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Joe Biden and Burma

August 30, 2008

From Irrawaddy
By Wai Moe

The Democratic Party senator from Delaware, Joseph R. Biden, has been under the glare of the international media spotlight this week after being nominated as US presidential candidate Barack Obama’s running mate for the US election in November.

Joe Biden is familiar to Burma lobbyists in Washington, DC. As the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has been prominent in the shaping of US policy on Burma in recent years, say observers in the US capital.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama applauds with his running mate Joe Biden after his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention at Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver

Alongside senators Mitch McConnell, Dianne Feinstein and congressmen Joseph Crawley, Joseph Pitts and Tom Lantos (who died in February 2008), Biden is often outspoken in his criticism of the Burmese regime.

Most recently, Biden spearheaded the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (the Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act 2008, which was signed into law by President Bush on July 29. The bill renews the act of 2007 restricting the import of gems from Burma and tightening sanctions on mining projects.

“The bill is a tribute to my dear friend, Tom Lantos, who worked tirelessly on behalf of human rights for the people of Burma, and stood by them throughout their long struggle for democratic civilian rule,” Biden said in July.

“We must continue Tom’s work. Working together with the international community, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the EU, India and China, I look forward to the day when a democratic, peaceful Burma will be fully integrated into the community of nations.”

The Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act marks the outline of a strong US policy on Burma. The act has three aims: to impose new financial sanctions and travel restrictions on the leaders of the junta and their associates; to tighten the economic sanctions imposed in 2003 by outlawing the importation of Burmese gems to the United States; and to create a new position of US “Special Representative and Policy Coordinator” for Burma.

The US special envoy is to work with Burma’s neighbors and other interested countries, such as the European Union (EU) and Asean.

According to Biden’s web site, the US envoy’s mission is also to develop a comprehensive approach to the Burma crisis, including pressure, dialogue and support for non-governmental organizations providing humanitarian relief to the Burmese people.

Diplomatic sources told The Irrawaddy that US officials have sat with their Chinese counterparts on Burma issues as many as 15 times this year, and that the US special envoy to Asean, Scot Marciel, has reportedly met with several Burmese officials in Rangoon.

“As far as I know, the US government knows that they need to have dialogue with the Burmese junta,” said Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political commentator in Thailand.

“But whether the US policy on Burma changes doesn’t just depend on the new men in the US administration. We also need to be aware that Burmese lobby groups are quite strong in Washington.”

After the Burmese junta’s crackdown on Buddhist monks and demonstrators in September, 2007, Biden was quoted as saying: “The violent crackdown on unarmed civilians is a great tragedy. The international community must work together to end almost two decades of disastrous military dictatorship in Burma and promote the peaceful transition to civilian rule.”

He also noted that the Burmese junta relied heavily on military and economic assistance from China, Russia, India, and Thailand “to sustain its grip on power.”

Several Burmese dissidents said that Obama’s choice of running mate is a positive sign for Burma’s democracy movement. “If Joe Biden becomes the US Vice President, I think it will be a good thing for the people of Burma,” said Bo Kyi, the joint-secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma, a Burmese human rights group in exile.

Nyo Ohn Myint of the opposition National League for Democracy-in-exile said if the Democrats win the US election in November, the Obama administration, including Senator Biden, could instigate an effective Burma policy.

He added that Maung Maung, the secretary-general of the National Council of the Union of Burma, attended the Democratic National Congress in Denver this year by invitation of the Democratic Party.

Obama and Biden’s rival, Republican John McCain, is also known to be a firm supporter of Burma’s democracy movement. He met detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the 1990s in Rangoon.

In May, McCain said of the Cyclone Nargis disaster: “It does highlight the fact that they (the Burmese people) live under one of the most excessive and repressive regimes in the world. We also need to put more pressure on this illegal, corrupt government in Burma to make them change.”

In January 2008, Thaung Tun, the UN representative of Burma’s government in exile, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, said that he didn’t expect a “big change” in US policy from a new administration, because all the candidates shared the same views on Burma.

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