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POLITICS: U.S. Mission to Burma Heralds Obama’s New Diplomatic Tack

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Oct 31 2009 (IPS) - An upcoming mission by senior United States government officials to military- ruled Burma points to Washington’s commitment that engaging with oppressive regimes—than spurning them—is the way forward for change.

The two-day visit by Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and Scot Marciel, deputy assistant secretary, is being seen as a clear sign of the new diplomatic policy U.S. President Barak Obama wants to unveil in the South-east Asian nation, which is also called Myanmar.

This U.S. mission, from Nov. 3 to 4, marks a break from the tough line that the former U.S. administration, under George W. Bush, pursued. Campbell and Marciel, furthermore, will be the highest-ranking U.S. officials visiting Burma after 14 years. The last to do so, in 1995, was Madeline Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The reactions among Burmese to the Obama administration’s policy shift are mixed. It stems from years of enduring a junta that has refused to cave in to outside pressure and chosen to isolate the country from world affairs. Burma’s impoverished millions have also had to endure decades of life under the iron grip of a secretive and paranoid regime that has fattened itself off the country’s immense natural resources, from natural gas to rubies.

“Generally, the people inside Burma, the more politically active, are encouraged by the policy shift of the Obama administration,” said Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst living in exile in Thailand. “But the Burmese political activists in exile are not sure; they are cautiously optimistic.”

This mission, for one, will be a “learning curve” for both parties, he told IPS. “The Americans need to understand the Burmese military and how they operate, and the military regime will have to understand where the Americans are coming from.”

How Burma’s strongman, Senior General Than Shwe, treats the U.S. visitors, and who in the military and political chain of command they meet, will serve as pointers of this diplomatic adventure. Than Shwe, after all, is notorious for coughing up excuses to avoid foreign visitors on a whim. U.N. Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon is among those deprived of the welcome mat.

“The test to measure how successful Campbell’s visit is is to see if he gets a meeting with Gen. Than Shwe,” said Win Min, a Burmese national security expert lecturing at a Payap University in northern Thailand. “He is known to avoid foreign visitors if it is not to his advantage.”

But there are signs coming from within the military government that “welcome the change in U.S. policy,” Win Min revealed during an interview. “They see this new approach as an opportunity to work with the Obama administration in order to improve Burma’s image within the international community.”

Pressure is also growing on Campbell for a meeting with the National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma’s beleaguered opposition party, in the latter’s run-down headquarters in Rangoon, the former capital. “This will be more safe for the NLD leaders to talk freely and without fear of their views being secretly recorded than if the meeting was held in a government guesthouse,” said a source close to the party on the condition of anonymity.

According to U.S. media reports, Campbell and Marciel are due to meet NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent over 14 of the last 20 years under house arrest. The Nobel Peace laureate, who is cut away from her party supporters, is reported to have told her lawyer that “she is keenly monitoring Mr. Campbell’s upcoming visit and is interested in when he will come and what he will do in Burma,” according to a report in ‘The Irrawaddy’, a magazine produced by Burmese journalists living in exile in Thailand.

Washington’s approach towards a country that suffers from a lack of human rights, the rule of law and democracy was spelled out recently by a ranking member of the U.S. State Department to Burmese political activists. “The U.S. official said that they would use pressure to coax the Burmese regime to come out of isolation,” a participant at that closed-door meeting in Thailand told IPS. “It will be different from the hardline pressure before.”

“They are very realistic about how progress should be measured,” the participant added. “They know success will not come early. They are stressing patience and the need for a long-term strategy.”

Even on the touchy issue of sanctions there are hints of new thinking unlike previous U.S. administrations, which had backed the imposition of sanctions since the mid-1990s, and also called for a freeze in new U.S. investments in the country.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already gone on the record saying the sanctions on Burma have not worked in prodding the regime towards political reform. Clinton’s statements were one among a series that have been made since she visited Indonesia in February, where she announced that a “policy review” on Washington’s position towards Burma was needed. “Clearly, sanctions haven’t worked,” she added.

Since then the Obama administration has reached out to the Burmese regime in a way the former Bush administration did not. In July, Marciel used a meeting of South-east Asian leaders in Thailand to conduct a 90-minute dialogue with Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win. And last month, senior U.S. officials met with senior Burmese officials at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

“The outcome of this U.S. mission should help to clarify what is really going on inside Burma and if the junta is serious about change,” said Bangkok- based Zin Linn, information director for the National Coalition Government for the Union of Burma, the democratically elected government forced into exile. “But that depends on how many stakeholders they meet, from the junta and the NLD to leaders of ethnic minorities.”

“Without knowing the ground situation, the new Burma policy of the U.S. will go nowhere,” he told IPS. “That was the mistake of the others who tried before.”

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