U.S. senator's visit could herald new Myanmar policy

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 | 3:36 p.m. CDT

BANGKOK — While U.S. Sen. Jim Webb's high-profile visit to Myanmar offers an opportunity to turn around America's policy toward the military-ruled nation, any real warming of relations is likely to be a slow and uncertain process.

Webb's trip was "an important step, a first step" toward creating change, said David Steinberg, a Myanmar specialist at Georgetown University, adding it is too early to predict its impact.

He and other scholars believe it is highly unlikely the ruling generals will meet long-standing international demands to release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi ahead of elections set for 2010.

Without that, Western nations such as the United States have little reason to come through with any major action of their own, such as easing the political and economic sanctions they have long maintained against the regime.

The generals may be interested in dealing. When Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, went to Myanmar this weekend he was given unprecedented access. He was granted the rare privilege of seeing both the country's reclusive leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, and his nemesis, detained democracy icon Suu Kyi.

His meeting Saturday with Than Shwe was the first time the general has met with a senior U.S. political figure. And even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was not allowed to see Suu Kyi when he was last in Myanmar.

Webb pulled off a feel-good trifecta, ultimately winning the freedom of American John Yettaw, who was sentenced to seven years in jail for sneaking into Suu Kyi's home. The Missouri man's escapade saddled his reluctant hostess with another 18 months under house arrest. Suu Kyi has been detained for 14 of the last 20 years.

The senator, one of the most prominent U.S. advocates of a new Myanmar policy, acknowledged he is not optimistic she will soon be freed.

He said, however, he is "hopeful that, over time, the government of Myanmar will understand that with the scrutiny of the outside world, judging their government very largely on how they are treating Aung San Suu Kyi, that it is to their advantage to allow her to participate in the political process."

Meanwhile, he suggested the U.S. could respond to the "gestures" offered him and "begin laying a foundation of good will and confidence-building so that we may be able to have a better situation in the future."

Webb, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, did not specify if this should include an easing of sanctions, which he has described as a failure.

"The sanctions of the past several years have increased Myanmar's isolation from Western governments and culture," he told reporters. "These are major impediments in allowing the Burmese people the kind of access to the outside world that is essential to their economic and political growth." Burma is the old name for Myanmar.

He also said the sanctions were ineffective because Myanmar could rely on the support of neighbor and ally China to make up for them. To that extent, he said, they were also counterproductive, because China could increase its economic and political influence in Myanmar at Western expense.

Webb said he didn't want to misrepresent Suu Kyi's views, but it was his "clear impression from her that she is not opposed to lifting some sanctions," and that "there would be some areas she would be willing to look at."

"You've got to have some sanctions there as a form of leverage or pressure, but you need to be doing an awful lot more to bring about a process of change," said Trevor Wilson, a Myanmar expert at the Australian National University in Canberra.

"There could be some symbolic changes," said Donald Seekins, a Myanmar expert at Japan's Meio University, including dropping a ban on visits to the United States by junta officials and upgrading the U.S. diplomatic presence in Myanmar with the appointment of an ambassador.

"They could cut down on some of the rhetoric," he added.

Both sides are also constrained by domestic political considerations. In Myanmar's case, the ruling military wants to keep a lid on pro-democracy sentiments that could be unleashed ahead of next year's election if Suu Kyi is released from house arrest.

For the Obama administration, any loosening of sanctions could be used by his foes as a case of being soft on tyrants. And other Western nations aren't necessarily on board.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown — a longtime supporter of Suu Kyi — has said that he'll push allies to harden measures against the military regime.

"I have always made clear that the United Kingdom would respond positively to any signs of progress on democratic reform. ... ," Brown said following Suu Kyi's sentencing this month. "But with the generals explicitly rejecting that course ... the international community must take action."

Wilson said the time for change may come if next year's election is held successfully.

"It's going to be almost a new situation, not democracy, not the sort of progressive reform-oriented open-minded policy that we all wanted. Not a sudden improvement in human rights law or anything like that," he said.

"But it will be something that the government can't keep a tight hold on like they had in the past. It's going to be a little bit freer."


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