US envoy meets Suu Kyi in trip to engage Burma (Myanmar)

The highest-ranking US diplomat to visit Burma (Myanmar) since 1995 met with junta officials and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi Wednesday. The visit is part of the White House's bid to engage the regime.

Aung Hla Tun/Reuters
Aung San Suu Kyi arrives for a meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell (l.) at the Inya Lake Hotel in Yangon on Wednesday.

BANGKOK, THAILAND – A senior US diplomat met with Burma’s (Myanmar’s) detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi Wednesday during a visit to the military-ruled country. The US has tried for years to isolate it with economic and political sanctions, but now also seeks to engage.

Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, the State Department’s top Asia official, is finishing a two-day “fact-finding” mission to Burma, part of a tentative détente between the countries. He met Tuesday with Prime Minister General Thein Sein and was also due to meet leaders of ethnic-based and other political parties, Reuters reported.

In recent months, the Obama administration has pushed a policy of engagement with Burma, while sticking to a trade embargo and other punitive measures. It continues to call for the release of Ms. Suu Kyi, who has spent much of the past two decades under house arrest in Rangoon, the former capital.

Mr. Campbell was photographed Wednesday by Suu Kyi’s side after a two-hour meeting. He isn’t expected to comment publicly before returning to Washington, though his deputy Scot Marciel, who is part of the mission, is due to speak Thursday in Bangkok. Campbell is the highest-ranking US administration official to visit Burma since then-UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright's visit in 1995. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Ms. Albright's name and mischaracterized Campbell's position.]

Burma’s rulers insist that they plan to eventually restore democracy in a country that has been wracked by armed conflicts since independence in 1948. The first elections since 1990 are due to be held next year, though under a constitution that reserves substantial power for the military under civilian rule. (Read more here.)

The US and other Western countries have urged Burma to hold fair and credible elections and to allow Suu Kyi’s party and others to campaign freely.

Some of Burma’s neighbors have made similar calls, while arguing that the protracted Western strategy of punishing Burma has failed to shift its behavior.

Southeast Asian diplomats argue that engagement stands a better chance of nudging it toward democracy.

But a tough approach towards the junta remains popular among Burmese pro-democracy campaigners in European and North American capitals and a cause célèbre among Western publics for whom Suu Kyi is an icon of peaceful struggle.

Some analysts have argued that the regime’s overtures to Washington appear aimed at balancing its dependence on China, Burma’s largest arms supplier and investor.

Whatever the reason, skepticism towards the diplomatic moves is essential, according to exiled anti-regime activists in Thailand.

“Many Burmese say the new US policy is undoubtably a smart move, but they caution that a smart policy doesn’t always fit often irrational, nationalistic and insular military leaders,” wrote Aung Zaw in Monday’s Bangkok Post.

Also: How Sen. Jim Webb's rare visit broke the ice with Burma in August.

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