Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waves alongside Myanmar Deputy Foreign Minister Myo Myint (L) upon her arrival at Naypyitaw November 30, 2011. (REUTERS/Saul Loeb/Pool)
After the invasion of Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld infamously said that "democracy is messy." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may well be thinking along similar lines as she visits Burma this week.
Clinton’s historic trip—the first to Burma by a US secretary of state since 1955—signals a significant but complicated détente between the two countries. The opening was made possible by a series of reforms initiated by Burma’s quasi-military USDP government following its victory in the November 2010 elections. These include the release of more than 300 political prisoners, the cancellation of a controversial hydroelectric dam project in northern Burma, limited improvements in freedom of expression and assembly, and the legalization of labor unions. They are among the biggest changes made by the regime since the military seized power in a coup in 1962.
Clearly, the Burmese government has realized that in order to strengthen its position economically and politically, it has to secure investment and technical assistance from foreign governments along with credit from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. But progress will be possible only if Burma loses its pariah status, re-engages with the international community and weans itself away from what it views as an over-reliance on China. The United States, meanwhile, is eager to encourage a transition to democracy in Burma as it seeks to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
Even though recent steps toward democratization in Burma are tentative, they have already yielded tangible improvements. Aung San Suu Kyi—the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leader of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD)—was quick to acknowledge the significance of the overtures. Realizing that progress could come only through negotiations with the regime, she pledged that she was willing to work with the government, even though it is dominated by a military that had placed her under house arrest for most of the past two decades. The NLD’s decision to apply to re-register as a political party in November stemmed from the belief by Suu Kyi and senior party members that the government is serious about reforms and democratization. This step means that the NLD leader will more than likely stand in by-elections scheduled for next spring.
Clinton’s foray is similarly tentative, a cautious testing of the waters before Washington decides whether to re-engage further with the southeast Asian country and thereby provide greater legitimacy to its government. She is scheduled to hold talks with former military man and current President Thein Sein as well as Suu Kyi, and she is likely to encourage the Burmese government to continue making space for political opponents.
There is no doubt that relations between the United States and Burma have come a long way in a short period of time. The Burmese exile began in 1988: after the regime brutally cracked down on unarmed pro-democracy protesters that year, Washington cut off foreign aid, downgraded its diplomatic presence and gradually imposed a raft of sanctions that are still in place. Since 2009, however, the United States—mindful of China’s growing economic, military and political presence in Burma—has shifted its hardline stance. The Obama administration realized early that the United States had failed to secure the progress on democracy and human rights it sought in Burma, and had lost what little influence it had in the region, as the regime simply looked to India, North Korea, Russia, Thailand and China for assistance. Clinton’s trip is the culmination of a series of visits over the past eighteen months by other senior US officials, including US Special Representative to Burma Derek Mitchell. During this span of time, the administration has come to understand that a mix of engagement and pressure may be an effective way to push for its three main aims in Burma: strengthening democracy, ending the appalling litany of human rights abuses perpetrated by the military and countering Beijing’s influence in the region.