.  

In 2016, the Obama administration officially lifted sanctions on Myanmar after a visit to the US by de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, though some restrictions remained, including an embargo on arms sales and several companies with links to North Korean arms trading. 

The Irrawaddy reached out to the US Embassy in Yangon via email Monday but had not yet received a response as of early Tuesday afternoon. 

Contacted by email Tuesday, the US State Department told The Irrawaddy that “Final planning is being conducted” and that “details will be released closer to the start of the exercise.” 

In a statement released on Aug. 2, the department said it would be co-hosting the inaugural AUMX with Thailand to “build capacity in maritime domain awareness, information sharing, and sea interdiction” among ASEAN militaries and navies.

Last October, an ASEAN-China maritime exercise took place off the coast of Zhanjiang, in Guangdong province.

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