U.S. diplomats returned from a rare trip to Myanmar facing a new challenge: How to nurture a budding dialogue with the country's secretive military regime without boosting its legitimacy in the eyes of the outside world.
Speaking to reporters in Bangkok on Thursday, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scot Marciel, said that he and another top administration official stressed the need for a more open government in Myanmar, including free and fair elections next year, during meetings with senior government officials and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday and Wednesday.
But he said it was unclear whether the junta would be willing to take significant steps -- such as freeing Ms. Suu Kyi and other political prisoners -- that the U.S. and other Western nations are pushing in advance of the elections, the first to be held in Myanmar since 1990.
Such measures would be necessary, he said, before the U.S. would consider further conciliatory moves such as removing its longstanding sanctions against the country. "We're willing to move in terms of our bilateral relationship, but we're only going to do it if there's real progress," he said.
The trip was the highest-ranking U.S. delegation to Myanmar in 14 years, and part of a new Obama administration initiative designed to restore U.S. influence there after years of frosty relations. The country's military regime, which seized power in 1962, is widely criticized for human rights violations and is increasingly viewed as a potential source of instability in the region as it builds up its military power.
U.S. officials say they are particularly concerned about recent indications Myanmar is expanding its ties with North Korea, including unverified reports it may be pursuing a program of nuclear proliferation. They say further discussions with the regime could help shed light on those concerns while also potentially opening the door for a bigger role for opposition groups in the country's government.
More discussions are expected, including a possible meeting between President Obama and senior Myanmar officials during an economic summit in Singapore later this month.
But skeptics fear the dialogue will yield little given the regime's history of ignoring outside pressure and inducements. The meetings could also backfire by enhancing the prestige of Myanmar's leaders, especially if they succeed in wresting more concessions from the American side.
The American officials "are setting themselves up for a trap here," says John Dale, an assistant professor and Myanmar expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. He and other Myanmar experts believe the regime desperately wants to gain international acceptance and is hoping to use negotiations with American representatives to lend credibility to the coming elections, which dissidents believe will only cement the junta's lock on power.
If U.S. officials are "at the table long enough, it helps them claim the elections are legitimate," he says.
Attempts to reach representatives of the Myanmar government, which rarely speaks to foreign journalists, were unsuccessful.
Part of the problem with the U.S. mission, critics say, is that it's unclear what would constitute sufficient progress to merit more rapprochement from the American side. On Thursday, Mr. Marciel said the elections, whose date remains uncertain, wouldn't be credible if they didn't include representatives from the opposition groups that won the last national vote in 1990— an outcome the regime subsequently ignored. But it was unclear whether that meant Ms. Suu Kyi herself should participate, or if the U.S. would accept some other compromise.
It was also unclear whether other steps the U.S. and international advocates are seeking -- such as the involvement of independent election monitors and the removal of curbs on local media -- would necessarily help lead to a fair outcome.
The vote will occur under a constitution that many advocates believe will guarantee an unfair result. Approved by Myanmar residents in a 2008 referendum amid widespread reports of intimidation, it reserves many government posts and 25% of parliamentary seats for military officers, and allows the president to hand over power to the military in emergencies. It also effectively bars Ms. Suu Kyi from seeking elected office because her two sons are foreign citizens.
Mr. Marciel said he thought the constitution was "flawed" but didn't elaborate on whether it would have to be scrapped for a fair election to be held. He also declined to speak in detail about the latest meetings with Ms. Suu Kyi.
Backers of the U.S. effort -- including Ms. Suu Kyi herself -- believe that talking with the junta is better than doing nothing, even if the odds of success are slim. And U.S. officials insist they harbor no illusions about their effort's likelihood of success.
"The elections could be an opportunity" to improve Myanmar's situation, but only if they're done right," Mr. Marciel said. "We will see progress if and when it happens."