Fri 28 May 2010
Filed under: On The Border,Opinion
US Sen Jim Webb, who last August became the first high-profile American official in two decades to meet Burma’s Snr-Gen Than Shwe, will start his second three-day visit to Burma on June 4.
The details of his trip remain veiled, and observers are wondering whether Sen Webb, the chairman of the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will have a second chance to meet junta-chief Than Shwe.
Will Than Shwe give Webb, a former boxer, a right jab knock-out by refusing to meet with him? Or will he allow the senator a second round and the chance to become the rare American to build a cozy relationship with the reclusive general?
The strongest concern that Webb conveyed during his first trip was China’s growing influence over Burma and the region, and the consequent threat to the security and national interests of the US.
However, it is not known whether he shared his worries about Chinese influence directly with Than Shwe, who is very close to the Chinese leadership, and if he did, whether the general was at all responsive.
If a second meeting with Than Shwe does take place, from a policy standpoint it would be Webb’s advocacy of the withdrawal of US sanctions on Burma, rather than his anti-China views, that would most endear him to the junta leader.
Webb expressed criticism of US sanctions in his article, “We Can’t Afford to Ignore Myanmar,” published in The New York Times soon after he returned to Washington from his first trip.
“Indeed, they [sanctions] have allowed China to dramatically increase its economic and political influence in Myanmar [Burma], furthering a dangerous strategic imbalance in the region,” Sen Webb wrote.
It is difficult to accept the logic, however, that the withdrawal of US sanctions on Burma will contain China’s influence over the country and the region.
During his first trip, Webb shared all of his concerns with Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who categorically rejected his views on removing sanctions, saying that she didn’t see China as a “fearful influence,” the term that the senator used during their meeting.
“China is Burma’s neighbor and wants to be a good friend of Burma,” Suu Kyi said in a message, through her lawyer, to her supporters after the senator’s trip.
Even if Webb is able to convince some people with his Cold War nightmare scenario, he shouldn’t overlook the fact that Burma’s military rulers since Gen Ne Win’s era have never fully trusted the United States. And the senator, a Vietnam War veteran, should bear in mind that Burma’s military previously had the capacity to play the US and Russia off against each other during the Cold War.
Coincidentally (or maybe not), Sen Webb’s June 4 visit will follow Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s trip to Burma on June 2, during which the prime minister will discuss energy and aid, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.
Than Shwe will undoubtedly welcome his paukphaw [brother] from China with a red carpet, and it will be interesting to see how he welcomes his guest from the US.
If the junta-chief is interested in dealing with an anti-China advocate from the US in the wake of a visit by his Chinese brother, even the removal of sanctions would be his second priority.
His primary reason for meeting Webb will be his desire to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the US and the international community for Burma’s 2010 election.
On Than Shwe’s fishing expedition for that legitimacy, and for the removal of sanctions, US Sen Jim Webb would certainly be a big catch.