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America Won't Lift Sanctions Unless Suu Kyi Freed

America Won't Lift Sanctions Unless Suu Kyi is Freed for Election

by Richard S. Ehrlich

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BANGKOK, Thailand -- Burma must free Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and allow her to participate in a nationwide election, otherwise the vote will not be credible and U.S. economic sanctions will not be lifted, a U.S. State Department official warned after meeting her in Rangoon.

After "listening" to Mrs. Suu Kyi, however, U.S. State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Scot Marciel was unwilling, or unable, to reveal what she said.

"It was a private conversation," a testy, tight-lipped Mr. Marciel said on Thursday (November 5).

He also dodged questions about demands by some to put Burma's military regime leaders on trial for alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during their bloody crackdowns against pro- democracy demonstrations and military campaigns against ethnic guerrillas.

When asked if he favored such prosecutions against the regime, Mr. Marciel continued walking toward his waiting car and replied: "I think I have officially finished answering questions."

No breakthrough or major diplomatic success was achieved during the visit to Burma by Mr. Marciel and U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell on Tuesday and Wednesday (November 3 and 4).

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In addition to Mrs. Suu Kyi, the two American diplomats met Burmese Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein, opposition politicians, minority ethnic leaders, and others.

But they had no idea why they were not able to meet Burma's all- powerful dictator, Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

At an hour-long forum for diplomats, non-governmental organizations and journalists in Bangkok, Mr. Marciel referred to "past failures of diplomatic efforts" and said:

"Look, various countries have taken various approaches to Burma. None of them have succeeded. So I think we all should be very humble and not assume that we have the answers until we actually produce some results."

He was also unsure about how the U.S. diplomatic initiative was perceived by the Burmese junta.

"As to whether they ignored us, I think time will tell," he said.

"What we want to see is broad progress. Certainly releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, we think, is critical to that.

"But the release of Aung San Suu Kyi -- as much as that would be very important and very positive -- does not solve all the problems," the State Department official said.

The regime earlier announced plans to hold an election, possibly in 2010, but barred Mrs. Suu Kyi from running as a candidate or leading the country.

In the previous 1990 election, her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a landslide victory, but the military ignored the results.

The junta has kept Mrs. Suu Kyi under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years, and sentenced her to an additional 18 months in August for illegally sheltering a zealous American visitor, John Yettaw, for two nights at her villa in Rangoon.

"I think an election without Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD would be very hard to see as credible," Mr. Marciel said.

U.S. trade, investment and banking sanctions against Burma are "still, in our view, a useful tool, and they remain part of what we are trying to use as a policy instrument.

"We do not think it is appropriate, or wise, to lift sanctions now...but we certainly would be willing to lift sanctions if there is progress.

"The purpose of the sanctions is not for the satisfaction of having them, but to try and achieve an end."

Washington has helped cripple Burma's economy through years of economic sanctions, designed to emphasize America's demand for democracy.

Burma is the biggest country in mainland Southeast Asia and also known as Myanmar.

California-based Chevron Corp. is the only major U.S. country exempted from the sanctions, and Chevron's profits from its Yadana natural gas pipeline from Burma into Thailand are shared with Burma's military regime, along with France's Total and the Petroleum Authority of Thailand.

The Americans' trip coincided with an announcement by Beijing's government-owned China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) on Tuesday (November 3) that it started laying a 771-km oil pipeline across Burma to reach the Indian Ocean.

China is Burma's strongest military partner and biggest foreign investor.

The Chinese pipeline would reportedly enable a faster flow of up to 84 million barrels annually of Middle East oil into China.

Critics of America's hard-line approach against Burma have pointed to the gains made by China and other sanction-busting nations in exploiting the impoverished, resource-rich country.

U.S.-led international sanctions have meant that countries which chose to ignore the boycotts have been able to do business in Burma without American and European competition -- a lucrative bottom line which is increasingly important to some Americans during the current U.S. recession.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com

(Copyright 2009 Richard S Ehrlich)

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