Burma, the long-ignored pariah state of Southeast Asia, seems to be in the beginning stages of turning over a new leaf. After four decades of sanctions and terse diplomacy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a historic visit to the Burma this week and announced that the U.S. would be loosening its blockade on aid to the country.
Before the visit, President Obama declared that Burma was showing “flickers of progress” in recent months, indicating the potential to “forge a new relationship” with the state. Clinton’s arrival marks the first U.S. visit from high-level official to the country since the 1950s, before Burma underwent a military takeover followed by decades of authoritarianism, repression and frequent skirmishes between the military and various ethnic minority groups on the nation’s border. Clinton’s agenda included a meeting with President Thein Sein, formerly the leader of the nation’s military junta, as well as a meeting with famed democratic leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
Clinton’s visit to Burma is one part of President Obama’s recently announced shift in foreign policy to focus on the Asian-Pacific, which analysts have noted is an effort to engage seriously with China, the region’s rising powerhouse. Although Burma’s decades of human rights and economic repression have earned its general status as an outcast in the Southeast Asian region, it retains crucial access to valuable resources and has retained strong ties with China. This warm relationship has allowed Burma to stay somewhat economically afloat despite sanctions from Western nations — although the dearth in foreign investments has rendered a high poverty rate in the country and prevented Burma from adopting many modern technologies, evoking a “time warp” effect for its few visitors.
During Clinton’s visit with Thein Sein, she reviewed many of the concerns the United States has with Burma’s policies: Burma’s long list of political prisoners, its heavy atmosphere of censorship on speech and the press, and its inability to curb unrest among ethnic minority groups, many of which have separatist goals.
But indeed, it seems that “flickers of progress” have been evident in the pariah state. After four decades of iron-fisted rule by the country’s military junta, the nation passed a military-drafted constitution and officially transitioned to a civilian-led government in 2010, although election observers criticized the process for being rife with corruption and fraud. However, Burma’s president, Thein Sein, is widely credited as reformist that is open to engaging with Aung San Suu Kyi. The democracy leader herself has stated that she trusts him, although that same trust might not necessarily be extended to the rest of the government. Moreover, the new civilian government has permitted Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party to run for office in the next national election, years after Aung San Suu Kyi’s 1990 landslide electoral win was voided by the military junta in power.
GlobalPost’s three-part series on Burma’s internal changes also points out that although censorship and government intimidation remain significant threats, the Orwellian atmosphere has thawed in recent months. Whereas the long-ruling military junta often responded to signs of dissent with aggressive crackdowns and heavy surveillance, some previously taboo topics are now allowed to be discussed more openly, and the government has engaged with dissidents through negotiation rather than physical attacks.
Other countries within Southeast Asia have taken note of Burma’s progress as well. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed this year to allow Burma to chair its 2014 summit. In 2006, the last time Burma was handed the summit chairmanship, the country decided to forego it in part due to the impending boycott of the meeting by Western nations.
Clinton expressed recognition of all these small reforms during her visit with Thein Sein, and indicated that if the country continues on the course, further engagement with and aid from the United States would be possible. The announced changes to aid are fairly modest; the United States will still refrain from loaning money to the country directly, but it will allow the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program to issue loans and financial aid. Still, Clinton’s visit heralds the potential for the historically icy relationship between the two countries to begin thawing, which may mark a crucial turning point that finally lifts Burma out of its long period of isolation.