By LALIT K JHA
WASHINGTON — The new US administration is not averse to the idea of entering into direct negotiations with the Burmese military junta, according to insiders at the State Department in Washington.
Proponents of such a policy move argue that if the Obama administration can support reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan and offer an olive branch to Iran, with which it does not even have diplomatic ties, it would not be a bad idea to try the route of talking to the Burmese military junta, either on a bilateral level or at a multi-party platform.
The recent meeting of Stephen Blake, director of the US State Department’s Office of Mainland Southeast Asia, with Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win in Naypyidaw was part of a process of touching base with the junta and exploring the possibilities of engaging with it directly, officials say.
“The US wants to see progress for a democratic Burma that respects the rights of its citizens, is at peace with its neighbors and is integrated into the global economy,” one State Department official told The Irrawaddy.
“We are prepared to work with other countries in the region and elsewhere to achieve these goals and we are flexible on the mechanisms and the modalities that underpin that effort,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.
“We are still in the process of reviewing our policies on Burma and are considering ideas from a variety of stake holders,” he said.
Observers take issue with State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid’s description of Blake’s Naypidaw visit as a routine one. They point out that a meeting between a Burmese foreign minister and a US official of Blake’s level is a rare event.
The substance of the Naypyidaw talks has not been disclosed by the State Department. A tone of flexibility has, however, since been noted by observers.
Dissatisfaction with the sanctions policy adopted by the Bush administration has been voiced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the Obama administration is also not very keen on a continuation of the UN-led international effort under special envoy Ibrahim Gambari, believing it has failed so far to yield any results.
The two approaches, the administration believes, have only helped pushed Burma into the lap of China, consolidating the position of the Burmese military junta.
None of the key objectives of the international community—restoration of democracy and protection of human rights of Burma’s citizens—have been achieved. Despite all the rhetoric at the UN and within the Security Council, and in spite of a series of visits to Burma by Gambari, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest and more than 2,000 political prisoners are still being held.
Policy framers in the Obama administration believe that a new approach on Burma should be based on lessons learned from the past and the ground realities. It should not be driven by idealism alone, they feel.
They insist that any new policy would keep as its goal the restoration of democracy in Burma, protection of human rights and the establishment of peace with its neighbors.
Burma’s integration in the global economy is a recently added objective, indicating that the US would be willing to lift economic sanctions if the Burmese military junta takes steps in the right direction.
If the Obama administration’s latest move on Afghanistan is any indication of its foreign policy, the US could insist in any talks with Burma on the restoration of democracy and free and fair elections, without being seen to support any particular candidate or a party.
This is the Obama administration’s approach in Afghanistan, where presidential and provincial elections are to be held later this year.
Unlike in the past, where the US threw its support behind specific candidates, the White House has said it would work to ensure a level playing field for all the candidates.