US senator postpones Myanmar trip, cites concerns over nuclear weapons allegations

Thursday, June 3, 2010

US senator nixes Myanmar trip over nuclear concern

BANGKOK — A U.S. senator on Thursday postponed a trip to Myanmar, saying it is a bad time to visit because of new allegations that its military regime is collaborating with North Korea to develop a nuclear program.

A statement issued by the office of Sen. Jim Webb, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs, said the allegations had not been substantiated, but there were also concerns that Myanmar had broken a U.N. embargo on buying arms from North Korea.

“Until there is further clarification on these matters, I believe it would be unwise and potentially counterproductive for me to visit Burma,” said his statement, referring to Myanmar by its former name. Webb was supposed to go to Myanmar late Thursday.

Myanmar’s military regime is under economic and political sanctions by many Western nations because of its poor record on human rights and its failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government. The leader of the pro-democracy opposition, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been detained for about 14 of the past 20 years.

Webb’s statement cited news reports it did not identify. “From the initial accounts, a defecting officer from the Burmese military claims direct knowledge of such plans, and reportedly has furnished documents to corroborate his claims,” his statement said.

The website of the Doha-based Al-Jazeera satellite TV station said Thursday it will broadcast a program Friday with evidence that “Myanmar’s ruling generals have started a program to build nuclear weapons (and) are trying to develop long-range missiles.”

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Washington has “been concerned about Burma’s relationship with North Korea, the transactions that occur between Burma and North Korea.”

“We are very conscious that North Korea is a serial proliferator of dangerous materials and weapons,” Crowley said. “This is something that we have expressed directly to Burma and that continues to be a major concern of ours.”

The trip by Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, had been scheduled to follow a visit by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell last month, and would have overlapped with that of Premier Wen Jiabao of China, Myanmar’s closest and most powerful ally, who arrived Wednesday in Myanmar.

On his current Asian tour, Webb has visited South Korea and Thailand.

Campbell during his visit last month cautioned Myanmar’s military regime that it should abide by U.N. sanctions that prohibit buying arms from North Korea.

A U.N. Security Council resolution bans all North Korean arms exports, authorizes member states to inspect North Korean sea, air and land cargo and requires them to seize and destroy any goods transported in violation of the sanctions.

Campbell said that Myanmar’s leadership had agree to abide by the U.N. resolution, but that “recent developments” called into question its commitment.

At a news conference late Thursday in Bangkok, Webb said he still strongly believed that continuing a dialogue between the U.S. and Myanmar is important for maintaining a strategic balance in Southeast Asia and encouraging more open government in Myanmar, “but a productive dialogue is only achievable in an environment where we don’t have these other issues so outstanding.”

He also said he thought “China should step forward and assume a bigger role and become more openly involved in solving a range of issues” including Iran, Burma, North Korea, as well as transnational problems.

Webb also called for President Obama to “immediately appoint a special envoy to address the entire range of issues regarding relations between the United States and Burma” — an action mandated by U.S. law.

Associated Press writer Alex Alper contributed to this report.

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