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Senator Webb: Burma at Threshold of Democratic, Economic Growth

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Location: Washington, DC

Senator Jim Webb, whose historic trip to Burma in 2009 set the stage for a new direction in U.S. policy toward that country, gave the opening address this week at "The Myanmar Conference" hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

"We are at a threshold, where I am seeing the intentions of the people who have been on the governing side, on military side to learn democracy. They come over here and say, "Show us how to do this,'" said Senator Webb, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs. "What we want to see--and I think we have the potential right now--is democratic principles being implanted into the system so that you can have a vigorous political growth that will also have a vigorous economic growth."

"I honestly didn't ever think we were going to come to this day, and then I remember waking up one morning and reading in the New York Times about Senator Webb going to Myanmar," said Dr. John Hamre, President and CEO of CSIS and a former deputy secretary of defense, in his introduction of Senator Webb. "We are lucky to have someone of his conviction and character who is willing to do this…. There are far too many politicians who are only worried about getting the vote and not enough that are willing to bring a new idea to the policy landscape…. It's about time we start looking at [Myanmar] in a different way, and this is the man who has given us the opportunity."

"Where is this going to go politically and economically? It really depends on whether we work to continue to increase openness of this society," said Senator Webb, who has supported a growing number exchanges with government officials, academics, and other civil society actors. He has continually warned that the lack of physical infrastructure and ongoingeconomic sanctions are holding back Burma's potential economic growth.


Transcript of Opening Address
Senator Jim Webb
"The Myanmar Conference" hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies
September 25, 2012

Let me begin by thanking CSIS for the leadership it has shown in so many different issues that affect American foreign policy and for convening this conference today. There is a lot of expertise in the room. I want to recognize David Steinberg, who has been working on the issue of American--Burmese relations since 1958. He brings a wealth of experience and observations to this. I know it is probably just as rewarding a feeling forothers as it has been for me to see how far we have been able to come in the last couple of years.

It has been a remarkable week in terms of the evolution in the political environment. I was one of the dozen senators who were part of the greeting party for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi last week, the morning before she received a Congressional Gold Medal. It was quite interesting in that meeting to hear her views and the wisdom that she brings to the resolution of this issue. This week we welcomed President Thein Sein, which is a big moment also for the evolution of these relations. I have often said over the past year that the greatest reason I think that we were able to see the changes that have taken place has been because of the courage of these two people and the courage of both of them to work together. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi andPresident Thein Sein are completely different people in terms of their personal backgrounds and their professional experience. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a member of a revered family, as all of us know. Her father was killed when she was two years old, speaking for the independence movement for Burma right after World War II. President Thein Sein--if you look at an article that was published in the New York Times last summer--came from a village in a remote area, which still to this day does not have paved roads. She had one journey: studied in the West and has a tremendous understanding of the way we talk about democracy. He had another journey: through the military. But at a critical time in the evolution of the political mentality in a country, they came together, and they decided to work together, and they are still working together.

I think some of the most impressive comments that Aung San Suu Kyi said last week were that it is important to incentivize and reward positive conduct and to work together to build a new type of a political system. This was the message that I attempted to take through Burma when I went in 2009, as well.

I would like to begin, in terms of my own perspective on this issue, with the views that I brought to the United States Senate about the United States' relations with Asia writ-large. It was one of my principal goals in coming to the Senate to reinvigorate the relationships between ourcountry and East and Southeast Asia. We had, for two different reasons I think, lost the intensity that we traditionally had brought into those relationships -- the intensity in a good sense of the word. One reason was the emotional and financialdrain that had been taken by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our attention span, our energies as a country had been focused on that part of the world to the detriment of our relations in East Asia. The second reason was that when we spoke of East Asia, so often -- particularly in the political environments where your time is limited -- we were speaking more about United States-China relations. They are vital relations. They are very complicated relations -- two completely different governmental systems that are intertwined economically and are sorting out security relations. But we were not focusing enough on the other countries in the region with which our relations are equally important.

The role of the United States for a long time has been as an Asian nation. That is one thing I think people tend to forget. In fact, our first treaty of friendship and cooperation was with Thailand in 1832 during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Since World War II, the United States has proved to be the balancing factor, the stabilizing force in East Asia--particularly in Northeast Asia--at some costs such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The United States has been the honest broker, in terms of assisting this region in maintaining the kind of stability that allows economic systems to grow and political systems to mature. When I came to the Senate I decided that from our office, as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and eventually as the Chair of the East Asia and Pacific Subcommittee, we would focus on energizing U.S. relations with Japan, with Korea, and with ASEAN -- and particularly among ASEAN, the countries of Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore -- and to work to rebalance the formula in Burma. Those six countries have taken up an enormous amount of time from the perspective of our office since I have been in the Senate. We have traveled to all of those countries. We have worked with people at the minister level and at the national leadership level. We have hosted meetings in our office to discuss the complexities of many of these relationships and the future of the United States with those countries and in the region.

I have spent a great deal of time in Vietnam in my life. My wife is here today; I am proud to have her here. She was born in Vietnam. She came here as a refugee and eventually graduated from Cornell Law School (She is the smart one in this couple). I first returned to Vietnam in 1991 and have been in Vietnam every year but three since 1991. I have been working with the Vietnamese community here and working with the Vietnamese government over there to attempt to move our two countries past the war into the future. I brought American companies into Vietnam for two and a half years at one point.

I spent a great deal of time in Japan. First, as a Marine, then as a journalist, and then as a novelist. I was the first American journalist allowed inside the Japanese prison system in the 1980s, writing a piece on Americans in Japanese jails. I have made many visits to Okinawa. I worked as a military planner on Guam in 1974. The issues now that we have been facing with Okinawa and Guam were issues I began working on in the 1970s.

As a senator, I was the first member of Congress to visit Laos in, I think, seven years. I was the first member of Congress to visit Cambodia in two years.

At the end of 2008, I decided that the time had come for us to reach out to the military government in Burma and see if we could have the kind of discussion that would, on the one hand clearly lay out American objectives, but on the other hand try to incentivize conduct to see if we could start working on a different way forward in that country.

I first went to Burma in 2001 as a private citizen, I had written a piece for the Wall Street Journal about American interests in Asia, the emerging influence of China in the region, and the concern that the United States was not addressing these second tier countries to the detriment of the stability of the region and also of our country. There was an individual who had a business in Burma, Chris Kingsley, who sent me a letter. He wrote, "Do you want to see a place where American inattention and Chinese involvement is causing potential problems down the road? Come and visit me." So, I spent eight days with him. He had a very successful business. He was hiring Burmese citizens not only to work, but also in the management structure. I was able to walk around freely, see things in the country.

Kingsley kept telling me, "We've got a good thing going here. We are teaching people business models. We are getting economic growth. And guess what? I am going to be out of here by 2003. Our sanctions are coming down. I am not going to be able to do business here." And he was correct. He is still a very successful businessman in Asia, but he eventually had to shut his business down in Burma. That has stayed in my mind and I have been in communications with him and others since then.

So we decided at the end of 2008 that our office would put together a visit to the heads of state in Burma. It took us seven months ofvery careful preparation in order to make this visit. I made it in the context of a larger visit to five Southeast Asia mainland countries: Vietnam,Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and then Burma. I became the first Americanleader in 10 years to have visited that country. I think I will remain the only American ever to have met with Than Shwe, the leader of the military government. I also, at my request, was able to meet with Aung San SuuKyi, who then was under house arrest.

From that visit, I think a couple of results occurred. First it was clear to me that the government and the people had become so remote over the preceding 20 years didn't know how to approach the West properly -- even those that were very desirous of doing so. The ruling committee had actually shrunk over the years. It had not added new bodies. The language skills were poor; the understanding on the street was poor. In fact, one of the points that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made last week when we were meeting with her was that if you truly are going to grow democracy, the people on the street and the people in the small governing bodies have to come to understand the principles just as well as the leaders who are coming over here to have themeetings. This was one of the reasons that I personally supported the idea of lifting the sanctions in Vietnam so many years ago. The presence of people from different governmental systems and different cultures on the street in a country that has been so remote has an incredible impact. A hydraulic impact, for lack of a better word, goes out into the community.

I came away with the belief that, in order to change the conduct of political systems, it is vital to encourage and to incentivize, not simply to criticize. There comes a point where you must retain your nationalprinciples but at the same time you must show that there is an upside to the leadership and to the average member of any governing system to make these sorts of changes. When you think about the notion of sanctions and removing sanctions, it also stuck in my mind that we lifted sanctions on China 41 years ago. The Chinese governmental system is clearly not a democratic governmental system, but in that part of the world you have to take change as it comes. You have to take what you can and build on it. We lifted sanctions on Vietnam 18 years ago.

So after that meeting, a series of meetings here over the years, and a return visit this year in April following the successful elections, I think we can say that the governing systems in Burma have taken a pretty dramatic risk. People like Thein Sein have taken a pretty dramatic risk -- something that we don't often see, particularly in that part of the world. They have agreed to change their political system before they change their economic system. Generally, the premise that we were using when we looked at countries like China and Vietnam was the reverse. That, if you change the economic system, if the wellbeing of people increases, then there will be -- so the theory goes -- loosening of the political system. But they have done this the other way around in Burma.

I believe strongly that when the moment comes, in a lot of different situations in history, you need to take it, you need to seize it, and you need to build on it. I think that is what we are seeing right now. I think it is strongly in the national interest of the United States to encourage and to support these changes. I think we have heard very positive and wise comments from Aung San Suu Kyi last week. We will continue to hear from her. I think the State Department and this administration have given the right signals to President Thein Sein as he has come to this country with the type of official welcome he is receiving. I am hopeful we cancontinue to build on this. Where is this going to go politically and economically? It really depends on whether we work to continue to increase openness of this society. What I don't want is to have this situation fall into the old definitions that we have used in places, like Vietnam and China to a certain extent, where you have the Communist and the anti-Communist, or the forces of repression versus the forces of liberation.

We are at a threshold here -- and Aung San Suu Kyi mentioned this last week -- where I am seeing the intentions of the people who have been on the governing side, on military side to learn democracy. They come over here and say, "Show us how to do this." Not all of them are that way; I am a realist here. But what we need to do is work with both parties, with all parties, to emphasize the tenants of democracy, to work to put that into the system so this isn't simply anti-democracy versus pro-democracy. What we want to see, and I think we have the potential right now, is democratic principles being implanted into the system so that you can have a vigorous political growth that will also have a vigorous economic growth.

What are the two big hold-ups in terms of potential economic growth in this country? The first obviously is infrastructure. This is a country that has been very remote, that is going to need a lot of physical infrastructure. The second is the willingness of countries like our own to at a minimum suspend the sanctions to test the concept, to allow investment, and to see if this can't be a situation where the growth of the country and the success of the future can match the potential that so many people were seeing back in 1958 when Dr. Steinberg was first visiting the country. So that is my message to you today and I am happy to be able to join you at a time that a lot of people thought wouldn't be occurring.


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