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US spells out shift in Burma policy

Mizzima News - Washington is ready to improve relations with Burma if its military leaders take concrete steps towards restoring democracy, a senior US diplomat told a press conference in Bangkok on Thursday.

“Dialogue between the Burmese government, the political parties and the ethnic minority groups is the only way forward, if the current regime wants to achieve a peaceful, prosperous, stable and unified country,” the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and the Pacific and Ambassador for ASEAN  affairs, Scot Marciel told journalists after spending two days in Burma talking to both the government and the opposition.Daw Suu

“The [forthcoming] elections in Burma could be an opportunity for the country to end its international isolation, but only if these elections are inclusive, with the full participation of all political parties” he said. “That includes creating the conditions in the run up to the elections which make the process credible.”

“There cannot be a credible election that has legitimacy without a thoroughly inclusive political process, and that cannot happen without dialogue,” Marciel stressed. Of course he added there had be concrete steps that showed they were sincere about national reconciliation and an inclusive political process, including allowing the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi access to the other leaders of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), dialogue within the country and further releases of political prisoners.

The US of course also restated its position that the opposition leader should be released immediately, but it appears that this is no longer the first pre-requisite for Washington’s engagement with the junta to continue – although without it there will be no possible consideration of easing sanctions.

The US policy has shifted significantly, although understated, from the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi to the start of genuine dialogue between the junta and her and her party.

This is something the pro-democracy leader has insisted is the top priority for sometime now.

In an interview with Aung San Suu Kyi in March 2003, shortly before the attack on her in northern Burma by pro-government thugs and being put under house arrest again, she said dialogue with the junta was crucial, although they did not seem to be interested. “My release is not important, in fact I should be the last political prisoner freed,” she said. “Only genuine dialogue can solve Burma’s problems.”

She has continually made these calls at every opportunity, including several letters to Than Shwe and through intermediaries – the UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari and the occasional visit by diplomats in the last few months. Now Washington has taken up the call: “there is no way forward without dialogue,” Marciel repeated throughout his press conference.

Scot Marciel and his boss, Kurt Campbell, the Assistant US Secretary of State completed a two-day fact finding mission to Burma on Wednesday evening. They are the highest ranking US officials to visit since 1995, when Madeleine Albright, then US Secretary of State made an official visit, during which she met Aung San Suu Kyi who had been released a few months earlier from her first stint under house arrest. The visit follows the recent US announcement that it was shifting its policy towards the military junta, to begin a pragmatic engagement with the government while maintaining sanctions.

During their trip they met the Prime Minister, Thein Sein, and several government officials, including the Foreign Minister Nyan Win, Information Minister Kyaw Hsan and the Energy Minister U Thaung. They also met representatives of the ethnic groups, the central executive of the NLD and the detained opposition leader. The constitution and planned elections for next year dominated much of the discussions with everyone they met.  

“It was an exploratory trip and we were able to explain the US position and the context of our policy review to those we met, and to hear their views and ideas,” said Marciel. “Our concern is to find a more effective ways to bring about positive developments in the country.”

The envoys did not take a prescriptive approach, but explained the US understood that change can only come about from within the country – not enforced from outside. “We support a unified Burma and have no intensions of intervention,” Marciel explained.

Daw Suu “We did not take a position on the elections, or constitutional change, but noted that there was a lot of debate,” he said. “Instead we insisted that the government must sit down with the opposition and ethnic groups and find a way to deal with this” .

“There is no way forward without that kind of dialogue,” he stressed.

The US initiative has been universally welcomed, and has breathed new life into the international community’s efforts to coax the Burmese military junta to introduce genuine democratic reforms. But the envoys are cautious about raising expectations of their current efforts.

“We went into this with our eyes wide open,” he told Mizzima. “We must be humble and don’t think we have the answers until there are some concrete results.”

The two envoys are expected to return to Burma in the coming weeks, though they both declined to comment on the next steps in the process. At previous meetings between the two countries in New York, at the UN, both countries agreed that each would appoint a specific interlocutor to carry the process forward.

The US is currently choosing a special envoy who would lead Washington’s approach – working with both Campbell (who is the interim envoy) and Marciel, according to state department officials. U Thaung – a renowned hardliner who is close to Than Shwe has been appointed to be Burma’s points-man.

“There will be a series of conversations and meetings – in Burma, the US and elsewhere – in the immediate future, including at multilateral summits like APEC and the US-ASEAN summit [in Singapre in a week’s time],” Marciel told Mizzima.

But he dismissed suggestions that Hillary Clinton also might meet the Burmese Prime Minister on the sidelines of those meetings. What is certain is that both envoys will be returning to Burma in the very near future.

“We’ll be back soon,” they told the NLD executive and the ethnic representatives they met in Rangoon on Wednesday, according to participants at both meetings. While the Americans remain coy about their efforts, and play down expectations, all other international efforts – either by the UN or ASEAN – have been put on hold until something emerges from Washington’s new approach.

Last Updated ( Friday, 06 November 2009 00:22 )  

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