Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed in Burma’s capital Wednesday evening, becoming the first top-level U.S. diplomat to visit the country in more than 50 years.
During her three-day historic visit, Clinton will meet with officials from Burma’s nominally civilian government, which took power from the former military junta in March. She will also meet with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss the progress of reforms in the reclusive nation.
Ahead of the visit, which was announced by President Barack Obama earlier this month at an East Asian Summit meeting in Indonesia, Clinton pledged to investigate for herself the viability of political reforms recently implemented by Burmese President Thein Sein.
“We and many other nations are quite hopeful that these ‘flickers of progress,’ as President Obama called them in Bali, will be ignited into a movement for change that will benefit the people of the country,” she told reporters in South Korea ahead of the historic visit.
Obama had said Clinton will investigate ways in which the U.S. can support political reform, human rights, and national reconciliation in Burma.
Since taking power from Burma’s former military junta, Thein Sein’s government has enacted a series of reforms which have been mostly welcomed by the international community, including easing media controls, legalizing labor unions, and suspending a controversial dam project backed by China.
But the U.S. and other Western nations that have long-running sanctions on Burma are awaiting signals from pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed from 15 years of house arrest last November, on when to lift the restrictions.
A State Department spokesperson said that Clinton will meet with Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon on Thursday to discuss her views on ongoing reforms.
"We’ve been very clear that we want to see release of all political prisoners. That we want to see an opening in the political environment there so that people can exercise their basic human rights," the spokesperson said at a briefing in Washington on Wednesday.
"We’re seeing changes under way. We’re trying to assess how deep those changes are, what’s motivating those changes, and how we can build on those changes."
Aung San Suu Kyi said Wednesday that she favors increased U.S. “engagement” with Burma in order to monitor the implementation of democratic reforms.
“I hope that Secretary Clinton’s visit will open the way toward a better relationship,” she told foreign policy experts in Washington via videoconference from Burma.
“I hope that she will be able to discuss some of the very important issues with the government and that they will be able to come to some kind of understanding that will encourage the reforms to go forward.”
Aung San Suu Kyi said she believes that she and Secretary Clinton share similar goals for Burma.
“If the government of Burma and the government of the United States and the democratic opposition of Burma all work together to make sure that the reforms stay on course and gain momentum, then I think we will be able to achieve our goals,” she said.
Aung San Suu Kyi pointed out that Clinton will also be meeting with a number of other representatives from various groups in the country to get a broader perspective on how the new government can best implement reforms.
“I’m not the only democratic opposition party member with whom they discuss the issue of engagement with the government.”
Tin Oo, vice chairman of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party, told RFA he is “cautiously optimistic” about the Obama administration’s approach to engaging the Burmese government.
He said it is unlikely that the Washington, which some say has been courting Naypyidaw in an effort to contain China’s growing economic and military presence in Asia, would sideline its focus on human rights issues in Burma in order to compete with the country’s northern neighbor.
“We will maintain good neighborly relations with China. And China is not like it once was—it is a member of the global community now and will have to work towards global peace. It surely is aware of the situation,” Tin Oo said.
“I don't think that we will be used or taken advantage by the U.S. for their interests. Leaders from Burma have experience as well. Moreover, Aung San Suu Kyi herself is very transparent and clever, so it is impossible that she would let the democracy movement down,” he said.
“We welcome U.S. involvement in helping us become a democratic country. We have to take some risks by calculating all possibilities. If the public is directly involved, we will succeed. If not, such will be the fate of our nation.”
Myat Nyana Soe, a member of parliament who will attend a meeting with Clinton during her stay, told RFA that many of his colleagues expect that U.S. engagement will improve rule in Burma.
“The U.S. government and the people are watching our steps, and so as long as we continue on this path, the lifting of economic sanctions will follow,” he said.
“We will not demand a lifting of sanctions because we need to do more reform work, including the unconditional release of all political prisoners … Unless we can act on what needs to be done, I can't recommend the lifting of sanctions.”
Member of Parliament Aye Maung said the first visit by a U.S. Secretary of State since John Foster Dulles in 1955 would prove valuable for Burmese lawmakers.
“Our government will try to make changes where necessary, and we hope that the U.S. will open the way for us so that we can find the path to democracy sooner.”
Further reforms needed
Despite rapid changes in the country, human rights groups say the U.S. must push harder to ensure that Burma unconditionally releases its estimated 1,600 remaining political prisoners, advance national reconciliation through political dialogue, and end armed conflict with ethnic minority groups in its remote border regions.
On Monday, 12 U.S.-based human rights organizations, including the U.S. Campaign for Burma and Freedom House, wrote an open letter to Clinton calling on her to engage Thein Sein on those issues.
The letter warned that “the Burmese government’s recent democratic reforms are easily reversible at any time” and asked Clinton to “remind the Burmese government of the consequences that will follow from a failure to cooperate with Aung San Suu Kyi, ethnic nationality leaders, and all stakeholders of Burma’s democracy movement.”
Meanwhile, the U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) urged Clinton to “focus on abuses against ethnic minorities” in Burma in a statement issued Wednesday.
“PHR’s investigation reveals that the much-publicized incremental political changes in central Burma have not translated into improvements for the ethnic populations in the remote areas of Burma,” the group said.
In particular, PHR said, the Burmese army has committed “grave” human rights violations in Kachin state, looting food from civilians, firing indiscriminately into villages, threatening villages with attacks, and using civilians as porters and human minesweepers.
Reported by Ingjin Naing, Kyaw Kyaw Aung, and Khin Maung Soe Min for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.