U.S. Opens Talks With Myanmar Military Junta to Push Democracy

By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan

Oct 1 (Bloomberg) — The U.S. is overhauling its policy on Myanmar by starting direct talks with the military junta in a bid to promote democratic changes that years of sanctions haven’t achieved, a State Department official said yesterday.

“Through a direct dialogue, we will be able to test the intentions of the Burmese leadership,” Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington. The U.S. government still calls the country by its former name, Burma.

Campbell said sanctions will remain in place and “the way forward will be clearly tied to concrete actions” on democracy, human rights and U.S. concerns about military ties and possible nuclear links with North Korea.

Campbell and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scot Marciel met Sept. 29 in New York with a delegation headed by U Thaung, Myanmar’s minister for science and technology, and Than Swe, the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations.

It was the first “meeting of this kind in many, many years. And so I think it’s, from our standpoint, the opening stage of an interaction,” State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley told reporters yesterday in Washington.

The sides discussed the status of political prisoners including pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner, and nuclear proliferation connected with Myanmar’s relationship with North Korea.

Senator John McCain said yesterday the military regime should have made concessions before any conversation was held with the U.S. “I’m always a little nervous about enhancing the prestige of rogue regimes such as the junta that has oppressed the Burmese people and kept” Suu Kyi under house arrest, said McCain, an Arizona Republican.

Suu Kyi’s Detention

The military has ruled Myanmar since 1962. Suu Kyi, 64, has been under detention for 14 of the past 20 years. Though her NLD party won the country’s last elections in 1990, the regime didn’t recognize the result.

Suu Kyi was recently sentenced to an additional 18 months in detention, which would bar her from participating in elections scheduled for next year.

Noting that the U.S. hasn’t had an ambassador to Myanmar since 1992, Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat who chaired yesterday’s Foreign Relations Committee hearing, praised the administration’s change of policy. “We limit the opportunities to push for positive change because we do not talk to the generals in charge,” Webb said.

Webb visited Myanmar in August, meeting with Suu Kyi and winning the release of an imprisoned American who swam uninvited to Suu Kyi’s Yangon home in May and stayed for two days.

Yettaw Case

Suu Kyi was found guilty by the military junta of breaching a detention order by letting John Yettaw stay in her home. Authorities commuted her three-year hard-labor sentence to the 18 additional months of house arrest.

Webb was the first high-ranking U.S. official to meet with the top leader of the country’s military junta, Senior General Than Shwe.

Campbell said the administration’s policy review recognized that conditions in Myanmar “were deplorable and that neither isolation nor engagement, when implemented alone, had succeeded in improving those conditions.”

In a speech to the UN on Sept. 28, Myanmar’s Prime Minister Thein Sein demanded an end to U.S. and European Union sanctions against his government. Democracy can’t be “imposed,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Indira Lakshmanan in Washington at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net

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