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.

While Clinton will rightly applaud Thein Sein’s government for its apparently genuine commitment to implementing the recent reforms, she should not lose sight of the fact that the majority of changes have so far benefited only Burma’s political and economic elites, who live in its cities and towns. The majority of Burma’s 50.5 million people (among the poorest in the region) live in rural areas and rely on farming, and have yet to see the dividends of any of these reforms. Sein’s government prefers to use the roughly 2,000 remaining political prisoners as a bargaining tool with other governments and rights groups, and it continues to provide military and political officials accused of committing human rights abuses with immunity from prosecution. It remains to be seen whether the regime will revert to tightening the screws (re-imprisoning political opponents or cracking down on demonstrators who exercise their newly gained freedoms), as it has done in the past.

Clinton should also be wary of focusing too narrowly on the political relationship between the government and the NLD. In this binary narrative the crucial relationship between the regime and the ethnic communities—including the Kachin, Karen, Shan, Mon and Chin, which along with other ethnic groups make up around one-third of the population—is neglected.

Overlooking the systematic state repression of these ethnic groups would be costly. Prospects for peace and stability in Burma have been hampered by civil wars between ethnic insurgent groups and the military since the 1940s. The issue of ethnic conflict is an integral part of any substantive debate on Burma, as President Obama acknowledged last month when he said a peaceful resolution to conflict in ethnic areas was vital.

Though the Burmese government has initiated piecemeal cease-fires with many armed ethnic groups, these truces remain strained and brittle. In the northeastern Kachin State, a cease-fire collapse in the wake of last year’s polls has led to a new round of war between the army and the Kachin Independence Army. Reports from rights workers and analysts in Burma as recently as last week speak of growing violence in Kachin State, with an estimated 30,000 men, women and children being forced to flee their homes to escape the fighting. New research released on November 28 by the charity Partners Relief and Development points to the military’s systematic use of rape, torture and murder in its Kachin campaign. Once again, the military stands accused of war crimes as it continues to flex its muscle in the restive border regions.

Without genuine and inclusive negotiations between the regime, the NLD and all of Burma’s ethnic communities, the conflicts will continue, and durable peace, stability and democratization will remain elusive. Though both Suu Kyi and Sein have spoken of their commitment to an "inclusive" peace, these words have yet to translate into any concrete policy change by the military.

If ethnic tensions are allowed to fester, the country’s long-suffering people will likely see a continuation of the status quo in which two Burmas co-exist: one where areas under government control enjoy limited reforms and an opening of political space, and another where regions under military rule (including most areas populated by ethnic groups) suffer an escalation of violence and repression.

Clinton must address this enormous challenge. If Burma’s military and government are serious about a political transition, they have to negotiate with all ethnic groups and tackle the underlying political and economic problems that have fueled the ongoing wars. Doing so will provide the state with the international legitimacy it craves and may help make the regime feel more secure in pursuing its reform agenda. It is this desire for acceptance that the United States must use as leverage to initiate further change. But if Clinton’s foray is perceived by the military as a tacit nod by the West that the regime’s brutal policies will be overlooked, then accusations that the visit is premature will be harder to fend off.

There are no easy answers to the Burma question. Have prospects for democracy improved in the country in the past twelve months? Some analysts say yes. Has the situation deteriorated? Other experts say yes. Both camps are right.

Ultimately, it is up to the people of Burma to decide what needs to change and how. While many Burmese will welcome Clinton’s visit, the promise it represents for economic, political and social improvements remains fragile. Hardliners inside and outside the regime could attempt to derail the gains that have been made. The current climate of engagement should be fostered, but the true measure of progress will come long after the fanfare over Clinton’s visit has faded.