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With President Obama’s Visit, Myanmar Looks Towards Greater Democracy

November 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama's trip is the first time that a U.S. president has visited Myanmar. Ray Suarez talks to retired foreign service officer Priscilla Clapp and Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski for analysis on whether reforms are aggressive enough to establish a strong democracy and reduce ethnic conflict in Myanmar.
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RAY SUAREZ: And we get two views of the presidential visit. Priscilla Clapp is 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.

And, Tom Malinowski, there have been years of chill and years of demands for change, and now an American president in the capital. Were there some preconditions that the government there had to meet before that kind of endorsement?

TOM MALINOWSKI, Human Rights Watch: Well, they had to start this reform process, but there weren’t any preconditions for the trip itself, which made the trip kind of risky.

You can only send the president of the United States to Burma for the first time in history once. And so the question was, what was President Obama going to get for this, apart from the imagery and the speech? And there’s the glorious aspects of the trip that we saw in the video.

But in the last couple of days, the White House worked really, really hard sort of at the last minute to try to get some real concrete deliverables from the Burmese government. And they actually got some. I think they got enough to be able to say that this trip was justified by its results. They did get about 50 more prisoners released.

More important, they got a process in place to resolve the remaining few hundred cases of people who are still behind bars in Burma for their opposition to the military government, and some pretty decent commitments that now have to be fulfilled on resolving the ethnic conflicts that continue and especially dealing with the really painful problem of the relationship between the Buddhist majority in Burma and particularly the Muslims living in the west, the Rohingya Muslims who have been subjected to really terrible pogroms in just the last few weeks.

RAY SUAREZ: Priscilla Clapp, you have been looking at some of the undertakings of the government. In your judgment, are they significant? And maybe you can tell us what some of them are?

PRISCILLA CLAPP, former State Department Official: Yes, they’re significant.

I agree with what Tom just said, particularly about the political prisoners, because they have agreed to start a process before the end of December that will invite foreign experts in to go over the remaining cases.

And this is going to be not only an exercise in reviewing the status of these prisoners, but also an exercise in reviewing the Burmese judicial system.

How were they arrested? Why were they arrested? How were they convicted? It’s a very important step forward.

They also agreed to sign the additional protocols for the IAEA, Atomic Energy Agency, to come in and inspect. It will allow them to come in inspect the suspect sites that people claimed they were using to start a nuclear weapons program. So this is really a very good step forward. And that’s something the U.S. has been asking for, for a couple years.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, can the outside world get smoked by some of this? Is it just enough to get this much legitimacy and then you slow-walking some of these reforms? Is that a risk, a problem?

TOM MALINOWSKI: Yes.

And we need to remember that despite the extraordinary changes that Burma has gone through, from absolute dictatorship to this moment when people have a degree of freedom, that the big, tough decisions still lie ahead.

The army still controls much of public life inside Burma. The Constitution still empowers the army, not civilians. There are still these ethnic conflicts.

And one thing Aung San Suu Kyi said today that was very important was that we shouldn’t lured by the mirage of success in Burma.

And I think the president’s speech if you look at it carefully demonstrates that he wasn’t lured by it. He talked about all these problems. In fact, he raised some very difficult issues having to do with particularly the racial and ethnic tensions in Burma that even Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t talk about because they’re so politically sensitive in the country.

Very little of this gets resolved — and this is the key point — until 2015, when Burma will hold its first fully free and fair elections, we hope, for all the seats in parliament that are contested, and when the democratic opposition will have its first chance, if the army allows it, to actually run the country.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, this was a situation that for a long time was just static, unchanging. How do you explain this rapid move to get out of much of the world’s doghouse?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Well, they had been planning the transition in government for 20 years. Many people just didn’t see it coming.

I think the fact that they made these dramatic changes in the first year has taken everybody by surprise. We thought it would be a slower change once they had moved into sort of quasi-elected government.

But I think that what happened is that these former generals who now run the country knew all along that they were very far behind and that they were not serving their people well and they needed to change.

But it’s really remarkable that they would have moved basically to adopt the opposition agenda. And everything they’re doing is what we have been asking for.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Burma’s fellow ASEAN members, if you were to go to some of their capitals, they’re much wealthier places, right? I mean, the people are better fed, they’re better clothed. They have moved ahead.

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Yes. Burma is still in the 20th century. They have not entered the 21st century yet. But they would like to.

RAY SUAREZ: So what’s the next step for keeping the process on track, for keeping good faith with these new friends?

TOM MALINOWSKI: Actually, let me take issue a little bit.

I’m not sure if, for 20 years, the military in Burma was planning to give up power or that they were motivated primarily by concern about their people. If they had been, a lot of decisions would have been made differently for the last 20 years.

I do think they wanted at the end of this to be part of the world. They wanted to be respected by the international community, especially by the United States, and they wanted to be respected by their own people.

And they realized, because of our policies, because we were blocking their way into the global economy, that the only way that they could get that was by dealing with Aung San Suu Kyi, because that’s what we told them they had to do, bring the opposition in.

So now that they have started, we have to reward that. We have to, as the administration has been doing, begin the process of lifting all of the sanctions that had been in place for all these years.

But we still have to stick to a principled approach and insist that the full flowering of the relationship with the United States is going to depend on getting to the finish line, having those free and fair elections in 2015.

We shouldn’t be, as Aung San Suu Kyi said, lured by the sort of illusion that it’s already done, that it’s mission accomplished, and move to a more normal relationship, where what the U.S. ambassador there is worried mostly about is helping U.S. companies in dealing with ties between our militaries.

We’re sort of, you know, a third or a quarter of the way through this historic process. And we have to keep to the principled path we have been on.

RAY SUAREZ: A third or a quarter. Quickly, before we go, is the United States standing sufficiently short of normalizing relationships, that there’s still some work to be done and the Burmese know they have to go there?

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Yes. Yes, I believe they are.

And, furthermore, we can always take back the sanctions. I mean, easing the sanctions doesn’t mean that they’re gone forever. If things start sliding backwards, it’s very easy to put them back in place. So, it’s not an either/or proposition.

RAY SUAREZ: Priscilla Clapp, Tom Malinowski, thank you.

TOM MALINOWSKI: Thanks.

PRISCILLA CLAPP: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: Online, check out our story and photo galleries of images on the president’s trip.