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Aide to US Senator John Kerry meets NLD leaders

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – US Senator John Kerry’s assistant Robin Lerner met senior members of the National League for Democracy on Tuesday to discuss the party’s stance on upcoming national elections, NLD spokesman Nyan Win told Mizzima. 

Lerner, a counsel to the Senate foreign relations committee who arrived in Burma on June 19, met NLD vice-chairman Tin Oo and central executive committee members Nyan Win, Nyunt Wai, Than Tun, Hla Pe, Han Tha Myint, May Win Myint and Win Myint. According to Nyan Win, the one-hour meeting took place at the Rangoon residence of chargé d’affaires Larry Dinger, the most senior US diplomat in Burma. 

Tin Oo explained the party’s current situation, future plans and outlined the party’s decision not to re-register with the junta’s Union Election Commission in time for the junta’s March 29 party-registration deadline.  

“In keeping with the junta’s one-sided electoral laws, if the party wanted to contest the election, it needed to expel our members who are in prison,” Nyan Win told Mizzima. “This would include the party’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Our vice-chairman Tin Oo explained to Ms Lerner that we can’t expel the members who are in prison, a point she understood.” 

According to Nyan Win, Lerner asked the NLD how it expected to survive after the forthcoming election and Win Tin, the elderly but spry former political prisoner responded that as things were still up in the air the group could not provide an answer. 

He told Mizzima that the NLD leadership also told Lerner that other opposition political parties, which have officially registered with the junta’s Union Election Commission, were being prevented from campaigning freely and therefore an election held this year would be far from fair. 

The leaders also told Lerner unequivocally that they could not accept the junta’s extremely undemocratic line that declared members of the military were able to “participate in the national political leadership role of the State”. This contentious clause appears in the first chapter of the constitution ratified in a disputed May 2008 referendum widely viewed as rigged. The constitutional vote was also conducted days after Cyclone Nargis hit, as millions of Burmese struggled to cope with its devastating impact. 

John Kerry, chairman of the US Senate’s foreign relations committee, was chosen as the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 but lost to George W. Bush. Like his fellow Democrat Senator Jim Webb, Kerry is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War.

Last August, former Kerry chief of staff turned pro-engagement lobbyist Frances Zwenig told The Washington Post that a few months earlier in May, the Burmese regime’s ambassador to the US offered Kerry, who had last visited Burma in 1999, a chance to return. This trip never occurred and Webb went instead in August.

Zwenig is a controversial figure in Washington, scorned by many Burma pro-democracy activists because she used political contacts established when she worked for Kerry to work as a pro-engagement advocate during the 1990’s. Zwenig successfully sought large amounts of corporate money to pay for an October 1997 high-level pro-business fact-finding trip that included three former senior government officials including two former ambassadors and neoconservative Richard Armitage, former assistant secretary of defence during the 1980’s. He was to become deputy secretary of state under Colin Powell and Bush, and gained notoriety in 2003 for leaking information to columnist Robert Novak, “outing” Valerie Plame as a CIA agent.

According to the Post in July 1997, Zwenig’s pro-engagement organisation received US$50,000 from Unocal to educate Washington on Burma engagement issues. Unocal, a partner in the Yadana Natural Gas Pipeline, was revealed in a lawsuit launched by Burmese villagers against the firm to have paid the Burmese military to help with the Yadana project.  Earth Rights International, the legal NGO representing the villagers documented that battalions of Burmese soldiers hired by Unocal and its partners violently forced the relocation of thousands and used unpaid forced labour to assist in the pipeline’s construction. Unocal was later bought by Chevron who took over the firm’s infamous Burma operations.

As part of President Barack Obama’s stated goal of fostering productive dialogue with the Burmese regime, both US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Dr. Kurt Campbell, and chairman of the US foreign relations subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Senator Jim Webb, have travelled to Burma since Obama took office. 

Campbell, who met Suu Kyi most recently last month, said that the forthcoming election would be unfair and that the international community should reject the results. He also revealed early this year that secret deals between the Burmese junta and North Korea had violated UN Resolution 1874, which bans North Korean overseas military shipments.

Webb, who met junta leader Senior General Than Shwe last August, has criticised US sanctions on Burma, claiming in his book A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America that more US engagement with the Burmese regime could have prevented the September 2007 bloody crackdown against protesting monks and citizens. When Webb abruptly cancelled his trip to Burma early this month he cited allegations that the regime was co-operating with North Korea to develop a nuclear programme. He still maintains that Burma’s national election, which he predicts will happen in October, is the best way forward for Burma and therefore the international community should support the polls.

Shortly after Webb met Than Shwe, officials from the US State Department were allowed to escort jailed American tourist John Yettaw back to the US. Yettaw, whose family described him as mentally unwell, twice took it upon himself to twice swim across Inya Lake to visit the world’s most famous political prisoner. Following his second amphibious landing at the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s family home, Suu Kyi was arrested and jailed for “violating” the terms of her house arrest. Had Yettaw not intervened, Suu Kyi’s sentence of house arrest would have expired in two weeks. After an international outcry, the widowed opposition leader was released from prison and taken home to serve her sentence of 18 months under house arrest.

Additional reporting by Thomas Maung Shwe

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