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.
But this week's conviction of the democracy activist, on charges that she hosted an American intruder who entered her heavily guarded villa uninvited, has put a formal policy review toward Burma "basically on hold," according to a State Department official. The sentencing of the American, John W. Yettaw, 54, to seven years in jail, including four of hard labor, has only complicated U.S. efforts to reengage Burma.
Still, U.S. officials have been keen to show they welcome Webb's initiative, as have other proponents of engagement.
David Steinberg, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University and an expert on Burma, said in an interview that he approached Burma's charge d'affaires in Washington, Myint Lwin, to urge him to let Webb go. "If you are really interested in improving relations with the United States, make sure Webb gets a visa," Steinberg recalled telling the Burmese official.
Steinberg, who briefed Webb's staff before the trip, said it was possible the Burmese could arrange a meeting between Webb and Suu Kyi.
In May, Burma's top diplomat in Washington raised the possibility of a trip by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who visited the country in 1999, according to his former chief of staff, Frances Zwenig. But that trip never materialized.
Asked whether Burma's apparent eagerness for Webb's visit signaled a desire for improved relations, a State Department official said the Burmese seemed "very intrigued." But Clinton and her aides, the official said, "laid down a pretty significant marker at ASEAN," and Burma has "fallen short of that. We may still choose to engage them in some fashion on a set of issues, but obviously in light of [Suu Kyi's conviction] it might be a less ambitious set of issues."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.