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.

Khin Maung Win/AP
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.

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).

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.

Mr. Della-Giacoma cautions that Western calls for timely actions by Burma could prove counterproductive, as Burma's president, Thein Sein, hasn’t consolidated his power base. “Such implied threats don’t go down well in Nyapyidaw, and they may limit Thein Sein’s space for movement,” he says.

Since taking office in late March, Mr. Thein Sein has spoken bluntly about the need for economic and social progress. But his reformist speeches haven’t translated into action and have reportedly met resistance from military hard-liners. “He’s saying the right things but they won’t let him move faster,” says a European diplomat in Bangkok who visits frequently.

Analysts say the Obama administration may try to engage Burma on curbing North Korea’s arms proliferation, including nuclear technology that Burma’s military reportedly covets. A sign of cooperation on North Korea, say analysts, would add a strategic dimension to views in Congress toward a country that is largely seen through the prism of Suu Kyi and human rights. The White House recently named Derek Mitchell as special representative to Burma, subject to Senate confirmation.

Experts say Burma desperately needs outside support for economic development, opening the door to engagement. Western opprobrium toward the former junta has capped aid at levels much lower than in other Asian countries. Economic policy is an area where the new government could potentially make major changes, says Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian and author.

But he cautions that many government officials aren’t convinced by offers of assistance from the West after decades of antagonism. “For every senior person in the government who would like to see more aid, there are another nine who are skeptical at best. It's definitely not a carrot,” he says.

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