Webb slams Myanmar sanctions

WASHINGTON: US Senator Jim Webb, back from a rare trip to Myanmar, called sanctions against the military regime "overwhelmingly counterproductive" and asked the opposition to consider taking part in upcoming elections.

Webb, who became the first US official to meet the junta's reclusive leader Than Shwe, voiced concern that Western isolation of Myanmar pushed it into the arms of China, "furthering a dangerous strategic imbalance in the region."

The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Myanmar, earlier known as Burma, due to its refusal to recognize the last elections in 1990 and prolonged detention of the victor, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

"While the political motivations behind this approach are laudable, the result has been overwhelmingly counterproductive," Webb wrote Wednesday in The New York Times.

"The ruling regime has become more entrenched and at the same time more isolated. The Burmese people have lost access to the outside world," he said.

Webb said he opposed lifting sanctions due to US economic interests or "if such a decision were seen as a capitulation of our long-held position that Myanmar should abandon its repressive military system in favor of democratic rule.

"But it would be just as bad for us to fold our arms, turn our heads and pretend that by failing to do anything about the situation in Myanmar we are somehow helping to solve it," he said.

Webb said the United States could offer to help Myanmar carry out elections next year.

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has denounced the vote -- the first since the 1990 polls -- as a sham, particularly as the Nobel laureate remains under house arrest.

But Webb said the opposition party "might consider the advantages of participation as part of a longer-term political strategy."

"There is room for engagement" with Myanmar, Webb wrote. "Many Asian countries -- China among them -- do not even allow opposition parties."

Webb, a Vietnam veteran and author who heads the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Asia, won the freedom of a troubled American who had been jailed in Myanmar for swimming to Aung San Suu Kyi's home.

Webb has faced the fury of some Myanmar democracy activists, who accuse him of giving a propaganda coup to the junta.