For the First Time in More Than 50 Years, a U.S. Secretary of State Is Set to Visit Burma

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This year, the leaders of Burma, once one of the most hermetic countries on earth, have unleashed a charm campaign on the world. The efforts, ranging from diplomatic globe-trotting to a raft of economic and political reforms designed to impress foreign governments, are now bearing fruit. On Nov. 18, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that Hillary Clinton would visit the impoverished nation on December 1. The visit will be the first by a U.S. Secretary of State to Burma in more than five decades. Not even North Korea has been so diplomatically isolated.

Ever since a clutch of generals grabbed power in 1962, Burma, also known as Myanmar, has languished as other parts of Asia have raced ahead. Burma’s economy has been hobbled both by the rapaciousness and incompetence of its military leaders (along with their attendant cronies) and, to a much lesser degree, the bite of Western-led sanctions. But the past 12 months have brought remarkable change to a nation once preserved in a horrible amber. Last November, Burma held its first elections in two decades. Although the polls were hardly free and fair, a nominally civilian government took office in March. Skeptics assumed the new leadership, some of whom were generals who had expressly retired to take on their civilian roles, would serve as a  fig-leaf for the military, which kept many plum posts for itself. Instead, aspects of the economy have been liberalized, opposition politicians have been allowed a platform and press freedoms have widened. “We want to seize what could be an historic opportunity for progress,” said Obama during his trip to Indonesia where he announced Clinton’s upcoming visit, “and make it clear that if Burma continues to travel down the road of democratic reform, it can forge a new relationship with the United States of America.”

In finalizing his decision to send such a high-level representative to one of the world’s few remaining pariah states, Obama spoke on Nov. 17 with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma’s longtime democracy advocate was released from house arrest last year, after spending most of the previous two decades locked up by the junta. Suu Kyi’s continuing support of international sanctions are one key reason that western governments have not rolled them back, even as burgeoning trade with neighbors like China have made the financial restrictions less relevant.

Clinton’s upcoming trip is just one sign that foreign countries are cheering on Burma’s tentative reforms. The same day as Obama’s announcement, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed that Burma would be allowed to chair the regional bloc in 2014. The last time the country came up for such consideration back in 2006, members of the regional grouping—hardly the most vocal champions of human rights—blanched. Burma skipped its turn.

Also on Friday, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) announced that it would re-register as a political party, so it could be part of the official political process and contest coming by-elections. Back in 1990, the NLD won Burma’s last polls, which the ruling junta then ignored. NLD elders decided to sit out last year’s balloting, which resulted in the party’s automatic dissolution according to government rules. Why remove itself? Members of the NLD argued that their beloved leader Suu Kyi was still under house arrest and unable to contest the polls. All indications pointed toward a sham election and fraudulent result. The NLD was right in that parties associated with the junta won the polls with suspiciously big margins. At first, parliament looked like it was straining even to reach the level a rubber-stamp body.

But since this spring, real debate and news has occasionally erupted in the sterile halls of the grand parliament building constructed in Naypyidaw, Burma’s surreal new capital. (In one instance, the country’s new Prime Minister Thein Sein, after weeks of back-and-forth in the national assembly, announced this fall that he was suspending construction of a Chinese-backed dam that would send most of its electricity over the border to China.) “No one expected it, but there is actually politics to cover in Burma,” says one Burmese journalist. The media, although still very censored and under constant threat that its reporters might be thrown into jail, can now print things—pictures of Suu Kyi, snippets of political debate, discussion of the ethnic insurgencies flaring up north—unimaginable even a year ago. Exile news websites that were once blocked are currently freely available.

(More from Photographs of Burma’s struggle for democracy.)

Also importantly, Suu Kyi is now free, having been released a few days after the flawed polls last year. Changes in electoral regulations mean that the woman who should have been P.M. following the 1990 polls could conceivably run for in future by-elections—although electoral shenanigans could still stifle any potential victory. In recent months, the veteran democracy activist, who had an icy relationship with former junta leader Than Shwe, has been able to meet repeatedly with high-ranking Burmese leaders. She has freely criticized the government without repercussion. Posters of the woman known affectionately in Burma simply as “the Lady” are openly on sale in markets. Small protests have occurred in major cities without being met by gunfire, as was the tragic conclusion in 2007 when the military fired on Buddhist monks and other unarmed demonstrators.

There is always the possibility that the current era of openness will be cut short by infighting between hardline and reformist leadership factions, just as happened during another brief political dawn at the turn of this century. Some exile groups, in particular, warn foreigners not to be taken in by the generals’ (or retired generals’) promises of further change. They fret that the Burmese government merely craves international respect—and access to fancy vacation spots in Europe and the U.S. now inaccessible because of Western sanctions on specific Burmese leaders and cronies. Once Burma’s leaders get what they want from the global community, these analysts say, the political situation will chill anew.

Certainly, Burma, even after this year’s changes, is still a terribly repressed place. Despite much-vaunted prisoner amnesties, thousands of political prisoners still languish in some of the world’s most horrendous jails. Skirmishes between ethnic armies and the Burmese army have turned parts of the country’s north into  battlefields. Ethnic groups accuse Burmese soldiers of mass rape and forced recruitment. The government continues to spend many times more on its military than health and education combined. An influx of Asian investment, most notably from neighbors China and Thailand, hasn’t done much to change the lives of Burma’s citizens, one-third of whom subsist below the poverty line.

But even acknowledging all this, there is also a feeling that things are truly changing, that this is about more than just some generals’ wish to jaunt off to a Western travel spot currently closed off to them. Burma’s economy has been mismanaged for so long—one previous military ruler denominated the currency by nine because it was his favorite number—that, clearly, something had to be done.  And even though investment is pouring in from China, Burma’s military members, many of whom fought Chinese-backed Communist insurgents for decades, are growing wary of their northern neighbor’s looming shadow. Besides, Burma’s leaders can get a lot more for the country’s plentiful natural resources if there are some Western bidders involved. That means convincing the U.S and others to ease their sanctions. Clearly that’s a key factor spurring the Burmese government’s recent international engagement.

Finally, here’s something else for the outside world to consider: Burma’s last, ever so slight moment of glasnost may have been foiled in part because its architects were unable to get international support for their reforms. This time around, it’s clear that Obama and Clinton don’t want the same thing to happen again. The U.S. President on Friday hailed “flickers of progress” in Burma, even as he cautioned that much more must be done. Embers of reform must be encouraged before they light up a country that has been darkened for so long.

(More from ‘Aug San Suu Kyi: Burma’s First Lady of Freedom.’)