Friday, August 14, 2009

Washington Hopes Webb Can Clarify Its Policy to Junta

The Irrawaddy News

Burma's military junta led by Snr-Gen Than Shwe is set to meet an American senator at its administrative capital, Naypyidaw, this weekend just days after pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was convicted and returned to house arrest.

The meeting will be the first between a senior US official and the secretive leader of Burma's ruling military government. US Sen Jim Webb, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, also plans to meet representatives of Burma’s leading opposition, the National League for Democracy.

US Sen Jim Webb (Photo)

The senator’s visit to Burma has been described as non-official, and The New York Times, quoting senior US officials, said he is "not carrying a message from the administration." But US officials say they welcome the visit, which they viewed as affording an opportunity for Washington clarify its policy to Burma's top leader directly.

“It is important for the Burmese leadership to hear of the strong views of American political leaders about the path it should take toward democracy, good governance and genuine national reconciliation,” said Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

“The recent conviction of Aung San Suu Kyi, which was a serious step backward, indicates the magnitude of the challenge the international community faces in persuading the Burmese leadership to embark on that path,” he said. “Sen Webb can convey American views effectively on such subjects.”

Although a member of President Obama’s Democratic Party, Webb is known for his strong criticism of the administration’s Burma sanctions, arguing that isolating Burma has strengthened China's grip, weakened US influence and done nothing to improve the junta's behavior.

Currently, the US administration says its policy on Burma is still very much under review. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made clear that the US could expand its relationship with Burma and allow US investment there if Suu Kyi were released. But the sentencing of Suu Kyi to a further term of house arrest seems have made any forward movement difficult.

Webb’s Burma trip has also led to speculation that he might negotiate the release John W Yettaw, the US citizen tried alongside Suu Kyi and sentenced to seven years imprisonment with hard labor. Yettaw triggered the case against Suu Kyi by staying illegally at her home after penetrating security around the property.

Observers following the Yettaw case point to the visit to North Korea last week by former President Bill Clinton, who secured the release of two American women journalists after weeks of quiet negotiations between the US State Department and North Korea. The North Korean regime hailed the release as a sign of its "humanitarian and peace-loving policy."

Aung Naing Oo, a Thailand-based Burmese political analyst, told The Irrawaddy he saw no sign that Webb’s visit to Burma would secure the release of Yettaw.

"Webb's visit is posed as just a point of entry to start the lines of communication between the United States and Burma, “he said. “So far, I don't see any indication that Webb would secure the release of Mr Yettaw. But I guess that the result might depend on how bad Mr Yettaw's health is."

Concern is growing over Yettaw's health after he spent several days in hospital being treated for epileptic seizures. Yettaw suffers from diabetes and other medical conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder from his time serving in the US military.

"How is he going to do hard labor if he is so ill?" a former wife, Yvonne Yettaw, asked in a telephone interview with The Associated Press after hearing the verdict. "Maybe they'll realize he won't make seven years, and they'll send him home."

A spokesman for the US embassy in Rangoon said the issue had "not been officially discussed."

The meeting between Webb and the regime leaders is seen by some observers as an effort by the junta to exploit the different reactions by international and regional governments to Suu Kyi's conviction and her return to house arrest.

The UN Security Council released a press statement heavily influenced by Burma's biggest ally, China, which inserted indirect praise for Than Shwe's act of "mercy" by halving Suu Kyi's sentence and allowing her to return home.

A tougher US draft would have condemned Suu Kyi’s conviction but ran into opposition not only from China but also from Russia, Vietnam and Libya.

Explaining why the Security Council statement had been watered down, Britain’s UN Ambassador John Sawers, the council chair this month, said: “I think we all know that different members of the Security Council have different views on the situation there and that the strong views in various Western capitals are not entirely shared in countries elsewhere."

Applauding the regime's policy line, the regime’s official mouthpiece The New Light of Myanmar said on Friday that Than Shwe's intervention in the Suu Kyi verdict was "designed to ensure a win-win situation." It gave the opposition "good opportunities to accept the situation and keep on carrying out political activities," the newspaper said.

Naypyidaw had made a giant step towards change, the newspaper said—adding: "We should show loving kindness in return when someone shows loving-kindness for us. Only then will there be a change."

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