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US to renew bid for thaw in relations

BANGKOK (Mizzima) - A senior American diplomat is expected to visit Burma in the near future to try to kick-start Washington’s lagging engagement policy with the junta, according to government officials in the Burmese capital. 

US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell is to arrive in Burma very soon, after Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit later this week, the officials said in Naypyidaw. But senior US officials dismiss this as rumour.

“Neither Kurt Campbell nor I plan to visit Burma next week,” Dr Campbell’s deputy, Scot Marciel, told Mizzima. “We’ve said publicly that we have been working to find dates that would work for another visit, but nothing has been scheduled.”

“We are keen to get there and we have been talking to the Burmese about a visit, various dates have been discussed, but as of today we don’t have any set dates,” he said.

Nevertheless the regime seems keen for the diplomats to revisit after their last trip to Burma in November. Arrangements were being made for the visit, the Burmese government officials said.

When dates are finalised, this would be the US diplomat’s second visit since US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a change in US policy towards the junta last year – one of maintaining sanctions, but engaging the generals in a dialogue.

Dr Campbell is expected to meet detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, other National League for Democracy (NLD) chiefs, representatives of ethnic groups and key regime officials.

He had failed to see top junta leader Senior General Than Shwe on the previous visit but was expected to meet him this time, according to senior military sources. The credibility of the forthcoming elections and the NLD’s decision against running will feature prominently during the envoy’s talks with both the government and the opposition.

“We certainly are very concerned about the election laws and the situation facing the NLD,” Marciel said. “The laws put the opposition in a very difficult position.”

Washington has already taken a hard line on the polls and dismissed them as neither free nor fair. The process could be neither credible nor inclusive while more than 2,000 political prisoners remained in jail and Aung San Suu Kyi was barred from taking part, successive statements by US diplomats and government officials in the past few weeks stressed.

“Burma’s new election laws are a step backwards,” Campbell aide Marciel, who is also the US envoy to Asean, told an Asia-Pacific security seminar in Washington on Friday. “They are effectively preventing the main opposition party from participating. This is the opposite of the path towards national reconciliation.”

Dr Campbell’s visit was originally scheduled for March 11 and 12, during his extended trip to Asia in preparation for the US president’s planned visit to the region. But this was cancelled at very short notice, just before he was to arrive and without reasons given, senior Burmese officials said.

One of the main reasons proffered is that the US diplomat wanted to avoid being caught in the same embarrassing position as Senator Jim Webb had found himself during on his groundbreaking visit in August. He was allowed to escort out of the country convicted US citizen John Yettaw, who was seriously ill. The Vietnam veteran had swum across Rangoon’s Inya Lake to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house and entered uninvited, which resulted in the opposition leader being sentenced to three years’ hard labour for breaking the conditions of her house arrest.

The US government in recent months had taken up the case of the American citizen and Burmese pro-democracy activist, Nyi Nyi Aung, who was sentenced to five years jail after being arrested at Rangoon airport in September. He was an 88 Generation student leader who American consulate officials had visited regularly. In recent weeks the campaign for him to be freed has picked up steam with increasing calls from US Congress for his immediate release. “Campbell cancelled his visit at the last moment because he did not want to be ‘Yettawed’,” a former US diplomat said, declining to be named.

A week after the trip was cancelled, the Burmese junta released Nyi Nyi Aung and allowed him to take a flight back to the US. Burmese state-run media announced the early release was because of the junta’s “friendship” with the US government.

“This goodwill gesture by the generals may be a key reason that Campbell’s trip is back on,” a former US diplomat said. “It is being seen as a sign that the junta is prepared to take engagement with Washington more seriously, as the last trip was an absolute disaster.”

The envoy’s planned visit comes at a crucial time; just after the NLD announced that the country’s unjust electoral laws made it impossible for the party to re-register and contest the elections. Under the party registration law, anyone serving a prison sentence cannot be a member of a political party, which automatically excludes Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently serving a prison sentence under house arrest.

Many countries, including the US, have strong reservations about the NLD’s decision, or at least the timing of it. Existing political parties have until early next month to register. “This is Aung San Suu Kyi’s second biggest mistake of all time,” a Bangkok-based senior European diplomat who deals with Burma, told Mizzima. “It’s a decision that has condemned the NLD to oblivion.”

Twenty-five member countries of the European Union, excluding the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, were reportedly backing this position, several European diplomats said in Bangkok. Privately, senior members of the US State Department have also voiced frustration with the NLD’s election decision, Asian diplomats who have discussed the issue with their American counterparts said. 

But it is unclear whether Dr Campbell intends to try to convince Aung San Suu Kyi to take a more nuanced stance on registration and participation in the election.

One option that may be discussed is that at this stage the NLD does not have to fully reveal its hand. Under the electoral laws, it could apply for its existing registration to continue by lodging an Nga-1 application with the electoral commission. This would require it to name only two of its top officers: chairman Aung Shwe and vice-chairman Tin Oo. It would not have to declare its acceptance of the 2008 constitution nor expel any of its members currently serving jail terms.

The party would have 90 days after the acceptance of its registration to provide the list of party members. The electoral commission would then have to individually challenge those members it felt failed to comply with the regulations.

“This … would give the NLD the initiative and put the ball in the regime’s court,” a Burmese legal expert said. “The NLD could still decide at the end of the 90-day period to dissolve, or to submit party lists including those in prison, forcing the regime to deregister them.”

Dr Campbell will certainly be renewing US concerns directly with junta leaders about the questionable freedom, fairness and credibility of the polls. If there is any room to manoeuvre, the US diplomat is well placed to exploit it.

Than Shwe is concerned about the already mounting global opposition to the elections, a process by which he wants to give a measure of legitimacy to the civilianised government that emerges. Already many Asian countries are publicly and privately raising their concerns with the regime.

But there will be no easy solutions. Any concessions, which could lead to an inclusive and credible electoral process, will be hard to wring out of the regime. Dr Campbell’s trip will re-emphasise Washington’s commitment to engaging the junta. But it was never going to be easy, Marciel confided to Mizzima in Bangkok in November. 

He also said recently: “We predicted it would be a long and difficult process, and unfortunately we were right.”

Last Updated ( Monday, 05 April 2010 19:26 )  

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