Obama nominee indicates possible change on Myanmar
By FOSTER KLUG –
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s choice as top U.S. diplomat for East Asia said Wednesday the United States is interested in easing its long-standing policy of isolation against military-run Myanmar.
Kurt Campbell, however, told U.S. lawmakers at his Senate confirmation hearing that Myanmar’s heavy-handed treatment of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi hinders any U.S. effort to change course and engage the ruling junta in Myanmar, also called Burma.
“As a general practice, we’re prepared to reach out, not just in Burma but in other situations as well,” Campbell said.
But, he said, the junta’s trial this week of Suu Kyi on charges that could put her in prison for five years is “deeply, deeply concerning, and it makes it very difficult to move forward.”
Expectations are that the 63-year-old Nobel laureate will be found guilty by a court known for handing out harsh sentences for political dissidents.
The outcome of Suu Kyi’s trial, Campbell said, will be a major consideration as the Obama administration reviews U.S. policy on Myanmar.
The United States has traditionally relied heavily on tough sanctions meant to force the generals to respect human rights and release thousands of imprisoned political activists. Those sanctions are widely supported among both senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
Campbell emphasized that greater engagement with Myanmar would not mean the removal of sanctions.
But his comments indicate that the State Department is considering seriously a change in policy.
While Campbell has not yet been confirmed as assistant secretary of state for East Asia, he is close to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who he said views Myanmar as a priority. Campbell said he has had intense talks with Clinton about how best to bring change to Myanmar, which has been ruled by military juntas since 1962.
Clinton, on a trip through Asia in February, addressed the administration’s dilemma with Myanmar. Neither tough U.S. sanctions nor engagement by neighbors, she said, have persuaded the junta to embrace democracy or release Suu Kyi. Clinton said the U.S. planned to work closely with the region on ideas on “how best to bring about positive change in Burma.”
Campbell told lawmakers that previous U.S. policy on Myanmar clearly had “not borne fruit.”
“In the past, there has been a determination that, `Not much can be done; let’s live with our sanctions,'” Campbell said. “I think there’s a very high-level degree of interest in seeing what’s possible going forward, and a deep sense of disappointment in the recent steps that the junta has taken toward Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Jeremy Woodrum, co-founder of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, said regional talks similar to the six-nation North Korean nuclear disarmament negotiations could be used with Myanmar.
If the generals were to make substantial changes, Woodrum said, then pressure could be lifted. But he said sanctions have been important tools in confronting the junta.
Campbell’s comments came in response to repeated questions from the Senate Foreign Relations Asia subcommittee’s Democratic chairman, Sen. Jim Webb, who suggested that “affirmative engagement” would bring the most change to Myanmar.
It has been 19 years since Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide victory at the ballot box but was prevented from taking office. She has been detained without trial for more than 13 of the past 19 years, including the last six.
Suu Kyi is charged with violating terms of her house arrest because an uninvited American man swam secretly to her closely guarded lakeside home last month and stayed two days.
The trial has drawn outrage internationally and from Suu Kyi’s Myanmar supporters, who say the junta is using the bizarre case of the American swimmer as an excuse to keep Suu Kyi detained through next year’s scheduled elections.
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