The military junta of Burma is working hard at oppressing the country’s people and is following in North Korea’s footsteps in becoming a rogue state. At this time when the U.S. is most strategically and morally obligated to support the country’s democracy movement, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia has begun engaging the junta, drawing the ire of today’s Martin Luther Kings and George Washingtons in Burma.
Senator Webb became the first member of Congress to visit Burma on August 15, and granted the leader of the junta, General Than Shwe, his first visit from a senior American policy-maker. Webb also met with the Burmese Foreign Minister on September 23. Shwe reacted to this honor by releasing American citizen John Yettaw, who had been imprisoned for going to the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy that is the primary force opposed to the regime. Webb has also called for her release to no avail so far.
Webb may point to Yettaw’s release as proof that his engagement of the junta is working to help the democracy movement and isn’t undercutting the human rights movement, but this is the very impression the junta wants to project. The release was done not as a result of the persuasion of Webb but to facilitate the proposed lifting of sanctions on Burma. The release of Yettaw didn’t even receive the applause of those fighting for freedom in Burma.
“This will surely make a negative impression among the people of Burma. They will think that Americans are easy to satisfy with the dictators when they get their citizens back,” said Aung Din, the founder and policy director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. Din pointed out that Suu Kyi and other dissident leaders are still detained, despite Webb’s request for her release.
Webb’s actions also drew sharp criticism from former political prisoner and opposition leader U Win Tin, a founder of the NLD. In an editorial for the Washington Post on September 9 he described Webb’s actions as being “damaging to our democracy movement” and rejected his proposal for the NLD to participate in the elections next year, saying it would “make military dictatorship permanent.”
Joining the chorus is Jeremy Woodrum, the director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma and U Pyinya Zawta, another former political prisoner who is now the executive director of the All Burma Monks Alliance. Woodrum described Webb’s meetings with high-level junta officials as “a setback to the democracy movement in a major way,” and Zawta said Webb was “ignorant,” describing the sanctions as “the most important tool in our struggle for freedom.”
Webb was also rebuked by Suu Kyi herself. After meeting with her, Webb said that she gave him the “clear impression…that she is not opposed to lifting some sanctions,” meaning she was supportive of his efforts at engagement. There must have been some miscommunication, though, as she responded to his statement by saying she didn’t even talk about the possible removal of sanctions with “anyone recently.”
The junta refused to step down after the NLD’s landslide victory in the last election, and forced a new constitution legitimizing its rule in May 2008 through a fraudulent vote. This constitution also bans those with “foreign ties” from being elected, an accusation the junta applies to its democratic opposition leaders. With the junta making laws like this, and holding fake elections and refusing to accept legitimate ones, it is no wonder that the leaders of Burma’s democracy movement feel that Webb’s position is dangerous for them.
Webb is choosing to listen to the wrong voices. Michael Goldfarb, who has done an excellent job focusing attention on Webb’s moves vis-à-vis Burma, took aim at Webb’s September 30 hearings on the country. Those chosen to testify by Webb included Thant Myint-U, who Goldfarb describes as “having close ties to the regime” and Georgetown University’s Dr. David Steinberg, both of whom a Burmese intelligence defector says was approached by the government to help get the sanctions lifted. Their testimony was predictable, blaming U.S. policy for the poor humanitarian situation in the country.
Senator Webb is a practical man and isn’t morally or intellectually bankrupt. He’s criticized the U.S. government’s reaction to the oppression of the Buddhist monks challenging the junta as being “little more than a hopeless shrug.” He’s supported the closing of Guantanamo Bay, but has described closing the facility by January 1 as “unreasonable.”
This is why his actions are so surprising and disappointing. His argument that the sanctions on Burma just increase the isolation of the population from Western influence and brings the junta closer to China is an understandable one. There is also merit to the idea that if the democratic forces participate in the election, they’ll be better positioned to point out the fraud and cause a backlash like we saw in Iran in June.
However, by acting as if he knows how to handle the junta better than those living under it, Webb is arrogantly deciding their fate for them. As the Obama Administration forms its policy towards Burma, it needs to accept the advice of the country’s democratic opposition leaders and their rejection of the ideas of the well-meaning Senator Webb.