US Senator’s mercy mission to Burma may start a new process
by Larry Jagan
Monday, 17 August 2009 18:25
Bangkok (Mizzima) – The American senator, Jim Webb may have started something significant, but at this stage everything to do with his visit is still shrouded in mystery. Even at his two press conferences in Bangkok on consecutive days, the usually garrulous and talkative politician was overtly coy, dodging questions and being continually non-committal. “He appears frightened and is hiding something,” said a senior western diplomat who closely follows Burmese affairs. “He knows more than he’s telling, something is surely afoot.”
This was certainly no ordinary or even private visit, despite senior state department officials insisting the senator visited Burma in a personal capacity. The US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, rang him last night to talk about the trip, Webb let slip during his encounter with the press on Monday. This only adds to the increasing suspicion that something significant may be happening beneath the public gaze. After all that is how serious diplomacy takes place.
Senator Webb, it must be remembered, is a rising political star in Washington, close to the Clintons and Barack Obama, according to sources on the Hill. He is also tipped to become the next secretary of defense, when the Bush-appointee Bill Gates stands down in around two years’ time. So the US could not have had a better envoy – even if unofficially — than this conservative Democrat from Virginia.
One of the key messages Webb passed onto Than Shwe was that Aung San Suu Kyi should be released before the 2010 election, and allowed a political role. “We will just have to wait and see how the Myanmar government responds,” he told Mizzima. “I am hopeful that they will give my recommendation [that she be freed] serious consideration,” he added.
The pro-democracy opposition abroad is still complaining that Webb’s visit gave the Burmese military leaders international credibility, and even a measure of legitimacy. This accusation at least the senator dismisses. “I am not pro-Myanmar, but I believe the Burmese people deserve better than they are getting now. Isolation is only preventing them from developing economically and politically,” he told journalists on Sunday. A day later he was still loath to call his visit a success – the jury is still out, he implied. “It’s now in the hands of the Myanmar government,” he said.
Sensibly the senator is distancing himself from what many want to dub as his key success: bringing the American intruder, John Yettaw, out of Burma after he was officially deported on Sunday. It was Yettaw whose unwanted visit to Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence some three months ago resulted in the detained opposition leader being put under house arrest for a further 18 months. “Mr Yettaw’s actions were regrettable,” Webb said. “But the Myanmar government responded favourably to my request to release him on humanitarian grounds.”
The American was sentenced to seen years in jail with hard labour – and his family feared that given his ill-health he would not cope with conditions in a Burmese jail. In fact during his imprisonment while the trial as on he frequently needed medical attention and was hospitalised at least once. Many analysts saw the harsh sentence as an open invitation to Washington to open discussions with the military government.
Yettaw is now in a Bangkok hospital undergoing an intensive medical check-up before returning to the US. “He’s got severe medical problems, and had a relapse and fit this [Sunday] after he was handed over to US embassy officials,” a senior American state department diplomat told Mizzima on condition of anonymity.
The hapless American’s release was one of three major requests the US senator made during his crucial meeting with the junta’s reclusive leader, General Than Shwe. The other two were to be permitted to see the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and to strongly urge the regime to release her and allow her to fully participate in the country’s political process. “He granted my first two requests during our meeting, and there is yet to be a response to my third,” he told journalists at a press conference in Bangkok.
In fact it is the two meetings – the one with Than Shwe and the other with Aung San Suu Kyi – that may yet prove to be more significant than the release of the hapless American visitor. The senator remained coy about the details of the talks he had with the two, though he said he had an extensive exchange with both on the current political process, which the junta calls its roadmap to disciplined democracy. “Without Aung San Suu being released and allowed to participate in the elections, the US and the international community would find it impossible to accept the process as free and fair,” he told General Than Shwe.
The pro-democracy leader preferred to wait until she and her party had formulated a detailed policy towards the elections, before issuing a statement, he told Mizzima. On sanctions we had a long and vigorous discussion, he added. “It was my impression that she was not opposed to lifting some sanctions, that is all I will say as I do not want to misquote her,” he said. He declined to give further details. This seems to be an admission that the detained Nobel Laureate may have given the new US administration the green light to consider dismantling some of the sanctions.
Many analysts believe that it is the senator’s support for a change in US policy towards Burma and his opposition to the sanctions’ approach that encouraged the regime to invite him. That and the fact that he is a former soldier, a marine who fought in the Vietnam War would also have been important. Burma’s military rulers mistrust all civilians.
Senator Webb’s visit is the first by an American Congressman in more than 10 years. But US officials, and Webb himself, played down any suggestion that he was an envoy for the Obama administration or that he was an interlocutor between the two governments. “I went in a private capacity – and in my role as chairman of the Senate foreign affairs East Asia and the Pacific sub-committee,” he told journalists in Bangkok. “But I will be reporting back on the visit to the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, on a wide variety of issues, including increasing humanitarian assistance,” he said. In fact Clinton could not wait until he returned and phoned him in Bangkok on Sunday evening.
Apart from conveying Aung San Suu Kyi’s best wishes to President Barack Obama, Webb said he had only his own impressions and general issues to report back to the White House. But all this will be part of the mix as the new administration mulls over what kind of policy changes might best help encourage the regime to introduce genuine political reform and make its roadmap internationally credible, according to senior state department officials. Many people are optimistic that the administration is planning significant if not radical changes to US policy towards Burma.
“Webb is after ‘aggressive engagement’, like Senator Lugar’s report on US-Cuban relations,” seasoned Burma-watcher, Derek Tonkin told Mizzima. “The US and Burma should now look for areas of mutual interest on which they can start talking — narcotics, even US certification, international terrorism, piracy around SE Asia and off Somalia, communicable diseases, conservation — the list is endless,” he said.
What is now needed is quiet diplomacy, a senior European diplomat with experience in behind-the-scenes exchanges and negotiations in Asia told Mizzima on condition of anonymity. Webb seems to be optimistic: “maybe this trip has helped to start the ball moving forward,” he said. But it is yet to be seen whether Webb’s trip is a one-off visit or the start of a new serious policy of engagement by Washington.
But more importantly, perhaps the visit and the outcomes show a new approach on the part of the junta. Senator Webb was given a ceremonial reception – with all the top generals – that is usually reserved only for visiting heads of state. Shown prominently on the state-run television, it clearly shows Burma’s military rulers now crave international, especially American, recognition, said a long-time foreign resident in Rangoon.
If the Burmese military regime really does want to engage with the international community, it may even heed some of its concerns, and then they will have no alternative but to deal with Aung San Suu Kyi. Than Shwe, at the behest of some of its Asian allies, especially Singapore and China, is keen to improve relations with the US, according to military sources in the Burmese capital Naypitdaw. The senator’s visit makes this extremely evident.
“You cannot fail to see in this that the junta is keen to tell the world that sanctions do not work and we are open to dialogue – at least with other governments, if not Aung San Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy movement inside the country,” said a western diplomat based in Rangoon.
But in the end the regime will proceed with its plans for a disciplined democracy no matter what the international community thinks. But what Webb’s visit does show is that Than Shwe is getting ready to push the process forward. The next step will be the creation of an interim government, according to senior Burmese military sources. Than Shwe plans to announce this soon and it will take control of the government for a year, possibly from September, a Burmese official told Mizzima. Aung Thaung, the minister and a close confidante of Than Shwe’s, recently told his deputies that there would be a new government soon, and he may no longer be the minister. Most other ministers have also told their staff that they will not be in their current posts by the end of the year.
“According to Than Shwe’s plans, all the current ministers will have to resign, if they are to join a political party and fight the forthcoming elections,” said the independent Burmese academic, Win Min based in Chiang Mai. So far there have been no hints as to who will be in the interim administration. Some analysts speculate that it may even include a senior member of the NLD.
But most diplomats and analysts in Rangoon remain skeptical that Than Shwe plans any real change, even the formation of an interim government may be intended to deflect international criticism. The end result of all these changes is clearly to make sure the military retains political control.
“There have been abundant signals that the roadmap is not an inclusive process and the referendum [in May last year] dispelled any remaining doubts – this is a hyper-flawed process that will not lead anywhere, it’s simply a consolidation of the military’s control of the state,” the former UN human rights rapporter for Burma Professor Paulo Pinheiro recently told Mizzima.
But there may still be surprises in store. Never underestimate the generals’ cunning and ability to wrong-foot the opposition by doing the unexpected. Than Shwe is already planning to release political prisoners, including some high-profile activists, in the near future, according to a senior government source close to the junta leader.
After all, Than Shwe promised the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when he visited Burma last month that political prisoners would be released. The Burmese Ambassador to New York re-iterated this when he told the UN Security Council last month that political prisoners would be released before the elections and allowed to participate – though did not say how many or who would be included.
So it should not be a surprise if Aung San Suu Kyi is freed before the elections – and maybe even sooner than that. Senator Webb’s coyness during his encounters with the press in Bangkok gives the impression he is definitely hiding something. A western diplomat who follows Burma closely believes the US senator may have been given some form of assurances or undertakings that the pro-democracy leader will be freed in the near future — but has to keep mum for the time being.