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A Roundtable Discussion on U.S.-Myanmar Relations

Aired October 07, 2009 - 15:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains under long-term house arrest in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. But the United States is going to open a dialogue with the military junta that imprisons her. So is the U.S. relegating human rights to the back burner?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

In a dramatic policy shift, the United States is now softening its tough stance towards the military regime in Myanmar by talking with it, not isolating it, in the hope of changing its behavior.

In the former capital, Yangon, one of Myanmar's officials today met with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but the junta still refuses to release her, the Nobel Prize-winner who's been under house arrest for 14 of the last 20 years. And this summer, it slapped her with another 18 months of house arrest.

But this is the policy Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has laid down.


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: To help achieve democratic reform, we will be engaging directly with Burmese authorities.


AMANPOUR: For now, the sanctions stay. So tonight, our question is, how does the democratic world deal with repressive regimes? How does it have meaningful engagement, meaningful influence on regimes such as the one in Myanmar?

To address that question, I'm joined by U.S. Senator Jim Webb from the Russell Rotunda on Capitol Hill in Washington. He met with the reclusive leader of Myanmar's military regime in August and is calling for more engagement with the junta.

And here in the studio, U.N. Envoy to Myanmar Ibrahim Gambari.

Thank you so much, gentlemen, for joining us.

First of all, Senator Webb, can I ask you, what is the point -- many people have looked at -- at Burma, Myanmar, and kept Aung San Suu Kyi as this ideal of human rights who needs to be liberated, freedom symbol. What is the point of engaging with the junta?

SEN. JIM WEBB (D), VIRGINIA: Well, I think people deserve -- she deserves the respect of people around the world. I think they should release her from house arrest. I made that point when I went there. She should be invited to participate in the political process.

The difficulty right now is that all of the channels in terms of assisting Burma to connect with the outside world have become paralyzed. And since these efforts have begun over the past couple of months, I think we have seen some reciprocal gestures.

The State Department, as you mentioned in your intro, has been clear that they're not going to move forward on issues like sanctions unless there are further reciprocal gestures, but we have seen the beginning of a removal of the paralysis. Aung San Suu Kyi has been able to meet twice now over the past week with government leaders.

So we need to do something different.

AMANPOUR: Let me just...

WEBB: Sanctions in and of themselves -- I'm sorry. Go ahead.

AMANPOUR: No, no. Let me just ask you. You met with both General Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi. What did you say to the general and what did he say to you about -- about what's going on there, particularly with her?

WEBB: Well, I made some specific observations to General Than Shwe and to a number of other people when I was in Burma. I reiterated them when the Burmese foreign minister and the prime minister were here in New York. One of them was that the world views their regime through the eyes of how it treats Aung San Suu Kyi, because she's in a very unique situation in that she actually was elected to office in 1990 and not allowed to -- to obtain that office.

And at the same time, we need, as a country, the United States, and -- and as the Western world, we need to assist the resolution of this problem for strategic reasons in the area, for the good of the Burmese people. And the -- the best way to do that is to try to move forward with reciprocal gestures so that...

AMANPOUR: Let me -- let me just...

WEBB: ... Burma can reconnect with the outside world.

AMANPOUR: Let me just turn to Ibrahim Gambari here joining me. What -- you've met with Aung San Suu Kyi some eight times in your capacity as representative to Myanmar. What has she said about opening dialogue with the junta? What does she say about, for instance, the possibility of lifting sanctions?

IBRAHIM GAMBARI, U.N. ENVOY: First of all, at the beginning, she was very suspicious about trying to have dialogue with the authorities in Myanmar, because she had felt they wouldn't go anywhere. But the secretary general, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, sent me to Myanmar seven times in the last two years. I have met with Than Shwe about four times, including when (inaudible) went in July.

And we appealed to both sides as mediator that there's no alternative to dialogue. There's no way in which we can move the democratic process forward, there's no way in which we can address the issue of violation of human rights except through dialogue on -- on both sides.

AMANPOUR: But what does Aung San Suu Kyi say about the possibility of lifting sanctions?

GAMBARI: Well, about -- first of all, I'm very gratified that she's meeting now with the...

AMANPOUR: What do you think she's going to get out of this meeting? What is the junta representative going to -- to do for her with these meetings?

GAMBARI: Well, she has suggested about a year ago that, on the issue of sanctions, she's willing to work with the government to address the conditions conducive to lifting of the sanctions that hurt the people. She does not want to hurt the people of Myanmar. Some of the sanctions do hurt the people.

But at the same time, we cannot take the issue of sanctions outside the context of the democratic process, an inclusive national reconciliation, and -- and involvement of all segments of the -- of the society in -- in Myanmar in determining the future of their country.

AMANPOUR: Let me -- let me ask you, Senator Webb. You talk about engagement, and yet -- and trying to influence the behavior of the junta. And yet, just over the last several months, they've slapped another 18 months on Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest. There's no indication, despite repeated pleas, that they will cancel her house arrest or take any of the steps that the United States and the U.N. are demanding of them.

WEBB: Well, let me -- let me make two points with respect to that. The first is that they extended her house arrest, as you commented, before my visit to Burma, and they also had put this American, John Yettaw, into prison on a seven-year sentence. I was able to secure his release, and I suggested to them that, for the good of the process, they -- they should release her from house arrest.

But you made a very important point at the beginning of this show, and I want -- I want to go into it a little bit. And that is, how do we deal with these sorts of regimes writ large?

I have been working on the issue of opening up Vietnam for 18 -- more than 18 years now. I served there as a Marine many years ago, as you know. When I first started going back to Vietnam in 1991, it was a Stalinist state. The situation on the streets in Vietnam was worse than I saw in Burma in 2001, when I was visiting there.

I was one of those who opposed lifting sanctions -- lifting the trade embargo against Vietnam because I felt so strongly about what had happened after the end of the war. And yet, after we lifted sanctions in Vietnam, I think that was the greatest contributor to the opening up of Vietnamese society.

It's not perfect. There are still a lot of problems in Vietnam. But we can see demonstrably there that, when you allow the average citizen of a country to -- to connect with people from societies such as ours, it actually raises their consciousness and encourages the process.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me turn to Mr. Gambari. Do you think that that engagement will lead precisely to helping the average citizen of the country? And, again, what commitment do you have that the very basic demand, that they let go Aung San Suu Kyi, that they have proper elections, are actually going to unfold?

GAMBARI: Well, that's the duty of the secretary general. That is the kind of initiative he has taken. He went to Myanmar -- we call it Myanmar -- and spent two-and-a-half hours with General Than Shwe and laid out a five-point agenda on behalf of the international community.

First is release of all political prisoner, including especially Aung San Suu Kyi. The second is the resumption of dialogue between the government and the opposition and also the ethnic minorities, which people tend to ignore in -- in this whole equation.

And the third is what the senator said, how to address the socioeconomic conditions of the people. You recall, in 2007, there were some demonstrations which were political, but also in response to some of the economic difficulties.

So what the secretary general is saying and through me is that there's no alternatives to dialogue. There's no alternative to free and fair elections, which will be all-inclusive and which Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party, the National League for Democracy, have to participate.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you both. I mean, the notion of free and fair elections, they were meant to have elections. They're still scheduled for an unknown date in 2010. And yet this summer, or several months ago, they held a referendum which by all accounts pretty much made future elections a sham, by some say basically making it possible for the military to continue their rule indefinitely.



GAMBARI: Can I jump in? Because, first, it is true that there hasn't been elections. Next year it will be 20 years. They have something called the seven-step road to democracy. That is the government.

The first step took 14 years. And I had discussed with them to say, at the rate at which things were going, we'll all be dead by the time they get to the seven steps.

So they've now moved from the first step in the seven-step roadmap to the fifth step, which is elections. We're encouraging them, A, to -- to have a specific date for the election; two, to allow for those who need to participate to participate, to -- to promulgate the electoral laws; and also to appoint an electoral commission to accept or consider a request (inaudible) consultations U.N. technical assistance; and, finally, to consider having electoral observer, independent (inaudible) these are the conditions...


GAMBARI: ... that will make the elections free and fair.

AMANPOUR: OK, well, you, Mr. Gambari, and...

WEBB: Can I -- can I address this...


AMANPOUR: Yes, Senator Webb, is there any way that you think you're going to get those conditions met?

WEBB: Here's -- here is the -- here is the reality. Are you going to change the situation over there in -- in one year, in a completely revolutionary way? Probably not. But the reality in this part of the world is that you have to build piece by piece on what you can get.

First, Vietnam agreed -- the communists in Vietnam agreed to full and fair internationally supervised elections in 1972. We haven't seen that, but we've taken things -- what we can get, a piece at a time, in order to open up the society.

China has never had an election. If you had an opposition party in China today, they would go to jail. So we need to take what we can get realistically and assist Burma, the Burmese people, in reconnecting with the outside world.

Burma was -- 50 years ago, Burma was going to be the country in Southeast Asia in which to do business and -- and in which to take advantage of a rich cultural history. They are isolated. They have a tremendous history. They've got a very repressive regime. We need to do what we can to reconnect in a way that brings Burma back into the -- the international fold.

AMANPOUR: And what do you say to those very people who you seem to be trying to alleviate their suffering, many who say, "Look, this regime has imprisoned us, tortured us, killed us," and who are very, very cynical about your attempts to -- to -- to reach out.

WEBB: I want to be very clear about this. No, no, I want to be very -- I want to be very clear about this. We have had tremendous support inside the country and from Burmese over here in terms of trying to find a new way to do this.

And I want to emphasize: We share the same aspirations, and that is a democratic and open society. The question is the reality that it's going to take to get there.

AMANPOUR: Well, because you say you've had tremendous support, but you didn't invite, for instance, any of the government in exile to any of your hearings, and there is a lot of cynicism amongst the human rights community...

WEBB: I've had one -- I've had -- I've had one hearing. I've had one hearing. It was a great hearing. The room was packed. We invited anyone in that hearing to submit testimony. We got more than 25 pieces of testimony. We had a government witness from the United States government, and we had three experts who had a -- who had a variety of views, including the views of the people you're talking about, fully represented.

AMANPOUR: OK. Well, we're going to -- we're going to talk to them afterwards.

Senator Webb, thank you so much, indeed, for joining us.

WEBB: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: We have 30 seconds, Mr. Gambari, so do you have any expectation that it would be -- it would obviously be great to get concessions from the military regime. Do you think you will be able to?

GAMBARI: Well, there's no alternative to mediation, including by the United States, but also by the United Nations, with the support of the group of (inaudible) and the Security Council, and we have to consider to press to create conditions conducive to free and fair elections. The authorities have said that's what they want. We want to hold them to -- to their words.

AMANPOUR: And we will be watching this. Thank you both very much, indeed, for joining us.

And in a moment, we will get the other view, the view of Burma's government in exile. Does it believe that sanctions should be lifted eventually and that there should be engagement? We'll be right back.


AMANPOUR: This is a clip from the award-winning documentary "Burma V.J." The film brought together images shot by Burmese video journalists at great risk to themselves. They captured footage of the 2007 protests by Buddhist monks and the subsequent military crackdown.

And joining me now in the studio, Dr. Thaung Htun, the Burmese government in exile's representative to the U.N., not official representative, we should say, but nonetheless you were there putting your case to all the governments at the United Nations.

So you heard Senator Webb and Mr. Ibrahim Gambari talking about engaging with the military junta, really, for the good of the Burmese people. What's your view on that?

DR. THAUNG HTUN, REPRESENTATIVE TO THE U.N., BURMESE GOVERNMENT IN EXILE: The first thing that I would like to say is that, since the beginning of the movement, we, including Aung San Suu Kyi, asked repeatedly for a dialogue. So in that connection, we have no objection when the United States, you know, intend to have high-level talk or high-level engagement with the regime. But we want the United States to set a very clear idea, a very clear goal when they have engagement for -- for whom and for which.

AMANPOUR: Do you think that engagement by the United States is a reward for -- to the military regime? Or do you think it is actually something that will be useful and -- and workable?

HTUN: You know that a direct talk to the regime is -- should be faster, but it is not the right time even to think about lifting sanctions, because we haven't known very clearly what is the -- what is the interests of the regime when they start to engage with the United States.

And then, we haven't seen any signal of relaxation or sort of positive step taken by the regime for the reconciliation and improvement of human rights. That's why I want to say that it's not the right time to lift the sanction.

And the situation in Burma is very different from Vietnam. You know, in Burma, we have the people who voted overwhelming for the Aung San Suu Kyi. We have election results. We have mandate given by the people to Aung San Suu Kyi. She must be part of the political process. She must be able to participate in the political process. She must be unconditionally released.

AMANPOUR: We're just going to play something that Hillary Clinton said, but in the meantime, as we're getting that ready, I want to ask you about the notion of human rights. Do you think that Aung San Suu Kyi's fate and the fate of all those who have their human rights crushed is being relegated to the back burner by the United States and the international community?

HTUN: Yes. We feel that when it comes to the issue of human rights in Burma, international community is very much divided. You know that, in the last 20 years, we have tried to sort out the political problem through the U.N., but, because of the different approaches, regime got the opportunity to play one power against other.

So it should be ended, you know, because now it is the time that all the international actors, you know, stand behind U.N. Secretary General in united way, and it's the time to push for a, you know, all-inclusive political process in Burma.

AMANPOUR: So let's play what Secretary of State Clinton said at the United Nations General Assembly when your prime minister, or the prime minister of Myanmar, came here, the most high-level Myanmar official in years to come to the U.N. Let's play what she said.


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We believe that sanctions remain important as part of our policy. But by themselves, they have not produced the results that had been hoped for on behalf of the people of Burma. Engagement versus sanctions is a false choice, in our opinion. So going forward, we will be employing both of those tools.


AMANPOUR: So, on the one hand, it looks like nobody quite knows what to do to influence the behavior of not just the regime in Myanmar, but other such regimes, as well.

HTUN: I think the -- the main weak point in the bus (ph) is that sanction has not been sort of coupled with, you know, very extensive diplomatic engagement. You know, sanction is the effective foreign policy...

AMANPOUR: So you agree...

HTUN: ... tool, yes, but it should be effectively used, you know, to influence the regime.

AMANPOUR: So you agree that this new U.S. policy could do that?

HTUN: Yes, we agree with it. And then the movement recently in August already publicized -- already launched a national reconciliation proposal. It is the unified vision of the democracy movement inside and outside, how the problem can be resolved.

AMANPOUR: There are elections that have been called for by the -- by the regime sometime in 2010, yet many people in your country believe that this will be just showcase or a sham election because of the referendum that took place just last -- several months ago, that many say simply enhances and prolongs the military control.

HTUN: Sure. That's why we are very much skeptical when, you know, many international policymakers are -- now it is focusing too much on 2010 elections. The problem is that, you know, that their constitution, which was imposed by the military in 2008 (inaudible) without having review of that constitution, without having to proper atmosphere when it comes to the basic human rights and, you know, rule of law, you know, 2010 election won't be a meaningful election.

That's why we need to talk about review of the 2008 constitution first. You know, that's why we need to release all the political prisoners, including the student leaders and leaders of the ethnic nationalities. And we should let them to be involved in the political process.

AMANPOUR: We're going to play now what the prime minister of Myanmar said when he came here to the United Nations.


GEN. THEIN SEIN, MYANMAR'S PRIME MINISTER (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Sanctions have no moral basis, as they not only hinder the economic and social development of the people, but also interfere in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of the country. As sanctions are indiscriminate and are themselves a form of violence, they cannot legitimately be regarded as a tool to promote human rights and democracy.


AMANPOUR: So do you believe that sanctions have had a negative effect on the people of Burma?

HTUN: Actually, sanction is directed to the regime. And as far as we see, it has minimal impact on the people of Burma. Of course, these are targeted sanctions...

AMANPOUR: So they're targeted towards...

HTUN: ... targeted towards...

AMANPOUR: ... the regime?

HTUN: ... military and their cronies. But the Burmese people are poor and economy is getting worse because of the mismanagement of the regime. You know, actually, the regime is getting more money, you know, in the last 20 years. Now they are having $2.6 billion money just from the sale of gas to Thailand, but they don't use that money for the people.

AMANPOUR: Well, obviously, the Burmese, the Myanmar regime, and China have now close cooperation. Do you think some of this talk about engaging with the regime is about China, as well?

HTUN: Yes, of course. You know, when it comes to the matter of finding a solution of Burma, we need to include China on board, because China is our big neighbor, and then to, of course, peaceful transition in Burma is also the best interests for the Chinese, too.

AMANPOUR: OK, so let me ask you one final question. What do you think the military regime will do? Do you believe that they will lighten up on the people of Burma, on Aung San Suu Kyi, in return for this engagement? Do you think they'll do it? Are they in that place now?

HTUN: You know that it's very premature to say. It is just the beginning. And looking at our experience in the past, regime used to do the time-buying strategy whenever there is the international pressure, so that we have to look at the situation.

If we look at the reality on the ground, there is no improvement. There are more violence in the last seven months, more political prisoner, more arrest, and more military attacks in the ethnic minority areas. That's why we need to be very cautious and we need to put pressure on the regime until, you know, these benchmarks can be fulfilled by the regime.

AMANPOUR: It's a fascinating dialogue and a fascinating dilemma, how to work with these and have meaningful influence on these kinds of regimes. And we will be following it.

Thank you, Dr. Htun, for coming in.

HTUN: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And next, a remarkable demonstration of public support, international support for Aung San Suu Kyi, organized by one of the world's top rock bands.


AMANPOUR: And now it's time for our "P.S." It's about Aung San Suu Kyi and U2.


BONO, LEAD SINGER, U2: Tonight, on the 27th of July, Dublin city, that Amnesty International have chosen Aung San Suu Kyi as the recipient of their ambassador of conscience award, 2009.


AMANPOUR: So Bono made that announcement during U2's current world tour. And afterwards, Amnesty International campaigners came up and circled the stage. They were holding up masks of Aung San Suu Kyi, and they were accompanied by the band's music.

This is happening at all their concerts, proving that concern about her is not confined just to the halls of power and that the whole world is watching what's happening to her and what's going on in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the world's most powerful symbols for freedom and democracy.

This conversation will continue online and on our Web site,, where you can find out much more about Myanmar. So please join us there.

And that's it for now. Thank you for watching. And we'll be back tomorrow with an exclusive interview with Britain's outgoing ambassador to the United Nations. He is the new head of MI-6, Sir John Sawers. So for all of us here, goodbye from New York.