Bill Clinton urges reconciliation in surprise trip to Myanmar

The president who put sanctions on Myanmar is now bringing his global foundation to work in the country.

Khin Maung Win/AP
Former US President Bill Clinton speaks at the Myanmar Peace Centre Thursday, Nov 14, 2013, in Yangon, Myanmar. Clinton met with political leaders in Myanmar to discuss challenges the emerging democracy faces, such as violence against Muslims.

In a surprise visit to Myanmar Thursday, former US President Bill Clinton urged national leaders to defuse the ethnic and religious divisions that have roiled the country, two years into a transition away from military rule.

“The whole world has been pulling for Myanmar, even since you opened up,” Mr. Clinton told a group of political, social, and religious leaders in Yangon, the country’s commercial capital. “The whole world cheers every piece of good news and is sick every time they read about sectarian violence.”

It was the first time in Myanmar for Clinton, who as president presided over the ramp-up in US economic sanctions on the country’s former military junta during the 1990s. It was Clinton’s wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose visit to Myanmar in 2011 signaled the beginning of the thaw between the two countries after the military junta ceded control to a quasi-civilian government.

Officially, Clinton was in town adding his foundation to the growing list of non-profits setting up shop on the formerly isolated southeast Asian nation. The Clinton Foundation will be working in Myanmar to procure HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis drugs and will work on drug resistance issues, maternal and child health, and agricultural development, he said.

But Myanmar’s effort to strike a peace accord among the many ethnic regions that have resisted central government control for decades – and the anti-Muslim violence that has spread east from Rakhine state over the past year – were not far from the surface.

After meeting with reformist President Thein Sein and parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann in the capitol city of Naypyidaw Thursday, Clinton stopped in with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon.

In his speech to civil society leaders, the former president discussed the Brazilian rain forest, Northern Ireland, the human genome, the Rwandan genocide, and his conversations with Yasser Arafat. He focused heavily on how societies riven by conflict or oppression had made peace among themselves by engaging longtime adversaries in debate.

“It’s not enough just to say I won’t be a tyrant.... You have to organize the inclusion of groups that will be [otherwise] left out,” he said. “It’s important to find things you agree on.”

Clinton was noticeably careful with his words when it came to the issue of Buddhist-Muslim violence, which has left hundreds of people – mostly Muslims – dead over the past year. It was perhaps a reflection of the sensitive nature of the issue here, and the awkward position it has put Western governments in as they embrace the new government and encourage their companies to invest here. Tensions are particularly high in Rakhine state, where the displaced Muslim Rohingya community has faced considerable violence and prejudice.

Still, people on different sides of the spectrum applauded Clinton's speech.

“They were very chosen words,” says Khin Maung Myint, a Rohingya advocate and member of the National Democratic Party for Development. “Still, he gave the message.”

“He stressed reconciliation … not vengeance and justice,” says Yin Yin Nwe, a former UN official and Rohingya critic from Shan State, where violence between the central government army and local Shan soldiers still flares occasionally. She noted that even Myanmar’s former political prisoners “are not crying out for vengeance, for justice.” 

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