Clinton’s Myanmar Visit: The United States Responds to Reform

For the first time since John Foster Dulles did it in 1955, a U.S. secretary of state just wrapped up a visit to long-secluded Myanmar. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with government leaders, including President Thein Sein, in the current capital of Naypyidaw, as well as with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in the former capital of Yangon, during her November 30–December 2 visit. The trip had been announced by President Barack Obama just two weeks earlier in a surprise move on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit. Both the suddenness of the announcement and the rapid deployment of Secretary Clinton speak to the breathtaking speed with which the former pariah state has attracted international attention with its reforms.

Despite the reforms that have occurred in Myanmar over the last several months—easing censorship, unblocking the Internet, amnesties that included some political prisoners, cease-fires to end longstanding violence with several ethnic minority groups, allowing union and worker strikes, and permitting Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) to register and run for office—critics warn that the Obama administration is running a serious risk by sending Clinton to Myanmar, risking political embarrassment should reforms prove illusory. Others insist that greater U.S. engagement is crucial to boost the domestic legitimacy and support for Myanmar’s reformers to keep up the momentum.

Q1: What did Secretary Clinton accomplish during her visit?

A1: Clinton touched down in Naypyidaw on November 30 and spent a day in the capital meeting with prominent Myanmar officials. She spoke with President Thein Sein, Foreign Minister Wumma Maung Lwin, Lower House Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, and members of Parliament. Her meeting with Thein Sein was described as “workmanlike” by a State Department official, who also noted that the president acknowledged that his country still has much to do to continue its reforms.

The secretary traveled from Naypyidaw to the former capital of Yangon for a dinner with opposition leader Suu Kyi on December 1, followed by a formal meeting with her and key members of her NLD the next day. Clinton also met with representatives of Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups and visited Yangon’s most famous landmark, the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Clinton made a number of concrete announcements while in Myanmar. Since sanctions prevent the United States from providing aid to the government, Clinton announced a package of $1.2 million to assist civil society groups in the fields of microfinance, healthcare, and aid to landmine victims. She also announced that the United States would support UN assistance for health care and small businesses, as well as for strengthening Myanmar’s programs for health, micro-finance, and counter-narcotics. The secretary invited Myanmar to join the U.S.-backed Lower Mekong Initiative that currently includes Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam and discussed the possibility of exchanging ambassadors should Myanmar’s reforms continue.

In what was potentially the most important announcement for Myanmar’s long-term reform, Clinton announced that the United States would no longer block assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. The details of this announcement remain unclear. The United States is required by law under current sanctions legislation to vote “no” on any IMF and World Bank assistance to Myanmar, though its vote alone is not sufficient to block such aid. The sanctions legislation also requires that the United States lobby other countries to vote “no,” although what that provision requires is necessarily ambiguous. Clinton’s announcement seemed to suggest that the United States will now offer only token opposition to assistance from the international financial institutions. The new U.S. policy was underscored when Suu Kyi announced after her meeting with Clinton that the World Bank would send an assessment team to Myanmar.

Q2: What obstacles still stand in the way of an improved bilateral relationship?

A2: Throughout her trip, Clinton emphasized that Myanmar still has a lot of work to do before U.S. sanctions can be lifted and relations normalized. She stressed the need for the government to release its remaining political prisoners, end ongoing violence against ethnic minorities, and cut off all military relations with North Korea. While these issues will be difficult to resolve, Myanmar’s leaders addressed each of them during Clinton’s visit.

Speaker Thura Shwe Mann said he told Clinton that the government will work to ensure that “all citizens including political prisoners” can take part in rebuilding the country. President Thein Sein told her that the government is currently looking into ways to release remaining political prisoners. These statements, while vague and unsatisfying, are promising steps for a government that has long denied the existence of political prisoners.

Violent conflicts between the army and ethnic minority groups have plagued the country for decades. Government officials assured Clinton that they are pursuing cease-fire talks with 10 ethnic groups with the goal of a lasting peace and political participation by all. There have been confirmed talks between government representatives and Kachin, Shan, Mon, Chin, Karenni, and Karen groups in recent months. The government has already signed cease-fires this year with the Mongla, United Wa State Army, and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. As if to underscore its stated commitment to ending the violence, the government announced a preliminary cease-fire with the Shan State Army-South on the last day of Clinton’s visit.

The final obstacle to improving U.S.-Myanmar relations is the long-time suspicion of military ties between Myanmar and North Korea. Worries among U.S. officials were heightened when a North Korean ship was intercepted on May 26 en route to Myanmar. After several days of diplomatic pressure and a standoff at sea, the ship returned to North Korea without incident, but it was widely believed to be carrying ballistic missiles in violation of UN sanctions.

More troubling have been suspicions that Myanmar has cooperated with Pyongyang on the development of nuclear weapons. President Thein Sein assured Clinton that his country will in the future uphold UN Resolutions 1718 and 1874 restricting the transfer of military technology from North Korea and that it is “strongly considering” signing an additional protocol from the International Atomic Energy Agency to prevent the proliferation of nuclear technology. Thura Shwe Mann admitted that his country had signed a military cooperation agreement with North Korea in the past, but he denied that any nuclear cooperation was involved. He said, “The U.S. has a very good intelligence system. It has not only people intelligence but also intelligence satellites. When I went to North Korea as a general in the past, the U.S. knew about it. It knows what we were doing.”

Q3: How have other countries reacted to Clinton’s trip?

A3: The international reaction to Clinton’s trip has been mostly positive. The other ASEAN member countries praised President Obama’s announcement of the trip, which followed their own decision to award Myanmar chairmanship of the organization in 2014. ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan said, “Secretary Clinton’s visit will help accelerate that momentum of change, widen its spectrum and deepen its substance.”

The trip was also well received in Japan, which has maintained a larger footprint in Myanmar and less restrictive sanctions than the United States and European nations. On the last day of Clinton’s visit, it was revealed that Japan too was arranging for trips to the country by Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba in December and Industry Minister Yukio Edano in January.

The response was noticeably less positive in China, where fears of growing U.S. influence in the region have been heightened by a new basing agreement last month with Australia and criticism during the East Asia Summit of China’s actions in the South China Sea. An editorial in the state-run Global Times on December 1 asserted that China would not let the United States “stomp on its interests” in Myanmar. The Chinese Foreign Ministry called on the international community to end all sanctions against Myanmar in a move that seemed designed to highlight the difference between the United States’ punitive measures and its own engagement with the country. When asked about the Chinese response, Clinton said only that, “We don’t see this as a competition with China.”

Greg Poling is a research assistant with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative