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Campbell: Burmese elections “will lack international legitimacy”

Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell made an unannounced trip to Burma over the weekend, met with Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and leveled some harsh criticism of the ruling junta upon his return. This was Campbell’s second visit to Burma, part of the Obama administration’s new Burma policy process, which seeks to ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell made an unannounced trip to Burma over the weekend, met with Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and leveled some harsh criticism of the ruling junta upon his return.

This was Campbell's second visit to Burma, part of the Obama administration's new Burma policy process, which seeks to mix engagement and pressure toward convincing the Burmese regime to hold free and fair elections, release political prisoners like Suu Kyi, and stop their persecution of ethnic minority groups.

But none of that seems to be happening and Campbell acknowledged upon leaving Burma that the upcoming elections are likely to be a farce. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy Party disbanded last week in protest of elections rules the junta implemented unilaterally.

Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell made an unannounced trip to Burma over the weekend, met with Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and leveled some harsh criticism of the ruling junta upon his return.

This was Campbell’s second visit to Burma, part of the Obama administration’s new Burma policy process, which seeks to mix engagement and pressure toward convincing the Burmese regime to hold free and fair elections, release political prisoners like Suu Kyi, and stop their persecution of ethnic minority groups.

But none of that seems to be happening and Campbell acknowledged upon leaving Burma that the upcoming elections are likely to be a farce. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party disbanded last week in protest of elections rules the junta implemented unilaterally.

"What we have seen to date leads us to believe that these elections will lack international legitimacy," said Campbell, "We urge the regime to take immediate steps to open the process in the time remaining before the elections."

Over two days, Campbell, the highest-ranking Obama administration official to have visited the country, met with a host of government, opposition, and non-governmental leaders, but not junta leader Gen. Than Shwe. He did meet with the junta’s foreign minister, information minister, science and technology minister, labor minister and election commission.

Apparently he didn’t like what he heard, because his comments afterwards criticized the junta for its bad behavior on all fronts, including its failure to follow U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, which bars arms deals with North Korea. Regarding the Burma’s treatment of ethnic minorities, Campbell noted that the junta was actually ramping up pressure ahead of the elections.

"Burma cannot move forward while the government itself persists in launching attacks against its own people to force compliance with a proposal its ethnic groups cannot accept," he said.

When the administration rolled out their Burma policy, the message was that neither engagement nor pressure on their own had produced results. Campbell himself was careful to communicate that he believed the junta could be dealt with but it was not going to be easy.

But as the elections near, the tone of the U.S. message is shifting back toward criticism and the Obama administration seems to be realigning itself back toward its traditional allies, the Burmese opposition.

"The United States will continue to stand behind all those working to support Burma’s people, including the National League for Democracy, however it may constitute itself in the future," Campbell said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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