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Obama, Clinton Have ‘a Lot at Risk’ in Delicate Relationship With Burma

December 1, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Southeast Asian nation of Burma on Thursday. Margaret Warner discusses the significance of the isolated country's first visit by a U.S. secretary of state in 50 years with William Wan of The Washington Post, who's traveling with Clinton.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Hillary Clinton in Burma, a country not seen by a U.S. secretary of state in more than 50 years.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: Secretary Clinton is spending three days in the isolated nation.

Washington Post correspondent William Wan, who is traveling with her, joins us by phone.

And, William, thanks for being with us.

Relations between the U.S. and the military regime in Burma have been in a deep freeze for a couple of decades. How is Secretary Clinton being received?

WILLIAM WAN, The Washington Post: She’s been received well.

She is the first U.S. official ever to set foot in the presidential palace, this ornate, somewhat gaudy mansion that looks like it’s built for giants. And so that in itself is a big, big step.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, tell us about that meeting with President Thein Sein in the new capital. What message was she conveying, and what came out of it?

WILLIAM WAN: It was a very interesting interaction. It took part basically — on the part of Thein Sein, the president, it was a 45-minute, very detailed presentation, going point by point his plan for reforming everything that has — people have criticized this country for.

And it shows kind of the eagerness, as well as somewhat the desperation of the country for lifting of sanctions, for engagement with the outside world. He’s really putting a lot of eggs in this basket, it seems, in the meeting with the secretary.

And then, on Clinton’s side, she was — also a very formal presentation, five points going one after the other over what they want in order to give them these kind of incentives like lifting of sanctions. They want full release of political prisoners, reforms like media freedom, most importantly political freedom, as well as a ceasefire to the brutal kind of wars that are going on between military troops and ethnic minorities in the outlying regions of Burma.

MARGARET WARNER: So, afterwards, what conclusion did she and her team draw on whether this government is seriously committed to more reforms beyond, say, the new media openness they are allowing?

WILLIAM WAN: Well, they were very cautious going in. And I think coming out, they are also very cautious, at least publicly.

But, you know, senior administration officials have kind of told me that they were very surprised by the frank nature of the talks. The president expressed the pressure he was under, that there are some within the government, many are either sitting on the fence about these reforms or actively opposing them.

It’s unknown even to the highest levels of the State Department exactly how much control Thein Sein has over the government, how these decisions are made. And so it’s a very delicate balance. They’re very careful not to claim any kind of foreign policy victory yet, even if you see the excitement in a lot of these State Department folks, because this is delicate. And there has been a lot of promise in the past before of reform that fell apart and, in fact, devolved into brutal crackdowns of democracy movements.

MARGARET WARNER: Then, tonight, she was having dinner with the Nobel laureate, opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi.

What came out of that?

WILLIAM WAN: Tonight’s meeting was just a private dinner between the two of them, so that was less policy and more personality, I think.

One person who was briefed on it told me they talked about Suu Kyi’s memories as a little girl swimming in a lake near where they were eating. Most interestingly, Suu Kyi said one of the things she missed about being under house arrest is that she had a lot of time to read.

And so that led to this discussion of what she’s reading now. And she says she’s reading a lot about military personalities, specifically military personalities who have gone into politics. And so it was an interesting insight, because this is exactly who she is dealing with now, President Thein Sein, a military general who, you know, has gone civilian and now is running the country, ostensibly.

And this is the person she has to deal with. And so you see her trying to grapple with how to deal with this man and make compromises, so that they can build these reforms that both have been talking about.

MARGARET WARNER: And how does the U.S. see Aung San Suu Kyi’s role right now? How does she fit into the U.S. assessment of this government’s intentions?

WILLIAM WAN: The U.S. has been very, very deliberate and careful in consulting her before doing anything.

And the surprising thing is the level of commitment Aung San Suu Kyi has shown to President Thein Sein. It’s surprising. The same government that kept her under house arrest for two decades, she is now starting to work with and even endorsing the U.S. working with.

And so she has a lot at risk here that she is putting into — putting into the game. Secretary Clinton and Obama have a lot at risk as well, because of the prestige they are lending to these talks. And then President Thein Sein is under extreme pressure, I think, and has a lot at risk.

And so I think the more people have at risk — one of the officials was telling me — the more chance there is of this succeeding. Everyone has something to lose. But, again, it’s very delicate. All sides think this could fall apart any time.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, so few Americans have seen Myanmar. Give us a flavor of what it is like. Have you been able to talk with any ordinary Burmese?

WILLIAM WAN: I have tried.

You know, we spent one day in Naypyidaw, which is the new capital built, and it is just a bizarre, bizarre place. It’s fairly newly constructed within the last three years. It is just big, bulky government buildings, sprawling complexes, and then barren land from one complex to the other on these cement highways.

And so it is just a network of these big complexes with very few cars, wide, wide highways, and no one to really talk to, besides — you know, we tried to go to dinner at a restaurant. People are still very careful in talking to outsiders.

Yangon, on the other hand, is very different, very vibrant city. There are even a lot of tourists. People are very friendly. But I think they are a little more open in talking here. I have been talking a lot to the dissidents, the opposition movement.

And everyone wants to talk, but they’re still very careful in, “Please don’t use my name, this is just my view,” and — because there has been media reforms, but who knows how long those reforms will last.

MARGARET WARNER: Fascinating.

William Wan of The Washington Post, thank you so much.

WILLIAM WAN: It’s been great. Thanks for having me.