Thursday, June 10, 2010

Webb's Change of Plans Means No Change of Heart

Webb's Change of Plans Means No Change of Heart
EDITORIAL The Irrawaddy, Friday, June 4, 2010

Why did US Senator Jim Webb abruptly cancel his planned trip to Burma? Some Burmese living abroad have been asking in Internet discussion whether Webb had seen the light and had finally changed his thinking on the Burma question. The answer is: No.

An official explanation for the cancellation, issued by Webb's office in Washington, said the decision had been taken because of “news reports” containing “new allegations regarding the possibility that the Burmese government has been working in conjunction with North Korea in order to develop a nuclear program.”

Informed sources in Bangkok said the news reports related to a documentary on the Burmese regime's nuclear ambitions made by the Democratic Voice of Burma and broadcast by the Doha-based television station Al Jazeera on Friday.

The sources said Webb was told about the documentary at lunch in the Thai capital on Thursday. The senator has little background information on Burma's nuclear program, so he asked his staff to check the matter out.

His reaction to what they told him was to immediately cancel his planned visit to Burma, which was to have begun on Friday. In a statement issued by his office in Washington, Webb said that until he received “further clarification” it would be “unwise and counterproductive” to proceed with the visit.

Webb said in his press release: “News reports published today [Thursday] contain new allegations regarding the possibility that the Burmese government has been working in conjunction with North Korea in order to develop a nuclear program. From the initial accounts, a defecting officer from the Burmese military claims direct knowledge of such plans, and reportedly has furnished documents to corroborate his claims.

“It is unclear whether these allegations have substantive merit. However, given the fact that Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell recently accused Burma of violating UN Security Council Resolution 1874 with respect to a suspected shipment of arms from North Korea, there are now two unresolved matters related to activities of serious concern between these two countries. Until there is further clarification on these matters, I believe it would be unwise and potentially counterproductive for me to visit Burma.”

Webb also urged US President Barack Obama to appoint a special envoy to address the entire range of issues regarding relations between the US and Burma. Did this indicate a change of heart? Saving face is nearer the truth.

Webb opposes sanctions against Burma and is seen as leaning toward the regime. It's also rumored that he and senior US State Department officials concerned with Asia-Pacific affairs are not on good terms.

Nor does Webb enjoy much popularity among Burmese dissidents. Veteran Burmese politician Win Tin has said he wouldn't welcome a meeting between Webb and detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“He doesn't have good sympathy for Burma's democracy movement,” Win Tin said bluntly.

Several Burma watchers point out that Webb is just one voice in the US Senate and unlikely to carry enough weight to influence the US administration and its policy on Burma.

During the recent anniversary of the 1990 Burma election, US senators Mitch McConnell, Joe Lieberman, Dianne Feinstein, Judd Gregg, John McCain and Sam Brownback condemned the military regime for its refusal to transfer power to the opposition in 1990 and its plan to hold a new election this year without the participation of the National League for Democracy and other pro-democracy forces. Webb's name was not on the list of senators.

Webb visited Burma in August 2009, soon after the US instituted a new policy of engagement with the Burmese junta. He met Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Suu Kyi, and also obtained the release of an American prisoner, John Yettaw, who had been convicted of illegally entering Suu Kyi's lakeside home.

After his visit last year, Webb disclosed in a New York Times article that he had made a private visit to Burma in 2000 at the invitation of an American businessman whom he did not name.

Regime leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe's subsequent decision to meet the US senator was seen as a gesture that resulted in Webb asking the Washington administration to engage the regime and consider taking “a different course of action.”

Webb wrote in the New York Times: “Our distinct policies toward different countries amount to a form of situational ethics that does not translate well into clear-headed diplomacy. We must talk to Myanmar’s leaders. This does not mean that we should abandon our aspirations for a free and open Burmese society, but that our goal will be achieved only through a different course of action.”

Webb argued that sanctions could endanger regional stability.

“Sanctions by Western governments have not been matched by other countries, particularly Russia and China. Indeed, they have allowed China to dramatically increase its economic and political influence in Myanmar, furthering a dangerous strategic imbalance in the region.”

Burmese analysts believed that anti-sanction groups and influential businessmen were behind his first visit. Some analysts regard Webb's anti-China stance as beneficial to Burma, which is widely seen as a satellite state of China.

Several analysts who have met Webb him questioned his understanding of Burma, however.

They cite a statement made by Webb after the regime freed American citizen Kyaw Zaw Lin (aka Nyi Nyi Aung) in March: “Since my visit to Burma last August, the military government has made several substantive gestures that should be appropriately considered by the US Department of State as opportunities to increase our engagement with Burma.”

“Substantive gestures?” It would be interesting to know what these were. Webb just kept us guessing.

© Irrawaddy Publishing Group

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