By Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Myanmar and nine other previous observer countries have not been invited to participate in a scaled-down Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand later this month because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Thai general said Friday.
The 41st iteration of the world’s longest-running international military training program is scheduled for Feb. 20 to March 4 in several provinces near the Gulf of Thailand, Thai and U.S. officials announced jointly in Bangkok on Friday. The annual exercise is a mix of combat training and humanitarian missions.
This year, seven countries are scheduled to participate in the combat exercises, while 13 others, including China, India and Australia, will participate in humanitarian assistance exercises, officials said.
“Typically, we invite 10 nations to participate as observers,” Lt. Gen. Chitchanok Nujjaya, director of Joint Operations of the Thai Armed Forces, said during a joint press conference. “But this year, due to the COVID situation, the participation of observers will not take place at all.
“In past years, Myanmar forces sent representatives to participate as observers,” Chitchanok said, adding that the decision on participants is a joint one by the United States and Thailand.
Thai and U.S. authorities did not mention the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar as a reason for excluding the country, which first participated in Cobra Gold in 2013, according to media reports from that year.
In 2020, Myanmar participated as an observer as COVID-19 was starting to spread across the globe. Nearly 10,000 troops from 29 countries joined in the two-week exercise in the largest Cobra Gold to date.
It is not clear whether Myanmar and other observers participated in the 2021 hybrid, virtual and in-person exercises that occurred on a smaller scale in August after being postponed several times because of the pandemic.
In 2018, an invitation to Myanmar to observe the exercises drew criticism from U.S. congressional leaders and others after the Burmese military launched a brutal offensive the previous August against the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state. The crackdown led to thousands fleeing to refugee camps in nearby southeastern Bangladesh.
This year’s exercises will include no live-fire demonstrations, amphibious landings or disaster evacuation drills, Chitchanok said, adding that the number of participating troops would be less than 3,500 and those participating in each drill would be capped at 500.
As a precaution, troops will be isolated for seven days and undergo two RT-PCR tests. They also will be required to take ATK tests every five days during their stay in Thailand.
Thailand, with 1,953 troops, and the U.S., with 1,296, will be joined for combat exercises by 50 troops from Singapore, 16 from Indonesia, 35 from Japan, 41 from South Korea and 36 from Malaysia.
Participants from China, India and Australia will build five schools while those from Bangladesh, Canada, France, England, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, the Philippines, Fiji and Vietnam will be involved in a different humanitarian exercise.
“For 41 years, Cobra Gold has set the standard for multilateral security exercises,” Michael Heath, the Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, said during the joint press conference.
“Over last 15 years, the nations represented at Cobra Gold have worked together for the common good after nearly every major tragedy in the region such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2011 triple disaster in Japan, and the 2018 Wild Boars cave rescue here in Thailand to name a few.”