Why Obama sees time as ripe for overture to Burma regime

By sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Burma (Myanmar) next month, Obama seeks to encourage recent steps toward democratization. But China and his own image as a door-opener are also factors.

Charles Dharapak/AP
U.S. President Barack Obama stands with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as he announces that she will travel to Burma(Myanmar), on the sidelines of the ASEAN and East Asia summit in Nusa Dua, on the island of Bali, Indonesia, Friday, Nov. 18.

President Obama’s decision to send Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the southeast Asian country of Burma (Myanmar) next month reflects the US desire to encourage recent steps toward democratization by the Burmese regime.

Mrs. Clinton’s visit – the first by a US secretary of State in more than 50 years – also suggests two other Obama goals. One is to nudge Burma to continue diversifying from its heavy reliance on China over decades of military rule.

Another is to signal, both to Americans and to the world, that a president who came into office proclaiming an open door to dialogue with America’s adversaries is pursuing that policy.

But the focus is on supporting Burma’s fledgling steps toward democracy, which include an initial shift this year to a civilian-led government and measures opening up an economy long controlled by the military.

Calling Clinton’s visit “a substantial reward” to the regime, Notre Dame University Prof. George Lopez says the Obama administration is signaling recognition that “the flip side of sanctions designed to force policy change are incentives to reward concessions made and to stimulate more in the future.”

Mr. Obama laid out a carrots-and-sticks policy toward Burma in 2009, renewing US economic sanctions designed to punish the regime for human and political rights violations while signaling an opportunity for improved relations if Burma were to undertake reforms.

In announcing his decision Friday to dispatch Clinton, Obama said his aim was to “seize what could be an historic opportunity for progress and make it clear that if Burma continues to travel down the road of democratic reform, it can forge a new relationship” with the US.

Obama finalized his announcement only after consulting by telephone with Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy activist and 1991 Nobel peace laureate who was released from house arrest last year.

Professor Lopez, an expert in the politics of economic sanctions, says Obama’s reward of a coveted Clinton visit is a “deep encouragement” to the regime to move beyond its initial “stirrings” and to “quickly take the next two or three steps.”

Changes the Obama administration will be watching for include the release of more political prisoners, allowing Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to operate as a genuine political party once again, and perhaps even an expansion of the national parliament's powers, Lopez says.

“Clinton will tell Burma’s leaders, ‘If these things happen, then you have a real chance to roll back sanctions and to have a real partner in the US,’ ” he says.

Obama’s announcement comes just a day after Burma’s neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, agreed to allow Burma to take the organization’s presidency in 2014 – a regional role Burma’s leaders have long coveted.

At “first blush” that decision may look like a sizable carrot for Burmar’s rulers in exchange for small political change, but Lopez says the key point is that the ASEAN leaders granted Burma the 2014 presidency.

“If six months after Clinton’s visit things have gone south again, the US can halt the talk of removing the sticks and the ASEAN countries can reel back their decision if they want to,” he says. “Everybody’s going to be watching for the next steps to be taken and for the reforms to continue.” 

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