Clinton in Burma: As Ties with U.S. Strengthen, Will the Country’s Ethnic Minorities Be Forgotten?

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Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (2nd R) and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (3rd R) talk during meetings at Suu Kyi's residence in Yangon, Myanmar December 2, 2011. (Photo: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images)

Nestled next to a placid lake in Burma’s largest city, Rangoon, the villa of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi is a pleasant spot—although no place can be so comfortable as to merit spending much of two decades under house arrest there. In 2009, before the Nobel Peace Prize laureate was released from villa detention by the ruling military junta, an American Vietnam War veteran secretly swam to her home unannounced because he believed he was on a mission from God. The American’s surprise visit earned the opposition leader months more under lock and key, after the military regime ludicrously deemed that his entry had broken the conditions of her house arrest.

On Dec. 2, Suu Kyi, now freed for more than a year and gearing up to run in a parliamentary by-election made possible by tentative reforms instituted by Burma’s new semi-civilian government, hosted another American at her home. This time, the U.S. visitor was far more welcome. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who dubbed Suu Kyi “an inspiration,” visited the Burmese symbol of nonviolent resistance at her residence, where two of the world’s most famous female politicians hugged, held hands and shared a predilection for a wardrobe shaded in blue. “We are happy with the way in which the United States is engaging with us,” Suu Kyi said, “and it is through engagement that we hope to promote a process of  democratization.”

Clinton’s Nov. 30-Dec. 2 visit to Burma, officially known as Myanmar, has excited residents of Rangoon (or Yangon). Far from sympathizing with the moral suasion of a U.S. policy of sanctions (and an attendant sense of isolation that was only heightened by the bunkered mentality of Burma’s generals), most Burmese I know pine for engagement with the West. As Clinton met with Suu Kyi inside her villa, an elderly man with erect bearing strolled near the gate to her home dressed in a crisp oxford shirt and Burmese sarong, or longyi. A retired government official who speaks precise English, he said he was pleased that “the two ladies are meeting.” (The pair of women met twice, once for a private dinner and once at Suu Kyi’s home.) Burma, long a pariah state due to its recalcitrant generals and atrocious human-rights record, “has for round about 50 years been separated from the world,” he said. “It is high time we join the brotherhood of nations again.” The formality of his words was touching, as if the political idealism of an older, more genteel age had been preserved in this one retired Burmese bureaucrat.

(PHOTOS: Freedom for Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi)

Clinton’s visit—the first by a U.S. Secretary of State since 1955, seven years before a military junta grabbed power in Burma—has been hailed as a landmark moment in relations between the two nations. But both sides have downplayed major breakthroughs resulting immediately from her trip. While in the new capital Naypyidaw, which supplanted Rangoon in 2005, Clinton announced some small measures to warm ties between the two nations, like U.S. support for multilateral agencies like the IMF and World Bank to set up shop in Burma. Prior to her arrival in Burma, State Department officials cautioned that there would likely be no announcement on plans to lift U.S. sanctions on Burma, which were put in place because of the Southeast Asian nation’s human-rights abuses.

Indeed, when Clinton and Suu Kyi addressed the press after their morning meeting at Suu Kyi’s home, neither mentioned the issue of sanctions specifically. Many Western governments maintain trade restrictions on Burma, but the country’s skyrocketing trade with its neighbors, most notably China, has made it harder to choke the regime economically. For years, Suu Kyi’s support for sanctions has been matched with equal backing from Western governments. Since her release in November 2010, Suu Kyi has said that she would be open to sanctions being lifted should the Burmese government fulfill certain conditions, such as releasing political prisoners and pursuing peace with ethnic minorities who have suffered decades of abuse by the military. If Suu Kyi were to publicly announce that she thinks the financial restrictions should end, foreign governments would likely agree. Such is her moral power.

(MORE: “Burma’s New Hope: A Repressive Regime Loosens Its Grip, for Now.”)

After meeting with Suu Kyi, Clinton headed to meet with members of Burma’s ethnic groups, who make up roughly 40% of the country’s population. (The majority ethnic group is called Bamar, or Burman.) Even as Clinton’s trip was being planned, fighting was flaring in northern Kachin State between the Burmese military and an ethnic rebel army. The Kachin, also known as the Jinghpaw or Jingpo, are a largely Christian population who have long chafed at the brutal rule of the Burmese regime. Even though the Kachin were legendary during World War II as brave fighters, they have not been able to penetrate the top ranks of the Burmese army because of discrimination. In recent weeks, Kachin NGOs have alleged systematic rape and torture committed against their ethnicity by Burmese soldiers. Tens of thousands of Kachin have been displaced by the fighting over the past couple months, according to local aid organizations. Kachin and Burmese delegations are currently meeting in China to discuss potential peace negotiations, but such talks have collapsed before. (However, on Friday, another ethnic army in Shan state appeared to have signed a ceasefire with the government.)

As Burma eased away from British rule, Suu Kyi’s father, independence hero Aung San, worked hard to bring unity among the new nation’s diverse ethnics, as they are known in Burma. In the historic 1947 Panglong agreement, he promised that members of three ethnic groups—the Kachin, the Shan and the Chin—would be given significant autonomy and the right to secede from the Burmese union if they were not happy with the country’s course. But soon after, Aung San was assassinated. The Bamar military rulers who eventually took over had little sympathy for the ethnics.

Battles raged for decades between various ethnic rebel militias and the Burmese army. Although ceasefires were eventually imposed in most areas, fighting erupted again two years ago and heightened this year, as the Burmese pressured the ethnics to give up their guns and instead join a “border-guard force” under Burmese command. That plan has largely been sidelined for now, but resentment still seethes because of continuing human-rights abuses. The Kachin, in particular, have shied away from signing a ceasefire they worry will degrade what autonomy they have. Much of Burma’s rich natural-resource load, from hydropower to timber, is concentrated in ethnic areas, and the “nationalities,” as some ethnic minorities prefer to call themselves, feel they are not sharing fully in the wealth such treasures generate.

Suu Kyi has made the ethnic issue a precondition of her support to lifting sanctions. But there’s a worry among the ethnics that if relations between the U.S. and Burma improve, their concerns will be lost in the overall glow of a new political era. “What I would like to tell Mrs. Hillary Clinton is that it’s not just [Aung San Suu Kyi] who has been fighting for many years against the government,” said one ethnic who was to meet with Clinton on Friday. “We have been, too, and [our people] have lost many lives. Don’t forget about us, please.”

MORE: Hillary Clinton Begins Landmark Visit to Burma