The US and Burma talk again

By Branko Brkic 3 November 2009

After more than a decade of isolating the military junta ruling Burma, the State Department’s senior official for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, and his deputy, arrived in Burma for talks that represent a real shift in US approaches to the Southeast Asian nation.

Among others, Campbell is likely to continue conversations with the same officials he met in New York City in late September. This approach to Burma parallels Obama administration efforts – outlined even before his inauguration in January – to attempt to establish more positive connections with regimes in Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Libya, among others. America has been relying on isolation and sanctions towards Burma to force the generals to reverse policies on human rights, political prisoner release and to make other democratic reforms. Burma has been ruled by a military junta since 1962.

The visiting American officials were scheduled to meet senior Burmese officials first and to speak with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi later on. Suu Kyi has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years and she has recently been sentenced to an additional year and a half of house arrest for providing shelter to an uninvited American, John Yettaw, who tried to reach her house by swimming across a lake. American senator Jim Webb became the first senior American for years to deal with the junta on their home turf when he met junta leader Senior General Than Shwe in a successful effort to arrange Yettaw’s release. Besides Suu Kyi, there are some 2,100 other political prisoners in Burma.

Despite this modest thaw, US officials have reiterated it will continue its political and economic sanctions regime until discussions with the generals produce actual change. Campbell added that the US reserves the right to tighten sanctions “as appropriate.” The US first imposed sanctions in 1997 and Barack Obama extended them for another year this past May.

But, building upon the momentum of these new meetings, PM Thein Sein is expected to attend a US-ASEAN summit in Singapore later this month. Anticipating the meeting, Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong, the host, commented, “The U.S. has shifted its position and is now willing to engage Myanmar, and I think Myanmar is engaging.”

Read more: New York Times, Bloomberg, Yahoo News

Photo: Myanmar’s junta supremo Senior General Than Shwe salutes during the Armed Forces Day parade in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw March 27, 2009. More than 13,000 troops took part in this year’s parade on Friday in the former Burma, which has been ruled by the military since 1962. REUTERS/Aung Hla Tun


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