Hillary Clinton’s historic visit to Burma has certainly strengthened the hands of the country’s liberal-minded president and ministers. It will also encourage the reformers to push on with their planned political and economic changes, according to senior sources in the government.
President Thein Sein has assured his guest that these changes are real and irreversible.
While the exchange between the U.S. secretary of State and the Burmese head of state has overshadowed almost everything else—except of course for the meetings between the two “ladies”—discussion between the U.S. chief diplomat and the speaker of the lower house, Thura Shwe Mann was just as important.
In this discussion, the two candidly exchanged views, according to notes from the meeting, which I have seen.
“We are history makers,” Shwe Mann told Clinton at their meeting. “We will continue our work—reform is irreversible,” he stressed.
Clinton for her part emphasized the need to push democratic reforms further, though the changes over the last year have been encouraging.
“That’s why I am here,” she told the speaker.
She also acknowledged some similarities between the American political structure and the new Burmese parliamentary system.
Burma’s constitution—like that of the U.S.—is the cornerstone of the country’s political system. And most important of all is the separation of the powers of executive branch, the legislature, and the judiciary.
This is the core of a democratic state, she said. “And no one part must have too much power,” she stressed.
“Laws are written in accordance with the voice of the people in our country,” she told Shwe Mann. “And they are approved by the [Congress].”
It is encouraging to see that Burma is on the road to democracy, she said.
“It is not easy to get everything right within one year,” Clinton acknowledged. The U.S is heartened by the progress made so far.
The registration of all political parties, freedom of association, labour rights, and the start of the release of political prisoners are very significant, Clinton said. But she went on to highlight the areas in which Washington wants to see further progress.
The upcoming by-elections must be free, fair, and credible. And all remaining political prisoners must be released.
Peace and national reconciliation throughout the country—especially in the ethnic minority areas—is essential for Burma to progress; humanitarian assistance must be sent to refugees displaced by the fighting, she urged.
This would show the government really cares, she added. Though she did not specifically refer to it, she was particularly concerned about the situation in Kachin state, where there are continued violent incursions by the Burmese army into ethnic villages. More than 30,000 Kachin have been displaced in the last six months, according to the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) which is demanding greater autonomy in the region.
And finally she insisted that the laws that parliament passes must be effectively implemented, respected, and strictly enforced. “Taking these steps is not only the right thing to do, but it is a very smart move as well,” she concluded.
Thura Shwe Mann responded warmly, according to government sources. “These are our promises,” he replied. And he assured the U.S. secretary of state that all four concerns—especially the release of political prisoners—are an integral part of the country’s reform agenda and will be put into practice as soon as possible.
Clinton sympathized with the government’s dilemma—that there are forces which want to slow the pace of change. “It is very important to listen to different perspectives and finally reach an honourable compromise,” she told Shwe Mann.
“But a firm commitment is very important. You all have a chance to make history and to leave a lasting legacy to your children and grand-children.”
In return for further progress, Washington stands ready to help, she said. “We will match your action, step by step, action by action,” she told Shwe Mann. She promised to help open all the doors for programmes to reduce poverty and improve people’s lives, including through the World Bank, the IMF, and the UN.
“We are also ready to help with educational scholarships, student exchanges, health care, micro-finance schemes,” she added. She also proposed parliamentary exchanges and offered to provide U.S. experts.
“We want to be your friend and partner,” she stressed. “We respect your relations with your neighbours and the other nations in your region. We want to be an additional friend and be part of your reform process.”
“I am here because you are on the right track and what you’ve started is achievable,” she said. It has worked in other countries—notably Brazil, Argentina, Chile, South Korea, Thailand, and most recently Indonesia. “It can work. It’s not going to be easy but it is achievable.”
Thura Shwe Mann was obviously enthusiastic and encouraged by the U.S. offers of support, according to senior Burmese sources. But there have to be results first. “We will match your actions,” he promised.
He stressed that his commitment and the U.S. offers were promises—promises that must now be realised.
“We’ll look for the opportunities to work together,” he said. “There will be an ongoing dialogue between us, I hope, as part of our partnership,” he concluded.
Although Clinton did not mention it during her talks with the speaker, she did tell President Thein Sein that Washington is considering upgrading the two countries’ diplomatic relations, and appointing an ambassador to Rangoon. Currently the top U.S. diplomat in Burma is a charge d’affaires appointed after the U.S. downgraded its representation after the Burmese military’s bloody suppression of democracy protests in 1988.
This may yet be the first concrete result of Clinton’s visit, and would certainly be the final key to the release of more political prisoners. Larry Jagan is a former BBC regional correspondent who is based in Bangkok and has extensively covered Burma issues.