U.S. Seeks Dialogue With Myanmar

The Obama administration is trying something new to influence the military junta of Myanmar — talking to the country's rulers. A top U.S. official said that he's planning to start a sustained dialogue while keeping sanctions in place.

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The Obama administration is trying something new to influence the military junta of Myanmar. The Obama administration is trying to talk to them. A top U.S. official says the timing seems right to open up a dialogue.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The U.S. has tried to isolate Myanmar. It has periodically tried to engage it. Now Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell says he's trying to arrange a meeting this week to begin what he hopes will be a sustained dialogue.

Mr. KURT CAMPBELL (Assistant Secretary of State): For the first time in memory, the Burmese leadership has shown an interest in engaging with the United States. And we intend to explore that interest.

KELEMEN: Myanmar's military rulers do seem to be making an effort to begin contacts at a high level. The country's prime minister made a rare trip to the U.S. to speak to the U.N. General Assembly yesterday. Through an interpreter, General Thein Sein said that his country is preparing for elections next year and is taking its own path to democracy.

General THEIN SEIN (Prime Minister, Myanmar): (Through translator) Democracy cannot be imposed from the outside and a suitable system for Myanmar can be born only out of Myanmar society.

KELEMEN: The U.S. maintains a long list of sanctions against Myanmar's military junta, and the Obama administration says it's not planning to give up that tool in the diplomatic toolbox. Myanmar's prime minister publicly complained about the economic pressure.

General SEIN: (Through translator) Sanctions are being employed as a political tool against Myanmar and we consider them unjust. I would like to state that such acts must be stopped.

KELEMEN: Human rights groups say that the pressure has to stay on Myanmar's military junta if the U.S. really wants to see any change. Amnesty International's T. Kumar says the prime minister's address to the U.N. yesterday was a signal of the tough road ahead.

Mr. T. KUMAR (Amnesty International): What the prime minister said at the U.N. is a classic example of what's lying ahead for the administration. Administration is bending over backwards to reach out to Burmese generals to improve human rights and democracy. But the reaction from the Burmese is all negative.

KELEMEN: T. Kumar points to the case of a Burmese-American democracy activist, Kyaw Zaw Lwin, who was arrested in Myanmar in early September.

Mr. KUMAR: He was tortured. He was denied food for about seven days. But our administration is talking about engagement, when the Burmese authorities are pretty much abusing a U.S. citizen at this moment.

KELEMEN: Amnesty International is trying to make sure the U.S. sets out clear benchmarks on human rights in its dialogue with Myanmar's military junta. T. Kumar says he's worried that human rights are sliding off the agenda with the U.S. focused on security issues, such as Myanmar's military cooperation with North Korea.

The State Department's Kurt Campbell says he is seeking clarity on that issue, but is also continuing to call for the release of political prisoners and an end to conflicts with ethnic minorities. He said the U.S. policy review was only meant to find better ways to do that.

Mr. CAMPBELL: We recognize that ultimately we need to change our methods but not our goals. And I think at this early stage, we think it's important to suggest that we are prepared to sit down but also recognize that nothing has changed yet on the ground or in terms of some of the activities that Burma has been involved with.

KELEMEN: Campbell will be among those testifying tomorrow at a Senate hearing chaired by Virginia Democrat Jim Webb, who went to Myanmar earlier this year and met yesterday in New York with Myanmar's prime minister. Webb said he sees a new dynamic in relations.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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