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Landmark Clinton visit to Myanmar

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton waves as she arrives at the airport in Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar, which is also known as Burma

 

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Myanmar on Wednesday for a landmark three-day visit to the long-isolated nation focused on encouraging further political reforms, assessing recent progress and providing a road map for forging closer ties with the United States and Europe.

But the highest priority of a meeting with Myanmar’s foreign minister, according to a senior State Department official traveling with Clinton, will be to seek assurances that the Southeast Asian nation will halt purchases of missile technology from renegade North Korea.

The trip by Clinton, the first visit by a sitting secretary of State since 1955, signals that the United States is ready to engage with a leadership whose “flickers of progress,” in President Obama’s words, are promising, even as it remains unclear whether they are deeply rooted or sustainable.

One possible stumbling block could be what the White House believes were “surreptitious contacts” between Myanmar and North Korea, the senior American official said. “A continuation of these kinds of efforts will make it very difficult for the United States to take the steps to improve the relationship,” as Myanmar wants, the official said.

American analysts have examined closely whether Myanmar and North Korea have been secretly collaborating on a nuclear weapons program, but “we do not see signs of substantial effort at this time,” the senior official said.

Another key U.S. objective in Myanmar, and in Washington’s other recent Southeast Asian initiatives, has been to check China’s growing economic, political and military clout in the region. Closer links between Myanmar and the U.S. could also reduce border issues between Myanmar and both Thailand and India, affording greater security to these two strong U.S. allies.

The challenge for Washington, analysts said, will be to effectively employ the West’s available carrots and sticks — among them, economic sanctions, foreign aid and diplomatic recognition — in ways that keep Myanmar moving forward but don’t embolden hard-liners intent on reversing course.

In recent years, Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, has taken steps that might seem relatively modest by Western standards — including holding elections, writing a new constitution, releasing pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and easing restrictions on the media — but that are significant in a nation with a long history of strong-arm rule.

In appointments with President Thein Sein, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and parliamentary leaders Thursday, Clinton plans to meet with the government’s new face, the first tendrils of a hoped-for democratic transition. Absent will be any obvious representatives of the active military (Thein Sein is a former general), yet there remains no clear picture of who might be directing policy behind the scenes.

“There are many opinions on the mandate of this president,” said Aung Khaing Min, an activist with the Assistance Assn. for Political Prisoners, a Thai-based advocacy group. “Our view is that the real power lies with the National Defense and Security Council,” which represents the interests of the armed services.

In September, the president, a former prime minister who took office this year, suspended work on the controversial $3.6-billion China-funded Myitsone hydroelectric dam project, which has been opposed by Suu Kyi and others concerned that it would displace 63 villages and submerge culturally important sites.

The rare concession to public opposition gave rise to a feeling that Myanmar’s leaders might be trying to hedge their bets with China. Yet even though the dam project was halted, a far larger joint natural gas project is going ahead. And before Clinton’s visit, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping this week hosted Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, head of the Myanmar armed forces, in Beijing, where the pair discussed increased military cooperation.

U.S. companies, which have watched their Indian, Chinese and Southeast Asian counterparts cut deals and extract resources in Myanmar, are eager to enter the market themselves, though Congress is unlikely to drop long-standing economic sanctions quickly.

Indeed, Clinton’s trip drew wary comments from parties as diverse as Republican congressmen and Amnesty International advocates. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that Clinton’s visit “represents a monumental overture to an outlaw regime whose DNA remains fundamentally brutal.”

China, Hong Kong and Thailand have invested about $25 billion in ports, pipelines, dams and other projects, according to government statistics, accounting for more than 70% of Myanmar’s total foreign investment. One of the few U.S. companies with a presence in Myanmar is San Ramon, Calif.-based Chevron, which got a 28% stake in a Myanmar natural gas field when it acquired Unocal in 2005.

Clinton’s trip involved more complicated logistics than usual, because Myanmar lacks the facilities common in most countries she visits. The airport at the new capital, Naypyidaw, doesn’t have night landing strip lights or U.S.-style security, so Clinton’s plane had to drop off the American party during the day, and was then flown to Thailand for the night to guarantee its proper protection.

A highlight of Clinton’s trip will be her scheduled meeting with Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent 15 years in detention. Suu Kyi, who gave the Clinton trip her blessing, recently announced plans to run for a parliament seat after Myanmar’s president ruled that her previously banned political party could return to politics.

The West has listened carefully to Suu Kyi’s views in making its decision to reengage with the leadership in Naypyidaw. But some analysts said it’s important that Washington start moving away from a policy based on a single person, no matter how charismatic and high-profile.

“The world has seen Aung San Suu Kyi as the be-all,” said Udai Bhanu Singh, senior research associate with New Delhi’s Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. “She’s a great lady, and hats off to her, but the policy should be more party-focused rather than individual-focused.”

This week’s diplomatic meetings may be the easy part for Myanmar’s leaders. More difficult in the months ahead will be living up to the expectations of Western governments, Burmese dissident groups and critics in Congress.

Myanmar has a long list of problems, including fighting and endemic human rights abuses in many of its ethnic border states. About 1,600 political prisoners remain incarcerated. Much of the economy is in the hands of relatively few cronies of the military junta, which first took power nearly 50 years ago. The country’s political system is riven with factions, and protracted instability has led to widespread human trafficking and drug cultivation.

“Clinton’s going there is very important,” said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist at Singapore Management University. “Now’s the moment we’ll see if the engagement process has substance or not.”

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