By WAI MOE
Recently, US President Obama has been extending an olive branch to the “axis of evil” and “outposts of tyranny” so loudly condemned by his predecessor, George W. Bush.
At the Summit of Americas last week, Obama said that his administration would take a new approach with one of America’s most outspoken critics, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. In return, Chavez said, “I want to be your friend.”
On Cuba, Obama announced the opening of a new page in history at the two-day summit, offering Havana a “new beginning” in relations with the US.
Since January, Obama has attempted to reverse many aspects of Bush’s foreign policy, promising a policy review and a new approach to relations with countries like Iran, North Korea and Burma.
However, critics have noted that Obama’s new approach faces some serious challenges. This became abundantly obvious when North Korea recently fired a long-range rocket in violation of United Nations restrictions and an Iranian court sentenced a US journalist to eight years’ imprisonment on charges of spying for the US.
What about Burma, designated by the Bush administration as one of the “outposts of tyranny,” along with Belarus, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe? Will the Burmese junta prove to be as difficult to crack as some of the world’s other despotic regimes?
Even before Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States on January 20, three representatives from the Democratic Party reportedly traveled to Rangoon to meet with Burmese intellectuals and government officials there.
The purpose of the trip was to sound out the Burmese perspective on US policy, particularly US sanctions.
In February, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out about the Burma policy review during her East Asia trip. She said neither sanctions nor engagement had succeeded in bringing about change in Burma.
“Obama and Clinton are looking into changing the Burma policy, but they have not decided anything for certain yet,” said a Washington-based US State Department staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Many people at the State Department feel convinced that Burma will not easily liberalize. Especially after Cyclone Nargis, they felt sure about it,” the staffer said.
In March, Stephen Blake, director of the US State Department’s Office of Mainland Southeast Asia, visited the junta’s remote capital, Naypyidaw. He was the highest-ranking US official to visit the capital in recent years.
Burma’s state-run media reported that Blake and Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win discussed issues of mutual interest and the promotion of bilateral relations. The visit and Clinton’s remarks on Burma stirred speculation and rumors of a policy shift on Burma.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg said at the National Bureau of Asian Research think tank on April 1 that the US was open to setting up new “flexible” frameworks similar to the six party talks on North Korea’s nuclear.
Some analysts said that a six-party talks program might help to resolve the Burmese crisis, but pointed out that the same arrangement has so far failed to solve the situation in North Korea.
The generals in Naypyidaw are eager to improve relations with the US. The trouble is that Burma still holds over 2,100 political prisoners, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and there are no signs that the regime is going to free prisoners and embark on genuine political reforms.
The US is concerned about the detention of political prisoners and the long sentences imposed on monks, relief workers and others who engaged in non-violent dissent, said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus.
But one of arguments for changing the US policy is to balance China’s growing influence in Burma, which occupies a strategically important position in the Indian Ocean region. Some observers said that Washington’s two decades of distant relations with the regime in Burma under the principle of democracy and human rights has pushed Burma into Beijing’s sphere of influence.
On the other hand, many critics and observers are still skeptical of Obama’s policy review on tyrannical regimes and warned that the US’s softly, softly approach with tyrannies such as Naypyidaw, Pyongyang and Khartoum may only serve to legitimate brutal dictators.
“America should engage Burma, but it should not engage in wishful thinking,” wrote Desmond Tutu, a South African anti-apartheid leader who has become one of the staunchest international critics of the Burmese junta, in an article that appeared in The Washington Post on Monday.
“Nothing in our experience suggests that offers of aid will cause Burma’s generals to change course; unlike some authoritarian regimes, this one seems to care not a bit for the economic well being of its country.”