BURMA: Realpolitik and Rights Compete for Clinton's Attention

  • by Jim Lobe* (washington)
  • Wednesday, November 30, 2011
  • Inter Press Service

While John Foster Dulles's visit to Rangoon more than 50 years ago was motivated in major part by Washington's efforts to 'contain' the spread of 'international communism' in Southeast Asia, so Clinton clearly hopes to reassert U.S. interest in a country in which Beijing has enjoyed great influence.

Washington's strategic 'pivot' from the Greater Middle East to the Asia/Pacific — the oft-repeated theme of President Barack Obama's nine-day swing through the region earlier this month — was designed not only to reassure U.S. allies there, but also to probe new opportunities for extending Washington's own influence, especially with countries nervous about China's fast-growing power and assertiveness.

Indeed, the administration's interest in Burma, which was renamed Myanmar by a military junta in 1989, grew palpably earlier this fall when the country's new civilian government unexpectedly suspended the controversial 3.6-billion-dollar Myitsone dam project, a Chinese- funded and -directed project designed to harness the hydroelectric power of the Irrawady River and send most of it back to China.

The decision was taken here not only as the strongest indication yet of the government's desire to reduce its growing economic dependence on Beijing, but also as a surprising responsiveness to public opinion in Burma.

That second factor has encouraged those in and out of the administration who have taken a more idealistic approach to Burma and who now believe that the government of President Thein Sein, which took power last March, represents the best opportunity in two decades for improving the human rights situation in what has been among the world's most repressive dictatorships.

While the government is still dominated by former generals, including the president himself, it has taken a number of steps that have made a strong impression even among Burma's many critics here.

These include enacting labour reforms, easing media censorship, releasing some 200 political prisoners, liberalising political party registration laws, consulting on economic reforms with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and, perhaps most importantly, engaging the military's nemesis, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, in an intense dialogue.

Indeed, during his swing through the region, Obama himself telephoned Suu Kyi - with whom the administration's special envoy for Burma, Derek Mitchell has engaged in a 'parallel dialogue' over the last several months - to let her know about and presumably ensure her approval for his plans to send Clinton to Burma.

In a video address to the Council on Foreign Relations here Wednesday, Suu Kyi, who will meet Clinton Thursday in Rangoon, which was renamed Yangon in 1992, described her attitude as one of 'cautious optimism'.

'We have to be prepared to take risks,' she said. 'We have got to make the best of the opportunities that have arisen over the last months.'

She also said she intended to run for parliament now that her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has decided to re-register as a party under the new law. The NLD, which swept the 1990 election that was subsequently nullified by the military junta, boycotted last year's parliamentary elections.

While administration officials have insisted that lifting a series of stiff economic and trade sanctions against Burma that date back to 1997 is not imminent, a major purpose of Clinton's two-day visit will be to provide a list of additional moves Washington would like to see the regime make in order to move the normalisation process along.

'Frankly, we have been surprised by some of those steps (the government has taken to date),' a senior official told reporters on the trip to Burma's new capital, Naypyidaw, Tuesday night.

'But …several other things will need to take root and happen for the United States to be able to work closely to support this overall effort,' he said, adding that the trip was also designed to 'test the seriousness' of the government about reform.

In particular, Washington wants to see many more of the estimated 2,100 political prisoners held by the government - some for more than 20 years - released.

It is also urging the government to follow up on a major new peace initiative to end the recurrent armed insurgencies by the country's many regionally based ethnic minorities against whom some of the army's worst abuses, including murder, rape, and forced labour, have been committed.

And Washington is also pressing the government to sign the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that would permit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to investigate evidence, recently made public by Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, of collaboration with North Korea on nuclear weapons and missile programmes.

Some human rights groups have expressed scepticism about the sincerity of the new government's reformist intentions.

'Myanmar's human rights situation has improved modestly in some respects but is significantly worsening in others,' said Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International's Burma expert. He noted that Thein Sein himself was recently quoted as denying that there were any political prisoners in the country.

'The U.S. secretary of state's visit sets a clear challenge for the government to respond with bold and meaningful steps, including the release - once and for all - of every remaining prisoner of conscience, and ceasing atrocities against ethnic minority civilians,' he said.

'The hope is that her visit will bolster the ostensible reformers in the regime and weaken the ostensible hard-liners — though, in truth the outsiders' understanding of regime dynamics is limited,' the Washington Post editorialised last week. 'The risk is that the United States is giving too much too soon.'

But others are more confident about the tentative rapprochement.

'The new move by the Obama administration …shows Myanmar that the U.S. is serious and positively applauds their reforms, while still calling for additional liberalisation,' wrote David Steinberg, a Burma expert at Georgetown University, in the Asia Times. 'It therefore reinforces the position of the reformers… (and) makes reforms so far more difficult to be rescinded.'

Calling for a ''trust but verify' approach to Burma,' the Wall Street Journal suggested the administration take full advantage of the opening for strategic reasons as well. Obama, it wrote, 'has an opportunity to press for greater liberalization in Burma, bring it into a more pro-American orbit, and add its weight as a counterbalance to an encroaching China.'

*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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