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Asia-pacific

Clinton fosters ‘flickers of progress’ in Burma

Video by Luke SHRAGO

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2011-12-01

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has begun a landmark visit to Burma to test the country’s commitment to reform and pursue Washington’s policy of engagement in China’s backyard.

Burma hoped to end years of international ostracism on Thursday as it hosted US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the highest-level visit by a US official in more than half a century.

Clinton held talks with Burma’s new civilian leader, President Thein Sein, testing his commitment to reform after decades of dictatorship. The US secretary of state was also due to meet the country’s long-time opposition leader, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

"I am here today because President Obama and myself are encouraged by the steps that you and your government have taken to provide for your people," Clinton told Thein Sein as the two sat down for talks in the remote new capital of Naypyitaw.

Thein Sein, a former general who has spearheaded reform in the impoverished country also known as Myanmar, hailed “a new chapter in relations" between the two nations.

Clinton was expected to press the government to end long-running ethnic conflicts that have poisoned Burmese politics ever since independence from Britain in 1948 and served as a pretext for military rule.

US officials have expressed cautious optimism that recent tentative reforms may herald a new era for the Chinese-backed country, with President Barack Obama speaking of “flickers of progress”.

But, mindful of past disappointments, Washington has been keen to downplay expectations of a breakthrough in relations with the Burmese government, such as ending the crippling Western sanctions imposed on Burma.

Tentative signs of reform

With its vast natural resources and formerly high literacy and health standards, Burma was once regarded as South-East Asia’s brightest prospect. But five decades of brutal rule by a reckless and paranoid military junta have turned the country into the region’s poorest.

Over the past 12 months, a series of surprising overtures by the Burmese government have raised hopes that the country may finally be on the cusp of change.

Having nominally ended decades of military rule, Thein Sein’s civilian administration has worked with the country’s new parliament to legalise labour unions and strikes, ease censorship of the internet and release a small share of the estimated 2,000 political prisoners.

Last month it won plaudits both at home and abroad for suspending a deeply unpopular plan to build a dam on the Irrawaddy River.

But its biggest diplomatic coup has been the successful courtship of the country’s long-time opposition leader Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) said it would register anew and compete in forthcoming by-elections for parliament.

The last time the NLD took part in an election, in 1988, it was denied a landslide victory by the military junta and its leaders were thrown into jail.

‘A risk worth taking’

The return to the political arena of Suu Kyi, a widely revered figure who has spent 15 of the last 20 years under house arrest, has given credibility to the government’s reformist agenda.

In Yangon, Burma’s largest city and its former capital, street vendors openly display posters of Suu Kyi alongside portraits of her father, General Aung San, the country’s much regretted independence hero.

Frontpage headlines announce the "good news" of Suu Kyi's return to politics, a cheerful Yangon newsagent tells FRANCE 24.

Pictures of “The Lady”, whose very name was until recently taboo, have become ubiquitous in the local press.

“People used to be afraid to discuss politics, but now Suu Kyi’s face is everywhere to be seen,” said Ko Myo Naung Thein, the leader of Burma’s Democracy Network, an advocacy group with close ties to the NLD.

Ko Myo Naung Thein spent nine years in jail for opposing the military regime. But he now counts among a growing number of sceptics who are willing to give the new government a chance.

“Of course we are taking a risk [by working with the government], but it is a risk worth taking,” he told FRANCE 24, saying he was “optimistic” about the prospects for change.

Earlier this year he founded the Bayda Institute, a charity that aims to promote political awareness among Burmese youths.

“Had I tried to set up Bayda two years ago, I would certainly have been jailed,” he said.

Challenging China

Suu Kyi’s blessing has also been instrumental in bringing the international community to engage with the Burmese regime.

In a measure of Suu Kyi’s influence in the West, US officials acknowledged that President Obama had sought the Burmese opposition leader’s advice before deciding to dispatch his secretary of state.

Clinton’s visit coincides with a new push by the Obama administration to “pivot” its foreign policy towards Asia – a move that has been widely depicted as an attempt to expand US influence in China’s backyard.

Chinese authorities, long the primary supporters of Burma’s military junta, have reacted coolly to the US initiative.

"China has no resistance toward Myanmar seeking improved relationships with the West, but it will not accept this while seeing its interests stamped on," China’s state-owned Global Times daily said of Clinton’s trip on Wednesday.

Burma’s surprising decision to halt work on the Chinese-sponsored Myitsone dam has prompted speculation that the new civilian government may be trying to restore a measure of independence from its Chinese patrons.

That is something Burma’s opposition is keen to encourage, pushing for more Western engagement to counterbalance Chinese influence.

Asked whether he thought Clinton’s visit was premature, Ko Myo Naung Thein of the Bayda Institute said he would press the US secretary of state to “engage further” with Burmese authorities when he meets her later this week.

“China controls our economy and our politics; and even our government is now aware that it is in the country’s best interest to find other friends around the world,” he said.

 

Date created : 2011-12-01

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