US to engage Myanmar slowly

WASHINGTON: The United States has warned that its bid to engage Myanmar will be "slow and painful" as it prepares to send a rare mission to a country a top official said was more mysterious than North Korea.

Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said a team would head to Myanmar to follow on his talks last month in New York, which marked the highest-level US contact with the military regime in nearly a decade.

"We intend to go to Burma in the next few weeks for a fact-finding mission," Campbell testified Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, using Myanmar's old name.

Campbell did not specify who would take part in the trip. Another senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Campbell hoped to go himself but it would depend on whether the junta gives him access to the opposition.

Campbell told the committee that the US mission hoped to meet with the junta as well as detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and representatives of ethnic groups that have battled the military regime.

The junta has kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the past two decades after her National League for Democracy swept elections in 1990 but was barred from taking power.

President Barack Obama's administration has sought to engage US adversaries including Iran, Cuba and Sudan.

The administration, in a policy review, last month concluded that the longstanding US approach of isolating Myanmar had failed to bear fruit but said it would not ease sanctions without progress on democracy and human rights.

Campbell, who has sought to reassure democracy activists, told the House committee the dialogue would "supplement rather than replace the sanction regimes that has been at the center of our Burma policy for many years."

"We expect engagement with Burma to be a long, slow, painful and step-by-step process," Campbell said.

"We will not judge the success of our effort at pragmatic engagement by the results of a handful of meetings. Engagement for its own sake is obviously not a goal for US policy," he said.

Campbell said that one goal was simply to gain a better understanding of the junta, which he described as "a group of men that have self-isolated themselves.

"In my particular area, the country that we know the least about at a fundamental level, even less than North Korea, is Burma," said the top US diplomat for Asia.

Representative Joseph Crowley, one of Aung San Suu Kyi's top champions in Congress, said he backed the new strategy in part because the detained Nobel laureate has indicated her support.

But Crowley, a member of Obama's Democratic Party, appealed to Campbell not to let the talks drag on without benchmarks or time-lines.

"It is a real possibility that the military regime will try and use ongoing talks to buy time, in order to proceed with a sham election they have scheduled for next year," he said.

The National League for Democracy plans to shun the elections, the first since 1990. The United States has voiced skepticism about the upcoming polls but said it is willing to discuss them with the junta.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a conservative Republican, was one of the few to reject the US outreach to Myanmar altogether, questioning assertions that the United States needed to learn more about the junta.

"With all due respect, we know all about Burma. It's not an unknown quantity. It has a vicious gangster regime, one of the most despicable regimes in this planet," he said.

"We are saying that they are a legitimate government to sit down with. They are not," he said.

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the top Republican on the committee, also questioned the support being offered by Human Rights Watch and non-governmental organization the US Campaign for Burma for the administration's engagement policy.

"It's gotten to the point where human rights organizations are mouthing the same platitudes" as government officials, warned Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American and outspoken critic of undemocratic regimes.

"I believe many human rights organizations have lost their voice -- they are no longer standing up for the people who are oppressed, who are murdered, who are raped," she said.

A State Department official, Stephen Blake, quietly visited Myanmar in March to hold talks with both the junta and the opposition. It was the first trip by a senior US envoy to the country in more than seven years.

In August, Myanmar's military leader Than Shwe held an unprecedented meeting with a visiting US senator, Jim Webb, a leading advocate of engaging the junta.