JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the U.S. changes course on dealing with an Asian dictatorship. Margaret Warner has that story.
MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. has been estranged from Myanmar since 1988, when the military unleashed bloody reprisals against pro-democracy demonstrators and staged a coup. Thousands were reported killed.
Since then, the nation also known as Burma has slid deeper into repression and isolation from the West. But at the U.N. last week, after a months-long review, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled the Obama administration was considering a shift in policy.
HILLARY CLINTON: We believe that sanctions remain important as part of our policy, but by themselves, they have not produced the results that had been hoped for on behalf of the people of Burma. Engagement versus sanctions is a false choice, in our opinion. So going forward, we will be employing both of those tools, pursuing our same goals.
MARGARET WARNER: On Monday, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell made it official.
KURT CAMPBELL: 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.
MARGARET WARNER: Yet it remains unclear just how far Myanmar’s rulers — a reclusive group of generals — are willing to go. As recently as 2007, they carried out a violent new crackdown, as protesting Buddhist monks were beaten in the streets.
The leading opposition figure, Nobel Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest. U.S. and European sanctions haven’t hindered Myanmar’s bustling trade in energy and raw materials with neighbors like China, India and Thailand.
This summer, the U.S. tracked this North Korean ship suspected of carrying banned weapons cargo to Burma, until it turned back. And though video filmed surreptitiously during last year’s cyclone showed desperate poverty and despair, it took immense international pressure to get the regime to let humanitarian aid into the country.
The administration says it will boost humanitarian aid but retain sanctions for now while talking to the regime. But not surprisingly, even this limited opening is stirring some concern.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, co-author of the U.S. sanctions bill against Myanmar, reacted skeptically today.
U.S. to maintain sanctions
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., senate minority leader: It's one of the few thug regimes left in the world. And I guess my reaction to an effort to engage with this regime is, as long as we maintain the sanctions and continue to work to broaden the sanctions, if Secretary Clinton or others want to have some discussions with them, I suppose that's OK. But I would not want to signal to this regime that we're willing to step back from any of the sanctions.
KURT CAMPBELL: There is no suggestion that we are prepared in any way to lift sanctions. There has to be credible forward steps on the ground. We have seen no such steps in the current environment for us to move forward in a positive way.
MARGARET WARNER: Assistant Secretary of State Campbell says, given Burma's interest in a dialogue, there could be potential benefits.
KURT CAMPBELL: If we can improve conditions inside the country, if we can get greater freedom for opposition groups to participate politically, if we can get a cessation of hostilities with some of the ethnic groups, if we can get Burma to continue to play a positive role in implementing U.N. sanctions against North Korea, then I think it will have been worthwhile.
JEREMY WOODRUM, director, U.S. Campaign for Burma: I would say there is less than a 50 percent chance that just talking to the regime is going to work.
MARGARET WARNER: Jeremy Woodrum, co-founder of the pro-democracy U.S. Coalition for Burma, agrees that after two decades of isolating Myanmar, it's time to try something else, but he has a warning.
JEREMY WOODRUM: The Burmese regime will try to focus on issues apart from change -- from a transition to democracy in Burma. They will try to cooperate with the U.S. on anti-narcotics, on anti-terrorism issues, and other issues in a way that could distract the United States from the underlying goal of promoting democracy and human rights inside Burma.
MARGARET WARNER: Campbell says at his first meeting with the Burmese in New York yesterday, the U.S. was crystal clear about its focus.
KURT CAMPBELL: We had some very specific points that we wanted to raise on all the issues that you can imagine -- on Aung San Suu Kyi, on the 2010 elections, on our proliferation concerns -- so we were very clear in our meeting with them about what our approach will be to this dialogue.
'Redirection is timely'
MARGARET WARNER: That approach should be tough, said the Buddhist monks and pro-democracy activists who showed up today when Campbell testified on Capitol Hill. But the subcommittee chairman, Vietnam veteran and Democratic Senator Jim Webb, supported the administration's move.
SEN. JIM WEBB, D-Va.: I believe that this redirection is timely.
MARGARET WARNER: Webb, who traveled to Myanmar this past summer, has been pressing for greater engagement.
SEN. JIM WEBB: I believe that the political motivations behind our isolation of Burma were honorable, based on a desire to see democratic governance and a respect for human rights inside that country. At the same time, the situation we face with Burma is an example of what can happen when we seek to isolate a country from the rest of the world, but the rest of the world does not follow.
KURT CAMPBELL: Through direct dialogue, we will be able to test the intentions of the Burmese leadership and the sincerity of their expressed interest in a more positive relationship with the United States. The way forward will be clearly tied to concrete actions on the ground. We will reserve the option of tightening sanctions on the regime and its supporters to respond to events in Burma.
MARGARET WARNER: That's exactly what most pro-democracy activists think it will take to bring real change to Myanmar.