Saturday, August 22, 2009

Webb’s Tangled Message

The Irrawaddy Editorial

When former US President Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea earlier this month to win the release of two imprisoned American journalists, he probably didn’t realize that he was setting a trend. But less than two weeks after his high-profile visit to Pyongyang, another US politician had embarked on a similar—but even more ambitious—mission.

Unlike Clinton, Senator Jim Webb was not acting as an official emissary of the Obama administration when he went to Burma last week. This meant that he was free to set his own agenda, which went far beyond extracting an American citizen from a foreign prison. Although the release of John Yettaw enabled him to declare his visit a “success,” it was, in fact, only incidental to his mission, the real purpose of which was to set the stage for US engagement with Burma’s pariah regime.

Webb, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, is a prominent critic of US sanctions on Burma who has long argued that they are counterproductive to political progress in the country and not conducive to American interests. It came as no surprise, then, that the Burmese junta welcomed him with open arms.

Although Webb’s objective was clear, the message sent by his visit was not. Coming soon after a junta-controlled court sentenced Yettaw to seven years imprisonment for illegally entering the home of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Webb’s visit blurred the line between “engaging” the regime and rewarding it for egregious behavior.

Certainly, the regime came away from this as the big winner. Webb’s visit and Yettaw’s subsequent release gave the junta an undeserved opportunity to crow about its respect for “the rule of law, as well as humanitarianism and human rights,” at a time when its crackdown on opposition groups continues unabated. It also provided a convenient way to dispose of a pawn that had served its purpose—to prevent Suu Kyi’s participation in next year’s elections.

However, the real danger of Webb’s mixed message is not that it provides fodder for the regime’s propaganda machine, but that the generals themselves may actually see his visit as a vindication of their perverse notions of justice. Since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested in July that the US might be ready to relax sanctions in exchange for Suu Kyi’s release, the generals have been carefully gauging US reactions to their behavior to see how much, or how little, they will have to concede to improve bilateral relations. At this stage, they probably believe that it will take very little to make Washington happy.

It also doesn’t help that Webb, who was allowed a rare meeting with Suu Kyi, got her message wrong, too. Although he claimed that she agreed with him that Burma needed to “interact” more with the West, her lawyer said that her real emphasis was on the need for interaction among Burmese—in other words, she reiterated her longstanding call for dialogue between the opposition and the regime.

If Webb wants to help Burma, he needs to send an unequivocal message to the regime that Washington will not be satisfied with anything less than the release of the country’s 2,100 political prisoners, including Suu Kyi. If he’s not prepared to make that demand, he should congratulate himself on the “success” of his mission, and leave it at that.

21 August 2009

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