Over the weekend, Jim Webb, the senior senator from Virginia, flew to the isolated Burmese capital of Naypyidaw for a rare sit-down with the head of the junta, Than Shwe. Webb, the outspoken head of the East Asia and the Pacific subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went, in theory, to negotiate the release of John Yettaw, the American who was sentenced to seven years in prison for swimming to the house of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. And he apparently got what he came for: the junta agreed to let Yettaw leave on Webb’s plane.
But the senator had a broader agenda too. A longtime critic of the comprehensive US sanctions on Burma, Webb would like Washington to review and possibly overhaul its policy, the major effect of which, he believes, has simply been to inhibit US influence in the country. By holding the hard line, the US puts pressure on other democracies – notably Japan – to do the same.
Webb isn’t alone. In essence, several Obama officials told me, the question is whether sanctions have done so little to effect change inside Burma that it might be worth trying greater engagement. Even some exiled Burmese activists, long advocates for tough sanctions, have begun to think along similar lines, though Suu Kyi’s continued detention makes them wary of saying so.
Washington is also worried about the security threat: Burma has developed a close relationship with North Korea. And the long-running war between the military and a series of ethnic armies in the east causes other security headaches for the region. The warfare and chaos create vectors for HIV/Aids, which spreads from Burma into China, Thailand and Bangladesh, and millions of refugees have fled over the border into Thailand.
But if Webb and those in the Obama administration who think the same way hope to pursue engagement with the junta, they will have a hard sell in Congress, where there are many strong backers of a sanctions strategy. And their case hasn’t been helped by the regime’s decision to extend Suu Kyi’s sentence.