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Obama Sending Clinton to Myanmar to Fan ‘Flickers of Progress’

U.S. President Obama, U.S. Secretary Of State Clinton
Barack Obama, U.S. President, right, said Hillary Clinton, U.S. secretary of state, will visit Myanmar next month. Photographer: Mark Wilson/Pool via Bloomberg

President Barack Obama sought to support Myanmar’s political opening by dispatching Hillary Clinton next month on the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state to the country in more than 50 years.

Political changes in Myanmar mean the country “can forge a new relationship” with the U.S., even as “more needs to be done” on human rights, Obama said yesterday in announcing Clinton’s visit at a summit of Asian leaders in Bali, Indonesia.

Myanmar President Thein Sein has released political prisoners, legalized unions and stopped censoring media outlets such as the BBC since taking power nine months ago in an election that ended five decades of military rule. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party voted yesterday to rejoin the political process and stand in by-elections likely to be held next month.

“After years of darkness we’ve seen flickers of progress in these last several weeks,” Obama said yesterday with Clinton standing next to him. He said he spoke Nov. 17 with Suu Kyi and received her support for U.S. engagement.

Clinton will visit the cities of Naypyidaw and Yangon, Obama said. A senior administration official said the visit will be Dec. 1-2.

“In this part of the world, we have examples of countries that did finally get on a democratic path, after authoritarian regimes, military dictatorships,” Clinton said on CNN.

Support for Change

“So we’re hoping, most certainly for the people of Burma, that this is real,” she said. “If it is, the U.S. will support and encourage it.”

Representatives from the U.S. and Europe have been traveling to the country formerly known as Burma in recent months as they review financial and economic sanctions. The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations Nov. 17 agreed Myanmar will chair the group in 2014, a move they say will provide further momentum for changes.

“It’s the clearest sign yet that the U.S. recognizes the importance of the political changes taking place,” Thant Myint-U, a Myanmar historian and former United Nations official, said in a telephone interview from Bangkok. “The country is clearly at its most important watershed in half a century and help from the United States in seeing this transition through toward a more democratic government is absolutely crucial.”

All 106 members of the National League for Democracy’s central committee who attended the meeting voted to re-register as a political party after it boycotted last year’s election, opposition news outlet Mizzima reported. Earlier this month, Thein Sein updated the law to pave the way for Suu Kyi’s party to re-enter the political process and contest 48 seats.

Political Changes

Myanmar authorities released Suu Kyi last year, a week after Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party, backed by the former ruling junta, won about 80 percent of 664 seats in the election. The military retains a quarter of seats in the two houses of Parliament, according to the constitution.

Myanmar’s ties with China recently have been strained, according to Willy Lam, an adjunct professor of history at Chinese University of Hong Kong. In September, Thein Sein suspended China’s construction of a $3.6 billion dam. China Power Investment Corp., an investor in the project, said the decision was “bewildering,” and the Chinese foreign ministry called for “friendly talks” to resolve the issue.

India last month agreed to extend $500 million of credit to Myanmar, and the two countries agreed to boost trade ties.

China’s Role

“Rangoon is hedging its bets and trying to avoid the passive situation of having just one patron,” Lam said in an e-mail, using the old name for Yangon, the country’s largest city and former capital. “Beijing is very worried about whether Washington might want to steal its client.”

Ma Mingqiang, secretary-general of the Asean-China Center and a former foreign ministry official, told reporters in Bali that China-Myanmar ties “are just as good as they were before. Problems crop up and these problems must be solved through cooperation as well,” Ma said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin yesterday said China “would like to see the U.S. and other western countries enhance contact with Myanmar and improve their relations.”

U.S. sanctions ban new investment, imports from Myanmar and transfer of funds into the country. Europe’s restrictive measures are less severe, including bans on weapons sales and mining investments.

The last U.S. secretary of state to visit was John Foster Dulles in February 1955, according to State Department records.

Stirrings of Change

Myanmar is showing “the first stirrings of change in decades,” Clinton told reporters Nov. 10 in Honolulu. “Should the government pursue genuine and lasting reform for the benefits of its citizens, it will find a partner in the United States.”

Myanmar’s 60 million people are the poorest in Asia, earning about $1.15 a day on average, about a tenth of per capita income in neighboring Thailand, according to Asean statistics. In recent years, China, India and Thailand have invested in Myanmar’s ports, railways and oil and gas pipelines to gain access to natural resources.

International companies have stepped up deals in Myanmar. Italian-Thai Development Pcl, Thailand’s biggest construction company, signed a contract worth $8.6 billion last year to build a deep-sea port and industrial park. India approved plans for Oil & Natural Gas Corp. and GAIL India Ltd. to invest $1.3 billion in a natural gas project.

Proven gas reserves in the country reached 11.8 trillion cubic feet at the end of 2010, equivalent to a tenth of Australia’s reserves, according to the BP Statistical Review.

Clinton’s trip “is a welcome development,” Surin Pitsuwan, Asean’s secretary-general, told reporters yesterday. “This will open a larger space to help Myanmar to see how the global community is moving forward.”

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