US announces major shift in Burma policy

US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrive at a luncheon during the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday. AP

At the same time, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton insisted that its ultimate goal of protection of human rights and establishing democracy in Burma remains unchanged.

While the policy was previewed by Clinton before a 14- member group of 'Friends of Burma' including India at the UN headquarters in New York, a senior State Department official told reporters in a late night conference call that the process of high-level engagement has already begun.

Clinton said that the US would apply both tools – engagement and sanctions – but would pursue same goals. "To help achieve democratic reform, we will be engaging directly with Burmese authorities. This is a policy that has broad consensus across our government, and there will be more to report as we go forward," Clinton told reporters.

"I would emphasise that we talked to the Burmese already," the State Department official said adding that they were expecting the Burmese military junta to soon announce a point man for the US-Burma dialogue.

It is very much possible that senior officials from the Obama Administration would meet the top junta officials who are currently in New York to attend the 64th Session of the UN General Assembly.

Burmese Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein is currently attending the UN General Assembly session in New York in more than a decade.

Last week, in a good will gesture, the Obama Administration had allowed the Burmese Foreign Minister Maj. Gen. Nyan Win to travel to Washington to meet his embassy staff and also Senator Jim Webb, who has been advocating the policy of engagement.

Similarly, the Obama Administration is also expected to announce a US Envoy for Burma.
"We expect the Burmese will be designating someone who would be an interlocutor for us. We will certainly have someone who would be available to talk. But I don't know that we're going to designate, officially, an interlocutor," the State Department official said.

Referring to the new policy announced by Clinton at the UN meeting, the State Department official said the Obama Administration would be using a mix of policy tools.

"Sanctions remain important, as the Secretary said today, an important tool. By themselves, they have not produced the results we would like, but that does not mean they don't have value... So going forward, we can expect to use a mix of tools," he said.

Relations between the US and Burma, which has been under military rule for almost five decades, have been strained this year by the junta's conviction of opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi for an internal security breach. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has spent 14 of the past 20 years in detention.

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