Monday, August 17, 2009

Webb Hints Suu Kyi May Favor Engagement

The Irrawaddy News

BANGKOK—The fallout from US Senator Jim Webb's controversial engagement with the Burmese junta continues. Today, Webb fuelled speculation that Aung San Suu Kyi favors the removal of some of the international sanctions applied by the US and EU.

Discussing the issue at a Bangkok press conference on Monday, Webb was coy, telling the media that “I don't want to misrepresent her views, but my clear impression is that she is not opposed to the lifting of some sanctions.”

US Senator Jim Webb gestures during a news conference at a hotel in Bangkok August 16. (Photo: Reuters)

Despite the timing of his visit to Burma so soon after the verdict against the pro-democracy leader, the senator was tight-lipped. He spent around eight minutes fielding questions from journalists, before closing the Q&A session.

The visit may have been something of a missed opportunity. Sen Webb stated that he had a “frank” exchange with Snr-Gen Than Shwe, and said that he asked the regime to consider releasing Suu Kyi.

However, Webb did not raise the issue of Western sanctions or the recent allegations surrounding nuclear cooperation with North Korea during his meeting with the junta leaders.

“This is not the way to discuss these matters,” he told reporters before conceding that neither did he bring up the issue of the more than 2,100 political prisoners who remain in jail in Burma.

Speculation persists as to what the visit means for US policy on Burma. Last week, President Obama denounced the Suu Kyi verdict, after earlier dismissing the proceedings as a show trial.

Back in February, however, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the US would review its Burma stance, and while the US government renewed its sanctions policy less than one month ago, it has been dropping hints that it would consider a greater degree of engagement with Naypyidaw going forward.

Webb stated that he spoke with Clinton by telephone on Sunday night, and said that he will give her a full briefing on his five-nation tour in Southeast Asia when he returns to the US.

Previously, senior US officials were quoted as saying that Webb was "not carrying a message from the administration," but elsewhere American officials said they welcomed the visit, which they viewed as an opportunity for Washington to outline policy to Burma's top leader directly.

Webb's regional tour comes just weeks after the Secretary of State declared that the US was “back” in the region following her signing a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with the 10 Asean foreign ministers in Phuket in July.

A video grab shows US Senator Jim Webb meeting with Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on August 15. (Photo: reuters)

Sen Webb described his trip as “very worthwhile so far,” and stated that he wants to remind countries in the region that the US regards Southeast Asia as important, after years of perceived neglect under the previous US administration.

Webb said he discussed Burma with the Thai foreign minister today, but did not elaborate on the details. He did not say whether he would discuss the Thai-led Asean initiative requesting the junta to pardon Suu Kyi.

Webb departs for Vietnam and Cambodia on Tuesday.

The Vietnamese government has publicly opposed the suggestion, after Hanoi joined China, Russia and Libya in watering down a draft UN Security Council resolution on Friday.

Queried about John W Yettaw, the US citizen who was given a seven-year jail term with hard labor for his role in the recent Suu Kyi case, Webb said, “I am not aware of Mr Yettaw's situation.”

Yettaw flew into Bangkok on Sunday on the same military aircraft as Sen Webb and was taken to a Bangkok hospital. Yettaw suffers from diabetes as well as post-traumatic stress disorder from his time serving in the US military.

Yettaw's release comes less than two weeks after former US President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang on a “humanitarian mission,” after which the Communist regime released two American journalists arrested for allegedly crossing into North Korea illegally from China.

Pyongyang has since been hailing its own magnanimity in releasing the two reporters, but has also resumed its saber-rattling.

Webb's mission to Burma provoked concern among Burmese dissident groups, which worry that the junta will use his visit as a tool for public relations without any real alteration of policy.

The Burmese junta's media mouthpieces have already made much of Than Shwe's “gesture” in commuting Suu Kyi's sentence from three years in jail to 18 months house arrest, despite international condemnation of the trial process and pleas that she be freed.

Sen Webb today repeated that he requested to Than Shwe that Suu Kyi be released, but did not give any more details, beyond saying, "We need to wait and see what happens over the coming months."

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