BANGKOK // The shift in US policy towards Myanmar has raised hopes that it may encourage the junta to introduce genuine political change. The move has also renewed hopes of bilateral talks between the military rulers and the detained opposition leader. Nine years ago, discrete dialogue between the two sides, brokered by a UN envoy, led to Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest. "It's too early to tell, but there is certainly a renewed opportunity for talks," said a European diplomat based in Bangkok who closely monitors Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
The pro-democracy leader has already endorsed Washington's move to start talks with the reclusive regime. "Aung San Suu Kyi said that direct engagement is good," according to her lawyer, Nyan Win. "She accepts it, but she says that engagement must be with both sides," he told local journalists in Yangon. In fact the charismatic Nobel peace laureate has also used the opportunity to encourage the regime to talk to her. Ms Suu Kyi is ready to co-operate with the ruling junta to get the West to lift economic sanctions imposed on the country, as long as she is able to discuss three points, Nyan Win, who is also the main spokesman for her party, the National League for Democracy, said on Friday.
Ms Suu Kyi has written a letter to the senior general, Than Shwe, Myanmar's top military leader, Nyan Win said. In her letter to Than Shwe, Ms Suu Kyi said the three points to discuss were identifying which countries imposed economic sanctions, the effect the sanctions have had and why they were imposed. On Wednesday, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, revealed that Washington would now pursue a policy of engagement as well as sanctions to help bring democratic change to Myanmar. "Engagement versus sanctions is a false choice in our opinion," she announced at the UN. "So, going forward we will be employing both of these tools to help achieve democratic reform, we will be engaging directly with the Burmese authorities.
"We want credible, democratic reform, a government that responds to the needs of the Burmese people, the immediate, unconditional release of political prisoners [and] serious dialogue with the opposition and minority ethnic groups," Mrs Clinton said. The pro-democracy movement abroad reacted cautiously. "We must welcome it warily," said Zin Linn, a spokesman for the exiled democratic opposition based in Thailand. "We cannot expect much, but if it helps get Aung San Suu Kyi released, then it is certainly a very good move."
But many analysts and diplomats believe this is an opportunity that should not be missed. "It is absolutely a significant shift in policy and the most important development in years," Justin Wintle, a biographer of Ms Suu Kyi, said. "Dialogue is well and truly under way." Others see it as a subtle shift in policy rather than a significant overhaul. "It's a change of style rather than substance. Mr Obama is doing the same with Pyongyang, Damascus, Havana and Tehran," said the former UK ambassador to Thailand and Vietnam, Derek Tonkin. "The policy is likely to produce better results than Bush's unilateralism."
There is no doubt that in recent months the junta has begun to court the West, especially the United States. "There seems to be a real interest on both sides for relations to improve," a Yangon-based diplomat said in an interview. "The details are still to be worked out and I don't think they [the US] are under any illusions that it will be easy." What Washington offers for talks with the regime may yet determine how successful this shift in policy will be. "Words are not enough," Mr Tonkin said. "The US needs to make some concrete gesture, like removing sanctions which seriously affect the people, like the embargo on garment exports."
Mrs Clinton and state department officials have been at pains to insist there will be no hurry, and that progress will be determined by the junta's actions. "If we [the US] were to make any adjustments going forward, it would be based on tangible progress by Burma," a senior US state department official said. So far the most concrete step seems to be the proposed appointment of special envoys by both countries to be responsible for taking the process forward.
But the change in policy towards Myanmar will also give Washington more influence in Asia, which has largely protected Myanmar from sanctions and international pressure. "This shift in policy will also increase US interests in the region, and they will find it easier to rally around the Burma issue within Asia," said Win Min, a Burmese academic at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. China will be watching these developments with concern. Beijing is reluctant to see Washington's re-engagement with the area, especially South East Asia, as it regards the region as its backyard, and is wary of any increased US influence in the region, particularly Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
But Myanmar's generals have always been isolationist and fear being overly dependent on one ally. Now they are trying to see how far the West will bend towards them and provide a counterbalance to China, said diplomats in Yangon who wished to remain anonymous. But the primary purpose of the US's policy shift is to provide an incentive that helps produce real political change in Myanmar. For Washington - and the international community - the only real sign of progress will be the early release of Ms Suu Kyi.