Democratic Senator’s Call to Drop Burma Sanctions Draws Fire

By Patrick Goodenough | August 27, 2009 | 4:37 AM EDT

Sen. Jim Webb addresses a press conference in Bangkok, Thailand on Sunday, Aug. 16, 2009, shortly after leaving Burma. (AP Photo)

( – Senator Jim Webb on Wednesday called for the United States to drop sanctions against Burma’s government immediately and urged the political party of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to consider taking part in elections planned by the ruling military junta next year.
The Virginia Democrat’s appeal, published in the New York Times, drew criticism from quarters that support a tightening of sanctions.
“Whose side is Webb on, anyway?” asked Jeremy Woodrum, director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. “It sounds like he’s reading directly off the military regime’s talking points.”
The Obama administration is currently reviewing U.S. policy towards Burma. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier this year that neither sanctions, nor attempts by the Southeast Asian nation’s neighbors to engage the regime, had worked.
The junta has been targeted by U.S. sanctions since 1997. They have been tightened several times in the ensuing years, and last month President Obama extended them for a further three years.
Webb, who chairs a Senate subcommittee on East Asian affairs, said sanctions had been “counterproductive,” serving only to entrench the regime while denying Burmese people’s access to the outside world. He also noted that China, Russia and others had not participated in the sanctions drive.
Webb’s call comes 10 days after he became the most senior American politician to visit Burma in a decade, and the first ever to meet with junta leader Gen. Than Shwe. He said he urged Than Shwe to free Suu Kyi and allow her to participate in the 2010 elections.

Burma's detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. (AP Photo/Myanmar News Agency)

Webb’s visit also secured the release of an American, John Yettaw, who was jailed earlier this month for paying an unauthorized visit to Suu Kyi’s home, where she has been under house arrest for almost 14 of the last 19 years. Yettaw’s actions resulted in Suu Kyi having her detention extended by another 18 months.
Burma’s military rulers allowed multiparty elections in 1990, but when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won they rejected the result and held onto power.
The NLD has said it will not take part in next year’s vote unless the government frees Suu Kyi and more than 2,000 political prisoners, agrees to international supervision of the election and amends the new constitution to reduce the influence of the military.
(Ratified last year, the constitution sets aside 25 percent of seats in parliament for the military. A section on eligibility for political office would prevent Suu Kyi from competing, since she was formerly married to a foreign citizen.)
Webb said Wednesday the NLD “might consider the advantages of participation as part of a longer-term political strategy” and said the U.S. could also offer to help carry out the elections.
The senator noted that the U.S. has diplomatic and business relations with China although it “has no democracy and has never held a national election.”
He also pointed to communist-ruled Vietnam too, arguing that “the greatest factor in creating a more open society inside Vietnam was the removal of America’s trade embargo in 1994.”
“The United States needs to develop clearly articulated standards for its relations with the nondemocratic world,” Webb said. “Our distinct policies toward different countries amount to a form of situational ethics that does not translate well into clear-headed diplomacy.”
Throughout his article Webb used the name “Myanmar” rather than Burma. The junta officially changed the country’s name in 1989, but many critics who associate the term with a regime they consider illegitimate prefer Burma. Webb did refer to “the Burmese people.”
‘Sham election’
Four days after Webb left the country, the regime in official newspapers described him as a “visionary” politician and called on Western countries to end sanctions.
“The more anti-government groups exercise economic sanctions as a means to put pressure on the government, the further the goal of democracy aspired by the people will divert from its route,” it said in a commentary.
Woodrum said late Wednesday the U.S. Campaign for Burma opposed ending sanctions. On the contrary, “the U.S. should be leading efforts to increase sanctions, as called for by 14 Nobel peace prize recipients,” he said. Suu Kyi herself won the award in 1991.
Woodrum said Burma’s new constitution “guarantees dictatorship even if the regime holds an election next year.”
“Senator Webb should be calling on the regime to change the constitution so that it is free and fair instead of encouraging the NLD to participate in this sham.”
‘Build consensus, don’t drop sanctions’
Also criticizing Webb’s stance was Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, who argued Wednesday that the senator’s assumptions were faulty.
“It is demonstrably true that American sanctions have not brought about change in Burma,” he wrote. “But the answer lies in building the necessary international consensus to pressure it, not abandoning the effort.”
On Webb’s invoking of China and Vietnam, Lohman said the difference between them and Burma was that normalization of relations with those countries came after their governments made strategic decisions to reform their economies and “open up to the world.” The Burmese regime had not.
Noting Webb’s use of the term Myanmar rather than Burma, Lohman said “in a microcosm it represents the problem with engagement … simply for the price of gaining a Burmese general’s ear, and nothing more, Senator Webb is willing to abide by the Burmese junta’s sensitivities.”
Writing in The Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based newsmagazine run by exiled Burmese, Buddhist monk U. Pyinya Zawta accused Webb of trying to pressurize Burma’s democracy movement to give up sanctions, “the most important tool in our struggle for freedom.”
“If the U.S. lifts sanctions on Burma, there will be a rush of companies into Burma intent on looting my country’s natural heritage and the benefits of such ‘engagement’ will flow directly to the military regime,” he argued.
Zawta, the U.S.-based exiled head of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance, claimed that Webb was “now despised by the people of Burma.”
“If he succeeds in achieving a shift in U.S. policy to abandon sanctions, he will have secured his place in history as one of the most important supporters of Than Shwe’s military dictatorship.”
Meanwhile, human rights group say thousands of Burmese have fled across the border into China in recent weeks as a result of clashes between government forces and ethnic rebel groups.
The army reportedly deployed more troops in the country’s north-eastern Shan state in a bid to force the rebels to place themselves under government control, ahead of the elections.
The groups have been subject to ceasefire agreements with the regime for up to two decades, but now authorities want to transform them into “border guard forces” in order to legalize their status.
Organizations representing ethnic Shan accused the army of torching hundreds of houses, forcibly removing almost 40 villages and arresting more than 100 people since July 27.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow