Secretary Clinton’s Burma Opportunity | Freedom House

Secretary Clinton’s Burma Opportunity

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Hillary Clinton’s impending visit to Burma will be the first by a U.S. secretary of state in 50 years. It comes after a year of tentative reform by a nominally civilian government that has raised hopes for a more comprehensive political opening, but this optimism needs to be tempered by caution.

The Burmese government’s ultimate intentions remain unclear. If its goal is to permanently expand the regime’s domestic legitimacy and international acceptance, then the positive changes and commitments to date may be both lasting and a sign of greater improvements to come. If, however, President Thein Sein’s government views its reforms as an expedient way to boost its international image in the near term, then a freeze or backsliding on the modest reforms enacted so far can be expected.

In the last few weeks, there have been two major announcements that may shed light on these questions. The first was that Burma had been awarded the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for 2014, an honor it was denied in 2006 due to an abysmal human rights record that even other authoritarian states in the ASEAN group were unable to overlook. Some argue that the new chairmanship will shine a spotlight on the Burmese regime and encourage continued change. However, similar signals of international recognition, once obtained, have not had lasting positive effects on authoritarian countries in the past. For example, after a period of slight opening in 2006 surrounding Vietnam’s entry into the World Trade Organization, the Vietnamese government quickly resumed crackdowns on political dissidents. Even if Burma does not mount a crackdown after attaining the ASEAN chairmanship, it could simply allow the reform process to stall, leaving civil society and opposition groups with only marginal gains.

The second announcement might indicate a more genuine change.The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), under the leadership of longtime political prisoner and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, registered as an official party to compete in upcoming parliamentary by-elections, lending its hard-won democratic credentials to the balloting itself and to the broader system of government-led political reforms. On Monday, the NLD formed an election committee to prepare for the by-elections, which are expected within the next three months.

Many observers have argued that China’s growing influence has left the country’s leaders desperate for new allies, forcing them to engage in reforms to broaden their diplomatic options. In a major turning point on this issue, the government recently postponed construction of the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam until 2015. Civil society groups had objected to the hydropower project because of its potential environmental effects and the forced resettlements it would cause. The postponement represented both a willingness to listen to the will of the people and a cooling of the relationship with Beijing.

Among other positive signs, civil society and grassroots activists have been able to express their concerns publicly, through marches, protests, and a more open media environment. On Monday, the parliament declared a right to protest in Burma. Compared with the intense repression of previous years, these sorts of reforms are impressive, but they remain quite tentative. For instance, the government released thousands of prisoners earlier this fall, including political prisoners from the 1988 democracy movement and the 2007 Saffron Revolution. However, October’s release freed only about 200 political prisoners, and releases scheduled for November 14 were postponed. The second group of political prisoners was instead relocated to different prisons. Moreover, Burma has yet to resolve its ongoing civil conflicts with ethnic minority groups; state violence against minority populations has increased in the past year, creating an unprecedented number of internally displaced people and refugees.

Secretary Clinton’s visit will be an important milestone in the Thein Sein government’s quest for legitimacy, amounting to a stamp of approval for the minimal reforms that have been implemented so far. To help ensure that the regime keeps moving in the right direction, she will need to make it perfectly clear that continued U.S. engagement depends on the achievement of specific additional goals. These should include:
  • Resumption of prisoner releases and full amnesty for all political prisoners
  • Inquiries into and steps to redress the human rights abuses committed against the Burmese people by the military junta
  • Lifting of restrictions on political parties and the holding of freer and fairer elections in 2015, verified by international monitors
  • Ending the violence against ethnic minorities and recognizing the rights of tens of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons

The Burmese leadership may eventually decide, if it has not already decided, that real and thorough democratic reforms are too high a price to pay for its original aims. And Secretary Clinton cannot determine the country’s trajectory by means of a single visit. But the trip does offer her the opportunity to disabuse the regime of any assumption that it can win U.S. friendship with only superficial changes, and to assure the country’s democracy advocates that they will not be forgotten if the current opening proves insincere or temporary.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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