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US President Barack Obama's administration said Wednesday it hoped to expand limited training for Myanmar's military but faced skepticism from lawmakers unimpressed by the pace of democratic reforms.
Testifying before Congress, administration officials said the United States wanted to provide training on human rights to Myanmar's military, which ruled the Southeast Asian country for decades but allowed a nominal civilian to become president in 2011.
"The importance of the military's support of reforms so far should not be underestimated," Pentagon official Vikram Singh told a House of Representatives committee, saying the United States believes the army "is interested in taking steps to modernize, professionalize and reform itself as well."
"Our limited engagements have begun to expose the military to international norms of behavior and fostered new trust and understanding. This will help us gain influence with the Burmese military and encourage reform after decades of disengagement," Singh said, using Myanmar's former name Burma.
But Representative Joe Crowley, who spearheaded sanctions on Myanmar that have now largely ended, said that the United States was moving too quickly to build military ties in the face of "outrageous and terrible" abuses against the mostly Muslim Rohingya community and other minorities.
"I personally don't think that the Burmese military needs to be trained to stop killing and raping and stealing lands," said Crowley, a member of Obama's Democratic Party.
"Training the Burmese military, even if it's on a limited basis, is a huge win public relations-wise," Crowley said at the hearing.
Crowley said that the prospect of defense relations could be used as an incentive to encourage the military to undertake further reforms, such as reforming the constitution to allow opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to seek the presidency in 2015 elections.
Suu Kyi spent most of the previous two decades under house arrest, but was elected to parliament last year. In other reforms, general-turned-civilian President Thein Sein has eased censorship, released political prisoners and started dialogue with ethnic rebels.
But violence involving minorities has persisted in the Buddhist-majority nation. Last year scores of people died and 140,000 were displaced -- mostly Rohingya -- in violence in Rakhine state.
Representative Steve Chabot, a Republican, said that Obama -- who has made dialogue with US adversaries a key priority of his foreign policy -- has "raced to turn Burma into a success story."
"I believe its engagement strategy has lost sight of the realities on the ground and has become hasty and, I'm afraid, also misguided," said Chabot, who heads the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific.
Singh pledged there would be no "slippery slope" of the United States offering more substantive military support to Myanmar without more progress on human rights concerns.
"I want to be absolutely clear: the (Defense) Department does not seek and is not recommending the full normalization of bilateral defense ties with Burma at this time," Singh said.
The rapid US reconciliation with Myanmar, which included a visit last year by Obama, has come as the United States seeks to step up its presence in Asia amid concern by several countries about China's growing clout.
The United States has increased development aid to Myanmar and ended most economic sanctions on the resource-rich and strategically placed country, which has become a growing destination for Western investors.
But initial military interaction has largely been symbolic, with Myanmar sending observers to the US-led Cobra Gold exercises in Thailand and the United States resuming searches for unaccounted World War II personnel in the country.