U.S. to Re-engage Myanmar to Encourage Fledgling Reforms

BY Larisa Epatko  November 18, 2011 at 4:45 PM EDT


President Obama and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at ASEAN summit. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

The former top U.S. diplomat in Myanmar has called the latest overture to that isolated nation a “historic opportunity.” But a top human rights organization official expressed concern that the Obama administration might be moving too quickly and that the government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, needs to show more concrete evidence of its willingness to reform.

President Obama said Friday that because of recent reforms in Myanmar, he is upping U.S. engagement and sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton there next month. She is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the Southeast Asian nation in more than 50 years.

White House staff said President Obama had been considering dispatching Clinton for weeks but wanted to make sure main opposition leader and democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi supported the move, which he confirmed in a phone call Thursday night.

Clinton “will explore whether the United States can empower a positive transition in Burma and begin a new chapter between our countries,” Mr. Obama said at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Indonesia.

Myanmar has undertaken several reforms, including starting a dialogue with Suu Kyi, releasing some political prisoners and relaxing media restrictions, he noted, but more needs to be done to open its political system, improve its treatment of minorities and free more political prisoners. (Read his full statement on the White House’s website.)

Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, said Friday her National League for Democracy party would register for future elections after having boycotted last year’s vote. Suu Kyi had been under house arrest off and on for 15 of the 21 years before her release on Nov. 13, 2010, days after Myanmar’s general elections.


Aung San Suu Kyi leaves the National League for Democracy party offices in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images.

Priscilla Clapp, U.S. chief of mission to Myanmar from 1999 to 2002, said Clinton’s trip gives the country a visible show of support of its political changes, which offer a “historic opening.” It also follows Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin’s visit to Washington in September.

The United States’ engagement with Myanmar is part of a larger strategic shift President Obama articulated during his trip through Asia — beginning in Hawaii with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and continuing through this week’s ASEAN summit — to rebalance the U.S. presence in Asia, she added.

Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, said sending Clinton is the right thing to do, but many more political prisoners should be released and people should be watchful of the regime to make sure it follows through on its promises.

Myanmar also won the chairmanship of the 2014 ASEAN summit at this year’s meeting, marking a stride in its efforts to come out as a legitimate member of the international community, said Malinowski.

The country’s new civilian leadership has made changes the previous military leadership did not, but it’s too early to say that Myanmar’s political scene is transformed, he said.

Related Resource: Read more about the easing of restrictions in day-to-day life in Myanmar.

Daniel Sagalyn contributed to the reporting. We’ll have more about U.S.-Myanmar relations on Friday’s NewsHour. View all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.