Webb's Trip to Burma May Be Litmus Test as U.S. Weighs Reengagement

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By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sen. James Webb arrived in Burma on Friday for talks with the country's military ruler, starting a 2 1/2-day diplomatic mission that is likely to prove a test of U.S. efforts to engage recalcitrant foreign governments.

The trip by the Virginia Democrat, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit to Burma in a decade, comes just days after a government-run court sentenced the main opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to an additional 18 months under house arrest. But it also comes as the Obama administration calibrates its policy toward the military junta that rules the country, which came under tough economic sanctions during the Bush administration.

The Obama administration has shown a willingness to engage with Burma and other adversaries. Webb's trip could highlight the benefits of such engagement, at least in Burma, U.S. officials said.

But engagement also comes with risks. Earlier this month, the administration's decision to deploy former president Bill Clinton to North Korea generated a degree of controversy, even as the trip helped secure the release of two Americans. Burmese opposition groups have already objected to Webb's trip on the grounds that it rewards the government for stifling political dissent.

Administration officials insisted that Webb is not acting on behalf of the United States. But a State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said that officials had briefed Webb before his departure. And U.S. Embassy officials based in Rangoon plan to accompany the senator to the remote jungle capital of Naypyidaw, where they are scheduled to meet with top officials, including Senior Gen. Than Shwe. The talks would mark the first time a senior American official has met with the leader of the Burmese junta.

Webb, who first traveled to Burma in 2001 as a private citizen at the invitation of an American businessman, has been a staunch critic of the U.S. sanctions of the country, also known as Myanmar. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific affairs, he has argued that the sanctions have denied opportunities for U.S. businesses and undercut American influence in a country that is closely tied to China.

According to sources familiar with Webb's plans, he initially sought a visa to Burma in May or June -- before the international uproar over the verdict against Suu Kyi -- in order to press for U.S. reengagement with the junta. Burmese officials told him it was not the right time and that he should try again in another two months.

Now, however, pro-democracy advocates said that the timing of the visit, coming less than a week after Suu Kyi's conviction, would embolden a government accused of repressing political opponents and stifling attempts at democratic reform.

"This visit validates the regime's injustices," said Aung Din, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. "He is not going there to tell the regime to stop its abuses and its crimes against humanity. His intention is to get a cozy relationship with the military junta."

Early this week, three prominent Burmese dissident groups, including an alliance of Burmese monks and student leaders, sent Webb a letter expressing concerns about the trip.

"As we are in hiding to avoid arrest, torture and imprisonment of the regime, we would not have a chance to meet you when you are in our country," the groups said in the letter. "We appreciate if you would try to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in detention and leader of ethnic nationalities, students and monks in prison."

U.S. diplomats held meetings with Burma's foreign minister in Burma in March, and again in July on the sidelines of a security conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Thailand. At the time, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered the prospect of renewed U.S. investment in Burma if it released Suu Kyi.


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