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After high-level trip to Burma (Myanmar), US seeks to lower expectations

Burma (Myanmar) should take steps toward reform such as allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to enter 2010 elections, says US diplomat after a rare visit.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 5, 2009

US Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Scot Marciel addresses a forum at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University on Thursday.

Kerek Wongsa/Reuters


Bangkok, Thailand

One day after the highest-level US diplomatic visit to Burma since 1995, a US official downplayed the chances that the Obama administration's policy of "pragmatic engagement"

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with the regime will quickly lead to democratic reform or an improved human rights record.

The US wants to see "real progress" in Burma, which is officially known as Myanmar, before it extends bilateral ties with the country's military junta, Assistant Secretary of State Scot Marciel said in Bangkok on Thursday.

His cautious perspective, shared at a public forum, reflects that of exiled pro-democracy activists who say that while the junta may have some interest in warming ties, it has a history of stringing visiting Western diplomats along without changing course. Since the 1990s, successive United Nations special envoys have returned empty-handed and been snubbed by junta leaders.

Pressed on what would constitute progress, Mr. Marciel declined to set benchmarks. He said the international community wants the release of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners so that they could campaign in elections scheduled for next year.

"There is an opportunity for progress… the elections could be an opportunity. But they will only be an opportunity if they're done right," said Marciel, who met with Ms. Suu Kyi during the visit. "I don't see how there can be credible elections that bring legitimacy without inclusive participation, and I don't see how this can happen without a dialogue" among the political players.

The two-day diplomatic meeting between the US and Burma marks the end of a Bush administration policy of isolating the regime and seeking to corral Asian powers into punishing it.

US diplomats say that pressure is still needed, including from trading partners like Thailand and China, if there is to be a political thaw. Sanctions on Burma are a "useful tool" and will remain in place, Marciel said. They include a freeze on US investments and visa bans on government leaders and their families and business associates.

The shift in policy, however, signals the Obama administration's recognition that isolation hasn't changed the behavior of the junta, which took power in 1988 and has ruthlessly repressed internal criticism and waged abusive campaigns against ethnic minorities.

Potential areas for compromise