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.
(Page 2 of 2)
Clinton will not hold the kind of “town hall meeting” that has come to be the trademark of her tenure, but State Department officials say she expects to have several opportunities to meet and talk with the Burmese people.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Clinton calls her trip a “fact-finding mission” and reassures those worried about abrupt change in US policy that economic sanctions won’t be eased until political reforms go much deeper and the conflicts with ethnic minorities cease.
The US has imposed a range of sanctions on Burma since 1988, when it first instituted an arms embargo to protest the military's quashing of pro-democracy protests. Sanctions on new US investment and Burmese imports were implemented in the 1990s, and further economic measures and limits on officials' travel to the US were added under President George W. Bush. A ban on Burmese jade and gems entering the US from third countries took effect in 2008.
Rights groups say they will be watching for Clinton to make public US concerns about rights abuses and not to just brush over them in private meetings.
The US Commission on Religious Freedom, a congressionally created watchdog organization, sent a letter to Clinton Monday in which it noted what Mr. Obama called “flickers of progress” that prompted US engagement. But it added, “Serious human rights violations continue to occur daily in Burma and any recent positive steps can easily be reversed.”
Another group, Amnesty International, warns that Myanmar's regime may have already concluded that the US decision to extend a diplomatic hand reflects US interest in subjects other than promotion of human rights.
“What is disturbing is that the regime in Myanmar seems to have taken for granted that the US government has other priorities than promoting respect for human rights and freedoms in the country,” says T. Kumar, Asia and Pacific advocacy director for Amnesty International USA. Amnesty, which focuses on the world’s jailed rights activists, says Myanmar still has more than 1,500 political prisoners, despite some recent releases.
The key “other priority” that some experts see behind Clinton’s trip is the administration’s desire to challenge China’s rise as a dominant power throughout the region.
But weaning Myanmar from economic dependence on its powerful northern neighbor need not be viewed as conflicting with a desire to encourage human rights improvements in Burma, some experts say. Indeed, the US should be able to pursue both, they add.
“That Myanmar’s government might use its engagement with the US to lessen its dependence on China is not inconsistent with US interests, and could work in favor of improving political rights,” says Michigan’s Ciorciari.
But he agrees that the US will have to be vigilant and mete out any policy "carrots" carefully and gradually – or it could see its engagement with Myanmar backfire in the form of renewed political repression.
“It’s a legitimate critique because the risk is there that the junta could exploit a visit the whole world will be watching,” Ciorciari says, “and then reverse course and back away from reform.”