To allay international outrage over the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi for another 18 months, the Burmese military junta was looking to show a good gesture. This opportunity came when Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, visited the reclusive country on Friday.
The junta took two significant steps to water down international criticisms, particularly from the U.S. government. First, the junta agreed to deport John William Yettaw; second, it granted Mr. Webb a meeting with both Mrs. Suu Kyi and Than Shwe, the chief of state.
Mr. Yettaw, whom the junta used for Mrs. Suu Kyi’s conviction, was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment on Aug. 11. By releasing him, the junta wants to convey the message of humanity and peace. Moreover, it is Mrs. Suu Kyi whom the military leaders fear and not Mr. Yettaw. Mr. Yettaw’s case was manipulated to find a reason to indict Mrs. Suu Kyi so she can be barred from participating in the 2010 election.
The Burmese junta understands Mr. Webb’s Southeast Asia policy. The senator has been a vocal advocate for engaging the military junta, a policy the Obama administration envisages. Though Mr. Webb was not an official envoy of the White House, his position as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s East Asia and Pacific Affairs subcommittee speaks a lot to the Burmese military generals.
The U.S. government has been very critical of the military regime since 1988. The military junta fears Washington partly because of its military power and its global political status as the lone superpower.
To the surprise of many, the junta chief congratulated then-presidential candidate Barack Obama when the latter won primary elections last year. Than Shwe again congratulated Mr. Obama when he was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States of America. He was optimistic with the first black president’s campaigns to pursue diplomatic channels in his foreign policies.
In the meantime, Than Shwe understands the ineffectiveness of the U.N. Security Council as long as he can persuade China and Russia to stand on his side. Though Washington had not considered a unilateral military action against the Burmese government, the military leaders had a lingering fear, especially in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion.
During last month’s visit to Burma by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Than Shwe denied Mr. Ban’s request to meet with Mrs. Suu Kyi. The military chief gave as the reason the fact that Mrs. Suu Kyi was facing trial.
Despite the secretary-general’s ongoing personal involvement in trying to help resolve the political crisis in Burma, no concrete solution is expected before the 2010 election. This is partly because of the intransigent nature of the military junta and also because of the lack of strong backing from the Security Council. Several unsuccessful attempts have been made through visits by the secretary-general’s special envoy and through friends of Burma.
No tangible solution is expected from the engagement policy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in which Burma is a member.
If it seriously considers helping establish a democratic society in Burma, the U.S. government can be the most effective nation. This does not, however, advocate the unconditional lifting of sanctions. Both carrot and stick should be used in dealing with the recalcitrant military junta.
A special envoy who knows and understands the region would be a wise option, but the new ambassador for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, also could be assigned. Isolation has been applied unsuccessfully for many years, and it is time to give engagement a chance.
Mr. Webb, who met with Than Shwe and Mrs. Suu Kyi, should have been briefed by both the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and the National League for Democracy (NLD) on how to move forward with a reconciliation program.
Though no unanimity can be reached at the U.N. Security Council for any punitive action against the military junta, China and Russia likely will throw their support if Washington chooses engagement.
Engaging Burma does not simply mean rewarding the military junta. It should rather be viewed as a possible way out of the continued political crisis. Engaging Burma should be inclusive of all ethnic nationalities, the NLD and SPDC.
Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum. He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia for many leading international newspapers.