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U.S. Needs ‘New Formula’ for S.E. Asia, Sen. Webb Says Following Myanmar Visit

August 27, 2009 at 4:06 PM EDT
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Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb talks about his unusual mission to reclusive Myanmar to secure the release of an American prisoner, and the other stops on his Asia tour.
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MARGARET WARNER: For more than 10 years, the southeast nation of Myanmar, formerly Burma, has shut its doors to top American officials and foreign journalists. Most Americans’ clearest images of Myanmar are stealthily filmed pictures of the government’s repression of dissent. This was its violent crackdown two years ago on Buddhist monks who protested against the regime.

The U.S. and European Union have maintained economic sanctions on Myanmar for more than a decade, but China is investing heavily there. The country has been so closed off to the West that, after last year’s devastating cyclone, which killed more than 80,000, it took immense international pressure to get any foreign aid into the country.

Yet the Burmese junta, which has been ruling for more than 50 years, did welcome Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia 10 days ago.

In quick succession, Webb met with the regime’s reclusive leader, General Than Shwe, and then with Nobel Peace Prize-winner and leading democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Just days earlier, Suu Kyi had been convicted once again and her house arrest extended, triggering new street protests. The government imposed its latest punishment on her after an American, John Yettaw, swam across a lagoon and entered her house.

Yettaw, a Vietnam veteran suffering from epilepsy, had been sentenced to seven years’ hard labor, but Webb gained his release. This week, Senator Webb authored an op-ed in the New York Times entitled, “We Can’t Afford to Ignore Myanmar.”

The senator’s trip also took him to Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. I spoke with Senator Webb yesterday asked him why he thought the reclusive Burmese leader met with him, released the American prisoner, and let him talk with Suu Kyi.

Building 'a new formula' in region

SEN. JIM WEBB, D-Va.: The communications that went back and forth in preparation for our visit, there was a lot of, I think, testing on both sides going on beforehand, and I believe, though, all those things went into their decisions.

MARGARET WARNER: So...

SEN. JIM WEBB: The most important thing, actually, right now is that we have an opportunity here to try to construct a new formula, and it's vital for the interests of the United States in Southeast Asia that we re-engage across the Southeast Asian mainland.

We are in real danger of losing our position, with the expansion of China, with this whole series of countries that I visited.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in an op-ed in the New York Times this week, you wrote that the U.S. should lift sanctions on Burma, and you said that the ultimate objective is to encourage Myanmar to become a responsible member of the world community, and you talked about having it under an open political system. In your meeting with General Shwe, did you see any evidence that he is interested at all in that kind of vision?

SEN. JIM WEBB: Probably. I don't want to characterize that meeting. I think the best thing for someone like myself is to leave the meeting where it was.

I made a series of observations and suggestions and recommendations to see how they respond following this visit. And there are a lot of ways that we can measure that.

And, by the way, another piece of this is, I'm not saying lift sanctions immediately. I'm saying we need to proceed immediately toward a formula where we can do that. By cutting off the United States and the European Union from Myanmar, as China is so heavily investing in the country, and we're seeing Myanmar now tilt away from our national interest. There's got to be a different way to do this.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, one of the leading pro-democracy in Burma groups says the U.S. should not offer the benefits of trade and investment to Burma, to Myanmar, until it takes real steps to open up its political system, that otherwise the U.S. would be just selling democracy down the river. What do you say to that?

SEN. JIM WEBB: I say, I share their objectives of moving toward a more open system. The question is how you get there.

And one of the interesting historical examples in that case is Vietnam itself. I was very strongly opposed to lifting sanctions on Vietnam after the Communists took over and how they treated the people who were with us.

But as other countries lifted their sanctions against Vietnam, it became more logical for us to do so, and, quite frankly, looking back on it, I think that was a key moment, in terms of beginning the process of opening up Vietnam.

The dissident groups that say you should have democracy first, really, I understand their frustrations, but they need to look at it a different way. Take what you can get and move toward democracy. That's the way you can bring change in Asia.

Regime's interest in the West

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you said "probably" you saw signs that the regime there is interested. I mean, can you be any more specific? Isn't it possible that they have no intention of making any real, concrete opening up to any other political party or to Aung San Suu Kyi's party?

SEN. JIM WEBB: Let's wait and see. I mean, the political party does exist. I had meetings in Burma, quite frankly, that I never could have had in Vietnam. If there would have been an opposition political party come and sit down and talk to me in Vietnam the way that they did in Burma, they'd have gone to jail.

So we need to take what we can get and see. My view is that there are other dimensions to lifting sanctions, and that is allowing people from Western cultures to interact on a daily basis with the people of Burma and, through those sorts of interactions, raising a level of consciousness so that you can have the right sort of interest, in terms of changing a system.

MARGARET WARNER: But then that gets back to the question of whether the regime is interested in having Western interaction with the people of Burma. I mean, they didn't indicate that after the cyclone last year.

SEN. JIM WEBB: They're a very isolated regime, geographically and otherwise. Because of the way that we have lost our contact with the people of Burma, there are very few people in this regime or in Burma who have had contact with the outside world, who have studied in our country or in European countries. So it's a process of breaking down a lot of barriers.

The only way you'll know is if we listen to them and begin to move forward. Clearly, what's been happening over the last 20 years, and particularly with the sanctions over the more than 10 years, has driven the people of Burma away from our type of society and isolated them from the rest of the world.

'Three strong recommendations'

MARGARET WARNER: And how did Than Shwe react when you suggested that Aung San Suu Kyi be freed from house arrest and that her party be allowed and encouraged to take part in next year's election?

SEN. JIM WEBB: I'm not going to characterize his reaction; I don't think it's appropriate. I laid out three strong recommendations in the meetings, all the meetings that I had there.

One was that they allow me to bring Mr. Yettaw home on humanitarian grounds. The other was that I be allowed a face-to-face meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. And the third was that they allow her to be released from confinement and to participate in the progress -- political process.

Another piece of this, quite frankly, is whether her political party will participate in the process unless it is something that they believe is more even-handed.

And one point I should raise, with respect to the meetings with General Than Shwe, is that I communicated to them as clearly as I could that the rest of the world views their government through the way that they treat Aung San Suu Kyi and it was important for them to show more even-handedness there.

MARGARET WARNER: You are one of the few Americans who's been able to even get into Myanmar in recent years. What were your visual impressions? What did it look like?

SEN. JIM WEBB: It's a beautiful country. I've been there eight years before. Even eight years ago, you could see that it was starting to show wear and tear from its isolation from the rest of the world. It's much more graphic today.

But I really don't want to be one of those members of Congress who can drop into a country for two days and come out and give you some, you know, grand assessment. I had a lot more time in Burma eight years ago as a private citizen than I would have now.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me finally, before we end this, ask about Afghanistan. You're a Vietnam veteran. You opposed both the Iraq -- the first Gulf War and the Iraq war. Five months into President Obama's heightened commitment in Afghanistan, how do you think it's going?

SEN. JIM WEBB: I have a lot of concerns about the way we've articulated our national goals in Afghanistan. I've commuted them directly -- communicated them directly to General Petraeus, Admiral Mullen, Secretary Gates in different hearings. And I think that it is extremely important for us to be able to articulate the end point of our strategy, just as it was in Iraq, and the same thing I was saying in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Many Democrats -- a growing number of Democrats are beginning to see and draw parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan. Do you see those parallels? Do they concern you?

SEN. JIM WEBB: It's a totally different situation, totally different situation. The challenge in both is to clearly articulate your strategy so that you will have an end point that you are working toward. And, quite frankly, I see that as less visible in Afghanistan than I saw it during the Vietnam War.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Webb, thank you.

SEN. JIM WEBB: Thank you.