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McCain visits Burma, but will calls for change backfire?

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona visited Burma (Myanmar) to help improve bilateral ties this week, but he also took a swipe at Burma’s rulers by evoking the Arab Spring as a threat to authoritarian regimes around the world.

By Correspondent / June 7, 2011

Sen. John McCain (c.) receives yellow roses from children diagnosed with the HIV virus during his visit to a shelter for AIDS patients run by Phyu Phyu Thin (front l.), Burma's well-known AIDS activist, on Thursday, June 2, in the eastern outskirts of Yangon, in Burma. Mr. McCain began a brief trip to Burma (Myanmar) last week to assess the situation in the country after a new civilian government promising reform took over from a military junta several months ago.

Khin Maung Win/AP

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Bangkok, Thailand

Two months after Burma’s ruling junta was handed over to a semicivilian government, a steady stream of senior Western officials have beat a path to the capital, Nyapyidaw. But any hopes of a rapid thaw in relations with the United States or other powers have faded, even as the Obama administration prepares to seek confirmation of a new envoy to Burma (Myanmar).

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Last week, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a longtime critic of Burma's military junta, became the latest high-profile visitor to Burma. He met with Aung San Suu Kyi, a pro-democracy leader he calls “a personal hero,” and with government officials, whom he urged to take concrete actions, such as the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners, before the US could consider ending sanctions on Burma.

In a statement, Mr. McCain thanked his hosts for allowing him to visit. He said that he wanted to help improve bilateral ties and pointed to Vietnam as an example of a former enemy-turned-friend. But he also took a swipe at Burma’s rulers by evoking the Arab Spring as a threat to authoritarian regimes around the world.

“Governments that shun evolutionary reforms now will eventually face evolutionary change later. This choice may be deferred. It may be delayed. But it cannot be denied,” he said.

While exiled Burmese activists hailed McCain’s rhetoric, critics say his trip lacked diplomatic heft and was driven by a desire to meet with Ms. Suu Kyi, a global democracy icon. Since her release in November from seven years of house arrest, she has struggled to revive her opposition party, which boycotted last year’s elections and lost its legal status.

McCain, a cosponsor of sanctions legislation, had pledged to back reciprocal actions if Burma makes meaningful concessions to release detainees and dialogue with ethnic minorities, points out Jim Della-Giacoma, Southeast Asia director in Jakarta, Indonesia, for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. Burmese officials, meanwhile, have complained to Western diplomats that Washington failed to respond to previous olive branches.

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