US senator in Myanmar

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Myanmar, or Burma, was back in the news this week. Democracy leader and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to another 18 months of detention. She's spent 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest. An international outcry followed Tuesday's sentence. Today, a high-ranking American politician arrived in the Burmese capital. Democratic Senator James Webb is expected to meet with the country's military leader, General Than Shwe. If he does, he'd be the highest-ranking American official to meet with the junta leader in more than a decade. Brian Joseph is with the National Endowment for Democracy which promotes democracy around the world. Senator Webb was actually briefed by the Obama administration before he left, but he's there independently, not on behalf of the White House. Even so, do you think the visit by Senator Webb represents a new approach to dealing with Myanmar?

BRIAN JOSEPH: I'm not sure if it represents a new approach. I think there's a general frustration with Burma across the board. I think anyone who looks at the country over the past 20 years has got to be frustrated with what's happened. The country is no better off than it was following the 1990 elections. There's been a whole host of approaches to dealing with the issue, from high-level UN delegations � Ban-ki Moon has been there twice in the past year and a half alone. There have been something like 40 different special envoys of the UN sent in. ASIAN, which is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, invited Burma into its membership in 1997 � that's resulted in no improvements. And at the same time, countries like the United States and the UK have embarked on a harder line policy on really emphasizing democracy and human rights. Part of that are trying to target specific sanctions on the military junta. But the junta remains in power. It remains impervious to much � any international pressure, so there is a growing frustration of, �What do we do with a country like Burma?�

WERMAN: If Senator Webb does manage to have a sit-down with Burmese General Than Shwe, do you think that in itself is a sign that Myanmar is opening up?

JOSEPH: No, I don't. I think it's a real mistake to look at engagement with American diplomats as a sign of anything in Burma. You have to realize that over the last 2 years, the regime's actions in its own country I think really govern how we should understand the country. If you start back in the fall of 2007, when you had the rising up of a large percentage of the population, driven by the monks, which is commonly known as the Saffron Revolution; the crackdown that followed the initial response to Cyclone Nargus where the regime kept out international aid workers; and now the detention under � and sentencing of Aung San Suu Kyi under extremely thin pretenses, is really what we should understand Burma's orientation towards its own people and the international community.

WERMAN: For you, Brian, what makes the Burmese issue so intractable?

JOSEPH: I think the challenge with Burma is that it's controlled by a government that has no interest in the advancing interest of its own people. And as long as you have a government of that nature that isn't dependent on the creation of wealth � in other words, all of its money comes from the extraction of natural resources � gas, timber, gems -- there are reports of � if not the government itself � certainly a significant income in the country generated by drug production. As long as there's no interest in advancing the interest of their own people. There's very little you can do to influence policy in the short-term.

WERMAN: Well, let's follow the money for a second. Who are Burma's chief trading partners?

JOSEPH: its chief trading partner is China. It also has significant interaction with other countries in the region, including Indonesia and Singapore, and it has to a lesser degree trade with natural resources with countries in Europe and other places.

WERMAN: Do you think any of Burma's trading partners are willing to push Burma on human rights issues?

JOSEPH: I think they're willing to recognize the human rights issues interfere with their interactions with Burma. I think it's safe to assume the human rights issue is not at the top of China's agenda. It's not been traditionally at the top of ASIAN's agenda. But all of these countries recognize that the human rights problems in Burma greatly compromise their ability to work with Burma, to treat Burma as a recognizable and respected country on the international arena. So even though human rights is not their primary agenda, there's recognition that it is part of the agenda when dealing with Burma.

WERMAN: And what do you think it will take to change that?

JOSEPH: I'm not sure what it will take to change all of that. I think the most important piece of this is what the Burmese people are actually � are willing to do to change their own rights. If you look back to the uprising movement 2007, this caught virtually everybody off guard. Before that,

there was sort of a largely growing consensus that the democracy movement was dead. The regime was so firmly in power that nothing could change the environment inside Burma absent a coup or some sort of split in the military. After the Saffron Revolution, I think you have to factor into this equation what the Burmese people are willing to do to advance their own rights. And that, to me, is the most important piece of it.

WERMAN: Brian Joseph, director for South and Southeast Asia, with the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, thanks for your time.

JOSEPH: Thanks very much.