Burma’s junta unlikely to buckle
Page last updated at 16:19 GMT, Saturday, 15 August 2009 17:19 UK
Burma’s junta unlikely to buckle
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website
Jim Webb is the first senior US official to meet Than Shwe
The intervention by US Senator Jim Webb to secure the release of American prisoner John Yettaw from Burma can be assessed in one of two ways.
The first is that it indicates a new and softer approach by the Burmese junta.
The second is that the release was a tactical manoeuvre by the junta to ease international pressure on itself.
If so, it could be seen as similar to the reduction in sentence on Aung San Suu Kyi for giving refuge to Mr Yettaw on his unauthorised visit to the house where she is held on detention.
In the absence of real evidence that the junta is changing course, the second assessment is probably the most realistic one.
Dictators often like to make concessions to well-connected and influential foreigners who beat a path to their door asking for a favour. It does not mean to say that these dictators are about to change their ways.
We saw former US President Bill Clinton successfully plead for the release of the two American journalists from North Korea recently. Nobody expects that this was a sign that North Korea is suddenly going to change its nuclear policies.
Calling the shots
Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, is chairman of the East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been sentenced to a further 18 months’ house arrest
He is the first member of the US Congress to visit Burma in more than 10 years, and he was the first senior US official to meet Burma’s top leader, Senior General Than Shwe.
In the case of Burma, the military leadership, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council, has its eyes set on embedding the new constitution in elections next year.
Under this constitution, which was approved last year by the, for a dictatorship, small majority of nearly 93%, the military will reserve for itself exactly a quarter of all seats in both the upper and lower houses of the legislature.
In addition, a clause has been slipped in to ban from public office anyone who has been married to a foreigner.
This was designed, of course, to exclude Aung San Suu Kyi, who was married to an Englishman, though he has died.
If Burma was serious about change, this clause would be put aside. And Ms Suu Kyi would not have been sentenced to another 18 months under house arrest, which will conveniently keep her out of active campaigning during the forthcoming elections.
The British Foreign Office on Saturday was publicising “the fact that Than Shwe issued a directive to the court [which sentenced Ms Suu Kyi] dated the day before they made their judgment” as evidence that the military called the shots.
There has been talk that a wind of change, or at least a breeze, is blowing through Burma and that the military might in due course be persuaded to gradually relinquish its hold.
Some Burmese political exiles led by the group called the government-in-exile have put forward a “National Reconciliation Proposal” to start a dialogue with the junta for an agreed way forward.
However, the fundamental attitude of the junta was probably seen in its complaint to the Indonesian government about a meeting the exiles held in Jakarta this week to discuss this proposal.
In the meantime, the bold talk by the British and other Western governments now calling for a UN arms embargo on Burma has largely gone unheeded, as was to be expected.
Indeed, the UN Security Council, at the insistence of China, even downgraded the wording of a statement that would have “condemned” Burma over Aung San Suu Kyi into one that simply expressed “serious concern”.