Burma and Obama
covering burma and southeast asia
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Burma and Obama


By AUNG ZAW JAN — FEB, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.1


(Photo: AFP)
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More effective sanctions and proactive pressure from the international community were necessary for the advancement of the pro-democracy struggle within Burma, he said.

Win Tin appears to have no cause for concern about the steadfastness of US policy on Burma. Ahead of the US presidential campaign, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said in its October analysis that
Obama would continue to support sanctions against Burma.

The analysis said: “While the dynamics of change ultimately must come from within the country, Obama will work toward achieving a coordinated international approach that includes the nations of Asean, China, India, Japan and European countries to help contribute to the process of reform and reconciliation in Burma.”

Frank Jannuzi, a senior Asia adviser to the Obama campaign, said the Burma question should not prevent a deeper US engagement with Asean. “Rather, the United States should work with Asean to ensure that Burma lives up to its obligation as an Asean member,” he said.

Burma scholar David Steinberg believes the Obama administration won’t change the US sanctions policy without some strong indication of conciliation from the regime. Nevertheless, he expects the new administration “will be more willing to have discussions with the junta.”

There is no doubt that the generals want to forge a normal relationship with the world’s superpower. A decade ago, they even hired lobbying firms in Washington to approach State Department and White House officials in the hopes of improving ties. They abandoned these efforts after failing to make headway with the Clinton and Bush administrations.

When Obama won the election, Burma’s state-run media formally congratulated Obama and Than Shwe sent a congratulatory message.

According to some recent unconfirmed reports, a number of former Burmese ambassadors traveled to Western countries, including the US, on what are thought to have been missions to sound out the incoming administration’s Burma policy. It’s premature to imagine an informal dialogue between the Obama administration and the regime, but such a development can’t be ruled out.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine K Albright (right) presents a poster commemorating the Fourth World Conference on Women to Aung San Suu Kyi at her residence in Rangoon in September 1995.
(Photo: AFP)
In 2007, a meeting took place in Beijing between Eric John, then Washington’s deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and Burmese government ministers.

The meeting came at the request of the military junta and was marked by what was described as a frank and free exchange of opinions on both sides. Burmese officials had wanted the meeting to be held in Burma, but US officials declined because they were told they could not talk to Suu Kyi.

Although the substance of the talks between the US and Burmese sides was not disclosed, topics clearly included the continuing detention of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, US sanctions and the political situation in Burma in general. US officials at the meeting recalled that as soon as they mentioned Suu Kyi’s name the faces of Burmese ministers suddenly changed as if they had seen a ghost.

Further US-Burma talks are not ruled out, although it’s unlikely they would be held in Burma unless access is granted to Suu Kyi.

According to Steinberg: “Unless there are changes, any direct talks would probably take place outside Burma, because it would seem doubtful that an American official would be allowed by the US administration to go to that country and not see Aung San Suu Kyi, which—assuming Gen Than Shwe is still in command—seems unlikely.”

Steinberg did not expect any dramatic changes on Burma under Obama but added: “I think that in many circles in Washington there is an increased realization that the military will be part of the solution or amelioration of Burma’s problems, and that simply asking them to return to the barracks, which was once US policy, is no longer possible or feasible, if it ever were.

“Overall, there seems to be less change and more of the same, to the continued suffering of the Burmese people.”

Min Zin’s concern is whether the new administration’s policy on Burma will focus more on finding consensus than the “do-it-alone” policy adopted by Bush.


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