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Shift Possible on Burma Policy

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's maiden voyage to Asia includes stops in Japan, Indonesia, Korea and China. As a White House surrogate, Clinton said she hopes to restore the image of the United States in the Islamic world.

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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Feb. 18 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that economic sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western governments have failed to pressure the repressive Burmese government, signaling a potentially major shift in U.S. policy.

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Clinton, at a news conference here, did not deny that easing sanctions was one of the ideas under consideration by the Obama administration as part of a major review, saying that "we are looking at possible ideas that can be presented." She said she had discussed the issue with Indonesian officials.

"Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the Burmese junta," she said, adding that the route taken by Burma's neighbors of "reaching out and trying to engage them has not influenced them, either."

Burma, also known as Myanmar, is regarded as one of the world's most oppressive nations, ruled by generals who have enriched themselves while much of the country remains desperately poor.

The National League for Democracy, the party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide electoral victory in 1990, but the military leadership refused to accept it. She has been held in confinement repeatedly since then, as have hundreds of her supporters.

Any move by the Obama administration to scale back sanctions could face opposition in Congress, where lawmakers have imposed a series of increasingly tougher restrictions on the Southeast Asian nation. The Bush administration also invested significant diplomatic capital into moving Burma for the first time onto the agenda of the United Nations Security Council, though a proposed resolution on the junta's behavior has been vetoed by Russia and China.

In 2007, Vice President Biden was the key mover in the Senate passage of the Block Burmese JADE (Junta's Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act, which renewed restrictions on the import of Burmese gemstones and tightened sanctions on mining projects. The act also imposed new financial sanctions and travel restrictions on the junta's leaders and their associates, and created a post for a high-level envoy and policy coordinator for Burma.

But some humanitarian organizations have begun to question the sanction policies. In an influential report issued last October, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group argued that humanitarian aid should begin to flow into the country and that bans on Burmese garments, agriculture and fishery products and restrictions on tourism should be lifted.

"It is a mistake in the Myanmar context to use aid as a bargaining chip, to be given only in return for political change," the report said. "Twenty years of aid restrictions -- which see Myanmar receiving twenty times less assistance per capita than other least-developed countries -- have weakened, not strengthened, the forces for change."

While Clinton has been careful not to tip her hand on the direction of the policy review, she has used strikingly mild language about the Burmese government, describing "the unfortunate path" taken by Burma, leaving it "impervious to influence from anyone."

Jeremy Woodrum, co-founder of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, said he hopes the Obama administration does not shift course. It "should not lift pressure, which would have the effect of selling out Aung San Suu Kyi, who has called for pressure on Burma and whom Secretary Clinton and President Obama just voted to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal," he said. "The Obama administration should pursue a multilateral global arms embargo to help stop crimes against humanity committed by Than Shwe's regime." Than Shwe is the leader of the Burmese junta.

During her stop in Indonesia, Clinton also visited the Jakarta-based headquarters of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional bloc of 10 nations that includes Burma but is often criticized as ineffectual.

As scores of ASEAN employees lined the balconies to applaud her, Clinton announced that the Obama administration would consider signing the group's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a nonaggression pact signed by 15 nations outside the region. The Bush administration had declined to sign it, in part because of concerns it might hamper policy toward Burma.

Clinton also said she would attend a regional security meeting in July, a diplomatic session that former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice skipped twice during her four-year tenure. "It really shows the seriousness of the United States to end its diplomatic absenteeism in the region," a beaming ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said.

Upon her arrival in Jakarta, Clinton was serenaded at the airport by children from the former elementary school of President Obama, who spent four years of his childhood here. At a joint news conference with Clinton, Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda noted that Obama "has a very strong constituency in Indonesia -- of course without the right to vote."


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