Why Secretary Clinton’s Trip to Burma Signals Cautious Optimism

Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma—the first from a United States Secretary of State in 50 years—comes to a close today. The trip is a response to what President Obama has referred to as “flickers of hope” in the country and is a significant event in U.S.-Burma relations.

How much has actually changed in this repressive and isolationist country? Let’s take stock:

  • On November 25th, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, announced that it will register to participate in the elections to fill the seats vacated by cabinet appointments. The government has yet to schedule this election. The NLD boycotted last year’s national elections because they were neither free nor fair; the party’s re-entry into politics exhibits some degree of confidence.
  • On October 12th, the government released 200 political prisoners, although this number is a fraction of the prisoners of conscience still being held – 1700, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), and held in terrible conditions.
  • On September 30th, the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam was shelved after public opposition. While the government presented this decision as a proactive response to “the will of the people,” concerns over China’s expanded role in Burma and a desire to avoid national furor over the dam have been cited as motivating forces.

During a recent trip, AJWS asked our partners for their take on these developments. Overwhelmingly, we heard the same thing: while there is optimism about these political shifts, the reality on the ground for the vast majority of Burma’s people remains stark.

AJWS’s partners working in the conflict zones of the country have reported no improvements on the ground. Military offensives in ethnic minority areas have actually increased in some areas. The end of a 17-year cease-fire between the Burmese Army and the Kachin Independence Army has displaced 30,000–40,000 civilians on the Burma-China border; these communities have no access to international aid. Physicians for Human Rights reports that “between June and September 2011, the Burmese army looted food from civilians, fired indiscriminately into villages, threatened villages with attacks, and used civilians as porters and human minesweepers.”

What, then, was on the agenda for Clinton’s visit?

Her message was clear: Burma’s leadership needs to follow through with concrete reforms, if it is sincere about its re-entry into the international community. We were glad to see that Clinton stressed that sanctions should be upheld. She called for greater access to humanitarian aid and human rights organizations in conflict areas as well. Clinton didn’t stop there. She made other asks: release all political prisoners; engage in meaningful dialogue with ethnic representatives and the democratic opposition; and end internal armed conflict.

In her remarks, Clinton pledged $1.2 million in U.S. aid to civil society organizations in the country. She also committed to working with the IMF and World Bank to “[study] the needs on the ground for development, particularly in rural areas, and poverty reduction.” Given the history of harms caused by government-led development projects, we urge Clinton to ensure that aid recipients are genuinely independent from the government and that development and poverty alleviation projects are held to the highest human rights and environmental standards.

An active and independent civil society in Burma will be crucial to building and sustaining strong democratic institutions that recognize and support human rights, rule of law and the rights of ethnic minorities. Civil society organizations are central to getting accurate information out of the country, particularly given the restricted access, shining a light on atrocities committed by the military in remote areas. Most recently, community groups have called on their “elected” local representatives to fulfill their responsibilities, despite the fact that the elections held in November 2010 were carefully orchestrated by the regime.

Meanwhile, civil society groups have been pressing for change for decades, and will continue to do so. In the words of one human rights worker, “We have been knocking on this door for a long time and it’s never opened. Now we are knocking and it’s opened a little. We are ready to open it all the way.”