In my article of March 10, 2009, titled Chinese Whispers Get Shrill, I wrote as follows:
"There has been no surge in US rhetoric vis-a-vis China after Barack Obama assumed office on January 20, 2009. On the contrary, the focus of his advisers has been on identifying and expanding the mutual comfort features in the bilateral relations rather than on those features, which tended to cause friction in the past. The references from Washington DC to human rights issues--whether they be in relation to Tibet, Myanmar or the Chinese role in the Sudan--have been muted."
Suspicions that President Barack Obama was quietly planning a major departure from the policy followed by the previous US administrations towards Myanmar, its military junta and its heroic leader Aung San Suu Kyi proved correct on August 14,2009, when Democratic Senator Jim Webb, reputed to be close to Obama, arrived in Myanmar for talks with Senior Gen.Than Shwe, the leader of the military junta.
The Junta reportedly extended to Senator Webb courtesies the like of which it had not extended to any other foreign dignitary before, including Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary-General, who visited Myanmar in the beginning of July. Webb was granted an audience to meet Than Shwe at Naypyidaw, the new capital, shortly after his arrival, instead of having to wait for hours, if not days, as had happened with some foreign visitors in the past. He was also allowed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi at Yangon, the old capital, , a courtesy which was denied to the UN Secretary-General.
Senator Webb, a Vietnam war veteran and a former Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, is presently the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs. He has been an advocate of a more "constructive" US engagement with the Junta. The ostensible purpose of his visit--evidently undertaken with the prior approval of Obama--was to secure the release of John Yettaw, an American citizen, who was convicted on August 11 along with Aung San Suu Kyi after the American swam uninvited to the Nobel laureate's lakeside home and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment and to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been placed under house arrest by the Junta for another 18 months after she was found guilty in the same case of harbouring the American in her house without informing the Police.
His visit was as carefully choreographed as the visit of former US President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang on August 4,2009, during which he met President Kim Jong-il and secured the release of two American woman journalists, who had been sentenced by a North Korean court to long periods of imprisonment on a charge of illegally entering North Korean territory from China
One can be certain that Webb would not have undertaken the visit had he not been assured beforehand by the Junta through unidentified intermediaries that he would go back with Yettaw and would be allowed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi. Without a meeting with Suu Kyi, his visit would have been seen by the people of Myanmar as a cynical attempt to secure the release of an American citizen without worrying about the continued violation of the human rights of the people of the country by the Junta.
After his meeting with the Junta chief and Aung San Suu Kyi and after the announcement that Yettaw would be deported on Auguast 16, Webb said in a statement:
"I am grateful to the Myanmar Government for honouring these requests.It is my hope that we can take advantage of these gestures as a way to begin laying a foundation of goodwill and confidence-building in the future." Webb said he also urged the military regime to free Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the last two decades under house arrest. Webb described the meeting with her as "an opportunity for me to convey my deep respect to Aung San Suu Kyi for the sacrifices she has made on behalf of democracy around the world".
Webb did not say what was Than Shwe's response to his request for her release and whether she would be allowed to participate in the elections scheduled to be held by the Junta next year.
Webb's visit to Myanmar and his meeting with Than Shwe, coming in the wake of Clinton's visit to Pyongyang, indicates that the Obama Administration sees no problem in dealing with dictators and playing down human rights issues, if it will serve US national interests. In North Korea, the US objective was clearly to explore the availability of other options for persuading or pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear capability.
What are the US interests in Myanmar? It is difficult to answer this question definitely at present. However, it is quite likely that the Myanmar initiative was triggered off by concerns that the policy of more and more sanctions followed by the US is not only pushing Myanmar increasingly into the arms of China, but may also push it to embrace North Korea, with which the Junta re-established diplomatic relations two years ago.There have recently been unconfirmed reports that North Korea has established a nuclear supply relationship with Myanmar.
While the leaders of the ASEAN would be happy over the US overtures to the Junta, the countries of the European Union, which had condemned very strongly the extended house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, may have been taken by surprise.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.
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