Sunday, August 16, 2009

Webb Diplomacy for Burma

New York Times:
Senator Jim Webb of Virginia held a rare meeting on Saturday in Myanmar with the leader of the ruling junta, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, and emerged with a promise to free a detained American, officials said, at a time when the United States has said it is reassessing its hard line toward Myanmar’s repressive military government.
The junta also allowed Sen. Webb to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi during his visit to Burma. Back in July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, attending a meeting of ASEAN nations in Phuket, suggested that sanctions on Burma could actually be lifted if the country was to free Suu Kyi, but that her continued detention should lead to that country's expulsion from ASEAN.

Incidentally, when I brought up Clinton's remark during a conversation with someone at the State Department, the official affirmed that the Obama administration was reconsidering America's overall approach to Burma. I thought this development interesting. It had not occurred to me that Obama's avowed shift in approach to foreign relations would extend beyond US dealings with notorious adversaries such as Iran and North Korea to include dialogue with Myanmar.

It will be interesting to watch if this new channel between Senator Webb and Naypyidaw bears fruit. Let's hope so. Because Jim Webb is unusually well-acquainted with the region, he is perhaps the ideal figure to initiate new diplomacy.


  1. My concern is that the Junta will use these overtures as a PR piece - to say they are trying to reform, without actually doing anything.

    But since the old approach hasn't really worked, I guess trying something new couldn't be much worse.

  2. Indeed he is well-acquainted with the region, but we do not think he is honest when twisting other's and words for whose benefit? So far the "humanitarian" junta is "utilizing" the visit towards their purpose.

    There could be a new approach only if the junta wants to meet half way, so far the opposition and the world are traveling on a single lane.

  3. Jeg,

    I posted this before I had read the recent post at your blog.(I encourage people to take a look at this post at your blog, which provides background)

    He [Sen. Webb] said at a press conference in Bangkok, "With respect to Aung San Suu Kyi, I don't want to take the risk of misrepresenting her views but I would say to you it was my clear impression from her that she is not opposed to lifting some sanctions."

    Personally, I don't understand why Webb said this. I assume he was jet-lagged and simply misspoke -- probably Webb wishes he had not answered this question so directly.

    I certainly trust/hope he was not told to say such a thing, as these words appear to have accomplished nothing positive for the Burmese people. I am concerned that any recognition of the Burmese junta or softening of the US position be leveraged for tangible concessions.

    In terms of where all this is headed and why, this point I'm conflicted. Given Obama's behavior towards the opposition on so many domestic issues, I'm not sure if he has a clue how to negotiate. On domestic issues, he seems to make too many concessions too early. Maybe he wants to make those concessions, if so then we don't need to worry so much. (That is maybe Obama, at heart, is a conservative on domestic political isssues, and a foreign policy liberal, which maybe we should hope, as it would lessen my concern that he might be a lousy negotiator).

    On the bright side:

    In the Middle East, I think Obama has arrived at a time, a place, a situation that really calls for this president's trademark "stereoscopic" approach to policy (captured in the line "if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth").

    The other side:

    Before the real battle has even begun, Obama is offering consolation to his opponents and negotiating against his own side. And we've see it before. A new argument emerges: how can such weak negotiator be trusted to cut a fair deal with other countries?

    As much as many of us did not approve of so much that the Bush Administration did, the hard-line position against Burma ought not be abandoned without something positive happening for the people of Burma.


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