For the first time since his historic trip in 2009, U.S. Senator Jim Webb returned to Burma (Myanmar) this week shortly after that country's national parliamentary by-elections. Senator Webb, who chairs the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, met with President Thein Sein, the leaders of both Houses of Parliament, government ministers, business leaders, media owners, and representatives of political parties. He also observed negotiations between government officials and leaders of the Karen ethnic groups.
At a press conference today, Senator Webb made the following statement:
"We have reached a profound moment in the history of Burma and of the relationship between the United States and that country. When such moments occur, history teaches us that it is important to act, and to act in a way that is clear and decisive. This means that we should examine all of the economic sanctions on Burma with an eye toward removing those that would be appropriate given the recent and continuing gestures of their government and we should do so in a timely, but also careful, way. I believe that there are genuine efforts taking place inside the country--and that have taken place over the last year--to resolve the political and ethnic divisions of the past. Burmese people of all backgrounds want to see their country move forward to its rightful place in the community of nations.
"This movement toward reconciliation has been propelled by the courage of two leaders who could not be more different in their backgrounds and their life experiences. They joined together in their resolve to set aside their differences for the good of the country and to try to move the country forward economically, governmentally and in other ways. They are two people of courage. I respect them both. They are Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein.
"I believe, from years of observation and listening, that the Burmese people have been waiting for a very long time for this moment. They have been waiting for 50 years to enter into a full partnership with the rest of the international community. It is also important to point out that Aung San Suu Kyi--whose struggles and sacrifices were at the very core of the reason that sanctions originally took place--is now an elected representative of the existing government, is empowered and listened to at every level of government, and is directly participating in shaping the future of the country. Opposition parties have been formed. This is an evolutionary process, obviously, but it is tangible and it is a reality that does not exist in a number of other countries in this region -- countries with which the United States has full economic and diplomatic ties; China and Vietnam come immediately to mind.
"The media have been allowed to open up over the last year. When I had the meeting today with representatives from different media groups, they had concerns. We listened to them; we appreciate them. But unanimously they also said that the situation is far different than it was a year ago and that the ability to report and comment on political events inside the country is vastly improved. And, again, there are other countries in the region about which I do not think we can say that and those are countries with which we do have relations.
"Many political prisoners have been released. Again, this is an imperfect and emerging process but it is a step forward and we are monitoring that situation and hopeful that it will continue.
"In summation, I think what we have seen in the last nine months is a dramatic political change at the same time that stability has been preserved. These are two rare and welcome events if you look in the international political climate today. The United States has an obligation to do its part to ensure that both of these factors remain in place: the emergence of greater political change and also the continuation of stability inside the country. In my view, the best way for us to do this is to reward the positive conduct that has come from the existing government and to assist the Burmese people as they grow their economy and take their rightful place as a strong member of the international community.
"When I return to Washington, it is my intention to engage in vigorous discussions with members of our Administration and other Members of Congress and also to chair a hearing from my position as the chair of the Subcommittee on East Asian Affairs on the Foreign Relations Committee so that we can achieve our goal of finding an agreement and substantive change in policy that will reward the positive actions of the current government, but also continue to incentivize the process of change."
In 2009, Senator Webb was the first Member of Congress to visit Burma in more than 10 years, and he remains the only American official ever to meet with the country's now-former senior leader, General Than Shwe. He also met with Aung San Suu Kyi--who at that time remained under house arrest--and obtained the release of American prisoner John Yettaw. Following that trip, Senator Webb chaired a Foreign Relations Committee oversight hearing on US - Burma relations at which he called for increased confidence-building gestures in order to pursue better relations between the two governments. He has met frequently on this topic with political leaders from that country, as well as other foreign policy leaders from the international community, and pro-democracy organizations in the expatriate community. He first visited Burma in 2001 as a private citizen.
Senator Webb has enjoyed a continuous personal involvement in Asian and Pacific affairs that long predates his time in the Senate. In addition to his visits as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has worked and traveled throughout this vast region for more than four decades--as a Marine Corps officer, a defense planner, a journalist, a novelist, a senior official in the Department of Defense, and a business consultant. Click here to read more about Senator Webb's background in the region.