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.
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.
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.
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.”