Clinton’s Burma Gambit

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has arrived in Burma (Myanmar) on the first such visit by a high U.S. official in fifty years. As Burma embarks on reforms, the United States wants to encourage progress and perhaps pry Burma away from China a bit. But after decades of a repressive military regime there, the U.S. attitude is what one official called “deeply realistic.”

Several issues of concern are on the agenda. Most important is the beginning of democratic reforms in Burma, symbolized by the release of hundreds of political prisoners and of the longstanding opposition leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, after years of house arrest. She is planning to participate in upcoming elections, and Clinton is to have a private dinner with her, which is kind of a big deal. (The fact that the two most important people in this story are women is also a sign of the times.) Burma’s new president seems to be genuinely reform-minded, though it’s hard to know how far or fast the process will proceed.

The United States is concerned about reports that Burma has been buying missiles from North Korea. And there is also still a little civil war going on in the north of the country, between the government and ethnic rebels who want more autonomy. The ethnic groups close to several of Burma’s borders have waged decades of low-level war, and there are tens of thousands of refugees as a result. But the government has recently negotiated on cease-fire deals with two of them. This video gives the feel of the fighting still going on in the north:

Another subtext of the trip is China. The United States has been openly stating that its focus is pivoting to the Asia-Pacific region, and its actions resemble a “containment” strategy aimed at China. The Chinese certainly see the U.S. opening to Burma in that light.

Strong U.S. economic sanctions on Burma remain in place, but historically they have followed the lead of Suu Kyi, who might call for their relaxation as a reward for the government’s thaw (she is astute in the uses of reciprocity). So I predict an easing of the U.S. sanctions fairly soon (not right away because this will require U.S. Congressional action), contrary to the statements of U.S. officials that nothing will change soon.

As Woody Allen once said, eighty percent of life is just showing up. If that’s so, then Hillary Clinton has already achieved most of what this trip can accomplish.

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