Clinton to pay landmark visit to Burma
After speaking with Burmese democracy leader Aung Sung Suu Kyi for the first time, US President Barack Obama said Friday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would travel to Burma next month - the first visit of its kind in more than 50 years.
REUTERS - President Barack Obama said on Friday he saw “flickers of progress” in Myanmar and dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to visit the isolated country next month to explore new ties.
Obama, in Indonesia for a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders, said he had spoken for the first time with Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi who told him she supported more U.S. engagement with the country also known as Burma.
He said the release of political prisoners, relaxing of media restrictions and signs of legislative change in the past few weeks were “the most important steps toward reform in Burma that we’ve seen in years”.
“We want to seize what could be a historic opportunity for progress and make it clear that if Burma continues to travel down the road of democratic reform, it can forge a new relationship with the United States of America,” Obama said, also citing ongoing U.S. concerns about Myanmar’s stance with North Korea and human rights issues.
“If Burma fails to move down the path of reform, it will continue to face sanctions and isolation. But if it seizes this moment, then reconciliation can prevail,” he said.
Myanmar is now ruled by a civilian government after an election last year that was meant to hand over power after nearly five decades of military rule.
Many Western governments have expressed doubts that the new civilian authority is committed to democratic change and has embarked on a different path from its military predecessors.
But in another sign of change in the country, Suu Kyi said on Friday she supported the idea of her political party re-registering to contest a series of by-elections for vacant parliamentary seats.
Clinton’s visit will be the first by a U.S. secretary of state for more than 50 years. She will travel to Yangon and the capital Naypyitaw and “explore whether the United States can empower a positive transition in Burma and begin a new chapter between our countries”, Obama said.
Clinton would be meeting Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest last November. Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, had been detained 15 of the previous 21 years.
With sanctions preventing Western investment in Myanmar, China has long been its biggest ally on the international stage, also investing in Myanmar’s infrastructure, hydropower dams and twin oil and gas pipelines to help feed southern China’s growing energy needs.
Bilateral trade rose more than half last year to $4.4 billion, and China’s investment in Myanmar reached $12.3 billion in 2010, according to Chinese figures, with a strong focus on natural resources and energy.
But the relationship has often been strained, with a long history of resentment of China among the Burmese population and fierce public opposition to a Chinese-built dam at Myitsone that prompted Myanmar President Thein Sein to shelve the project last month, a move that stunned Beijing.
A U.S. official said the Obama administration “fully expects” China to welcome U.S. engagement with Myanmar and the United States would consult China closely on its engagement with the Southeast Asian country.
China is wary of greater U.S. influence in the region, especially in countries on its border, as Myanmar is, but the U.S. decision to engage with Myanmar should not be seen as an attempt to contain China, the U.S. official said, adding that a stable Myanmar was in China’s interests.
“It’s about Burma (Myanmar), not about China,” the official said.
When Obama took office in 2009, he made reaching out to American adversaries a signature part of his foreign policy approach. That included an effort early to engage with Iran.
But the administration took a cautious approach on Myanmar because of U.S. concern about human rights. Obama requested a policy review on Myanmar, which eventually set the stage for the effort to reach out now.
U.S. officials said that Obama spoke to Suu Kyi during his flight on Thursday from Australia to Bali.
The 20-minute call was the first time they talked and he told her he’d long admired her struggle for democracy and human rights. They described it as a meaningful conversation but also a friendly one in which Suu Kyi asked about Obama’s family dog.
He asked for her ideas on the approach to her country.
“She encouraged the president to make clear to Burma’s leaders that the U.S. will be willing to work with them if they are in fact demonstrating that they are willing to work with the world and her,” one U.S. official said.
“She advised the president that it is valuable and important for there to be direct lines of clear communication between the U.S. and the leadership in Burma. She strongly welcomed the prospect of a visit by Secretary Clinton for the purpose of increased dialogue,” the official said.
Obama is not scheduled to have a bilateral meeting with Thein Sein but is expected to see him during the East Asia Summit he is attending in Bali, as the first U.S. president to do so.
Myanmar is seeking to diversify its economy by courting other regional powers and India, which analysts say is aimed at boosting its economy and reducing its long, at times uneasy dependence on China.
Southeast Asian nations endorsed Myanmar on Thursday for the chairmanship of its regional grouping in 2014, gambling that the country can stick to reforms begun this year. The United States respected that decision, a U.S. official said.