WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States believes it would be a mistake to lift sanctions against Myanmar at the beginning of a fledgling dialogue with that country’s military junta, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia said Wednesday.
Following a U.S. policy review on Myanmar, the Obama administration this week said it would pursue deeper engagement with Myanmar’s military rulers to try to spur democratic reform but will not ease sanctions for now.
“Lifting or easing sanctions at the outset of a dialogue without meaningful progress on our concerns would be a mistake,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told a U.S. Senate panel.
Campbell met U Thaung, Myanmar’s minister of science, technology and labor in New York Tuesday for talks he described as “substantive talks for several hours.”
“We laid out very clearly our views and I stressed to U Thaung that this is an opportunity for Burma, if it is ready to move forward,” he told a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing.
No schedule or venue were set for future bilateral meetings, Campbell added.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday’s talks contained nothing that would “make us optimistic that they are going to make a major shift.”
The official, however, added, “they have shown interest in improving relations with us, reaching out to us.”
The dialogue with the former Burma would “supplement rather than replace” long-standing sanctions Washington that has imposed on Myanmar, Campbell said.
Washington has gradually tightened sanctions on the generals who rule the country to try to force them into political rapprochement with Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
NORTH KOREA TIES WORRISOME
Myanmar plans next year to hold its first election in two decades, which the junta says will bring an end to almost five decades of unbroken military rule. Many analysts suspect the generals will still hold real power.
“Any easing of sanctions now would send a wrong signal to those who have been striving for so many years for democracy and progress in Burma,” Campbell said.
The United States had discussed its Myanmar policy shift with Japan and planned to expand dialogue with China and India, neighbors of Myanmar with significant trading relations with the Southeast Asian country, he said.
Campbell would visit China, one of the junta’s main supporters, to discuss Myanmar, in about two weeks, he said.
One key concern of the United States was Myanmar’s suspected military relationship with North Korea, which is under a battery of United Nations sanctions that ban nations from trading weapons and sensitive technologies with Pyongyang.
“We have seen some steps between North Korea and Burma that concern us, both the provision of small arms and other military equipment, and there are some signs that that cooperation has extended into areas that would be prohibited,” Campbell told the hearing.