Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is pressing Myanmar’s leaders over concerns about the country’s links to North Korea and its lack of internal freedoms, ahead of a meeting with civil rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
The visit by Clinton comes as Suu Kyi confirmed yesterday she will run for parliament in upcoming elections, one of the steps the new government has taken to loosen restrictions in the military-dominated country. Clinton told Myanmar’s rulers the U.S. is prepared to enhance ties if democratic changes progress, the Associated Press reported.
Clinton, who arrived yesterday in the capital of Naypyidaw, is the highest ranking U.S. official in half a century to visit Myanmar, dominated since 1962 by a repressive military regime that still exerts control through a new civilian government.
She will discuss specific steps the U.S. would like to see Myanmar’s leaders undertake, and also will meet with ethnic minorities and democracy advocates, according to a State Department official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
The overall U.S. desire is to be in listening mode and to test the seriousness of the Myanmar government’s intent to reform in the period ahead, the official said in a briefing with reporters en route to Myanmar. Clinton told the country’s civilian government that as a first step toward encouraging progress the U.S. would provide incentives including not preventing increased cooperation with the International Monetary Fund, AP said.
The country’s leaders have reached out to the U.S. and made a series of changes, releasing hundreds of prisoners, allowing greater press freedom and passing a law that permits public protests. President Thein Sein, a former general, has opened communication with pro-democracy advocates, changed a law to persuade Suu Kyi’s party to participate in elections and consulted her.
Going forward Myanmar must release political prisoners and end ethnic violence by pushing for national reconciliation in order for U.S. relations to improve, Clinton said, according to the AP.
In a video webcast to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Suu Kyi said she backed the U.S. involvement in her country and confirmed that she will take part in as-yet- unscheduled parliamentary elections.
“I will certainly run for the elections when they take place,” said Suu Kyi, who has called for the government to release 525 political prisoners who are still locked up.
The U.S. has been surprised by some of the steps Myanmar has taken recently, the State Department official said. He added that Clinton will tell Thein Sein and other leaders that this is a first step and that several other things will need to happen for the U.S. to be able to support their efforts.
That includes a discussion about concerns that Myanmar may be engaged in weapons trade with North Korea. The U.S. has blocked North Korean ships thought to be carrying weapons to Myanmar, also known by its previous name Burma.
The official said the chief U.S. concern is missile technology, not nuclear weapons. Even so, Clinton will ask Myanmar leaders to sign an International Atomic Energy Agency protocol that would allow nuclear inspections, the official said.
In Yangon, where Clinton will arrive later today, taxis, buses and motorcycles darted through one of the city’s six-lane, tree-lined main boulevards. A billboard touted the country’s first call center.
“This year I’ve seen more foreigners than any other,” said Aung Than Oo, 47, who has been a taxi driver for 21 years. “We like this government because it’s given us a little bit of democracy. Things are slowly changing.”
Amnesty International said Myanmar has released at least 318 political prisoners this year and that more than 1,000 remain imprisoned. The Myanmar army continues to commit human rights violations against civilians in ethnic minority areas on a “widespread and systematic basis,” the group said on its website.
“Myanmar’s human rights situation has improved modestly in some respects but is significantly worsening in others,” said Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Myanmar specialist.
Clinton’s visit also makes the resource-rich Asian nation a new focus in the struggle between the U.S. and China for influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Myanmar has made a concerted effort to reach out to the U.S. to improve relations. In a recent Washington Post opinion article, Zaw Htay, director of the president’s office, asked the U.S. to have patience as Myanmar goes about making changes.
‘Transform in Steps’
“The United States must recognize that Myanmar’s politics will transform in steps,” Zaw Htay wrote. He called for strong support from the U.S. if it wants Myanmar “to become a democratic country as measured by their values and norms.”
He pointed to the government’s September decision to suspend construction of a $3.6 billion Chinese-backed dam in the northern part of the country, saying it “signaled to the world what he stands for.”
Douglas Paal, director of the Asia program at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Myanmar’s leaders are looking for a counterweight to Beijing.
“China has been so overwhelmingly involved in Burma that it’s looked like a Chinese province,” he said. “They want some balance.” Rejection of the dam “was seen as an important step in defying Chinese influence,” Paal said.
Myanmar’s moves to engage the West are “not really” about reducing reliance on China, Nay Zin Latt, a political adviser to Thein Sein, said in an e-mail interview on Nov. 26.
“We should have warm relations with our neighboring countries such as China, India and Thailand,” he said. “In the meantime we should also be on good terms with the Western world.”
Ahead of Clinton’s visit, China’s Vice President Xi Jinping hosted Min Aung Hlaing, head of the Myanmar armed forces, in Beijing on Nov. 28 and discussed boosting military cooperation.
China welcomed the moves by Myanmar “to improve its relations with western countries and hopes its measures help Myanmar’s stability and development,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said yesterday.
In China, some see Clinton’s visit as “another move to encircle” the country, said Sun Zhe, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “A lot of people think we don’t have to worry that much because we also have historical friendship and historical ties with Myanmar,” Sun said.
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