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POLITICS-BURMA: Pro-democracy Camp to U.S. Senator: What Success?

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Aug 18 2009 (IPS) - A rare visit by a United States senator to Burma – billed as "successful" in some quarters – is winning little applause from sectors critical of the military regime that rules the country.

Western diplomats based in Bangkok, speaking on condition of anonymity, lauded the visit, saying they "welcome this breakthrough".

Critics, however, warned that the two-day visit by Senator Jim Webb, which began on Aug 14, could be used by the country’s strongman, Senior General Than Shwe, to bolster his image and win more concessions without conceding any ground to improve human rights and to let a democratic culture flourish in Burma, officially the Union of Myanmar.

Webb, after all, has been a strong proponent of engaging with the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the military junta is formally known. He has also called for the lifting of the economic sanctions that Washington has imposed on Burma since the mid-1990s, declaring that it has failed to push the junta down the road towards democratic reform.

Little wonder why the treatment Webb received during his mission was akin to one that the junta offers to heads of states. It included meetings with the reclusive Than Shwe and one with Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader who the junta has shut away from public life for over 14 years. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did not get to meet Suu Kyi during his July visit to Burma.

Ban had called for the release of Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners during his meeting with Gen Than Shwe. His request to meet with the detained leader was denied.

"There is no surprise at the way Senator Webb was welcomed in Burma by the military regime. Than Shwe wants to open up good relations with the U.S. government, and he knows Webb’s views on Burma," said Bangkok-based Zin Linn, information director for the National Coalition Government for the Union of Burma, the democratically elected government forced into exile.

"The winner was the SPDC and Than Shwe; not Webb," he added in an interview. "Than Shwe exploited this situation the way he has done with other foreign visitors. He knows when to ignore leaders and when to meet them."

The highpoint of Webb’s visit – from the U.S. point of view, at least – was the success of securing the release of U.S. citizen John Yettaw on humanitarian grounds. The 53-year-old American was sentenced on Aug 11 to seven years in prison and hard labour for swimming across a lake in Rangoon and entering the home of Suu Kyi.

The Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi was not as fortunate. The same court, located within the compound of the notorious Insein Prison in the former capital, found the 64-year-old opposition leader guilty of violating the conditions of her house arrest by letting the uninvited Yettaw into her lakeside home in early May.

Suu Kyi was condemned to a further 18 months under house arrest, removing all doubt that the trial lived up to its expectations as a "farce," as some Burmese analysts have described it. Yettaw’s quest to reach her – because he was writing a book on "faith-based heroism" – set the tone to this Kafkaesque case.

The further isolation of Suu Kyi is the reality that matters to Burmese activists and not the humanitarian gesture the junta offered Webb. They see the suppression of Suu Kyi’s freedom, effectively denying her a role in the general elections the junta has pledged to have in 2010, as a confirmation of the junta’s mindset.

"The release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is most important. We need to judge if Senator Webb’s trip was a success or failure based on that," said Bo Kyi, head of the Thailand- based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP), a group of former political prisoners campaigning for the rights of the country’s jailed activists. "Yettaw’s release is not that important."

Yettaw’s freedom, in fact, is not a surprise, added Bo Kyi during a telephone interview from Mae Sot, a town along the Thai-Burma border. "The military regime had no use of him anymore. They needed him earlier to find a way of keeping Daw Suu Kyi under house arrest," he revealed, using the honorific "Daw" as Burmese do when referring to senior women.

A similarly critical tone is echoed by Burma watchers on another message Webb has been pushing since leaving the South-east Asian nation: to ease the current sanctions regime. Webb, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, is trying to drum up support for a "new approach" to dealing with the regime.

They say it is reminiscent of a view that emerged in the region in 1997, when Burma was admitted as a member of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10- member regional bloc. ASEAN – which includes Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – described its policy towards the region’s pariah as "constructive engagement".

The Burmese regime, the successor to the military dictatorships that have ruled the country since a March 1962 coup, benefited from the protective wall that ASEAN built around it. It helped deflect criticism at the U.N. Security Council and ASEAN chose not to tow the line of the punitive sanctions policies imposed by the U.S. government and the European Union.

"ASEAN walked into a web of a different kind in 1997 when it opened its doors to Burma. It said, "don’t criticise the regime; don’t pressure it", said Debbie Stothard of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, a regional human rights watchdog. "ASEAN believed at the time that by engaging with the military regime, it would change."

Yet, the contrary has unfolded in the past decade, with the regime tightening its grip on the country and its list of human rights violations lengthening, Stothard told IPS. "This regime is a bad enemy but an even worse friend," she said.

"This is why democracy activists are shocked at the message Webb is sending out," Stothard added. "They are outraged that Webb’s approach would undermine the pressure on the regime and send the wrong message, because the regime is desperate to get legitimacy for the 2010 elections."

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