By WAI MOE
The US is prepared to tackle the Burma issue by joining six-party talks along the lines of those held to discuss North Korea’s nuclear program, according to a senior State Department official.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg told the National Bureau of Asian Research think tank on Wednesday that the US wanted a “collaborative and constructive” approach on Burma, saying nations with sway over the junta should avoid “recreating a mini version of the Great Game.”
Steinberg said: “Viewing relations with a notorious authoritarian regime like Burma as a zero-sum game is in no nation’s interest. We want to discuss a common approach with Asean [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], with China, with India and with Japan to find a policy that will improve the lives of the people of Burma and promote stability in this key region.”
The US was open to setting up new “flexible” frameworks similar to the six party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program, Steinberg said.
Some analysts are skeptical, however, pointing out that the six-party talks on North Korea had not halted Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The talks brought together the US, China, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas.
“I do not think it [six party talks on Burma] is a promising idea to resolve the issues, but it could be very useful in making sure that this is an issue that gets the global attention it deserves,” said Jeff Kingston, professor of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan.
Kingston said he was not optimistic that the US could forge a common strategy with Asia, given that its concerns about human rights and democracy are not shared by India, China and Asean.
President Barrack Obama’s administration is conducting a review of US policy towards Burma.
Last week, Stephen Blake, director of the US State Department’s Office of Mainland Southeast Asia, visited Naypyidaw, according to Burma’s state media. He is the highest ranking US official to visit the Burmese capital.
News of Blake’s visit broke first in the official Burmese press, prompting speculation in the US media about its nature and purpose.
A US State Department spokesman, Gordon Duguid, denied in a press briefing on March 25 that Blake had had “substantive conversations” with Burmese government officials. US policy on Burma remained unchanged, he stressed.
“I believe he [Blake] has visited Burma once in the past,” Duguid said. “He has not, however, had any substantive conversations with Burmese officials, nor has the U.S. position on Burma changed.”
A multi-party initiative to tackle the Burma issue would not be new. In 2003, Thailand, a close ally of the US and Burma’s main trading partner, held a “Bangkok Process”, initiated by former Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai.
Diplomats from 12 nations, including China, Japan, India, Indonesia and several European Union members, took part and called on the junta to release pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and seek national reconciliation.
In March 2006, Michael Green, a former senior director for Asian Affairs under the Bush administration, called for the replacement of the “Bangkok Process” by an international coalition for change in Burma.
“This is the time to push for a common roadmap that can succeed through strength of numbers,” Green told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on Asia Pacific Affairs. He suggested that the US should work for change in Burma in a common effort with the UN, Japan, India, Australia, Asean and the European Union.
In October 2007, Thailand’s former Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont suggested to UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari that something like the six-party talks on North Korea could be organized on the Burma question.
Surayud said Asean, along with Burma’s giant neighbors, China and India, could create a core group to work on Burma issues.
Currently, there is an international group on Burma headed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and called the “Group of Friends of the Secretary-General on Myanmar.”
The group includes the US, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Australia, Norway, Japan, South Korea and the EU presidency.