BANGKOK — As Hillary Clinton tours Burma this week, she will see a nation blighted by both the rule of military tyrants and US sanctions imposed to punish them.
But Clinton, the first US Secretary of State to visit Burma since 1955, is also convinced of the country’s potential. While George Bush-era diplomats decried Burma’s “reign of fear,” President Barack Obama sees “flickers of progress.”
Obama has dispatched Clinton on this brief mission — unimaginable just months ago — that could very well reverse the US-Burma rivalry as the outcast nation finds itself increasingly under China’s sway.
“It is a powerful endorsement for the government of Myanmar,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, the International Crisis Group’s Southeast Asia Project Director. (Myanmar is Burma’s official title.)
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“It provides them with an opportunity to forge a new strategic relationship with the US,” he said. “But to really make this work, they’ll need to give up something in return.”
What America wants from Burma is clear: freedom for roughly 1,600 political prisoners, a rollback of authoritarian shackles on freedom and commerce and the taming of civil wars with armed ethnic militias in Burma’s jungles.
The US still takes its Burma policy cues from Aung San Suu Kyi, the 66-year-old daughter of Burma’s assassinated founder. During her three-day trip ending Dec. 2, Clinton will visit the democracy idol at her decaying family home, which served as Aung San Suu Kyi’s prison during long periods of house arrest imposed by Burma’s military.
“Our goal is also to make sure that reforms stay on course and gain momentum,” Aung San Suu Kyi said in a Skype speech to the Council for Foreign Relations shortly before Clinton touched down. “I think her goals are the same.”
On paper at least, Burma is no longer ruled by the world’s longest-running military dictatorship. A 2010 election, clearly rigged, gave power to a political party stacked with military loyalists and ex-generals.
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Still, this military-backed regime is allowing a wave of reforms that have stunned long-time Burma watchers.
Newspapers are now more free to write about poverty and dissidents. The new parliament is also set to allow protests provided they notify authorities five days in advance. (Previous mass protests, in 1988 and 2007, ended in bloody crackdowns.)
Still, Burma remains a state in total disarray. More than one-third of people in Burma live in deep poverty, according to the UN, which estimates the average monthly salary at $27. Noisy diesel generators power its crumbling, blackout-plagued cities. There are no ATMs — nor ubiquitous global franchises such as Starbucks or KFC — and few can afford mobile phones.
“The whole status quo depends on this weirdly isolated economy,” Thant Myint-U, a Burma historian and former UN official, recently told GlobalPost. “Change that and you’ll change the politics overnight.”
The new government is attempting to do just that. Banks will soon be cleared to install ATMs. The International Monetary Fund is currently studying fixes for Burma’s chaotic currency system, which drives many to the black market. Bizarre restrictions on vehicle imports — which cause 1980s junkers to cost more than $25,000 — are being phased out.
But to truly unlock Burma’s economy, the new government must negotiate an end to heavy economic sanctions imposed by the US, European Union, Canada, Australia and other Western powers.
The ruling class appears to believe Clinton’s visit will soon usher sanctions out. Burmese businessman and presidential advisor Nay Zin Latt, in a rare Bloomberg email interview, said Western relations have “improved in a short span of time and they will consider lifting sanctions soon ... it’s just a matter of time.”
But Burma probably won’t get its first McDonald’s franchise in 2012. The ban on American business dealings in Burma is imposed by Congress. US politicians are unlikely to stir heat by allowing trade with a despised regime during a presidential election year.
“Don’t look for US sanctions to be unwound anytime soon,” wrote Ernest Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Steps are incremental and take years as trust is built and progress confirmed.”
However, the Obama administration can begin peeling back some layers of sanctions by permitting loans from the World Bank and IMF, the primary lenders to nations in turmoil.
Before taking this step, Clinton and other diplomats would likely request Aung San Suu Kyi’s blessing first. They would probably receive it, according to a recent GlobalPost interview with her deputy, U Tin Oo, at their headquarters in Rangoon.
“We never deny the giving of aid or any type of humanitarian funds,” Tin Oo said. “There must be clear transparency, good monitoring and checks. But aid, if they want to give it, it’s up to their decision.”
For now, Burma’s economy has a lopsided reliance on China, which accounts for 70 percent of the $20 billion in foreign investments pledged to Burma in 2010-2011. The Chinese are flooding Burma with mega-projects designed to pump energy and supplies into China’s mainland. Beijing also hopes to transform Burma’s coast into a backdoor port giving China access to the Indian Ocean.
Is Clinton’s visit designed to give the US a Burma toehold before China’s influence grows too powerful? Her camp insists it is not. “Our outreach to Burma is not about China,” said Mark Toner, a deputy State Department spokesman. “It’s about Burma.”
Clinton is also expected to bring up, privately perhaps, concerns over Burma’s alleged nuclear weapons program.
Her previous statements suggest fears that Burma is in cahoots with North Korea to develop a nuclear arsenal. A former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Robert Kelley, told GlobalPost last year that the program likely exists. However, he said, the “workmanship is extremely poor ... I could buy many of these components from the hardware store.”
The Obama administration, braced for accusations that high-level engagement with an abusive regime is premature, has chosen its language carefully. Both Obama and his diplomats have so far surrounded their statements on Burma’s “flickers of democracy” with disclaimers that reforms may still fizzle.
But Clinton, while en route to Burma, expressed the desire to see those flickers “ignited into a movement for change that will benefit the people of the country.” Whether that happens will largely depend on Burma’s generals-turned-politicians and their stomach for even bigger reforms.