The U.S. has offered to support international financial aid to Burma and will consider dispatching a formal ambassador in response to reforms enacted by the country’s new government, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday.
Washington is willing to provide further support for the nominally civilian government as long as additional reforms are forthcoming, the top U.S. diplomat told reporters at a news conference after talks with Burmese President Thein Sein in the capital Naypyidaw.
She described 45-minute talks with the president and other ministers are “candid” and “productive,” but stressed that while reforms that have already been implemented are “unprecedented and welcomed, they are just the beginning.”
Clinton urged the president to end armed conflict with ethnic groups in the country’s remote border areas and to release Burma’s estimated 1,600 political prisoners.
She also said Burma must cut ties with North Korea, a virtual international pariah that has alarmed its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific by developing an illicit nuclear weapons program, if Thein Sein hopes to improve relations with the U.S.
“The president told me he hopes to build on these steps, and I assured him that these reforms have our support,” she said.
Since taking power from Burma’s former military junta in March, 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.
Clinton said the U.S. would consider normalizing diplomatic relations between the two countries by installing an ambassador in the country and easing sanctions if Burma makes concrete reforms.
“I told the leadership we will certainly consider the easing and elimination of sanctions as we go forward in this process together … It has to be not theoretical or rhetorical, it has to be very real, on the ground, that can be evaluated,” she said.
The U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Burma following the former military junta’s crackdown on democracy activists in 1988 and the regime’s failure to honor the results of a 1990 election that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) win by a landslide.
The two countries maintain relations on the charge d'affaires level, but Clinton said that the reestablishment of an embassy “could become an important channel to air concerns, monitor and support progress, and build trust.”
She also said that the U.S. would support World Bank and International Monetary Fund investigations to assist Burma in developing its economy.
Speaker of the Pyithu Hluttaw (Burma’s lower legislative house) Thura Shwe Mann said that talks between Clinton and Burmese officials did not include discussion of lifting sanctions, but were positive.
"During this discussion there were no particulars offered about sanctions. But we hope the better relationship between Burma and the U.S. will bring more benefits," he said in a press conference following the meeting.
Member of Parliament Myat Nyana Soe of the National Democratic Front party was also present at the meeting and said Clinton was given assurances that reforms would be lasting.
"Parliament chief and speaker of the Pyithu Hluttaw, Khin Aung Myint, gave his guarantee in the meeting that there will be no military coup or military government in the future for Burma and that there will be no turning back [from democratic reforms]," he said.
Burma’s military-backed government won the country’s first elections in more than 20 years in November last year, but analysts say the polls were far from free and fair.
A senior State Department official referred to Clinton’s meetings as “workmanlike” and said that Thein Sein had expressed a desire to “create an inclusive political space, stage by stage.”
“He very frankly acknowledged the difficulties, that this country does not have a recent tradition in this regard, that they want and very much appreciate outside help in their reform efforts,” the official said.
Clinton is the first U.S. Secretary of State to travel to Burma since John Foster Dulles in 1955, and her visit signifies a desire by Washington to engage the government as well as opposition members and ethnic minority groups on the viability of reform in the country.
Following her meeting with the government on her first full day of a three-day official visit, Clinton traveled to Burma’s economic center Rangoon to visit the venerated Shwedagon Pagoda and hold the first of two meetings with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
The two women met at a U.S. diplomatic residence for discussion over dinner where Aung San Suu Kyi, who intends to enter upcoming by-elections, asked the secretary about her experiences campaigning in the last U.S. presidential election.
The pro-democracy leader has expressed support for Washington’s engagement with Naypyidaw, saying she believes that there are “elements within the government who are genuine in their desire to bring about reforms.”
“It is worthwhile to take the risk; to accept that there is a possible opening,” she said in a video message to Britain’s Chatham House think-tank.
But she has also warned the U.S. to remain watchful so that the government does not roll back reforms.
Meanwhile, a Burmese government delegation has held talks with representatives of the Kachin ethnic rebel group with which it has been engaged in armed clashes since June, according to a state-controlled media report Thursday.
The New Light of Myanmar newspaper confirmed that the high-level delegation met Tuesday with six representatives of the Kachin Independence Organization led by its chairman Zaung Hara in Ruili, in China's Yunnan province.
It said both sides agreed at the meeting to continue peace talks aimed at a cease-fire and political dialogue.
U.S.-based rights group Physicians for Human Rights said in a statement Thursday that it applauded Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for expressing concern about violence against ethnic groups in Burma.
The group issued a report ahead of her visit to Burma detailing attacks by the Burmese military on civilians, including looting food, firing indiscriminately into villages, and forcing civilians to serve as porters and human minesweepers.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.