Myanmar At U.N. For The First Time In 14 Years

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Myanmar's prime minister is among those attending this week's United Nation's General Assembly meeting in New York. His visit comes as the U.S. reviews its policy toward Myanmar — a fact not lost on the country's military leaders. The prime minister is the first senior member of Myanmar's military to attend the annual gathering in 14 years.


Myanmar's prime minister is attending this week's general assembly meeting in New York. That hasn't happened in years. His visit comes as the U.S. reviews its policy toward Myanmar, a fact not lost on the country's military leaders. NPR's Southeast Asia correspondent Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Myanmar's military rulers don't seem to have much use for public diplomacy, which is what makes Prime Minister Thein Sein's trip so unusual. He's the first senior member of Myanmar's military to attend the U.N.'s annual gathering in 14 years. And on the eve of his visit, Myanmar released some 7,000 prisoners from its jails in an attempt to mute international criticism of its abysmal human rights record.

Mr. AUNG ZAW (Burmese exile, editor, The Irrawaddy Magazine): It is very important, because Burma is going to have an election next year and I think they want to sell the roadmap(ph). They want to present the more human face at the U.N. general assembly.

SULLIVAN: Aung Zaw is a Burmese exile and editor of The Irrawaddy Magazine in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He says Myanmar's diplomatic charm offensive isn't aimed solely at the U.N.

Mr. ZAW: Not only trying to win the hearts and minds of the international community, but also give a signal to the U.S. in particular, because U.S. policy (unintelligible) and the Burmese military leaders know how to deal with the international community and Western governments. I think, whether we like it or not, there are some people who may be happy with this kind of token gesture.

SULLIVAN: Aung Zaw notes that only a few dozen political prisoners are among those being released, none of them what he calls big fish, even as the regime continues to put more dissidents behind bars. Human rights groups and Western governments say the number of political prisoners in Myanmar has actually doubled since monk-led demonstrations against the military in 2007.

All this is true. But it's also true that the prime minister's visit comes as more and more policy makers conclude that U.S. sanctions against Myanmar aren't working.

Senator JIM WEBB (Democrat, Virginia): It's important for us to find ways to end the isolation of the Burmese people from the outside world. This does not mean that we should in any way abandon our goal of trying to help bring fairness and democracy to Myanmar. But we should be looking for ways to change the formula.

SULLIVAN: That's Senator Jim Webb, the Virginia Democrat who visited Myanmar last month. While there, he won the release of the now infamous American swimmer John Yettaw. Webb also had a rare meeting with Myanmar's Supreme General Than Shwe and a separate meeting with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Webb insisted he carried no message from the Obama administration, but Myanmar's state-controlled media called the visit a success for both sides. That left some wondering about the possibility of informal talks on the sidelines of this week's meeting in New York.

Professor David Steinberg of Georgetown University says that would be a step in the right direction, however unlikely, but he isn't expecting any major concessions from either side in the near future.

Professor DAVID STEINBERG (Asian studies, Georgetown University): We're not going to get rid of sanctions. Not right away, I mean. That may come eventually, but the Burmese have to do a lot more. What I'm looking for is small efforts.

I think the Webb trip is a good one. The fact that Webb seeing Aung San Suu Kyi when Ban Ki-moon couldn't that's consequential. And maybe the Burmese will not want to do anything significant until the 2010 elections. But there are things that can be done that are very minor but, again, send a signal.

SULLIVAN: Senator Webb, meanwhile, chairs a foreign relations subcommittee hearing on U.S. policy toward Myanmar a week from tomorrow. A Myanmar court is expected to rule on Aung San Suu Kyi's appeal of her latest detention order the day after.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

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