US Senator's Burma trip may lead to Aung San Suu Kyi's release | The Daily Star
11:00 PM, September 11, 2009 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:00 PM, September 11, 2009

US Senator's Burma trip may lead to Aung San Suu Kyi's release

SENATOR Jim Webb's visit to Burma may yet prove to be extremely significant as he seeks to swap western sanctions for engagement with the military regime. "It is vitally important that the United States re-engage with Southeast Asia, including Myanmar, at all levels," the American politician told journalists during a press conference in Bangkok immediately after he left Rangoon.
One of the key reasons he sees for the need for the US to strengthen its role in the region is China's growing influence, which he believes is a major obstacle to economic and political development in the area, especially Burma. If the senator gets his way, and US policy begins to change, it will also have important consequences for the countries of ASEAN, India and Bangladesh. More importantly the senator's trip reflects the junta's new approach to the international community and especially its neighbours. The trip may also lead to the early release of the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Senator Webb's main mission on this visit was to meet the reclusive Burmese military rulers in their hideaway in the mountains north of the former capital Rangoon and try to coax them out of their isolation. He had talks with the junta's top general, Than Shwe who rarely meets foreign visitors and the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
But at this stage everything to do with his visit is still shrouded in mystery. Despite meeting journalists on two occasions while in Bangkok, the usually talkative politician was overtly coy, extremely evasive and continually non-committal. “He is hiding something,” said a senior western diplomat who closely follows Burmese affairs. “He knows more than he's telling, something is surely afoot.”
This was certainly no ordinary or even private visit, despite senior state department officials insisting that the senator visited Burma in a personal capacity. The US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, rang him on Sunday night to talk about the trip, Webb let slip during his press conference last week. This only adds to the increasing suspicion that something significant may be happening beneath the public gaze. After all that is how serious diplomacy takes place.
Senator Webb, it must be remembered, is a rising political star in Washington, close to the Clintons and President Barack Obama, according to sources on the Hill. He is also tipped to become the next secretary of defence, when the Bush-appointee Bill Gates stands down in around two years' time. He is currently the chairman of the Senate foreign affairs East Asia and the Pacific sub-committee. It is this guise he is using to justify his visit. Add to that the fact that he is a former marine and Vietnam veteran, making him some the senior general respect. So the US could not have had a better envoy even if unofficially -- than this conservative Democrat from Virginia.
While Webb as was expected told Than Shwe that Aung San Suu Kyi should be released before the 2010 election, and allowed a political role. “We will just have to wait and see how the Myanmar government responds,” he told journalists at the end of his visit. “I am hopeful that they will give my recommendation [that she be freed] serious consideration,” he added.
“Than Shwe can be in no dount, that without Aung San Suu Kyi being released and her party the NLD [National League for Democracy] allowed to participate in the elections, the US and the international community would find it impossible to accept the process as free and fair,” he said.
For the generals, their apparent attitude to the senator during his visit also significantly suggests that they are shifting in their usual position on non-engagement with the international community. Senator Webb was given a ceremonial reception with all the top generals that is usually reserved only for visiting heads of state. Shown prominently on the state-run television, it clearly shows Burma's military rulers now crave international, especially American, recognition, said a long-time foreign resident in Rangoon.
General Than Shwe is the master of disception and psychological warfare. Divide and rule an approach to power cleaned from their colonial masters, Britain -- has long-dominated the Burmese generals strategic options. Their chauvanism and xenophpbia makes them extremely cautious about being over reliant on any one ally.
At present there are growing concerns at the top of the military about China's position, and the top gneeral is looking at how tobalance their growing influence in the country. Relations with ASEAN, India and to some extent Russia, was menat to do that but over the last twelve months China's economic and military role has grown out of all proportions dwarfing the position of the other Asian allies. “More critically, China has not backed the regime strongly enough in its efforts to disorm the ethnic cease-fire groups,” Win Min a Burmese academic at Chiang Mai University told the Daily Star. “This has angered the Than Shwe, who may now be looking for alternative ways to reign in the rebel groups.”
“The warm reception given to the US delegation led by Senator Webb, including the diplomat staff based in Rangoon who are normally shunned or called in to get a dressing down was a clear signal to the Chinese,” said an Asia diplomat based in Rangoon. “See if you don't help us we can turn to other powerful friends.”
So the Burmese military regime seems to be trying to make some international re-alignments. But if they are serious about engaging the international community, espcially the US, it may even heed some of its concerns, and then they will have no alternative but to deal with Aung San Suu Kyi. Than Shwe, at the behest of some of its Asian allies, especially Singapore and China, is keen to improve relations with the US, according to military sources in the Burmese capital Naypitdaw. The senator's visit makes this extremely evident.
“You cannot fail to see in this that the junta is keen to tell the world that sanctions do not work and we are open to dialogue at least with other governments, if not Aung San Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy movement inside the country,” said a western diplomat based in Rangoon. But the hints from the Americans, is that this was more than an exploratory trip by the Senator concrete matters were discussed and some kind of deal maybe in the pipeline.
“I believe that if the right obstacles are removed and if the United States has a very clear position on some of these obstacles the notion of sanctions economically in this country is negative … it is not good,” he told Burmese journalists at the airport before he left on Sunday.
One of the key obstacles is certainly the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi. The season Burma-watcher, and former British ambassador to Thailand and Vietnam Derek Tonkin is another who believes there is more to Webb's than meets the eye as yet. “I sense there is more to this vists than we know,” he told the Daily Star. “It is probably all about a deal on Suu Kyi,” he added.
Aung San Suu Kyi will be released before the elections next year, a senior military source told the Daily Star. These are expected to be held late next years. But now is seems likely that the Lady, as she is frequently referred to in Burma, may be freed before the end of the year.
The author writes for The Daily Star from Bangkok.

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