The United States, although embarking on a new policy of engagement, will not lift its sanctions on Myanmar unless its ruling generals make concrete progress toward democratic reform, a senior U.S. diplomat said Thursday.
U.S. Ambassador for ASEAN Affairs Scot Marciel spoke after he and another State Department official completed the highest-ranking visit to Myanmar in 14 years, putting into motion the Obama administration's new policy of "pragmatic engagement" with the isolated country.
He made it clear that the stick would remain along with the new carrot, and that Washington would be closely watching the junta's next moves.
"We are going to maintain our existing sanctions, pending progress. They are still a useful tool. We would certainly be looking at lifting sanctions if there is significant progress," Marciel told a forum at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
He and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell held talks Tuesday and Wednesday with the ruling generals and had a rare meeting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been under house arrest for most of the last two decades.
Marciel, ambassador to the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, stressed the vital sign that positive change was being made would be a real dialogue among Myanmar's antagonistic parties — the military ruler's, Suu Kyi's democracy parties and ethnic minority groups. Without this, he said, next year's general election would not be credible.
"There is an opportunity for progress. The elections could be an opportunity, but only if they are done right," he said.
The freeing of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and cessation of human rights abuses against minority groups would be other signals that would trigger a positive U.S. response, Marciel said.
"We are under no illusion. When you look at the record, past diplomatic efforts have not succeeded," he said, noting that neither Washington's sanctions nor ASEAN's soft-line engagement had worked.
Campbell and Marciel are the highest-ranking American diplomats to visit Myanmar, also known as Burma, since 1995, when then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright made an official visit.
It was the second time in a few months that the junta allowed Suu Kyi to meet with a senior American official. In August, visiting U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia met her and also held talks with Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein and top junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe.
Suu Kyi, 64, has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years.
For years, the United States had isolated the junta diplomatically and applied political and economic sanctions, which have failed to force the generals to respect human rights or release jailed political activists. The Obama administration decided recently to step up diplomatic engagement as a way of promoting reforms.
Myanmar's junta has praised the new U.S. policy, but shown no sign it intends to release Suu Kyi or initiate democratic and electoral reforms demanded by Suu Kyi's party ahead of the elections.
Suu Kyi's party has not yet decided whether to take part in the 2010 polls, which it says were set up under a constitution established last year by undemocratic means. The constitution includes provisions that would bar Suu Kyi from holding office and ensure the military a controlling stake in government.
Suu Kyi was recently sentenced to an additional 18 months of house arrest for briefly sheltering an uninvited American, in a trial that drew global condemnation. The sentence means she will not be able to participate in next year's elections, the first in two decades.