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Will Myanmar’s Move Toward Reforms Last?

November 18, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In an effort to warm relations between the U.S. and the Asian nation of Myanmar, President Obama announced he will send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton there next month. Margret Warner discusses the renewed ties with retired Foreign Service officer Priscilla Clapp and Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on today’s developments, 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 Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch and a former State Department and National Security Council staffer in the Clinton administration.

Welcome to you both.

Priscilla Clapp, let me begin with you.

Why this turnaround on the part of the United States? I mean, the U.S. has had Myanmar in the deep freeze now for years and years.

PRISCILLA CLAPP, former U.S. chief of mission in Myanmar: It’s an attempt to respond to some very, very positive developments in Myanmar that we have been calling for, for decades.

They’re finally moving in the direction that we have been asking for, reconciliation, and particularly bringing the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi…

MARGARET WARNER: That’s the opposition party.

PRISCILLA CLAPP: The opposition party — into the political fold.

They have changed their party registration laws to make it possible now to remove the objections that the NLD had to the party registration act. They can now participate in the elections that are coming up next month. They will be part of the political process. And this is a major step in the direction of reconciliation on the side of the opposition.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that the way you see it, that this is to recognize what are really significant steps.

TOM MALINOWSKI, Human Rights Watch: I think it is to encourage significant steps, to recognize what President Obama, I think rightly, termed flickers of progress.

The big, big shift in Burma has been that, after 20 years of basically trying to eliminate Aung San Suu Kyi, even kill her, the government has decided that it wants to bring her in, to some extent.

Now, why are they doing that? They’re doing it because they want greater legitimacy with their own people, who have hated them for all these years. They want greater legitimacy in the international community. And they know the only way to do that is by bringing Aung San Suu Kyi in.

The question is, is this for real, is this a sincere effort to partner with her to build a new kind of Burma, or are they trying to sort of co-opt her or use her in order to get what they want from the international community? That has to be tested now.

MARGARET WARNER: What is your answer to Tom Malinowski’s question, is this for real, these steps they have taken?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: I have the same question that he has: Is it for real?

I believe that they have — that they are sincere in what they are doing. And I very much trust the judgment of Aung San Suu Kyi. We not only need, but I would say my former colleagues in the U.S. government place a lot of faith in her ability to judge whether it’s real. And she’s saying that she believes it is real this time, particularly on the part of the president.

There are many others in this new government that I wouldn’t trust an inch. But the president seems to be a sincere strategic thinker and reformer. And I think that everybody inside and outside the country wants to find ways to support what he’s doing.

MARGARET WARNER: What explains that, Tom Malinowski? I mean, Thein Sein is a retired general. He was installed by the military junta. He was part of the previous regime. Why is he even taking these limited steps?

TOM MALINOWSKI: Well, there is a lot going on here, and it is probably very complicated.

One factor is China. For a lot of time, critics of U.S. sanctions on Burma said, don’t sanction them because you will push them into the arms of the Chinese. Well, it turned out that pushing them into arms of the Chinese may have been the thing that got them to come right back and say, we don’t want that. That’s not comfortable for us. It’s humiliating for us.

There is the legacy, I think, of the Saffron Revolution. We saw an image…

MARGARET WARNER: That was the 2007…

TOM MALINOWSKI: The monks being shot. That was a terrible thing.

The government succeeded in putting down that monks’ uprising, but killing monks in Burma in this very deeply Buddhist society is a terrible thing to live down. The cyclone, the terrible cyclone, Nargis, the following year, in which government neglect led to over 100,000 deaths, I think a lot of people in the military, though they may have an authoritarian mind-set — they do — were ashamed of those things.

And so they want something different, and they know that to get that something different, they need Aung San Suu Kyi on their side with the international community. Again, the question is how far are they willing to go to meet her legitimate demands?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: I would add another reason.


PRISCILLA CLAPP: These ex-generals who are in the government now have traveled a lot, in the region and around the world. And they have seen how far behind their country is. They know that only reform, particularly economic and political, is going to correct this situation.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me bring it back to China in the limited time we have left.

How does China figure into the calculations of the United States here? In other words, what are U.S. interests? Is it human rights? Is it as a counterweight to China? Is it because Burma has great resources? What is it?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: No, it’s — first of all, it’s human rights. That really is the first — the first item on our agenda. There’s no question about it.

The question of China is ancillary. China is a big neighbor of Burma’s and is always going to be a major player there. We’re minor. This is just — we’re beginning to correct an imbalance simply by sending the secretary of state. But we have a long way to go.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you think China figures in U.S. calculations here?

TOM MALINOWSKI: I think it’s a huge factor for the Burmese and I think it is a minor factor for the United States. Burma is a small pond on that chessboard.

What has mattered, I think, to Americans, successive administrations, from Clinton to Bush to now President Obama, is the inspirational quality of Aung San Suu Kyi and of this amazing, nonviolent, pure democracy movement standing up against a brutal military. That’s fascinated us for a long time.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what would be a mark of success for the secretary’s trip? In other words, is she just going there to pat them on the back, or is she going there to press and to do some sort of a carrot-and-stick offer here for more?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: I think she will do both. I think she will encourage them, say some encouraging words, but I think she will also press them.


PRISCILLA CLAPP: That’s really the basis of our policy right now, principled engagement and pressure on the other side.

TOM MALINOWSKI: The visit won’t be a success if all they do is have a dialogue. We have had that with them.

They have to release all the political prisoners. They promised to do it. We thought they were going to do it this week, actually, and they didn’t. So…


TOM MALINOWSKI: About 1,600 left.

And one reason I’m glad that the secretary is going is because I know she doesn’t want an unsuccessful visit. And now the U.S. government, I think, is going to spend every day between now and her touchdown in Burma to make sure that there are real deliverables, including the release of political prisoners.

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Secretarial visits have the advantage of organizing the U.S. government.


MARGARET WARNER: Always a good thing.

Priscilla Clapp, Tom Malinowski, thank you both.