Myanmar's fitful move towards democracy and improved relations with Washington ranks high on Hillary Rodham Clinton's list of diplomatic wins during her time as secretary of state. Her diplomacy paved the way for President Obama to visit in 2012, a first for a US leader. Since then, Myanmar's reforms have stalled, and in some areas gone into reverse, including on press freedom, minority rights, and free assembly.
Enter the lobbyists.
The Podesta Group was founded by the brothers John and Tony Podesta in the late 1980s and has become one of Washington's most powerful lobbying firms. John Podesta left the firm in the early 1990s, and since served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and a senior foreign policy adviser to Obama. Now he's campaign chairman for Mrs. Clinton's 2016 presidential run.
A week ago, the Podesta Group filed a disclosure that says it is now representing Myanmar's government and promoting its interests in Washington. According to the filing with the Justice Department, the firm will be paid $840,000 a year to "provide government relations and public relations services to strengthen the ties between the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and United States institutions."
The quest for more political muscle in Washington comes during a crucial period for Myanmar, also known as Burma. US relations with the military-ruled country, which had a horrific human rights record, had been frosty for decades until late 2011 when Mrs. Clinton, as secretary of state, became the highest-ranking US official to visit the country in over 50 years.
The military junta quickly moved in a more open direction. That same year saw the junta hand over power to a semi-civilian government. Hundreds of political prisoners were released and in April 2012 its rulers allowed opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi to be elected to a largely toothless parliament in a by-election. Free elections – and a legislature with real teeth – were promised by November of this year.
The Obama administration rushed to reward Myanmar. In 2012 diplomatic relations were restored, most US sanctions were lifted, and Obama made his landmark visit. But the euphoria of that time – Fox News' James Rosen called Myanmar's opening Clinton's "one clear-cut triumph" from her time as secretary of state – has given way to a distinct unease in many quarters that the US rushed to reward a country where the generals still hold all the cards.
Human Rights Watch assessed the country's performance in 2014 like this:
The reform process in Burma experienced significant slowdowns and in some cases reversals of basic freedoms and democratic progress in 2014. The government continued to pass laws with significant human rights limitations, failed to address calls for constitutional reform ahead of the 2015 elections, and increased arrests of peaceful critics, including land protesters and journalists.
The government's commitment to staging free and fair elections in 2015 came under question in 2014 as it cancelled planned bi-elections and made no commitment to amend the deeply flawed 2008 constitution. The opposition National League for Democracy party and donor governments pressed for constitutional reform, particularly article 59(f), which effectively disqualifies opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency, and article 436, which provides the military 25 percent of seats in parliament, granting it an effective veto over constitutional amendments. The government resisted demands for substantive discussions of federalism.
The Burmese Defense Services, or Tatmadaw, rejected constitutional amendments, and senior military leaders in numerous speeches vowed to safeguard the existing constitution as one of the military’s core duties. Military leaders also maintained that they should retain their quota of reserved seats in parliament, control of key ministries, and emergency powers.
The position of the minority Rohingya Muslim community is particularly egregious and has scarcely improved since pogroms against them by majority Buddhists in 2012. In the past two years over 50,000 Rohingya – many of whom are denied statehood – have fled the country. Conflict with other ethnic communities still smoulder: A military offensive in February against ethnic Kokang rebels in Shan State saw thousands of civilians displaced from their homes. Last month, students on a protest march were brutally dispersed by baton-wielding riot police.
Nevertheless, US aid to Myanmar since 2011 has soared – well over $200 million has been ponied up – and its generals and politicians will be seeking more. The services of a firm like Podesta will be helpful in that regard, particularly if Clinton wins the White House, while also helping to paper over human rights concerns in Myanmar.
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, wasn't subtle about how he saw the move.