By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009
A senior U.S. diplomat met with the Burmese foreign minister in the ruling junta's jungle capital yesterday, possibly signaling a softening in the tense relations between the two countries.
The Obama administration is conducting a high-profile review of its policy toward Burma, including whether unilateral sanctions have been effective, and the State Department issued a statement late yesterday saying the visit by Stephen Blake, director of the office for mainland Southeast Asia, "does not reflect a change in policy or approach to Burma."
But the government of Burma, also known as Myanmar, has not recently granted access to the foreign minister to any visiting U.S. official, and the government's official newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, trumpeted the meeting in an unusually glowing account. Normally, if the state-run media mention the United States, they focus on the negative, such as casualty figures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The government newspaper said Blake and Foreign Minister Nyan Win held "cordial discussions on issues of mutual interests and the promotion of bilateral relations between the Union of Myanmar and the United States."
Blake made a rare visit to Naypyidaw, the new capital, and also traveled to Rangoon, the former capital, where he met with members of the opposition party.
The junta's decision to grant Blake an audience with the foreign minister is highly significant, said David I. Steinberg, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University who met with government officials in Burma this month. During his talks, he added, government officials "indicated they are interested in improving relations."
Last month in Indonesia, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the administration was reviewing its Burma policy. "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 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. Since then, she has been under house arrest for most of the time, as have hundreds of her supporters.
European officials have been looking for guidance from the United States on Burma policy, deferring a decision on whether to extend sanctions. But the administration has given little hint of its approach, with officials saying yesterday that the review is still incomplete.
"While we have not yet finalized our approach, we remain committed to encouraging a genuine dialogue between the Burmese authorities and opposition that leads to a free and democratic Burma that respects the rights of its diverse citizens and is at peace with its neighbors," the State Department said.
Prodded by the Bush administration, Congress has imposed increasingly tough sanctions on Burma. But on Capitol Hill, there is also an increasing willingness to reconsider the sanctions approach, including whether to use humanitarian relief as a wedge into the country.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, plans to make a Burma policy review a key part of his agenda this year, because "he is dissatisfied where we are" in trying to promote the return of civilian rule, a congressional aide said. Paul Grove, the senior Republican aide on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for foreign operations, also recently visited Burma's delta region to examine assistance efforts.
Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), the new chairman of the East Asia panel of the Foreign Relations Committee, is a fierce critic of the sanctions approach and will play a major role in the congressional review. "I have said for several years that it is to the benefit of all involved that we speak directly with Burma's leadership and work toward resolving our differences," he said yesterday.