By FOSTER KLUG / AP WRITER
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has been considering whether a softer approach on Burma could spur democratic change in the military-run country, but the trial starting this week of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi may dash the possibility of a new US policy.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly was blunt when asked Monday whether the proceedings against Suu Kyi make it more difficult for the administration to ease tough sanctions against Burma:
"It certainly doesn't help."
Kelly would not elaborate, saying only a "whole range of options" are being considered as senior officials from various US agencies meet to review the policy meant to push Burma's junta "to do the right thing."
Even as the review continues, President Barack Obama extended for another year on Friday a state of emergency regarding Burma. Sanctions would have expired had the emergency order not been extended.
Still, signals from Obama's administration had prompted speculation that the United States might be poised to reconsider its hard line against Burma.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in February, on a trip to Indonesia, "Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the Burmese junta." She added, however, that Burma's neighbors' policy of "reaching out and trying to engage them hasn't influenced them either."
Suu Kyi, who went on trial Monday, already has spent more than 13 of the past 19 years in detention. The Nobel Peace laureate has been charged with violating conditions of her house arrest by sheltering an American man who swam to her lakeside home to secretly visit her earlier this month. The offense is punishable by up to five years' imprisonment.
David Steinberg, a Burma specialist at Georgetown University, said the Obama administration might have been considering small changes, such as joint efforts to recover the remains of US soldiers.
"The modest progress that could have taken place will be set back now," he said. The United States, Steinberg said, cannot begin easing sanctions until it sees real change from Burma's generals.
Suu Kyi had been scheduled to be freed May 27 after six consecutive years of house arrest. The latest charges are widely seen as a pretext for the government to keep her detained past elections scheduled for next year.
Ralph A. Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank, questioned the US policy of maintaining "total isolation and strict sanctions" until the junta recognizes the results of the 1990 elections it lost in a landslide to Suu Kyi's party but did not honor.
"That a new policy is needed is beyond dispute," he wrote last week. "What that policy should or will be is far from clear, however." Some, Cossa said, have pushed for an approach similar to the six-nation negotiations being used by the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China to try to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs.
US sanctions, he wrote, "need to be more targeted against the government and its leaders and not against the people themselves."
Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell, the Senate's top Republican and a regular critic of Burma's generals, offered rare praise for Obama on Monday for his decision to extend the emergency order against Burma.
He warned Burmese military leaders that both Democrats and Republicans "will continue to follow Suu Kyi's trial with great interest and deep concern."