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Webb in Burma: What good are talks with Asian dictators?

Friday, August 21, 2009   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

PARIS — When a kangaroo court in Rangoon slapped an additional sentence on the already incarcerated pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the world winced. To be sure there was the perfunctory outrage, especially in Europe where French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the sentence on this Nobel laureate “a brutal and unjust verdict.” And the European Union presidency demanded her “immediate freedom without conditions.”

Yet half a world away in the never-never land of Burma’s socialist republic, the ruling junta felt assured they would ride the most recent ripple of world outrage as much as they survived the near political tsunami wave of condemnation over their blundered and callous handling of foreign aid after a devastating typhoon in May 2008 killed over 100,000 of their own people.

Days after the verdict, the UN Security Council, despite laudable pressures from Britain, France, and the United States, could barely summon a mild verbal rebuke to the Burmese generals. Given strong political resistance by China and Russia, a Council statement (not a resolution) expressed “serious concern” over the court sentence, but could not utter the word “condemnation” as many countries including the U.S. had wanted.

At the time of independence from Britain after WWII, Burma held so much promise. A resource-rich and bountiful land, which could and should have been a model Southeast Asian state, sadly instead, the country slipped into the grip of a military rule whose bizarre blend of socialism, nationalism, self-reliance and corruption, made the country now known as Myanmar, a regime isolated save for a few friends like the People’s Republic of China and North Korea.

Burma which has been under military rule since 1962 plans an staged election next year, without of course the pesky participation of opposition politicians like Suu Kyi who may actually win as did her forces in 1990 before the results were overturned. She has since spent 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest.

Much of the international community has been striving for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and many other political prisoners. In Western Europe, Burma’s tragedy has long been a cause celebre much like the cause of Tibet. Significantly during the Bush Administration, the USA pushed hard for political openness but to little avail. And the United Nations has sent numerous envoys to the Southeast Asian land but with little tangible result.

In early July UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Rangoon to try his diplomatic persuasion skills with the ruling generals. He came back embarrassingly empty handed.

U.S. Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia) an Obama confident, recently visited Rangoon to try his hand at unlocking the bizarre maze of Burmese politics. On the one hand Webb succeeded in freeing an imprisoned American John Yettaw, an eccentric who triggered the whole fiasco in the first place by sneaking into Suu Kyi’s residence in May and allowing the Junta the perfect excuse to slam the laureate with a new trial for having broken the terms of her house arrest.

But Webb’s mission to Myanmar by the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific affairs, brings a whole new legitimacy to a sordid regime long shunned by the West for good reason. Though Senator Webb has reflected the Obama Administration’s wish for a more “constructive” American engagement with Burma’s rulers, the aftermath of his dialogue with dictator General Than Shwe now faces a number of hurdles, most especially Aung San Suu Kyi’s vocal and politically active supporters in the USA, Europe, and needless to say Burma itself.

On the other hand, Washington’s opposition to the Junta rests primarily on human rights grounds and its lacking freedoms. Let’s face it, while Burma is a totally wretched regime, it does not really pose a regional danger to its neighbors, nor it does have any historic conflict with the USA, as does say North Korea. But this is not the time to end or ease economic sanctions

But why now? Clearly Washington wants to wean the Rangoon rulers from their political and military dependence on People’s China. This may be wishful thinking. Mainland China has a long border with Burma, and uses the Southeast Asian state as a natural resource entrepot for minerals, rubies and timber, as well as a geopolitical backdoor to the Bay of Bengal. In other words this is Beijing’s neighborhood. It is appallingly naive for Washington to assume otherwise.

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