U.S. Urges China to Help Curb Violence in Burma, Prepare for Transition

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 29, 2007

Senior Bush administration officials have pressed Chinese officials in private conversations this week to use their leverage with Burmese authorities to limit the violence and help manage a transition to a new government in Burma, which is experiencing its most serious and violent demonstrations in two decades, U.S. officials said yesterday.

The Chinese have deflected the entreaties by describing Burma's turmoil as an internal matter. But one senior U.S. official said the Chinese have been "shocked" by the world's reaction to the confrontation between the government and protesters. He added that he believes they are "reconsidering the amount of support" China provides to the Burmese government.

China, which has extensive commercial interests in Burma, has received a blunt message from the United States: "You wanted to become a big power -- part of being a big power is you will be held responsible for your client states," said this official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing private meetings. U.S. officials have also urged China to consider some form of refuge for Burmese leaders, to help speed a transition to a new government, this official said.

The White House is focusing its diplomacy on China largely because it has little independent influence over the military-led government in Burma, which has engaged this week in a crackdown on protesters led by Buddhist monks.

The administration is calculating that Beijing, a major protector of Burma, will not want to risk world opprobrium if widespread bloodshed is caused by its long-time ally. Officials said China is nervous about prospects that the 2008 Olympics in Beijing could be tarnished if the situation in Burma is not stabilized peacefully.

The anti-government protests, which started in August, have become a cause c¿l¿bre in Washington in the wake of this week's crackdown. House and Senate leaders drafted resolutions yesterday condemning the military government, with little of the normal partisan bickering that often accompanies foreign policy debates on Capitol Hill.

The administration, meanwhile, announced sanctions this week aimed at squeezing the government's military leaders and their associates. On Thursday, the Treasury Department imposed new financial sanctions on 14 senior Burmese officials linked to egregious human rights abuses.

Yesterday, the State Department announced that three dozen Burmese military and government officials and their families will be barred from visiting the United States. The U.S. government is also doubling the amount of Burmese-language broadcasts beamed into a country where the authorities have been trying to cut off Internet and other forms of communication with the outside world, an official said.

President Bush has stepped up his rhetoric, calling on other countries to press Burma, which is also known as Myanmar. He has been joined by first lady Laura Bush, who has adopted the pro-democracy cause in Burma in a rare foray into foreign policy and has issued repeated public statements criticizing the government. Both Bushes have been heavily influenced by private meetings with Burmese dissidents and other activists, current and former administration officials say.

"President Bush calls on all nations, especially those nations closest to Burma that have the most influence with the regime, to support the aspirations of the Burmese people, and to join in condemning the junta's use of violence . . .," the first lady said in a statement last night. "The United States stands with the people of Burma. . . . We cannot -- and will not -- turn our attention from courageous people who stand up for democracy and justice."

Bush met with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in the Oval Office on Thursday for an unscheduled meeting on Burma after the diplomat came to the White House to see national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised the subject of Burma in her own meeting with the foreign minister earlier in the week, and the United States' top diplomat on Asia, Christopher R. Hill, has also discussed the issue in Beijing, where he is attending talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program, a senior official said.

U.S. officials have limited knowledge about events inside Burma -- including the death toll, so far -- and depend, in large measure, on news reports and information from refugees, exiles and others in neighboring countries. The United States does have a mission in Burma, but the ability of diplomats there to report has been limited in recent days, officials said.

Still, one senior official said the accounts he is seeing suggest "a regime under severe stress." He said the U.S. government is receiving unconfirmed reports that division-level military commanders in Burma are refusing orders to participate in the crackdown. Another official said that it is impossible to predict what will happen but that there is "overwhelming dislike" of the government among civilians.

U.S. officials were cautious in their assessment of the diplomatic road ahead. One acknowledged that there have been only "pretty tepid" statements from China and India, but officials were encouraged by a condemnation this week from neighboring members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. State Department officials quietly raised the possibility of introducing another U.N. Security Council resolution on Burma if they do not see stronger action from China and India.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he agrees with the administration that China is key to resolving the situation. "There is no doubt in my mind that if the Chinese authorities decided to put pressure on Burma, things will change instantaneously," he said.

Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company