How Madeleine Albright discovered she was on Myanmar's blacklist

The former secretary of State earned the 'badge of honor' for her role in crafting sanctions against the former military government. She finally made an official visit to Myanmar this week.

AP
Myanmar Vice President Nyan Tun shakes hands with former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during their meeting in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Monday.

Madeleine Albright made it back to Myanmar this week – but first she had to get off a blacklist.

The former US Secretary of State last visited the country in 1995, when it was still called Burma, and she was still then-President Bill Clinton's envoy to the United Nations. At that time, she met with Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and talked tough with the military generals who controlled the country. 

When Myanmar began opening to the world in 2011, she picked up the phone and dialed Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. Newly released from house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi invited Albright to return. But Ms. Albright's role in crafting the strict US sanctions policy against Burma had apparently earned her a spot on the government's visa blacklist. She applied for a visa, and was rejected – twice.

Soon, a former student of Albright's, now working at the State Department, called her. 

"And he said, you just got off the blacklist. And I said I didn't know I was on the blacklist," Albright said in an interview at the end of a five-day visit to Myanmar this week. "However, I see it as a badge of honor."

Albright's return speaks to the dramatic thaw in US relations with the former pariah state over the past year, and to the delicate US strategy in Myanmar  – showing support for political reformers and encouraging American businesses to come in, while also raising concern about religious issues and maintaining some sanctions.

Now the chairwoman of the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit that promotes democracy abroad, Albright talked democracy and religious tolerance with government officials and community leaders in Yangon and Naypyidaw this past week, gave a speech at the University of Yangon, and also plugged Coca-Cola, which opened a plant in Myanmar for the first time.

"We always talk about what goes first, political or economic development.... Well, I have, in my old age, decided that basically they go together," Albright says. "People want to vote and eat."

In the wake of anti-Muslim violence in several parts of majority-Buddhist Myanmar in recent months, Albright says she tried to stress to government officials how formerly warring parties had finally come to terms in the Balkans during the Clinton years, and spoke of the surprising reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa.  

"I think that generally one of the things that happens, and this isn't just true here ... everyone always thinks their situation is unique," Albright says. 

The key, she argues, is getting leaders to believe that religious tension "isn't a unique thing and that other countries have in fact found a methodology to get in each others' shoes."

From a more practical standpoint, Albright, also chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm, warned in her speech that ethnic tensions will scare off investment in Myanmar just as foreign firms are considering jumping in. 

And as for those sanctions – many of which the US government has now relaxed?

"I have no regrets about that," Albright says.

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