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Judging Hillary Clinton’s Visit to Burma

by Joshua Kurlantzick
November 29, 2011

U.S. Secretary of State Clinton will be the first American Secretary of State to travel to Burma in over half a century.

U.S. Secretary of State Clinton will be the first American Secretary of State to travel to Burma in over half a century (Romeo Ranoco/Courtesy Reuters).

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will begin a visit to Burma, the first trip to the country by such a high-level American official in some fifty years. In a previous blog post I outlined several indicators to focus on in examining how quickly and successfully Burma’s reforms are moving.

Although the United States is not the most important player in Burma, compared to regional powers like China and India, the Burmese government clearly is hoping for warmer relations with the United States, for a variety of reasons – strategic balance, a real desire for reform, greater investment, and others. In judging the secretary of state’s trip, it’s important to consider whether she has achieved the following aims – aims that, if successful, would demonstrate significant American influence in the country:

  1. Ensuring all political prisoners are released. The Burmese government released one batch of prisoners earlier in the year, but according to human rights groups Burma still has at least 1,500 political prisoners in jail. When American officials previously pushed the Burmese to release all political prisoners, the Burmese leaders essentially waved them off. In recent days, there have been repeated rumors of a new prisoner release; if Clinton were able to secure the release of all political prisoners, rather than just another piecemeal freeing, that would be a triumph.
  2. Obtaining regular interaction with senior members of the military. The U.S. Special Representative and Policy Coordinator to Burma, Derek Mitchell, met with the current commander-in-chief of the Burmese armed forces, Lt. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. Still, overall, most of the meetings with the Burmese leadership have taken place with civilian ministers, leaving the United States (and other outside actors) with too little exchange with the top members of the military, who are critical to resolving insurgencies in Burma’s ethnic minority areas and to reducing rights abuses by the military in the field.
  3. Gaining access to the entire country. As I mentioned in my previous post, despite Burma’s rapid reforms it remains unclear how much this era of glasnost is spreading outside of Burman-dominated parts of the country. Conflict continues to rage in ethnic minority areas, and the Kachin regions have been particularly hard hit. Gaining complete access to the country for U.S. diplomats, the UN, and other observers would be a significant victory for Clinton.
  4. Finding out much more about Burma’s relationship with North Korea. The details of the Burmese military’s burgeoning relationship with North Korea remain very murky; on the eve of Clinton’s visit, the office of Senator Richard Lugar released a statement claiming that Burma has been seeking nuclear assistance from Pyongyang for at least five years. If Clinton could convince the Burmese leadership to make clear and transparent statements about their relationship with North Korea, and to allow observers to visit suspicious facilities alleged to have links to missile and nuclear programs, that might be the biggest win of all.

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