Visit by Top Burmese Official Signals Softening of U.S. Policy

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

For the first time in nine years, the United States allowed Burma's foreign minister to come to Washington, a sign of softening U.S. policy toward the military junta that has run that Asian nation for nearly five decades.

Maj. Gen. Nyan Win quietly arrived in Washington on Friday night and left the next day after meetings with Burmese Embassy staffers, a U.S.-Asian business council and Sen. James Webb, the Virginia Democrat who has advocated closer ties to the junta, according to Kyaw Win, an embassy spokesman. The foreign minister also took in some sightseeing, visiting the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. A State Department spokesman said Nyan Win did not meet with administration officials.

The main goal of the trip was to evaluate the Burmese Embassy, which needs repairs, Kyaw Win said. "The approval is a good sign though," he said. "We didn't get permission for many years."

Nyan Win's 24-hour sojourn appears to be part of a new policy by the Obama administration toward Burma, said officials and sources familiar with the trip. The policy encourages U.S. officials to engage the government of Burma, also known as Myanmar, on a higher level.

To that end, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to attend a meeting of the Group of Friends of Burma, established by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, on Wednesday. In addition, Burma's prime minister, Gen. Thein Sein, will appear at the ongoing U.N. General Assembly, making him the most senior junta member to attend the annual gathering since the nation's second-in-command did so in 1995. He is expected to meet there with Kurt M. Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, according to a source briefed by U.S. officials.

U.S. policy toward Burma has been under review for nine months; American officials met Friday to iron out the final details, and the results are expected to be announced soon.

U.S. officials and other sources said the Obama administration decided that economic sanctions first imposed on the junta in the 1990s will not be lifted but will not be tightened either. More humanitarian aid may be approved, too. Administration officials would not comment on the possible changes.

The United States had been considering bolder moves, including resuming military-to-military relations and counter-narcotics cooperation, according to a Senate source familiar with the administration's deliberations. But earlier this year the junta again arrested and convicted opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on security charges, sentencing her to an additional 18 months of house arrest. Most international observers view the sentence as a way to keep the Nobel Peace Prize winner off the campaign trail during next year's elections. Suu Kyi has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years and the junta is committed to avoiding a repeat of 1990, when her party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory.

The charges against Suu Kyi stemmed from an incident in May, in which an American, John W. Yettaw, swam to her lakeside home in Rangoon and stayed there for two days. Yettaw said that he had a vision that Suu Kyi was to be killed by terrorists and that he wanted to warn her. He was detained and later deported after Webb visited Burma in August and secured his release.

Burma recently launched a charm offensive in what some officials call an attempt to improve ties with the West. Over the past two weeks, The junta has released 119 political prisoners out of an estimated 2,000.

Since the late 1990s, as part of the sanctions, Burmese officials have been banned from traveling to the United States and the European Union except to attend meetings of international organizations such as the United Nations. Under the 2003 Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, the White House needs to approve a waiver to allow Burmese officials attending the U.N. General Assembly to travel more than 25 miles out of New York.

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