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J A N U A R Y 2 0 1 2 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L
Burma: A Reinvigorated
U.S. Asia Policy
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham
Clinton’s Dec. 1-2 trip to Burma con-
stituted one of the tip ends of a rein-
vigorated U.S. foreign policy toward on
the Asia-Pacific region. Sec. Clinton
previewed the new policy in her No-
Foreign Policy
article, “Our Pa-
cific Century.”
Both Sec. Clinton and President
Barack Obama highlighted the new ori-
entation in separate Asian tours in early
November, meeting in Hawaii to host
the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Co-
operation summit.
The Burma visit was the first by any
top American official in a half-century.
The country (also known as Myanmar)
is considered one of the most corrupt
in the world and has a history of op-
pressive military governments. But last
March, the Burmese junta turned over
power to a civilian government.
Though its civilian status is nominal
(the regime is primarily comprised of
former senior military officers from the
State Peace and Development Council
era, 1988-2011), this past fall the gov-
ernment began to take steps toward
change that took expatriate democracy
advocates and others by surprise.
In November the regime released
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San
Suu Kyi from house arrest, and the
longtime adversary of the junta has an-
nounced that her party, the National
League for Democracy, is ready to re-
enter politics and will register to com-
pete in the upcoming parliamentary
elections. This announcement follow-
ed the release of other political prison-
ers, greater freedom for the media and
other signs of gradual political and eco-
nomic opening.
Accompanying the domestic moves
has been a foreign policy shift most
strikingly displayed in the regime’s late-
September suspension of a $3.6 billion
Chinese dam project at Myitsone. En-
vironmental concerns, the displace-
ment of some 15,000 ethnic Kachin,
and the realization that China would
consume 90 percent of the energy the
dam generates all sparked public out-
rage in Burma.
China has historically exercised
great influence over the country, and
Burma has relied on Beijing for invest-
ment in the face of long-term sanctions;
so a readjustment of relations is clearly
under way.
The November decision of the 10
heads of state of the Association of
South East Asian Nations to choose
Burma to chair the organization’s 2014
meeting also testified to the quick pace
of developments.
During her visit, Sec. Clinton met
with President Thein Sein and other
government officials and with Aung San
Suu Kyi. “As I told President Thein
Sein,” she said in a Dec. 1 press confer-
ence after meeting with officials, “the
United States is prepared to walk the
path of reformwith you if you choose to
keep moving in that direction. And
there’s no doubt that direction is the
right one for the people.” She outlined
U.S. concerns over human rights, in-
cluding ongoing violence against ethnic
minorities, and also called upon the
regime to be more transparent in its re-
lations with North Korea.
The next day, after a meeting with
Aung San Suu Kyi at her home, Clin-
ton reiterated: “The United States
wants to be a partner with Burma. We
want to work with you as you further
democratisation, as you release all po-
litical prisoners, as you begin the diffi-
cult but necessary process of ending
the ethnic conflicts that have gone on
far too long, as you hold elections that
are free, fair and credible.”
Significantly, following the high-pro-
file visit Pres. Thein Sein signed a new
law permitting peaceful protest for the
first time, and official media announced
that the government had agreed to a
ceasefire with the Shan State Army
South, an armed ethnic group.
Not everyone is optimistic about the
prospects, however. Elaine Pearson,
deputy Asia director at Human Rights
Watch, commented: “Burma has long
been a millstone around ASEAN’s neck
that won’t be removed by making
Burma the chair in 2014. ASEAN
needs to set clear benchmarks for re-
form and closely monitor progress”