(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. Senate’s leading proponent of lifting sanctions against Burma’s military junta chaired hearings on U.S. policy towards the Southeast Asian country on Wednesday, but the Democrat was criticized for not inviting any members of the Burmese opposition to testify.
A number of activists, including saffron-robed Buddhist monks, attended the hearing of the Senate East Asia subcommittee, saying they were there to protest the fact that Sen. Jim Webb had not included any monks or members of the opposition party on the hearing panel.
The Virginia Democrat, who made a rare visit to Burma last August, came under fire from advocacy groups when he said the Obama administration should drop sanctions against the regime immediately and suggested that detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) consider taking part in elections scheduled for next year.
The administration, which since February has been reviewing U.S. policy towards Burma, announced in a shift last week that it would seek engagement – but not lift sanctions.
The announcement was followed by a two-hour “introductory meeting” in New York Tuesday between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and a Burmese minister. A State Department spokesman said he believed it to be the first encounter of its type at that level in decades.
Aung Din, a former political prisoner in Burma and executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma (USCB), said the organization backed the administration approach of a combination of sanctions and engagement.
But if the regime did not cooperate with the opposition and stop abusing civilians, then the U.S. should step up the pressure, including seeking a Security Council arms embargo, he said.
“We also hope that U.S. engagement with the regime should not be an open-ended process, but with a reasonable timeframe and clear benchmarks.”
’Lift sanctions, end isolation’
Speaking at Wednesday’s Capitol Hill hearing, Campbell said it was in the interests of the U.S. to engage with the junta but it would be a “mistake” to remove the sanctions in the absence of “meaningful progress.”
“We believe any easing of sanctions now would send the wrong signal to those who have been striving for so many years for democracy and progress in Burma, to our partners in the region and elsewhere, and to the Burmese leadership itself,” he said.
“Moreover, we will reserve the option of tightening sanctions on the regime and its supporters to respond to events in Burma.”
Webb told the hearing that isolating Burma had hurt America’ ability to “push for positive change.”
He also focused on Burma’s location, flanked by China and India and seen as increasingly under China’s influence, and said its isolation had “resulted in a lack of attention to the region’s strategic dynamics.”
The USCB expressed concern that Webb had not invited any monks or representatives of the NLD to participate in his hearing. The NLD won elections in 1990 but the military overruled the outcome and held onto power; Buddhist monks led demonstrations against military rule in 2007, triggering a violent clampdown.
Webb said at the end of the hearing that the record would remain open for 24 hours “in case other organizations wish to submit testimony.”
Of the three panelists who did take part, one was U.S.-born historian and former U.N. official Thant Myint-U, who said he favored lifting all sanctions and ending “isolation of the country’s leadership from the rest of the world.”
Panelist David Steinberg, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, argued that sanctions had “accomplished none of the U.S. objectives of reform and change,” but acknowledged that “political attitudes in the U.S. preclude immediate or early lessening of the sanctions regimen without … reciprocal actions” by Burma.
He said step-by-step negotiations were a reasonable way to proceed, and suggested ways in which the relationship could be improved, such as coordinated efforts in areas of mutual interest like the environment and disaster preparedness.
Steinberg also noted that the junta regards as an insult the U.S. administration’s use of the term “Burma” rather than “Myanmar,” the name the military gave the state in 1989. (The choice of which name one uses, he said, “has become a surrogate indicator of political inclination.”)
He pointed out that the U.S. has elsewhere followed name changes made by governments, even those of which it disapproved, and implied that a shift to the term “Myanmar” would improve relations.
‘Cynical attempt to buy off pressure’
The third panelist, Indiana University law professor David Williams, focused on next year’s elections and Burma’s controversial new constitution.
The NLD has said it will not take part in the election unless Suu Kyi and more than 2,000 other political prisoners are freed. It also wants the junta to agree to international supervision of the election and to amend the constitution to reduce the influence of the military.
Webb recently suggested that the NLD consider participating in the election and said the U.S. could offer to help carry out the poll.
Williams was pessimistic about the election and scathing of the constitution, which he called “one of the worst” he had ever seen.
“Even if the 2010 elections are free and fair, which they won’t be, they won’t bring about civilian rule because the constitution does not provide for it – a partially civilian government, yes, but civilian rule, no.”
Much attention has been paid to the fact that the constitution sets aside 25 percent of seats in parliament for the military.
But Williams said the problems went well beyond that, and explained in some detail that the constitution allows the military to do as it pleases.
“The whole constitution is based on a ‘wait and see’ strategy: if the civilian government does what the [military] wants, then it will be allowed to rule; if not, then not,” he said.
“This constitution is not a good faith gesture toward democracy; it’s a cynical attempt to buy off international pressure.”
Williams also argued against making “premature concessions” to the junta.
“We win only if we can shift the game, only if through multilateral diplomacy we can get the regime to stop killing its people and to allow civilian rule,” he told the hearing. “Making premature concessions won’t shift the game; it will only give the game away.”
On Thursday, the Irish rock band U2 is performing in Charlottesville Va. The USCB said activists planned to collect signatures during the show for petitions urging the Virginia senator to stop calling for an end to sanctions.
U2 has long supported Burma’s democracy campaign and one of its albums was banned by the regime for a song, “Walk On,” written for and about Suu Kyi.