US engagement with Myanmar falters
By Brian McCartan
BANGKOK - After the only outcomes of a visit to Myanmar by a high-level United
States diplomat were "profound" disappointment over its election preparations
and a stronger line over its nuclear links with North Korea, President Barack
Obama on Friday formally extended sanctions against the country.
Washington's extension of the sanctions followed the visit of US Assistant
Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell to Naypyidaw,
the capital, on May 9 for a two-day visit. Campbell met top officials such as
Foreign Minister Nyan Win, Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, Science and
Technology Minister U Thaung - the point man for US-Myanmar engagement - and
Labor Minister U Aung Kyi.
Charged with assessing Myanmar's preparations for elections to
be held on an as-yet unspecified date this year - its first polls since 1991 -
Campbell also met members of the Union Election Commission, officials of the
Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and other
government-affiliated political parties. On May 10, Campbell travelled to
Yangon, where he met senior leaders of the opposition National League for
Democracy (NLD), representatives of major ethnic groups and pro-democracy
leader Aung San Suu Kyi
Campbell had earlier said he would only visit the country if he could meet
opposition members and Suu Kyi. He previously met the 64-year-old last
November, when he became the highest ranking US diplomat to visit Myanmar in 14
Before his visit, during a press conference in Bangkok on May 9, Campbell said
the US was concerned with the lead-up to the elections. "We're troubled by much
of what we've seen and we have very real concerns about the elections laws and
the environment that's been created."
Campbell's meetings in Naypyidaw seem to have only confirmed the US's worst
fears, with the envoy telling reporters in Yangon that he was "profoundly
disappointed" in the junta's approach to the elections.
"Unfortunately, the regime has chosen to move ahead unilaterally - without
consultation from key stakeholders - towards elections planned for this year,"
he said. "As a direct result, what we have seen to date leads us to believe
that these elections will lack international legitimacy."
The NLD was officially dissolved on May 7, two days before Campbell's arrival,
after it declined to meet a May 6 registration deadline stipulated by new
election laws. The laws, which ban individuals serving prison sentences from
being members, would have forced the party to oust Aung San Suu Kyi as its
chairwoman due to her continued house arrest.
The party's headquarters in Yangon remains open and members are calling for a
boycott of the vote. Some 25 senior members of the party have decided to form a
new party and seek registration with the government, though no decision has
been made on their participation in the polls. The government is yet to
announce a date for the vote, though reports suggest it could be in October.
Campbell also noted the junta's continued pressure on the country's ethnic
minority groups to disarm before the elections. "The regime has ratcheted up
the pressure on Burma's [Myanmar's] ethnic groups in preparation for this
year's elections, forcing countless innocent civilians to flee. Burma cannot
move forward while the government itself persists in launching attacks against
its own people to force compliance with a proposal its ethnic groups cannot
accept." The last sentence refers to the regime's proposal that the armed wings
of ethnic groups relinquished to army control before the vote, a move many
groups say would deprive them of leverage against a regime that has frequently
resorted to force.
Campbell also questioned Myanmar's relations with North Korea and its
commitment to implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which
among other things bans the export of weapons and nuclear technology from North
Korea and authorizes member states to search suspected cargos. Campbell
mentioned "recent developments" that were likely related to reports of North
Korean involvement in Myanmar's nuclear program.
North Korean military assistance to Myanmar in the past has consisted of
hardware including artillery and surface-to-surface missiles. Myanmar-exile
magazine The Irrawaddy claimed on May 10 that the junta had purchased mid-range
missiles and rocket launchers from North Korea during the Myanmar New Year in
April. In addition, the magazine claimed, "equipment necessary to build a
nuclear capability was reportedly among imported military supplies from North
Analysts believe North Korea is assisting the generals with a nuclear program
that includes the development of weapons. Two nuclear reactors are believed to
be under construction in Myanmar. One, at Naung Laing near the town of Pyin Oo
Lwin in central Mandalay Division, is being constructed with North Korean help.
Several thousand Myanmar military personnel have undergone nuclear training in
Russia and North Korea in recent years. Desmond Ball, a defense analyst at
Australia National University, believes the reactor could be online in 2012 and
a deliverable weapon could be developed by 2020.
In order to build international confidence in Myanmar's commitment to the UN
Security Council resolution - imposed on Pyongyang in 2009 after conducted an
underground nuclear test - Campbell asked the regime to put in place a
"Without such a process, the United States maintains the right to take
independent action within the relevant frameworks established by the
international community," said Campbell. The US had applauded Myanmar in July
for refusing to allow a North Korean-registered ship believed to be carrying
weapons to dock, forcing the ship to turn back.
The regime's response to Campbell's statement came in a long, rambling article
in the state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar on May 12. The report was
partly a description of Campbell's meetings with government officials and
partly an attempt to justify election laws and paint the NLD's decision to not
re-register as misguided.
The article said the new election laws did not target a specific person, a
reference to Aung San Suu Kyi, and that the banning of convicts to stand in
election is a normal practice in many countries, with all prisoners grouped
together, political or criminal. It also said that if the NLD wants to carry
out its aim of amending the controversial 2008 constitution, it should have
joined the election process and tried to make changes in the new parliament.
The constitution, passed through a referendum that observers say was rigged,
cannot be changed without a majority in parliament, something that is almost
impossible given the number of seats reserved for the military.
In response to a question on the possibility of independent election monitors,
the paper quoted retired Major General Thein Soe, head of the Election
Commission, as saying, "the nation has a lot of experience with elections. We
do not need election watchdogs to come here. Arrangements have been made to
ensure a free and fair election."
Seemingly at odds with this was a request by Information Minister Hsan for
unspecified American cooperation supporting the elections. "We would like to
receive your kind cooperation so that the election can be held peacefully and
The New Light of Myanmar article welcomed the Barack Obama administration's
engagement policy and called on the US "to show a positive attitude towards our
internal affairs such as the drafting of the constitution and measures for
holding elections after issuing the necessary laws for democratization
Prior to Campbell's visit to Myanmar there was no sign in Congress of a
"positive attitude" with for increased pressure on Myanmar's military rulers
that reflecting concerns that the Obama administration's seven-month old
engagement policy is not reaping the desired benefits.
On May 7, the senate called on the Obama administration to show solidarity with
the NLD and consider tighter sanctions on the junta. Senators approved a
resolution led by Judd Gregg, a Republican from New Hampshire, requesting the
regime enter dialogue with the NLD, free Suu Kyi from house arrest and called
for stronger US sanctions on Myanmar.
Obama on Friday formally extended sanctions against Myanmar that were imposed
in 1997, "because the actions and policies of the government of Burma continue
to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and
foreign policy of the United States". The sanctions bar American firms from
investing in Myanmar and bans Myanmar exports to the United States.
A letter signed by nine senators was sent to Obama on March 26 urging full
implementation of the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act of 2008 in response to
the widely criticized election laws. The act, which targets US imports of
Myanmar gemstones, also calls for the nomination of a special representative
and policy coordinator for Myanmar and additional banking sanctions.
From the outset the Obama administration has said that it would consider
maintaining or even increasing sanctions depending on the regime's progress
towards improving the human-rights situation and progressing towards an
inclusive democracy. Opponents of the Obama's engagement policy say the
generals have given little indication of moving in that direction.
The generals appear unfazed by American criticism and sanctions and most
analysts believe election preparations will continue in the same vein
regardless of international disapproval. The US, noting that a lack of
engagement also produced little benefit, is not likely to revert to its
previous strictly confrontational stance. This is especially so given Myanmar's
clear moves to acquire nuclear technology and North Korea's perceived hand in
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached