US senator Webb gives election backing

Jan 6, 2010 (DVB), US senator Jim Webb, the only senior-level US official to have met Burmese junta chief Than Shwe, has said that he supports the junta's controversial planned elections, to be held this year.

In a statement released on Monday, Webb, who chairs the US senate's East Asia and Pacific Affairs subcommittee, said that he "was pleased to learn that the Burmese government is carrying forward its intention to hold national elections in 2010".

"I will support all appropriate efforts to ensure that the election process is credible and transparent, [and] stand ready to help in all appropriate ways as we work toward the day when the Burmese people can fully rejoin the world community." he added.

Echoing UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon's praise for the "support" from the junta of UN goals for the country, Webb said that the UN and other international organizations "could provide valuable election assistance, and thus enhance the integrity of the process".

The Burmese government is yet to announce a date for elections, which have been mired in controversy. The international community is undecided on whether to support what appears to be a superficial ploy to cement military rule in the country, with the 2008 constitution guaranteeing 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military even prior to voting.

Despite Webb's comments, the US state department said on Monday that it had seen no evidence of a willingness by the generals to move towards democratic transition, with the number of political prisoners continuing to rise.

Webb however holds considerable clout on US policy to Burma, and his visit to the pariah state in May triggered a shift towards an emphasis on US engagement with the reclusive generals, following years of sanctions and isolation.

He also met with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, although the constitution, coupled with her ongoing house arrest, prohibits her from participating in the elections.

Consequently, her National League for Democracy (NLD) party has not yet announced whether it will compete or not, and has demanded a revision of the constitution prior to polling.

His comments also symbolized a wider shift in rhetoric from both Washington and the UN, which in the past had been accusatory.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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