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Myanmar's military chief returns from European visit

Associated Press logo Associated Press 1/05/2017 By ESTHER HTUSAN, Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar — The powerful chief of Myanmar's military has returned from a visit to Germany and Austria that drew concern from rights activists who accuse his soldiers of abuses against the country's ethnic minority groups.

The state-controlled Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported Monday that Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing visited Germany's GROB Aircraft Co., where he and his party witnessed demonstrations of reconnaissance planes and aeronautical systems before heading home Saturday night.

The European Union has maintained an arms embargo on Myanmar since the 1990s. It was due to expire Sunday, and it is unclear whether it will be renewed. Before the embargo was imposed, Germany had been a major arms supplier to Myanmar.

Earlier stories in Myanmar state media and on the general's Facebook page said that during his weeklong trip, he held talks with senior Austrian and German defense officials. His party also visited Germany's Army Combat Training Center, they reported.

Min Aung Hlaing was quoted saying that his trip was aimed at fostering friendly relations and cooperation between the armed forces of his hosts and Myanmar, also known as Burma.

There were no reports that his party signed any official agreements or concluded any commercial deals.

Germany's Foreign Ministry confirmed that Min Aung Hlaing met with a deputy foreign minister on Friday in Berlin but refused to provide further details about the visit.

Rights activists are concerned that Western nations and companies may supply Myanmar's military with equipment that could be used in operations against civilians.

Alleged abuses committed by Myanmar's army against the country's Muslim Rohingya minority in western Rakhine state have drawn worldwide condemnation, while fighting continues against several other ethnic guerrilla groups, particularly the Kachin in the north.

The group Burma Campaign UK last week condemned the governments of Germany and Austria for inviting Min Aung Hlaing.

"Min Aung Hlaing is the biggest obstacle to improving human rights, democratic reform, peace, modernisation, and improving health and education in Burma," the group said in a statement.

"Instead of applying pressure on Min Aung Hlaing to end human rights violations, Austria and Germany seem more interested in cozying up to him, perhaps with future arms sales in mind. They can't try to claim they are engaging him on human rights when they take him sightseeing and to visit military suppliers."

Min Aung Hlaing made a similar trip last year in which he visited Belgium and Italy.

The general returned as State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's top civilian leader, embarked on her own European tour. She is expected to come under criticism for policies that discriminate against the Rohingya, in addition to the army's alleged abuses against them.

As Myanmar transitioned from military to civilian rule, with Suu Kyi's party taking power last year, Western nations lifted many sanctions they had applied against the country.

However, the slower-than-expected pace of democratic reforms and continuing strife with ethnic minorities have raised doubts about what sort of support Suu Kyi should be given, even as investment and trade have boomed.

Suu Kyi's supporters say she is hamstrung by a constitution that gives the military enough parliamentary seats to block many policy initiatives, while the army remains answerable in practice only to itself.

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Associated Press writers David Rising in Berlin and Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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