Misplaced US Optimism on Burma

Diplomatic cables by the US Embassy in Rangoon show that American officials were unrealistically optimistic about dialogue with Burma's military government, as Democrat Sen. Jim Webb visited ruler Senior-General Than Shwe in August 2009.

“It is certain Than Shwe believes he has unclenched its fist,” said a cable released by Wikileaks overnight. The reference is to US President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech in which he said the US would offer an open hand to any nation that didn’t meet it with a clenched fist.

The note suggested that the Burmese ruler regarded the Webb-Shwe meeting and the release of American prisoner John Yettaw as a major concession that required an American counter-offer. “We should allow Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win to visit the Embassy in Washington following UNGA” (United Nations General Assembly), the cable author wrote.

The meeting between Webb and Than Shwe “was decidedly more upbeat than expected”, with the reclusive Burmese ruler said to have “greeted Senator Webb and Charge (Larry Dinger, the US Charge d'Affairs in Rangoon) warmly.” Than Shwe repeatedly spoke of “friendship” throughout the conversation, which Sen. Webb oiled by swiftly changing the subject when Aung San Suu Kyi was mentioned.

The Webb-Shwe meeting came just days after Suu Kyi was sentenced in a trumped-up trial to neutralize her politically, adding three years of house arrest after Yettaw had swum to her Rangoon home earlier in 2009. The Burmese courts ruled that Yettaw’s visit breached the terms of her earlier house arrest according to the Burmese courts.

Yettaw was released by the Burmese during Webb’s visit, while Than Shwe commuted Suu Kyi’s sentence to 18 months, meaning she was freed on November 13 2010 – a week after Burma held its first general elections in two decades. Suu Kyi also met with Sen. Webb during his visit, and stressed her openness to talk to the Burmese rulers, “without preconditions,” according to the leaked cable. Webb in turn emphasized the importance of freeing Suu Kyi, saying that most of the world judges the junta “by how it treats ASSK”, according to the meeting notes.

However, since her eventual release last month, Burma's rulers have shown no indication that they will engage with Suu Kyi. After controversial elections that were regarded by the outside world as rigged on Nov. 7, which were won in a landslide by the junta's Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a new military-dominated faux-civilian government is likely to be formed by February 2011, and will not include Suu Kyi nor her allies.

Than Shwe's antipathy toward Suu Kyi is well-known and backed up by U.S. diplomatic accounts. Another cable newly-released by Wikileaks covers a 2006 meeting between Christopher Hill, Assistant Secretary of State under the Bush administration, and China's Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei. According to the meeting notes, Wu told his American counterpart that “Burmese officials made clear that their vision for national reconciliation does not include Aung San Suu Kyi,” adding that “most senior leaders fear her.”

China is the second biggest investor in Burma, after Thailand, and its government is thought to be closer to the regime than any other. Dinger, writing in February 2009, speculated that one reason the Burmese junta wanted to talk to the US was because some of the generals were growing concerned “with Burma's ever-growing dependence on China.”

The meeting with Than Shwe was the first between the Burmese ruler and an American official. It came after Webb and Dinger sat down with Prime Minister Thein Sein on August 14 2009, along with other Burmese ministers and officials, including Foreign Minister Nyan Win and U Thaung, Minister for Science and Technology, who Thein Sein touted to Webb as a possible negotiator on behalf of the Burmese in any dialogue with the Americans. Thein Sein criticized US sanctions on Burma, according to the cable, but said that his administration wanted “the ability to communicate directly with Washington.”

Months before the unprecedented meeting between Webb and Than Shwe, the US Embassy in Rangoon proposed changing US policy on the country's name, to use “Myanmar”, instead of “Burma”, as one of the concessions to be offered to the junta. Burma's military rulers changed the country's name in 1989, but the amendment has not been acknowledged by the US or many of Burma's opposition groups.

This concession would have come about if the junta accepted “some tweaks to the electoral process” - such as accepting international observers. The US Embassy in Rangoon hoped that some relaxation of Suu Kyi’s house arrest might have been granted, and that some of the country’s 2,100-plus political prisoners might be released before the election, with the International Committee of the Red Cross granted access to these detainees as per international law.

However none of this happened, despite Thein Sein’s pledge to Webb to hold fair elections. It all makes the US representatives seem somewhat naive in retrospect. The only international observers allowed to monitor the rigged Nov. 7 election were diplomats already present in Burma, with the delegation led by the North Korean Ambassador.

Ultimately, speaking in India as the voting took place, US President Barack Obama dismissed the election as a farce, though the US has said it remains open to dealing with the Burmese regime.

The new cables do not paint the Americans as entirely green. While the US contemplated a mutual upgrading of diplomatic representation to ambassadorial level, there was no indication that sanctions against the Burmese junta and its business cronies would be dropped. Amid all the Panglossian hopes for reform in Burma, the Americans still retained some of their diplomatic sharp edge. After initially fearing that the US Navy attempt to bring aid to survivors of the May 2008 Cyclone Nargis was a disguised invasion plan, the junta later expressed gratitude for the assistance, according to American diplomats.

Noting the utility of aid for political purposes, Dinger noted that “aid is subversive more directly as well: recipients understand who helps them (international donors) and who doesn't (the regime).”