U.S. Planning New Overtures to Burma

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 28 -- The Obama administration pledged Monday to increase humanitarian assistance to Burma and start its first detailed talks with Burmese authorities in an effort to build better relations with the reclusive military junta.

Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said the United States will leave in place existing U.S. sanctions on Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, until its military rulers make "concrete progress" on democratic reforms. But he also said efforts at more conciliatory relations will probably continue even if the Burmese government does not hold credible democratic elections next year.

"We intend to begin a direct dialogue with the Burmese authorities," Campbell told reporters at the State Department. "We are prepared to sit down, but also recognize that nothing has changed yet on the ground."

The announcement came after Burma's prime minister, Gen. Thein Sein, spoke at the U.N. General Assembly, becoming the most senior Burmese official to speak here in nearly 15 years. He called for an end to sanctions and appealed for more funding to rebuild communities devastated in the spring of 2008 by Cyclone Nargis.

Sein also sought to deflect calls from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other foreign leaders that Burma release its political prisoners, including detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, so they can participate in the elections.

"Our focus is not on the narrow interest of individuals, organizations or parties but on the larger interest of the entire people of the nation," he said. "We have urged all citizens, whether they agree with us or not, to actively participate in the process without losing sight of the democratic goal."

Sein also met in New York with Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), who has pressed for improved relations with Burma. "The administration's new policy and the commitment of the Myanmar government to holding elections next year are both signals that we have the potential to change the dynamic of this important relationship," Webb said in a statement.

The administration has been struggling for more than seven months to find a policy that can coax Burma out of its isolation and compel it to embrace democratic change. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at a meeting of the Group of Friends of Burma, which Ban established, that sanctions alone "have not produced the results that had been hoped for on behalf of the people of Burma."

Campbell said that the administration is planning to appoint a special envoy to coordinate diplomacy with Burma, but that he expects the "first substantive interaction" with the government to take place in New York this week, on the sidelines of the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations.

He said the talks will focus on ways the two sides could stem the Burmese drug trade, recover remains of U.S. servicemen who died in Burma during World War II, and sever the government's military links to North Korea. In June, a North Korean ship was tracked by the U.S. Navy as it headed toward Burma, raising concerns that it might have been delivering banned weapons.

Campbell said the United States will press Burma to release all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi; improve its human rights record; pursue peace with armed ethnic minority groups; and begin a credible process of national reconciliation with the country's political opposition parties and ethnic minorities.

"If Burma makes meaningful progress toward these goals, it will be possible to improve the relationship with the United States in a step-by-step process," he said. "We recognize that this will likely be a long and difficult process, and we are prepared to sustain our efforts on this front."

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