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Burmese Opposition Leader Not Opposed to Lifting Sanctions

By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 17, 2009 9:22 AM

BANGKOK, Aug. 17 -- Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained Burmese opposition leader, might support the lifting of some sanctions against the regime, according to a U.S. senator who met her Saturday.

"It was my clear impression from her that she is not opposed to lifting some sanctions," Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) told journalists on Monday.

Webb met with Suu Kyi for 40 minutes at her home in Rangoon during a weekend trip to Burma, but he declined to comment further for fear of misrepresenting her position.

Suu Kyi has always been represented as a staunch supporter of sanctions, but given that she has been held almost incommunicado for most of the past six years, there is little consensus on whether her position might have changed.

The senator supports modifying the tough sanctions that the United States has imposed on Burma, also known as Myanmar, not least because they have given free rein to China, Burma's northern neighbor and one of the junta's few remaining supporters.

China is about to start building a gas pipeline from the Andaman Sea to the impoverished Chinese province of Yunnan.

"My personal view is that sanctions only work when you have all the countries potentially involved participating," Webb said Sunday. "The sanctions that have taken place in this situation have essentially driven Myanmar more towards China, making their country more vulnerable in my view and cutting off contact from the Western world."

There is growing sentiment among policymakers in the United States and Europe that the current sanctions regime has failed to bring democratic change in Burma and that new policies need to be discussed.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said earlier this year that the country's sanctions policy would be reviewed, with potential incentives for the Burmese if they were willing to modify the way they run the country.

Proponents of sanctions say that any loosening of the embargo would entail rewarding the regime for its intransigence, a view Webb does not share.

"This does not mean that we should in any way abandon our goal of trying to bring fairness and democracy to Myanmar and to other countries as well, but we should be looking for ways to change the formula to develop a way that can assist the people of Burma in bettering their daily lives," he said.

Western analysts say there are some faint signs that the Burmese regime is becoming more flexible, as evidenced by its decision to allow Webb to meet both Suu Kyi and the leaders of her National League for Democracy without supervision.

But one Burma-based analyst, who declined to be named, said it was still unclear whether the generals who run the country are genuinely interested in a limited rapprochement with the outside world, or if they are grudgingly making concessions to international pressure, particularly from China.

Webb also said he brought up the recent allegations that Burma might be pursuing some kind of military nuclear capability, perhaps with assistance from North Korea.

"It was communicated to me early on that there was no truth to that," he said.

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