Why Obama Will Meet with a Leader of Burma's Junta

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Burma's Prime Minister Thein Sein.

Among the many hands that Barack Obama will likely shake on his inaugural trip to Asia as U.S. President will be that of a soft-spoken general who happens to represent one of the world's most repressive regimes. Obama's planned joint appearance on Nov. 15 with Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein, at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations' confab on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Singapore, will mark the first time since the era of Lyndon B. Johnson that an American President has spent any face-time with a member of the Burmese junta that has ruled since 1962.

The brief meet-and-greet will underscore a major shift in American foreign policy toward the Southeast Asian nation, renamed Myanmar by its ruling generals. For decades the U.S. has shunned contact with the Burmese military regime and in recent years has tightened financial sanctions on its leaders for their murderous treatment of their citizens. (In the most recent crackdown in 2007, security forces gunned down dozens of Buddhist monks and other peaceful protesters.)

But after a strategic review conducted over several months, the U.S. State Department announced in September that it would pursue a policy of cautious engagement with Burma, in part because isolation had not worked in blunting the regime's brutal behavior. Administration officials cautioned that sanctions would remain in place for the time being and would only be lifted if the Burmese government showed tangible human-rights progress. But dialogue with dictators, goes the new U.S. thinking that is being applied from Iran to North Korea, is now seen as preferable to not talking and cutting off any chance at reconciliation.

The change in policy also reflects the political and economic reality in Asia. While the U.S. and European Union have stayed away, other countries have poured money into Burma — most notably its neighbors China, Thailand and India, who are hungry for the country's plentiful natural resources. The sting of western sanctions has been lessened by such investment forays, leaving the Burmese military brass with plenty of money to prop up their regime.

As part of the policy shift, Kurt Campbell, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, visited Burma earlier this month — the first such high-level tour in nearly 15 years. In a significant concession, Campbell was allowed to meet for two hours with the opposition leader and Nobel Peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Her party won by a landslide in 1990 elections that the junta then ignored; and her continued detention has angered the West. But not everyone was available to meet Campbell: junta supremo General Than Shwe stayed holed up in his army bunker, snubbing the visiting American. (Although he holds the title of Prime Minister, Thein Sein, who the U.S. President will meet, is merely fourth in Burma's military hierarchy.)

Besides a possible winding down of sanctions, what does Burma get out of a rapprochement with the United States? Despite its reputation as a self-isolating regime, Burma's army just may be looking for a little international affirmation. Next year, the generals will orchestrate a national election — the first since the 1990 polls that they ignored because their party lost so badly. This time around, the military has done its best to ensure its ruling clique will stay in power. The new constitution reserves top government positions for members of the military, and an esoteric set of rules seems specifically designed to keep Suu Kyi from participating in the electoral process. International monitor groups also have little doubt that vote-rigging will reach Afghan proportions. Nonetheless, the State Peace and Development Council, as the regime has designated itself, appears interesting in having the outside world approve of the elections — if only to confer legitimacy on its continuing rule.

If Obama does exchange more than photo-op pleasantries with Thein Sein in Singapore, it would be natural for the American to ask the Burmese Prime Minister about Suu Kyi's fate. In a tantalizing announcement earlier this month, Min Lwin, a director-general of Burma's Foreign Ministry claimed to the Associated Press that "there is a plan to release [Aung San Suu Kyi] soon