Sunday, August 16, 2009

Will ‘Webb diplomacy’ bring a thaw in US-Burma relation

by Mungpi
Saturday, 15 August 2009 18:58

New Delhi (Mizzima) - US Senator Jim Webb, who is also the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Asia Pacific Subcommittee, during his visit to Burma this weekend, has triggered several surprising events, including a meeting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

On Saturday afternoon, Webb after returning from a meeting with Burma’s military supremo Snr Gen Than Shwe in the new jungle capital city of Naypyitaw, met opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a government guest house.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who was given 18 months of suspended sentence last week, was seen escorted from her lakeside home to the guest house.

In yet another surprising development, Webb’s office states that the American Yettaw will be deported. He will be sent back along with the visiting senator Webb on Sunday evening.

The US State department and the White House on Friday declared that Webb is not representing the Obama administration but expressed its support to the region to explore US interest.

Webb said he is in the region as part of a five nation tour and will explore the possibilities of engaging the region.

But whatever the agenda behind the trip, the meeting with Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi and securing the release of Yettaw, have all come as a series of surprises, as even the United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari had not been able to make such things possible during his visits.

In his last trip, Gambari was unable to meet Than Shwe and the UN chief Ban Ki-moon, in his visit to Burma in June, was denied a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi.

While the details of the discussions between Webb and Than Shwe, and Aung San Suu Kyi, is still not clear, the meeting itself was viewed as a significant step in the possibility of re-establishing US-Burma relationship.

Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese analyst based in Thailand, believes that though Webb is not officially representing the Obama administration, the visit could be part of the administration’s policy review on Burma.

The US said it is currently undertaking a review of its policy on Burma after stating that the previous policy of isolating and imposing sanctions have not worked. But the US has so far not indicated what could be the direction of the new policy.

“Meeting Than Shwe is significant and this could indicate that there is a new opening between US-Burma relationship,” Aung Naing Oo said.

On the other hand, Aung Naing Oo said, Than Shwe’s agreeing to meet Webb could also be interpreted as a significant sign indicating the junta’s willingness to engage with the US.

The US has been the strongest critic of the Burmese regime; condemning its human rights violations and imposing economic sanctions for failure to implement political reforms. Reciprocally, the Burmese regime had never shown a favourable attitude towards the US and constantly blamed the US of trying to instigate unrest in the country by supporting opposition groups.

Every month, the junta, in its state-run newspapers, mentions the number of times that the US and UK embassy officials visit the office of the National League for Democracy stating that the officials have handed large and small envelopes, apparently imolying that the officials are providing monetary support to the NLD leaders.

But this meeting between Webb and Than Shwe, Aung Naing Oo said, could be a new era of opening in the US-Burma relationship and could be a turning point for the US in its policy towards Burma.

“It shows that the Burmese regime is also interested in holding a dialogue with the US. It looks to me like a point of entry for dialogue,” he added.

However, a few opposition groups have voiced concern over Webb’s visit to the country. Three Burmese organizations, in an open letter to Webb, expressed concern that the Burmese junta might propagandize the visit to say Webb endorses the regime’s treatment on Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.

The three groups – All Burma Monks’ Alliance, The 88 Generation Students, All Burma Federation of Student Unions – urged Webb to maintain a tough stand on the Burmese regime and to continue supporting the Burmese opposition’s position on the junta’s planned elections in 2010.

“We are surprised to learn that you have an intention to support the regime’s 2010 election; even its constitution is imperfect,” said the statement.

The groups also said that they have written this open letter to Webb, “As we are in hiding to avoid arrest, torture and imprisonment by the regime, we would not have a chance to meet you when you are in our country.”

But Aung Naing Oo said engagement with the US is important for Burma and that isolating and imposing sanctions alone gives the US a lesser chance of influencing the Burmese regime.

“We have seen that the US maintains a relationship with several other dictatorial countries and it has proved beneficial for both. I think it is important that the US engage the regime and maintain its presence in Burma,” he commented.

Chinese Worries

While it would be too early to speculate on the US-Burma relationship, a few observers believe that if the US-Burmese relationship goes smoothly, China, a long-time ally of Burma, would find it worrisome.

Nyo Ohn Myint, in-charge of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the NLD in exile, said “China would not be too happy if the US and Burma get too close, though at this point there is nothing to suggest that the US is getting close to the regime.”

He speculated that the Burmese regime had always wanted to lobby the US and would like to see a change of US policy towards them.

Professor Ian Holliday, Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, told Mizzima that Webb’s visit is significant given the long gap of almost no diplomatic relation between Burma and the US.

“After such a long time with so little contact that's an important step,” said Holliday but “At present, I don't think China needs to worry - there really isn't any US-Burmese relationship to speak of, and there's a long way to go before that happens.”

But he said, “I think China wants a stable and predictable Burma - first and foremost it's this, strategic and economic interests are also important, but stability is the key.”

Though the final results of Web's visit to Nay Pyi Daw are yet to be seen over the next few days and weeks, the American Senator seems to have achieved his expected aim so far, including the release of the American Yettaw. It is also more than clear now that the regime and its strong man Than Shwe is willing to play along with the world's super power which has been so far the most voluble critic against the Burmese junta and has shown that it is willing to enter into a dialogue for better US-Burma relationship.

Critics may point out that the junta will now try to woo the Obama administration for a lenient attitude towards its Seven-Step Road Map and forthcoming 2010 elections. The Burmese regime which is facing another serious crisis with ceasefire groups such as Kachin, Kokant and Wa in the northern part of the country will want to make efforts to calm down the political boil over the issue of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's trial, at least for some time. Whatever the regime's motives may be and though it is more likely to use Webb’s visit to Burma as another propaganda inside the country, the fact that the regime's whole leadership has met with the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Asia Pacific Subcommittee and had allowed him a meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and released Yettaw should be welcome as positive signs for any future political settings before 2010 elections. The Burmese people and the international community, especially Burma's neighbouring countries would be watching these developments eagerly with the hope for possible political dialogue between Than Shwe and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.