US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an historic visit to Burma, also known as Myanmar, this week – the first American secretary of state to do so since John Foster Dulles in 1955 – prompting some observers to wonder whether this softening towards the repressive regime is really a hardening towards neighbour China.
While there, Clinton pushed for real democratic reforms in Burma, which has been ruled by a military junta since 1962, in exchange for a small package of economic rewards, including relaxed financial aid and support for development programs.
Burma has recently been taking small steps towards democracy, though the military is still the dominant political force: In November 2010, Burma held its first elections in 20 years. Though the country is now governed by a civilian Parliament, it was after the junta’s Union Solidarity and Development Party won more than 75 percent of the seats in an election that was widely considered flawed.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner recently freed after more than 15 years under house arrest, met with Clinton and expressed her hopes for democracy. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, has re-registered, and she will stand for parliament in elections. She stressed that the country was not nearly on the right track yet – it still holds many hundreds of political prisoners, and is riven by conflict. Clinton also met with President Thein Sein, who has been pushing through reforms but who has also appointed mostly current or former military officials to his cabinet.
The Secretary of State welcomed the softening of relations between America and Burma, but stressed that more needed to be done; particularly in relation to Burma severing ties with North Korea, and in respecting the consensus about nuclear weapons. Other reforms include ceasefires with ethnic minority insurgents, more media freedom, and wider political reform. Commentators are praising the detente in relations, but viewing the process as part of a wider game that may include containing Chinese influence in the area.
“I am very confident that if we work together… there will be no turning back from the road to democracy,” said Suu Kyi after the talks, quoted on BBC News.
Meeting of minds. Kim Ghattas on the BBC News website said that Clinton and Suu Kyi had “embraced warmly,” whilst Clinton called the Burmese politician “an inspiration.”
“In each of my meetings, leaders assured me that progress would continue and broaden. And as it does, the United States will actively support those, both inside and outside of government, who genuinely seek reform,” said Hillary Clinton, in her speech, available in full on the US State Department’s website.
It’s the economy, stupid. The meeting was widely welcomed, reported Reuters, quoting Soe Nai, a shopkeeper: “It’s the economy. Myanmar’s economy is bad. If it will help, it’s good.” A taxi driver, Ohn Kyaw, was quoted too: “Please pressure the government to carry out genuine democratic reforms quickly and please give the country more assistance.”
Towards harmony. Sally Quinn in The Washington Post, who interviewed Suu Kyi briefly, raved about her, calling her “truly remarkable”, and comparing her to Nelson Mandela. There “wasn’t a trace of anger or bitterness in her remarks.” Suu Kyi herself said that the way forward was not through bitterness, but through understanding and negotiation, to “bring harmony out of different ways of thinking.”
Is there more to it? Brian McCartan on The Asia Times was a little more cynical, reporting that the visit was as much about “counter-balancing China as about democracy and human rights.” Though more inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency have been allowed in Burma, there’s “no sign” that Thein Sein’s government has ended its nuclear programs. The visit, though, has conferred much-longed-for respect on the international stage, which should have a “positive effect on future reform.” It’s not likely that Burma will ally itself with America over China; but it has become used to “playing bigger powers off against one another.” One of the Burmese generals, military head Min Aung Hulang, had actually been to Beijing just before Clinton arrived. Clinton’s visit is “a diplomatic gamble.” Burma must prove that it will keep current reforms in place once they’ve received aid.
Oh, yes there is… And perhaps McCartan’s right – Malcolm Moore in The Daily Telegraph suggested that a new Great Game was already in place. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and India are all US allies; and many other Asian countries, afraid of China, are rushing to hide under American skirts. But Burma, once a key ally of China, is now worried. Clinton’s visit is viewed as “an attempt to surround China.” Burma is seen by China as a “pivot”, key to its economic growth. The powers are squaring up to each other – and Burma knows it.
More on Burma