The rare meeting this week between a senior US official and Burmese ministers in Beijing perhaps signaled a changing US-Burma policy. The meeting oÂn Tuesday was marked by a frank and free exchange of opinions from both sides, according to US State Department spokesman Tom Casey, who said it had come at the request of the military junta.
The Beijing meeting was between Eric John, the deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and two ministers from the Burmese regime. Although the substance of their talks was not disclosed, the continuing detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, US sanctions and the political situation in Burma in general are thought to have been discussed.
It is likely that more meetings will take place and that they may finally lead to normalizing US-Burma relations, some region-based analysts note. But caution is always advisable when predicting the future of Burma, since there is little sign of progress oÂn the political front and oÂn the fate of Aung San Suu Kyi. There is obviously much room for improvement of US-Burma relations, but for this to happen the regime has to adopt a softer stance toward its dissidents and opposition groups.
Unconfirmed reports of low-level meetings in the region between US and Burmese officials surfaced several months ago, but the two sides kept everyone in the dark.
Burmese political sources told The Irrawaddy that the meeting between Eric John and the Burmese ministers had been prepared since early this year. They added that Eric John and senior State Department officials were convinced that the US and China will have to make a move together oÂn Burma. Eric John takes up a key post as US ambassador to Thailand next year and he has acknowledged China’s important role in the region.
Indeed, both the timing of the meeting and its location were interesting, as the Burmese regime has recently announced it is to wrap up the constitutional drafting process which had been stuttering along since 1993. China, the regime’s political ally and trade partner, reportedly nudged the regime in Naypyidaw to wind the process up-a clear indication that the Chinese want to see a political stability in Burma that will guarantee their trade and business interests, and that they may be happy to play host in the US-Burma dialogue.
But US state department spokesman Tom Casey, responding to a reporter wanting to know why the meeting took place in Beijing and not in Burma’s capital, said: â€œAs you know, the government of Burma often asks for us to meet with them and often prefers that we would meet with them in Burma itself. Our longstanding policy is that we will not meet with them in Burma outside of our embassy officials if they will not allow us to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi.â€
A meeting between US and Burmese officials in Beijing clearly needed China’s blessing and official approval, showing again that China’s influence oÂn Burma cannot be discounted.
Chinese diplomats based in the region and Burma believe that Burma should improve its relations with US and open a line of communications with Washington.
The Chinese are also clever enough to send some positive messages to Burmese opposition groups operating outside Burma, in the way exiled groups have opened a channel with Chinese officials in past years. Chinese officials and diplomats recently sent verbal messages to opposition groups inside and outside Burma, to the effect that although they care about the release of Aung San Suu Kyi any official Chinese statement condemning the regime and its human rights abuses cannot be expected.
Although it is premature to assume that the talks between US and Burmese officials will lead to political reform and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi or to a political breakthrough in Burma, the meeting was definitely a good start.