Sen. Jim Webb breaks the ice in Burma
The reclusive regime in Burma (Myanmar) is touting its newfound openness, but skeptics wonder whether Webb's rare visit will bring any democratic reform.
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This will effectively muzzle Suu Kyi as the junta gears up for 2010 elections, a move cynics believe will lead to a military-backed government with only the veneer of democratic legitimacy.Skip to next paragraph
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Why did Webb go?
Webb, head of the Senate's Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific affairs, has ties to Southeast Asia tracing back to his Marine Corps days seizing bunkers during the Vietnam War. He speaks Vietnamese, returns to the region frequently, and previously toured Burma in 2001.
That trip drove him to declare the failure of US sanctions, which include bans on American investment and all exports to the US. Still, US leaders such as Mrs. Clinton have shown reluctance to lift the bans until Suu Kyi is freed.
Would Suu Kyi back an easing of US sanctions?
However, if Suu Kyi herself encourages lifting sanctions, as Webb suggested, that could change. "It was my clear impression," he said, "that she is not opposed to lifting some sanctions."
In May, Suu Kyi said Burma still had "many opportunities for national reconciliation if all parties concerned are really willing to achieve," according to her political party in exile, the National League for Democracy. "It is not still too late to have good results out of this misfortune."
Burmese exiles split on US role
Burma's pro-democracy diaspora is split on whether the US should take a softer or harder line with the junta. The junta's track record is grisly, with human rights groups accusing the military of forced labor and gang rape against ethnic minorities as a sanctioned military tactic.
"There's a rational voice among Burmese exiles that wants engagement with the junta," says Aung Zaw, a Burmese exile and editor of The Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based journal of Burmese affairs. "But it's only wishful thinking that the junta will change because of the US."
Experts: Real pressure must come from trade partners
Real pressure on Burma's generals will need to come from their trading partners, says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
The junta is kept afloat through trade with China, India, Russia, and Thailand. High-ranking officials, including Clinton, have also warned of military-secret sharing with North Korea and the possibility of a nuclear Burma.
Beijing has refrained from outright censure of Suu Kyi's detainment and announced, after her most recent sentencing, that outsiders should respect Burma's sovereignty. But Western powers could push China to demand better behavior from the junta, Mr. Thitinan says, a tactic Suu Kyi's own lawyer has promoted.
"The cards are overwhelmingly stacked against [Suu Kyi]," Thitinan says. "We have to conclude that the playing field will ultimately be uneven. But just how uneven the field is could still be worked out."