BALI– Seizing an opportunity for historic progress in repressive Myanmar, President Barack Obama is dispatching Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the long-isolated nation next month in an attempt to accelerate fledgling reforms.
The move is the most dramatic sign yet of an evolving relationship between the United States and Myanmar, also known as Burma, which has suffered under brutal military rule for decades. Obama said Friday there had been “flickers of progress” since new civilian leadership took power in March.
Responding to signs of reform, Myanmar’s main opposition party, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, decided on Friday to register again for future elections after boycotting last year’s voting.
“If Burma continues to travel down the road of democratic reform, it can forge a new relationship with the United States of America,” Obama said as he announced Clinton’s trip while on a diplomatic mission to southeast Asia.
Clinton will be the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar in more than 50 years. In exploring a breakthrough engagement with Myanmar, Obama first sought assurances of support from Suu Kyi. She spent 15 years under house arrest by the nation’s former military dictators but is now in talks with the civilian government about reforming the country.
A U.S. opening with Myanmar would also contribute to Obama’s goals of rebalancing power in the region, as Burma’s military leaders for long had close ties to China.
Beijing has poured billions of dollars of investment into Myanmar to operate mines, extract timber and build oil and gas pipelines. China has also been a staunch supporter of the country’s politically isolated government and is Myanmar’s second-biggest trading partner after Thailand.
Administration officials stressed that the new engagement with Myanmar was not about China. They said the Obama administration consulted with China about the move and said they expected China to be supportive. They argued that China wants to see a stable Burma on its borders, so that it doesn’t risk problems with refugees or other results of political instability.
Obama and democracy leader Suu Kyi spoke by phone on Thursday night while he was flying to Bali on Air Force One. By sending in Clinton, his chief diplomat, Obama is taking a calculated political risk in a place where repression is still common. He warned that if the country fails to commit to a true opening of its society, it will continue to face sanctions and isolation. But he said that the current environment is a rare opening that could help millions of people “and that possibility is too important to ignore.”
Myanmar is subject to wide-ranging trade, economic and political sanctions from the U.S. and other Western nations, enforced in response to brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters in 1988 and 2007 and its refusal to hand power to Suu Kyi’s party after the 1990 elections. Clinton said that while there may be an opening for a democracy push in Myanmar, the U.S. was proceeding cautiously.
“We’re not ending sanctions. We’re not making any abrupt changes,” she said during an interview with Fox News. “We have to do some more fact-finding and that’s part of my trip.”
Suu Kyi’s lawyer, Nyan Win, welcomed news of Clinton’s visit. “It is time for the U.S. to make such a high-level visit. This is going to be a very crucial visit,” Win said.
Senior Obama administration officials said the U.S. wants to see a number of actions from Myanmar, including the release of more political prisoners; serious internal domestic diplomacy between the government and ethnic groups, some of which have been in civil war for decades; and further assurances with regards to interactions with North Korea.
The administration’s policy toward Myanmar has focused on punishments and incentives to get the country’s former military rulers to improve dire human rights conditions. The U.S. imposed new sanctions on Myanmar but made clear it was open to better relations if the situation changed.
Myanmar’s nominally civilian government has declared its intention to liberalize the hardline policies of the junta that preceded it. It has taken some initial steps, such as easing censorship, legalizing labor unions, suspending an unpopular, China-backed dam project, and working with Suu Kyi.
Officials said Clinton would travel to Myanmar Dec. 1, making stops in Yangon and Naypyitaw. Human rights groups welcomed Obama’s announcement as an opportunity to compel further reforms.
“We’ve been arguing a long time that political engagement and political pressure are not mutually exclusive,” Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Southeast Asia researcher, told The Associated Press, adding that Clinton “should not miss the opportunity in this historic visit to pressure the government and speak very clearly that the human rights violations taking place there need to stop.”
Elaine Pearson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the Burmese government must realize that a visit by Clinton “puts them on notice, not lets them off the hook for their continually atrocious human rights record.”
Obama was to see Burma’s president during the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, that brought him to Bali. The two have met before, at an ASEAN meeting in Singapore, when Thein Sein was prime minister.
ASEAN announced Friday that Myanmar would chair the regional bloc in 2014, a significant perch that Myanmar was forced to skip in 2006 because of intense criticism of its rights record.
Obama attended a meeting Friday afternoon with the heads of ASEAN, whose 10 members include host Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. The group will expand for the East Asia Summit, a forum that also counts China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the U.S. as members.
The president held one-on-one meetings on the sidelines of the summit with leaders from Indonesia, India, Malaysia and the Philippines. Administration officials said Obama discussed the issue of Myanmar in his meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.
Earlier, in a move promoting American trade, Obama presided over a deal that will send Boeing planes to an Indonesian company and create jobs back home, underscoring the value of the lucrative Asia-Pacific market to a president needing some good economic news.
Obama stood watch as executives of Boeing and Lion Air, a private carrier in Indonesia, signed a deal that amounts to Boeing’s largest commercial plane order. Lion Air ordered 230 airplanes, and the White House said it would support tens of thousands of jobs in the U.S.