US officials scrutinising Burma détente

Two senior-level US officials currently in Burma have held talks with the country’s foreign minister amid the strongest push yet by Washington to reengage with a government it considers more intent on reform than its prior incarnation.

The US delegation is the latest in a flurry of diplomatic maneuvering by key players in the international community, and coincides with a visit by Ban Ki-moon’s chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, who has stepped in as acting UN envoy to Burma.

A US embassy spokesperson in Rangoon told DVB that the two US officials, Ambassador Derek Mitchell and Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Michael Posner, held talks with Wunna Maung Lwin yesterday. The three had “detailed discussions on political prisoners, and on political reconciliation with both the democratic opposition and armed ethnic groups,” according to the spokesperson.

It is the third time since September that Mitchell has visited Burma, having only just rounded off a two-day trip on Wednesday last week. Observers consider the intensity of Washington’s efforts to engage the government as a sign that the Obama administration is attempting to break with past US policy of isolationism, although officials have remained coy about the future of US sanctions on Burma.

Posner reportedly told the head of the Democratic Party Myanmar, Thu Wei, that “the US will look to revoke sanctions step-by-step” if key demands are met. These include a greater space for opposition political parties to operate in, as well as the full release of political prisoners and “peace making”, likely referring to ongoing conflicts between Naypyidaw and ethnic armies.

According to Thu Wei, Posner was in Burma to “see how solid the changes are”, and said that Washington considers the process of reform to be “rapidly taking place”.

While the issue of human rights and political freedom dominates the rhetoric of Washington’s approach to Burma, it has also made little secret of its desire to contain China’s growing clout in the region by drawing strategically valuable Southeast Asian states such as Burma and Vietnam into its own orbit.

Mitchell’s consecutive visits may be an attempt to exploit an apparent fissure in relations between Burma and its most prized ally, China, following President Thein Sein’s decision in early October to scrap the China-backed Myitsone dam. There is thought to be unease in the top echelons of the Burmese government over its increasing subservience to China, although Wunna Maung Lwin was quickly dispatched to Beijing following the Myitsone announcement to help mend relations.

In a lengthy article by Hillary Clinton in Foreign Policy magazine last month, the Secretary of State spoke of the need for the US gain a foothold in the Asia-Pacific after decades spent watching its influence there decline.

Under the title of ‘America’s Pacific Century’, she wrote: “In a time of scarce resources, there’s no question that we need to invest them wisely where they will yield the biggest returns, which is why the Asia-Pacific represents such a real 21st-century opportunity for us.”

Washington will closely monitor any signs of tension between Burma and China, as it has done over the past year with Vietnam, which is currently at loggerheads with Beijing over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea. A panel of experts are due in Washington DC on Friday to conduct a forum on China-Burma relations and US interests in the region.

In a telling sign of US interests in the region, the conference is part-sponsored by Chevron, which operates a controversial pipeline in Burma and is the US’ key economic interest in the country, and includes Professor Li Chenyang, one of a team of Chinese academics who made the first public proposal for the trans-Burma Shwe gas pipeline, financed by Beijing. China’s unease over the stability of its eastern seaboard and the Malacca Straits chokepoint, through which much of its oil cargoes travel, largely prompted it to build the pipeline through Burma.

Additional reporting by Shwe Aung.

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