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Historic Myanmar trip for Hillary Clinton: Enough focus on human rights? (video)

Obama's 'constructive engagement' policy gets a test as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Burma (Myanmar). Some critics say US is offering too much for too little progress, especially on human rights.

By Staff writer / November 30, 2011

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waves alongside Burma (Myanmar) Deputy Foreign Minister Myo Myint (l.) upon her arrival by her airplane in Naypyidaw, Burma (Myanmar), Wednesday.

Saul Loeb/AP

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Washington

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton steps into one of the world’s most repressive countries Wednesday with her arrival in Burma (Myanmar) – the first secretary of State to trod Burmese soil since John Foster Dulles in 1955.

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Her three-day trip will test not only the military junta’s openness to political and economic reforms, but also the limits of the Obama administration’s policy of “constructive engagement” and its ability to bring about change in America’s adversaries.

Some international human rights organizations are warning the United States not to let Secretary Clinton’s high-profile visit be used as a kind of US seal of approval of a regime that, they say, has offered only cosmetic reforms and that still commits gross human rights violations, in particular against ethnic minorities.

Some critics say President Obama, in sending Clinton to Myanmar, is offering too big a carrot for too little in return.

But others, in particular specialists in the role of foreign policy in democratic and human rights reforms, say the situation is ripe in South Asia for the United States to prod Myanmar down the road of political change.

“Secretary Clinton’s visit can help improve human rights in Burma if US engagement is carefully and deliberately linked to policy reforms,” says John Ciorciari, an expert in foreign policy strategies in the Asia-Pacific at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “It’s possible, but it’s not automatic.”

One reason the time is ripe for the US to try engagement with Burma, says Professor Ciorciari, is that the long-ruling junta is seeing its neighbors employ political and economic openness to advance, leaving an already-backward Burma farther behind.

“The Burmese government has been able to witness the neighboring countries’ economic dynamism, and it can’t have helped but see the Arab Spring and other parts of the world where longstanding regimes that resisted political reforms have been swept away by people on the march,” he says. “That doesn’t mean US engagement with Burma should be directed toward a short-term goal of regime change, but it can be used to implement policies that encourage Burma to pursue meaningful reforms.”

Clinton first visits Myanmar’s new capital of Naypyitaw, where she will meet with President Thein Sein, a former member of the ruling military junta, and other leaders. She then proceeds to Rangoon, where she will meet with pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as with representatives of various ethnic groups.

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