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New Chapter Begins for U.S. Relations With Myanmar, Though Concerns Remain

May 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
At the White House, President Barack Obama welcomed Myanmar President Thein Sein, the first Burmese leader to visit Washington in nearly five decades. Ray Suarez talks to Jennifer Quigley of the U.S. Campaign for Burma and Priscilla Clap, former chief of the U.S. mission in Myanmar, about reforms in that country.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to the Southeast Asian country Myanmar, whose president visited the White House today.

Ray Suarez has that story.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We very much appreciate your efforts and leadership in leading Myanmar in a new direction.

RAY SUAREZ: At the White House, President Obama greeted the president of Myanmar, Thein Sein, the first leader of his country welcomed to Washington in nearly 47 years.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We want you to know that the United States will make every effort to assist you on what I know is a long and sometimes difficult, but ultimately correct path to follow.

RAY SUAREZ: For a half-century, a military junta ruled Myanmar, also known as Burma, and home to some 48 million people. Then, in 2007, Thein Sein, himself a general and junta member, became prime minister and began gradual reforms.

Three years later, the country held its first elections in 20 years, and a week after that, the government released longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest. In the following months, thousands of other political prisoners were freed.

Then, in late 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a landmark visit to Myanmar, meeting with both Suu Kyi and Thein Sein.

FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON, United States: I made it clear that he and those who support that vision which he laid out for me, both inside and outside of government, will have our support as they continue to make progress, and that the United States is willing to match actions with actions.

RAY SUAREZ: In 2012, the country again held elections that brought Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party to power in parliament. And last November, President Obama made his own historic visit to Myanmar, where he received a hero’s welcome.

Speaking at Yangon University, he lauded the progress made between the two nations.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: America now has an ambassador in Rangoon, sanctions have been eased, and we will help rebuild an economy that can offer opportunities for its people and serve as an engine of growth for the world.

RAY SUAREZ: On the other hand, some opponents of Thein Sein’s regime oppose the Washington visit. They say he’s been too slow on reforms and on stopping the bloodshed and displacement of ethnic groups, Muslims and Buddhists.

Even today, the State Department again designated Myanmar a country of special concern, for severe violations of religious freedom. For his part, Thein Sein denies Myanmar’s military has carried out pogroms against any group.

For more, we turn to Priscilla Clapp, a retired Foreign Service officer who headed the U.S. Embassy in Burma between 1999 and 2002. She’s now an analyst and consultant to think tanks and foundations. And Jennifer Quigley, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, an organization that supports democratization and human rights assistance in Myanmar.

And, Priscilla Clapp, this is still a very new relationship. Where does it stand right now?

PRISCILLA CLAPP, Former State Department Official: Well, I would say that, with President Thein Sein’s visit to Washington, we will start a new chapter in the relationship.

I think that the relationship is — over the past year has become much more normalized than it was before. And I expect that we will be working very closely with Myanmar in the future to help them build a sustainable democracy and overcome the many challenges that they’re facing right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Jennifer Quigley, how do you see it?

JENNIFER QUIGLEY, U.S. Campaign for Burma: I agree that there has been a warming of relationships between the two countries. And it worries us that it has been very much done by just the government, as opposed to involving ethnic armed groups or civil society organizations.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, both sides have made promises to each other during this early phase.

JENNIFER QUIGLEY: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: What do they want? What does the United States want from Myanmar and the other way around?

JENNIFER QUIGLEY: Well, I think it’s first easiest to ascertain the Burmese government’s ambitions. They want all the sanctions lifted and a full normalization of relations between the two countries.

On the U.S. side, I think that there is a complex set of — to the equation. They want to balance out China in the region. They want to promote democracy in the country. And they also want to make sure that American businesses get the opportunity to invest in all sectors of Burma’s economy.

RAY SUAREZ: Priscilla Clapp, has Burma given enough on American demands to get all those things it wants?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Yes, I think that they have certainly been very responsive to our demands.

You will recall that, for the past 20 years, we have been asking them to reconcile with the opposition and with the minority ethnic groups. And they have now more or less reconciled with the opposition. They have brought Aung San Suu Kyi into the government — well, she has won a seat in the government. And they have treated her as — almost as an equal leader in the government.

They still have a long way to go with the ethnic minorities, but they have opened the door in a way that the previous government never did. They have instituted press freedoms. They have allowed people to become politically active, join in the political process.

They have — now have elected government. It may not be perfect, but it is certainly headed in the right direction, more or less doing the things that we have been asking them to. There are still some political prisoners left, but they have released many of them. And I’m sure that they are on the road to releasing the rest of them.

They have recently reconstituted the commission dealing with political prisoners, and nearly half the members of the constitution are former — of the commission — excuse me — are former political prisoners themselves. I could go on. It’s a very, very long list.

RAY SUAREZ: Jennifer, the idea that from time to time Myanmar will make the news because there’s either civilian-on-civilian unrest, people being burned out of their homes, shops being looted, that sort of thing, or people in uniforms with rifles are pushing people away from a place they say is theirs, what’s been the state of that ethnic conflict? Is it something that has slowed down Burma’s path to democratization?

JENNIFER QUIGLEY: Well, I think this gets at the heart of the role that the military plays inside the country.

We have seen a worsening of the military’s attitude and tactics against the minorities. And so while there may have been overtures by the government to arrange cease-fires with the ethnic groups, we have seen in just the past few months alone that the military has attacked and threatened cease-fires against the Shan, against the Palaung, and to a lesser extent to the Karen, while they have ignored cease-fire orders from the president three times over the last two years to stop attacking the Kachin.

And so it’s a very worrying trend that regardless of the intentions of the government, the military continues to act as it always has.

RAY SUAREZ: Priscilla Clapp, do those sorts of facts on the ground, of events in Myanmar make it too soon to host the president, Thein Sein, in Washington?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: No, I don’t believe it does at all.

I think that they are trying to tackle these problems honestly. The former regime didn’t. They denied that there were any problems in the country. They thought that everything was perfect. This government recognizes that they have these problems. And President Thein Sein is here asking us to help. I think that we certainly should help, because they are doing more or less what we have been asking them to do. It is incumbent upon us to help them.

RAY SUAREZ: I will ask you the same question, Jennifer. Too soon to host Thein Sein at the White House?

JENNIFER QUIGLEY: Yes, we feel it’s too soon.

We like, the past several months, there hasn’t been much on the positive front that has taken place in Burma. There’s been more on the negative front. And one of the key issues we have is that the government hasn’t really acknowledged that there are government actors, whether that be police or security forces, that have been a part of the violence or allowed the violence to happen.

And what has been missing the most with all this violence has been the pursuit of justice and accountability. And until our president acknowledges that that is a major concern, bringing President Thein Sein here, where he also doesn’t acknowledge that that is a concern, it shows that this relationship will move forward regardless of whether there’s progress made on justice and accountability.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, given what you just said, why is the United States putting so much capital, so much urgency on pushing this bilateral relationship along? Things have moved very quickly.

JENNIFER QUIGLEY: Yes.

I mean, I think that President Obama in his first inaugural speech said, if you unclench your fist, we will outstretch our hand. And I think that he saw that Burma was the only country willing to engage with the U.S. government and make that sort of change and grow that relationship. Unfortunately for us, it comes at the expense of there not being much progress on issues that the international community has let sort of fall by the wayside, the human rights agenda, the pursuit of holding the military accountable for the atrocities that it continues to create.

RAY SUAREZ: Same question, Priscilla. Why this speeding along of the U.S.-Myanmar relationship?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: They have made tremendous strides in the last two years. And they deserve a lot of credit for that. It is a very poor, backward country that has been isolated for a century, more than 50 years. And they’re trying to catch up with the rest of the world right now. They have — they have a lot of social problems that they must overcome. I doesn’t mean that it’s being directed by the government. In fact, I believe the government is trying to face the problems.

RAY SUAREZ: Priscilla Clapp, Jennifer Quigley, thank you both.

JENNIFER QUIGLEY: Thank you.

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Thank you.