US senator to chair Burma policy talks

Sept 11, 2009 (DVB), The United States senator who met with Burma's ruling generals in August and secured the release of John Yettaw is to chair a discussion on US policy to Burma, he announced yesterday.

Virginia senator Jim Webb was the first senior US politician to meet with Burma's junta supremo, Than Shwe. During his visit he also met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Webb, who is outspoken in his anti-sanctions stance on Burma, stirred debate following the visit with an article in the New York Times that called for greater engagement with the regime.

US policy to Burma is currently under review following the apparent failure of sanctions to pressure the ruling junta.

Critics of current US policy argue that the impact of sanctions is significantly weakened given the strong economic support from Burma's regional neighbours, particularly China.

"The hearing will evaluate the effectiveness of US policy toward Burma, with a focus on US-imposed economic sanctions that have not been matched by other countries," a statement said.

Burma's regional neighbours continue to trade with the regime and oppose sanctions. Thailand relies on Burma for the majority of its energy needs, while China is currently building oil and gas pipelines through Burma to access the country's vast gas reserves.

As chairman of the East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, Webb has considerable clout on US policy to the region. During his August trip he also visited Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Following his meeting with Than Shwe, Webb secured the release of imprisoned US citizen John Yettaw, whose May visit to Suu Kyi's compound triggered her detention. Yettaw had been sentenced to seven years imprisonment with hard labour.

Following the visit, Webb was criticized by voices in the pro-sanctions lobby for apparently handing legitimacy to the regime.

Critics of greater engagement claim that softening US policy to Burma rewards the regime despite no gains being made.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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