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Sen. Webb's visit could signal renewed relations with Burma

August 14, 2009 |  6:34 pm

Burma Sen. Jim Webb (D-Virginia) arrived in Myanmar earlier today and will meet with the country's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, marking the first diplomatic visit a U.S. official to the junta-controlled country in more than a decade. The United States implemented sanctions against Myanmar, also known as Burma, in 1990 after the country's dictatorship ignored the opposition's election victory and continued its rule.

The visit comes on the heels of the junta's re-arrest of opposition and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who will be forced to stay in her home for the next 18 months, effectively hindering her ability to campaign for the 2010 elections. Webb has requested a meeting with San Suu Kyi, but the request is not expected to be granted.

Burma has been called the Darfur of Asia, and human rights abuses in the country abound. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has denounced the arrest of the San Suu Kyi, but she also has said that sanctions have not weakened Burma's repressive government and may be eased. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited the country last month, drawing attention to repression by the government and asking for the release of 2,000 political prisoners. He came away disappointed, with all of his requests rejected.

Webb's visit may signal a change in U.S. relations with Burma. While human rights organizations are decrying the meeting as a legitimization of a government guilty of abuses, some engagement is better than none; as Clinton said, the status quo of sanctions and tough rhetoric hasn't worked. Perhaps this change should be welcomed as a baby step on the path to progress in bilateral relations and the slow restoration of democracy in Myanmar. 

-- Catherine Lyons

Credit: EPA/STR / Stefan Zaklin

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